Australia’s coral reef is a spectacular marine destination that offers an immersive tropical fish experience. Don your snorkel or scuba gear and you could find yourself in an underwater playground of delicate swaying corals, colourful clownfish, sea turtles and even whale sharks! But if you’re planning to visit the east coast, where is the best place to see the Great Barrier Reef?

Port Douglas or Cairns?

There are a few east coast towns that off Great Barrier Reef trips, the most popular being Port Douglas or Cairns. Although Cairns is a vibrant and cool city and many reef visitors base themselves here, I recommend Port Douglas over Cairns. If you’re flying in, Cairns airport has international and domestic connections, and it’s the nearest airport to Port Douglas – just a 50-minute transfer.

Port Douglas offers a broader range of hotels for every taste and most of the excursions you can find from Cairns depart also depart from here. The beach in Port Douglas is lovely - with the famous “Four Mile Beach”, and the city is smaller than Cairns, so it’s an enjoyable place to walk around or go for a stroll on the beach.

Tropical fish on the Great Barrier Reef

Last May, I visited Australia for a 2-week break, and during this trip, we managed to pack in many of Australia’s highlights in one itinerary. It’s effortless to travel around Australia, and for me, the East Coast was a must-see. I started in Sydney, took a flight to Cairns and hit the road straight away to go to Port Douglas. The drive takes a leisurely hour or so, but the scenery as you drive along the Captain Cook Highway is worth every second.

May is one of the best times to visit Queensland, during Australia’s Spring/Winter shoulder season, when the weather is lovely tropical but not scorching, reaching a maximum of about 25°C in the afternoon.

Why I love Port Douglas

Port Douglas is where the Daintree rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef, which means its a unique place to experience two World Heritage Listed sites side by side. Port Douglas itself is a charming, tropical town full of little shops and cafés. It's also home to Four Mile Beach - a glorious stretch of sandy shoreline with plenty of opportunities to relax, stroll or take to the water.

Port Douglas | Port Douglas or Cairns

Where to stay

If you have time, I highly recommend staying in Port Douglas for around a week; there’s so much to do, and it’s an ideal place to spend some time relaxing, before moving on to your next destination. There is a wide range of accommodation on offer from 5-star hotels to smaller, boutique properties. If you’re visiting with kids, I’d recommend staying in apartment hotels, as it is a great way to have more flexibility around eating and bedtimes!

I stayed at Oaks Lagoon Resort which is a 4-star apartment hotel with fantastic pools (particularly great if you’re travelling with kids). They offer pool-access rooms and deluxe rooms with a Jacuzzi on the balcony. They have two barbecue areas with all the facilities you need to cook up a storm. The beach is a 5-minute walk from the hotel, and it’s an excellent option if you’re looking for an affordable apartment.

Oaks Lagoons Resort, Port Douglas

I also went for breakfast at the Ramada Resort next door; it’s a beautiful property with tropical décor. Their pool is shaped like a river in a beautiful rainforest setting, and the whole hotel feels very relaxing. I’d recommend this hotel if you’re looking for a relaxing 4-star hotel.

Ramada, Port Douglas

Besides the main drawcards of the rainforest and of course, the reef, there are other local places to visit.

Daintree National Park and Cape Tribulation

I did a full day tour to Daintree and Cape Tribulation. The Aboriginal guide will take you through the rainforest, teaching you how their people use the plants and the surrounding environment in their everyday life - a truly fascinating tour.

Cape Tribulation where the Great Barrier Reef meets Daintree forest | Credit: Tourism Australia

We took a cruise on the Daintree River, spotted crocodiles and tree snakes and enjoyed the spectacular views at Cape Tribulation. We had a photo stop at Mossman Gorge, a great barbecue lunch in the middle of the lush rainforest and without realising the day was already over.

Great Barrier Reef tours from Port Douglas

One of the highlights of my trip was the boat trip out to the Great Barrier Reef. There are plenty of Great Barrier Reef tours from Port Douglas to choose from – and we can advise which will suit you best.

The boats offer many different activities during the day; snorkelling, diving, a glass-bottomed boat ride, a helicopter tour, a Helmet Dive - there’s something for everyone, whether you want to dive or don’t!

Great Barrier Reef diver

Diving the Great Barrier Reef was a fantastic experience. The coral reef is beautiful and the marine life is so abundant! I spotted a turtle, swam with a giant Maori Wrasse, a reef shark and shoals and shoals of beautiful fish. I highly recommend the full day tour so you can experience as much as possible. There’s so much to learn about the reef, but the full-day tour also gives you enough time to soak up some sun and relax with a beer!

Elodie scuba diving with the big boys!

Kuranda Village Scenic railway & Skyrail cableway

Other attractions that are close to Port Douglas are the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway and the Kuranda Scenic Railway. The Skyrail is an incredible way to get an above-the-treetops view of the rainforest.

The Skyrail makes several stops on the way up to Kuranda Village, and you can enjoy beautiful views at each stop. Once you reach the summit, you can explore the village which has many activities to offer. You can visit the Koala Gardens and get your iconic koala picture, go on a walk in the rainforest, visit the Butterfly Sanctuary, Birdworld or shop for some local souvenirs in the village.

Kuranda Skyrail

For the journey back, we boarded the Kuranda Scenic Railway. It’s a 2-hour journey that goes through rainforest, bridges and waterfalls, all within glass-topped train carriages so you can get a 360-degree view of your surrounds.

Australia’s East Coast offers a fantastic blend of indigenous culture, lush rainforest, stunning coastline, fascinating coral reef and unique wildlife. For me, a stay in Port Douglas is undoubtedly the best place to experience everything nearby.

Kuranda Railway

Interested in staying in Port Douglas?

If you’d like to include Port Douglas or the Great Barrier Reef in your Australia holiday, we can help you plan the perfect trip. We can arrange flights, transfers and vehicle hire and suggest the ideal accommodation to suit you - we can also pre-book any day tours. My east coast exploration ended here before I flew over to Uluru – ask us if you’d like to plan a similar trip!

For more ideas see our tailor-made Australia holidays, call us on +44 1273320580  or request a quote by email.

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