Named one of the seven wonders of the natural world, the Great Barrier Reef is definitely one of the top attractions in Australia. The world’s largest living structure is 2,300 kilometres long and covers an area of approximately 344,400 square kilometres. Located in the beautiful blue and turquoise waters of the Coral Sea, 900 islands and 2,900 individual reefs make up the Great Barrier Reef. There are quite a few cities along Queensland, Australia’s eastern coast that are the mainland destinations for visitors planning on taking excursions out to the reef and its islands including Cairns, Port Douglas, Townsville, Mackay, and Rockhampton. Each port city also has a host of great things to do, making your stay in each town a unique Great Barrier Reef experience. Experiencing the Great Barrier Reef is not restricted to only advanced level divers either; families and people with all swimming abilities and interests will find plenty to fill their days and nights. The best time to go is between June and November because the weather is mild and the water visibility is at its clearest.

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Great Barrier Reef Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Getting to the Great Barrier Reef and its Port Cities

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Great Barrier Reef Photo CreditL Google Maps

Since the Great Barrier Reef runs so long, there are many different port cities you can stay in when planning to take excursions out to the reef. The five main cities are Cairns, Port Douglas, Townsville, Mackay and Rockhampton. We will cover information about getting around each of these cities and show the various car rental locations in Queensland that will help you gain access to each city while on holiday. If you are interested in finding out about things to do on the Great Barrier Reef with kids, see our two part series featuring family friendly Great Barrier Reef excursions.

Cairns Car Hire Locations

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Cairns Map Photo Credit: Google Maps

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Cairns Car Rental Map Photo Credit: Budget.com.au

Budget Blog - Cairns City

Cairns Photo Credit: Cairns-GreatBarrierReef.org.au

The city of Cairns is adjacent to the north end of the Great Barrier Reef. It is also a good city to stay in for those traveling to the far north of Queensland. There are two car hire locations in Cairns. If you fly into the Cairns Airport, you can rent a car there. Cairns City also has a car rental location. Even though you would not be driving to locations on the Great Barrier Reef, it is a great idea to have your own car and the freedom to get around Cairns and the things to see and do in and around the mainland. You will want to have a car to get around and see all of the different sights in the city and the rainforests and national parks that are nearby. The Cairns City Esplanade is on the northern side of the city. On this quieter 2.5 km stretch of city, you will find the swimming lagoon, waterfront boardwalk, picnicking and barbeque spots, and a children’s water park. The southern side of the city is the main hub where The Pier complex is located with restaurants and shopping, more swimming lagoons, Reef Fleet Terminal, and the marina.

Port Douglas Car Hire

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Port Douglas Map Photo Credit: Google Maps

Budget Blog - Port Douglas Car Hire

Port Douglas Car Hire Map Photo Credit: Google Maps

Port Douglas is on the far north side of the Great Barrier Reef. Hiring a car in Port Douglas is a great idea because it means you will be able to tour around the city and surround including the nearby Daintree Rainforest. The Daintree Rainforest is the oldest and largest continuous rainforest in the world; it is an experience that you should not miss if you are near in northern Queensland. Port Douglas’ Four Mile Beach is a popular beach resort area for beach fun, boating, surfing, and fishing. There are also tours available where you can learn about the aboriginal culture and history of the region.

Townsville Car Rental Locations

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Townsville Map Photo Credit: Google Maps

Budget Blog - Townsville Car Hire

Townsville Car Hire Map Photo Credit: Budget.com.au

Budget Blog - Townsville

Townsville Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Townsville is located along the central section of the Great Barrier Reef and is one of the more metropolitan cities on the coast of Queensland. Even though Townsville is an urban environment, there is still plenty of beach and reef fun in the sun to be had. You can hire a car in Townsville and that will give you the mobility to see and do things around the city and drive to port excursions. Some of the top things to do in Townsville and surrounds include visiting the Reef HQ Aquarium, the Billabong Sanctuary, and the Museum of Tropical Queensland. Nearby is Castle Hill, which is a pink granite monolith that is a popular hiking destination.

Mackay Car Hire Locations

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Mackay Map Photo Credit: Google Maps

Budget Blog - Mackay Car Rental

Mackay Car Rental Map Photo Credit: Budget.com.au

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Mackay Skyline Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Mackay is located near the southern section of the Great Barrier Reef. It is the port city near The Whitsunday Islands and many other gorgeous locations on the reef. The city is known for its sugar production. There are two car hire locations in Mackay; you can hire a car in the Mackay city location or at the Mackay airport car rental location. Some of the must see places near Mackay include Hillsborough National Park and the Eungella National Park in the Pioneer Valley; it is the best place in the world to see the platypus.

Rockhampton Car Hire Locations

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Rockhampton Map Photo Credit: Google Maps

Budget Blog - Rockhampton Car Hire

Rockhampton Car Rental Locations Map Photo Credit: Google Maps

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Fitzroy River in Rockhampton Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Rockhampton is the southernmost port city to the Great Barrier Reef. There are two car hire locations in Rockhampton; you can hire a car in Rockhampton City or visit the car rental location at the Rockhampton Airport. Also close by is the Yeppoon, where you can hire a car in the coastal city of Yeppoon. Rockhampton gives you close access to beautiful spots in the Great Barrier Reef such as Keppel Bay Islands National Park, Curtis Island National Park, and popular dive spots. On the mainland, you can visit Mount Archer National Park, Capricorn Caves, the Fitzroy River, plus great Aboriginal culture tours among many other exciting advnetures.

Top 5 Things to Do on the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is filled with endless possibilities of excursions. There is something for everyone, from vacationers who want to explore the depths and get up close and personal to the marine life to those who want to stay dry and experience the wonders of the reef from more of a distance. In each port city, there are a host of options for boating, beach sports, snorkelling, diving, and more.

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Photo Credit: Great-Barrier-Reef.com

  1. Snorkelling or SCUBA Diving

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Photo Credit: ThingsToDoinCairns.com

The Great Barrier Reef is home to thousands of marine species. The best way to see the largest variety of marine life is to get in the water right along with them. There are dozens of boats leaving from each port daily taking divers out to different locations on the reef to explore the coral, islands, and marine life.

  1. Boating, Yachting, or Cruising

Budget Blog - Great Barrier Reef Boating

Photo Credit: great-barrier-reef.com

Out of all the boat excursions that take adventurers out to destinations on the reef, not all of them are for diving and swimming. There are relaxing cruises, speed boat adventures and everything in between. Interested in seeing the water without getting wet? Try a glass bottom boat tour. If fishing is your pastime of choice, fishing boats with experience crews are available as well. Boat charters of every kind are available at each port city along the coast.

  1. Live Aboard Excursions

Budget Blog - Live aboard Excursions

Photo Credit: great-barrier-reef.com

For some visitors that cannot get enough of the Great Barrier Reef, live aboard charters are available for hire. Fully immerse yourself in the wonders of the reef by living on the water aboard boats or ships that give you access to dive different spots and visit different reefs and islands. Live aboard tours can be for just a few days or up to two weeks.

  1. Aerial Tours

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Photo Credit: ThingsToDoinCairns.com

For a different perspective of the Great Barrier Reef, aerial tours are available. You can see the immensity of the reef and appreciate how fast the ecosystem of the reef is when you see it from above. You may not see the tiny creatures that make up the reef, but you can learn about the structure and you will be amazed at how much you can see from a helicopter or seaplane charter. The Great Barrier Reef can be seen from outer space, so don’t worry about not being able to see it from a plane or helicopter scenic flight. If you want to combine adventure with your aerial views, sky diving and other adventure sports are ready and waiting for you to take the plunge!

  1. Island Excursions

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Photo Credit: ThingsToDoinCairns.com

There are over 100 islands in the Great Barrier Reef system that are accessible and open to visitors. Some islands have resorts and are even large enough to support small communities of full time residents. Other islands are open for day tours where boats bring guests to the island for island snorkelling, relaxing or having fun on the beaches, and picnicking in paradise. If you want to experience the Great Barrier Reef close up but do not want a deep sea diving adventure, island hopping might be just the happy medium you are looking for. The variety of islands and things to do on the Great Barrier Reef mean that you can have one vacation filled with a diverse mix and you can keep coming back for more and have a different experience time after time.