Are you trying to decide which of the Great Barrier Reef islands are right for you? We break down what six of the best have to offer and match each island to every type of traveller.
A vast subaquatic wonderland, the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef is truly paradise for dive enthusiasts and curious, adventurous spirits. Above the waterline lie more than 900 islands, promising unparalleled access to the marvels of the deep; some play host to world-famous luxury resorts, while others are practically deserted and promise castaway style camping experiences for just a handful of dollars. Take your pick from this bunch of six Great Barrier Reef islands.
Best for: couples, luxury and families
The Great Barrier Reef island with by far the most amenities, Hamilton is one of the best options in the region if you’re after a wide choice of activities. Kids will love careening around the island on golf carts, and adults will love the wide variety of dining options, plus there’s a wealth of day trips out on the water to choose from. Dial up the luxury factor with a stay at adults-only qualia on the isle’s secluded northernmost tip, or bring the whole brood and book into one of the island’s many family-friendly hotels, such as Palm Bungalows.
Hamilton Island has everything you need.
Best for: adventure
For Robinson Crusoe vibes on the Cassowary Coast Region, visit Hinchinbrook. One of Australia’s largest island national parks, this uninhabited isle welcomes a maximum of 40 hikers and campers at any one time, so you’ll share its jagged verdant peaks, golden shoreline, expansive mangroves and towering sand dunes with few other souls. It’s perfect for those seeking to get out into the thick of nature and explore hidden swimming holes and waterfalls, and best to visit outside of cyclone season (November to April) when conditions are typically calmer for camping. Remote bush camping is the name of the game on Hinchinbrook, and visitors can choose from a whopping 12 different designated sites. Permits required and fees apply.
Views from Thorsborne Trail on Hinchinbrook Island (Image: TEQ)
Best for: couples, exclusivity and reef access
One of the Luxury Lodges of Australia, Lizard Island is a cut above in the luxury stakes. An hour’s flight from Cairns, this all-inclusive resort is located smack bang on the reef, offering exceptional access to the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem (not to mention gourmet dining, luxury accommodation and your own complimentary in-room minibar). Simply pop your goggles on and step off the sugar-white sand beach and you’re in among the action, chancing upon giant clam gardens, manta rays, turtles and schools of fish. Or, journey just a couple of minutes by boat from the island, and you’ll land at numerous outer reef systems. The resort lays on all manner of complimentary activities too, such as tours of the island’s research station, and access to motorised dinghies, stand-up paddle boards and clearview sea kayaks. Lizard Island is accessed via a one-hour flight from Cairns.
Spend your Lizard days exploring the impossibly beautiful surrounds.
Best for: adventure in comfort
Effectively a suburb of Townsville, this island paradise is just a 20-minute ferry ride away from the mainland. Historically popular with backpackers, ‘Maggie’ as it’s affectionately known, has plenty more to offer than just the odd hostel and bar. Mountainous Magnetic Island serves up plenty of adventurous outdoorsy activities, not to mention an abundance of natural beauty. Weave around the isle’s verdant interior in one of its signature tiny ‘topless’ cars; take a hike in Magnetic Island National Park, which engulfs most of the island; follow one of the snorkel trails; go koala spotting (Magnetic Island is home to Northern Australia’s largest colony of koalas); trace the island’s palm-tree lined shore by kayak; or simply laze away the day on one of the sweeping arcs of golden sand, lapped by crystalline aquamarine waters and framed by giant granite boulders. Try the modern and comfortable waterfront villas at Pure Magnetic.
No trip to Townsville is complete without taking the short trip to Magnetic Island.
Best for: families
A wildly photogenic destination, Fitzroy is your quintessential tropical isle. Coated in tropical rainforest and open woodlands (some 97 per cent of the island is classed as National Park), it’s a great place to take a hike or two: don’t leave without taking the Summit walk, and gorging on 360-degree views of the island and the sea, soaking up the beauty of its contrasts. Fitzroy Island is also an optimal spot for those suffering from decision fatigue. There’s just one resort here – home to studios, suites, beach cabins and bungalows, and a campground – and just one restaurant. It’s super accessible to boot, just a 45-minute boat transfer from Cairns, making it a great and economical option for families.
Fitzroy Island showing off.
Lady Elliot Island
Best for: eco-adventure and reef access
Home to an overachieving eco-resort that’s run entirely off-grid, Lady Elliot Island is the place to come for an escape that promises creature comforts and reef access without all the fripperies (and the high price point) that some other remote isles feature. The southernmost coral cay of the Great Barrier Reef, life on Lady Elliot revolves around the ocean. Two snorkelling trails are accessible straight from the beach, plus there are daily glass bottom boat or snorkel safari tours, and the resort dive staff run a minimum of two dives per day, as well as optional night dives, at the 20 dive sites that cluster around the island. Guests can choose from beachfront or garden units, eco cabins, or glamping tents complete with an ensuite and private balcony.
Lady Elliot Island is a haven for those seeking the Manta Ray.
For more travel tips and itineraries read our Ultimate travel guide to the Great Barrier Reef.