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"Great" is an understatement when it comes to the world's largest coral reef system located off the eastern shore of northern Queensland, Australia. Sure it is great in size, magnitude and experience -- but it is also a spectacular vacation destination whether you are a dive enthusiast, a snorkeling buff or just someone who likes to splash around in the warm water far from home. Even those who don't share an affection for the ocean will find plenty to do and see.

The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef starts off the coast of Bundaberg, 200 miles north of Queensland's capital, Brisbane and extends over 1,200 miles northwards all the way to western Papua New Guinea. Overflowing with marine life, color and natural beauty, it is in fact not a single reef, but rather a collection of almost 3,000 individual reefs, dozens of coral cays and 600 continental islands.

Yes, it's a long way to travel to Cairns, the gateway city to the Reef -- but you'll soon forget about the 14 plus hour flight getting there (and the fact that you arrive two-days after you depart, having crossed the International date line) and ease into the relaxed Queensland lifestyle. Depending on what you want to do and how long you can stay, options can range from one-day reef boat trips to full live-aboard diving expeditions. Alternatively you can take joy flights over the reef (helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft) and admire the view from above or visit one of the resort islands. If you don't already have your diving certification, there are literally dozens of professional schools that can arrange a course for you from budget to top-of-the-line.

The islands of the Great Barrier Reef region are among some of the most remote and pristine locations in Australia. Although visiting these islands and staying at their exclusive resorts may come with a hefty price tag, there are accommodation options and activities for all budgets ranging from the secluded guesthouse lodge of Haggerstone Island (www.haggerstone.com), luxurious and exclusive resorts of Lizard Island (www.lizardisland.com.au), Bedarra Island (www.bedarraisland.com), Orpheus Island (www.orpheus.com.au) and Green Island (www.greenislandresort.com.au), family-oriented island getaways like Dunk Island (www.dunk-island.com), more budget conscious bunkhouses, cabins and dormitories of Fitzroy Island (www.fitzroyisland.com.au) or the wilderness eco-friendly tree-house environment of Hinchinbrook Island (www.hinchinbrookresort.com.au). Access to these islands is via boats, ferries, catamarans and generally small aircraft.

Don't forget that the mainland area around Cairns also has some extremely appealing natural attractions -- like the Daintree National Park, Cape Tribulation, the Estuarine crocodiles that inhabit the rivers, waterfalls, white water rafting and boutique resort towns like Port Douglas.

In terms of getting there, the Qantas Aussie AirPass (tel. 800/227-4603; www.qantas.com.au/regions/dyn/us/specials/webDeals217) may still be your best bet, especially if you plan to travel around a bit. Basically the Airpass is priced from $1,399 for travel from Los Angeles, San Francisco or Honolulu to Queensland from July 26 to September 21 (higher prices are applicable during high season). You are allowed three stops or domestic flights and with this Pass you can also travel further south (Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Adelaide, etc.) and venture beyond to the red center (Alice Springs and Ayers Rock) or to the remote north (Darwin). Besides Cairns, there a various northern Queensland destinations including Hayman and Hamilton Islands. Additional flights are priced from $123 each. Add $520 from Dallas or Denver, $280 from Chicago, $300 from New York or $360 from Miami, Washington, D.C. or Boston. Although, technically, it is currently winter in Australia, Queensland (especially the northern region around the Great Barrier Reef) enjoys summer-like temperatures and water conditions throughout the year and you also get low-season prices as an added incentive.

For a package deal, ATS Tours (tel. 888/781-5170; www.atstours.com) has a quick eight-day trip, Getaway to the Great Barrier Reef Cairns, priced from $1,935 plus taxes per person. The trip includes round-trip airfare from Los Angeles on Qantas Airways, all domestic flights within Australia, five nights' accommodations at the Mercure Harbourside Cairns in a deluxe mountain view room, a full-day Great Barrier Reef cruise, including lunch and airport transfers. This rate is valid for travel August 1 to 31, 2007.

Travel during the same dates and enjoy their Queensland Island Delight package which is a nine day/six night trip priced from $2189. Enjoy the beauty of Dunk Island, a National Park Island located on the Great Barrier Reef plus round-trip airfare from Los Angeles, domestic flights within Australia, five-nights in a garden room at the Dunk Island Resort, one-night in a superior water view room at the Rydges Tradewinds Hotel, Cairns, full breakfast daily on Dunk Island and airport transfers.

World Travellers' Club (tel. 800/693-0411; www.around-the-world.com) offers a seven-night trip priced from $1,999 per person for travel from now until August 31, 2007. This includes round-trip airfare from L.A. to Cairns, airport transfers, seven nights' accommodations at Paradise Palm Cove, a full-day cruise with lunch and snorkeling aboard a semi-submersible vessel with glass walls and a trip to the market town of Kuranda on the famous scenic train, winding its way up through the rainforest. Add a dive certification course to this package for an additional $529 and receive professional instruction initially in-pool and then sail to the outer Reef to complete nine dives over two days, including a guided night dive.

Dive the Reef (tel. 800/207-2453; www.divethereef.com) offers a selection of one and multi-day dive trips, snorkeling adventures, boat trips and lodging links including some excellent budget options -- starting from $51 for full-day scuba diving cruises including all equipment and lunch (a minor fuel levy may be additional). Examples include:

  • A three-day, two-night dive trip out of Cairns aboard the Kangaroo Explorer, an 82-foot Catamaran with a maximum of 38 divers and a Dive Staff of four. It includes eight day dives, wetsuit, all dive gear, all meals, live-aboard cabin accommodation, refresher course (day prior to departure) and transfers to/from Cairns. The price for snorkelers is $280, or for certified divers $382.
  • A one-day trip with two scheduled dives aboard the M.V. Sun-Kist, a 60 foot Mono Hull with a maximum of 20 divers. Visit two of the outer reefs -- Milln, Briggs, Thetford or Moore reefs, based on the weather and tides. Included in the price are wetsuit use, all dive gear, tropical buffet lunch and afternoon tea. Snorkelers pay $64 and divers $102.
  • A four-day Learn to Dive course including a two-day/one-night Great Barrier Reef live-aboard on the Kangaroo Explorer with a maximum of ten divers, four training dives on the Great Barrier Reef, two days of pool/classroom instruction, two additional dives as a newly certified diver, all dive gear, prescription masks, wetsuit, all course materials and transfers to/from Cairns lodging. The course is priced at $410.

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