Best places to stay in the Great Barrier Reef

Get as close to the Great Barrier Reef as possible

Listing all of the incredible accommodation offerings in proximity to the reef would take a lifetime. And to be honest, we’d rather spend that time exploring some of the 300 individual aquatic sites, coral cays and pristine islands in the area.

Consider this a bucket-list of sorts, where the calibre of accommodation reflects the calibre of the Great Barrier Reef. Beautiful, jaw-dropping and simply one-of-a-kind.

Where: Hamilton Island

Price: $$$

Perfect for: Couples

Ah, Qualia. It’s hard to put this place into words, really. Particularly for us mere mortals in which this place has long been a pipe dream.

Qualia is one of the largest luxury lodges in Australia. If every bed were occupied by a couple, the entire resort would accommodate 122 people (there are 33 Leeward Pavilions, 26 Windward Pavilions and 1 Beach House, which can sleep 4).

The gated resort feels more like a luxe beachside community than a hotel. All pavilions feature floor-to-ceiling windows that take in the expansive views across the Whitsundays, with private sundecks, comfy king-sized beds, huge bathrooms and comfortable down-filled sofas.

If you can drag yourself away from the resort, you can be dropped off at a secluded beach on Henning Island. Or you could take a 3.5 hour cruise out to Whitehaven Beach on qualia’s exclusive Atomic cruiser. Golfers with cash to burn can take a scenic helicopter transfer to Hamilton Island Golf Club, one of the trickiest and most picturesque courses in the world.

It’s the perfect Great Barrier Reef escape if you’re after luxury.


Qualia is one of the largest luxury lodges in Australia.

Where: Airlie Beach

Price: $

Best for: Value for families

Airlie Beach is located on the north-east Queensland coast, between Mackay and Townsville. The coastline is flanked by the Great Barrier Reef, and dotted with the 74 idyllic islands that make up the Whitsundays.

And while it’s often considered just a jumping-off point to the Whitsundays, Airlie Beach is all grown up and now a destination in its own right.

If you’ve got kids, you can’t really beat this place for value and fun. The facilities are phenomenal, with water slides, tennis, minigolf, outdoor movies, playground, a giant jumping pillow and Airlie Beach’s largest resort pool. The endless activities will keep them occupied in a safe, friendly environment while you relax in a deluxe cabin (or BYO caravan/tent).

The most obvious attraction to Airlie is its proximity to the islands, and no wonder – they’re stunning. Go on day trips, fly in a sea plane or sail the Whitsunday Islands, the world is your oyster.

Big4 Whitsundays

If you’ve got kids, you can’t really beat this place for value and fun.

Where: 2.5 hours north of Cairns

Price: $$$

Perfect for: Those seeking a private island oasis

Lizard Island is a National Park covering 1013 hectares of natural wonders. Completely secluded from the rest of the world, it is the Great Barrier Reef’s most northern resort and celebrated for its many private beaches and luxurious accommodation. Few resorts can boast a more idyllic setting.

The well-kept lawn is flanked by palm trees, with 40 rooms revelling in the prime beachfront real estate. Each differs in scale and price tag, however, none skimp on the luxury.

All costs include meals. Drinks are extra. There is also a substantial range of free leisure activities, allowing you to make the most of your island time. There’s catamarans, paddle skis, windsurfers, guest internet, a tennis court, guided walks, gymnasiums, guided snorkelling and tuition and – most appealing – the opportunity to take your own motor-powered dinghy, complete with a picnic lunch, and find a remote beach around the island where you can swim and soak in the sun.

The real drawcard of Lizard however, is the fact there is nowhere else in the entire Great Barrier Reef where a holidaymaker can enjoy the reef so directly and so completely.

At many other islands, you’re confronted with a 90-minute journey before you get to the glory. Go to Lizard and the underwater coral gardens are just 30 metres off the sand.

Lizard Island

Lizard Island luxury.

Where: Cairns

Price: $$

Perfect for: Those who appreciate a boutique hotel

One of the newest hotel’s to grace the tropical city locale of Cairns is The Riley, part of the premium Crystalbrook Collection.

Understated luxury is the name of the game here. The lobby is a vast, clean space that welcomes you with open arms. Elegantly appointed rooms are scattered throughout, most of which have balconies for your viewing pleasure.

For food and drink, guests have three options: a rooftop bar and restaurant serving a Mediterranean cuisine, a more casual modern Asian kitchen, and a clean eats cafe. Guests can bliss out at the hotel’s day spa, swim in the huge lagoon-style pool or manmade beach, or hire an eco bike to explore the city.

Cairns is also known as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. Day tours will take you out to snorkel or dive different parts of the underwater playground, guiding you through the technicolour dream of coral and marine life. There are also opportunities for helicopter tours, seawalking adventures and pretty much every aquatic activity in between.

The Riley Cairns

Understated luxury at The Riley.

Where: Flights to Hayman depart from Hamilton Island

Price: $$$

Perfect for: An iconic private island

Since 1950, Hayman Island has been a playground to those lured by the temptation of an exclusive and private island stay in the magical Whitsundays.

Some seventy years on, InterContinental has taken the natural allure of the island – impossibly beautiful views of the Coral Sea, lush rainforest, white-sand beaches, varied wildlife and that gorgeous balmy Queensland weather – and added to it simply designed guest rooms, seven restaurants and bars serving up fresh local produce, a tranquil day spa, fitness centre with state-of-the-art equipment and a bounty of outdoor adventure activities.

There are a myriad ways to keep you entertained: beach watersports, snorkelling lessons, golf lessons, tennis, beach fitness and boxing. Guided walks around the island are also available, including a hike and snorkel in the impossibly clear waters of Blue Pearl Bay, a hike to Sunset Peak, or a walk to spot wallabies and birds.

Hayman Island

Luxury is the name of the game here.

Where: Townsville

Price: $

Best for: Budget travellers

Forget everything you know about budget, backpacker hostels. Seriously.

Rambutan is a stylish, refined version of the ‘cheap accommodation’ concept, setting a new standard for those headed to Townsville. You’ll find her smack bang in the middle of town, neighboured by convenience stores, cafes and upscale bars – the latter of which you needn’t leave for, however.

There’s a rooftop bar and pool on the premises, as well as an in-house restaurant, and air conditioning and ensuite for each room.

Rambutan is a great option for those who seek all the comforts of a boutique hotel, without losing the playful atmosphere and affordability that can make a traditional backpacker joint so appealing.

Townsville is also a great idea for those who want to explore the surrounding outer reef. The SS Yongola Shipwreck is a popular, mysterious and historically significant artificial reef teeming with marine life, and considered one of the world’s best dive sites.

Day trips to the Great Barrier Reef, Orpheus Island, Magnetic Island and Palm Island are also available.


Forget everything you know about budget, backpacker hostels.

Where: Port Douglas

Price: $$

Best for: A private beachfront oasis

Port Douglas is one of the closest, and most popular gateways to the Great Barrier Reef. You’ll find every type of traveller here – the rich and famous, families, backpackers, retirees, honeymooners –enjoying the breathtaking scenery.

After the illustrious launch of the $100 million Sheraton Mirage by Christopher Skase back in 1987, the town was opened up to the world and Port Douglas saw its biggest boom period over the next two decades.

A few years (and renovations) later, the Sheraton’s private entrance still stands on Four Mile Beach, a sandy stretch of clear blue sea and waving palms. It’s the only 5-star resort in the area, enveloped within 147 hectares of lush, tropical gardens, 2 hectares of saltwater lagoons and an 18-hole golf course.

Enjoy swim-up entry rooms, breezy balconies and expansive sparkling lagoons or lush tropical garden views, soaking up the best of the North Queensland lifestyle.

Sheraton Port Douglas

Expect a private, beachfront oasis.

Where: Cape Tribulation

Price: $$

Best for: Exploring the reef and the rainforest

Discover where the rainforest meets the reef in Cape Tribulation. This steamy paradise, 141 kilometres up the Captain Cook Highway, two hours north of Cairns, is a significant UNESCO World Heritage-listed site all on its own.

Ancient stories weave throughout lush branches and jungle leaves in the Daintree Rainforest, winding down to water of the magnificent beaches that lead out to the Great Barrier Reef. It’s a place at the end of the Earth, where crocodiles lurk and fan palms hang overhead.

The Daintree EcoLodge is an oasis in the forest. At night, listen to the cacophony of frog song, by day look out for cassowaries and other wildlife roaming around the property. Take some time out in the divine day spa and enjoy a contemporary Australian meal at the Julaymba Restaurant overlooking the water.

Daintree Eco Lodge

Discover where the rainforest meets the reef at the Daintree Eco Lodge.

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