Cairns and Port Douglas are good places from which to visit the Reef -- but the quality of the coral is just as good off any town along the coast between Bundaberg and Cairns. The Reef is pretty much equidistant from any point on the coast north of Mission Beach -- about 90 minutes away by high-speed catamaran. From Townsville, the Reef is about 2 1/2 hours away.
Think carefully about where to base yourself. The main gateways, north to south, are Port Douglas, Cairns, Mission Beach, Townsville, the Whitsunday Islands, Gladstone (for Heron Island), and Bundaberg. The Whitsundays have the added attractions of dazzling islands to sail among; beautiful island resorts offering a wealth of watersports and other activities; and a large array of diving, fishing, and day cruises. Most important, you can snorkel every day off your island or join a sailing or cruise day trip to a number of magnificent fringing or inner shelf reefs much nearer than the main Outer Reef. Many people stay in Cairns simply because of its easy international airport access.
If you are a nonswimmer, choose a Reef cruise that visits a coral cay, because a cay slopes gradually into shallow water and the surrounding coral. The Low Isles at Port Douglas; Green Island, Michaelmas Cay, or Upolu Cay off Cairns; Beaver Cay off Mission Beach; and Heron Island are all good locations. Swimmer supports are available so nonswimmers can snorkel, too.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.