Explore the Great Barrier Reef via Cairns in 4 Days

Explore the Great Barrier Reef  via Cairns in 4 Days
Living in Australia, we are lucky enough to experience not only just incredible natural beauty and unique wildlife, but we live on a continent that is home to a UNESCO World heritage site and one of the most famous natural wonders in the world – the Great Barrier Reef. The largest reef on our planet, stretching 3,000 km, is home to more than 400 types of different coral and over 1,500 species of tropical fish, not to mention molluscs, sea turtles, sting rays, dolphins, clams and many more incredible birds and animals that claim this reef their home.
Although you’ll hear many opinions and facts about the reef and the effects of Climate Change on the reef, the situation at the moment is not as dire as it may seem in the media. The reef is still thriving and continues to exist, however we do need to be extra careful in coming up with a sustainability plan and reducing the man-made damage that is harming our natural habitats.
I’ve recently gotten into snorkelling and utilising the recent long weekend was the perfect opportunity to see the Great Barrier Reef and experience the immersive marine world with my own eyes.
The experience was indeed unforgettable and here are the details of our trip:
Evening Arrival


Friday night, fly out of Sydney, directly to Cairns International Airport (Virgin Australia and many other airlines fly direct from Sydney – Cairns). Cairns is quite a busy little airport that has an impressive array of international direct flights from key cities around the globe including Osaka, Auckland, Manila, Hong Kong and Singapore.
I pre-booked our hotel through Booking.com and this time we stayed at Rydges Esplanade. What appealed to me about this hotel is that it was approx 15 minutes walk to the Jetty where all the boats depart from to go out to the reef.
We subsequently found out that there are three Rydges hotels in Cairns, all within walking distance of one another!


It’s easier to get a cab from the airport to your hotel if you’re staying within 15-20min drive radius and the airport is really close to the city of Cairns.
I tried to explore options for shuttle service – you will see a Sun Palm Shuttle Service counter straight as you get out into the arrivals terminal. Stay away from them. The reviews on their Facebook page alone should be enough to scare anyone into travelling anywhere with them. The taxi into the city is only $1 more than their shuttle service but they will try to convince you otherwise. (If you see this sign – run away! lol just kidding, don’t run, but also don’t book them)
The Rydges hotel is basic but has everything you need in terms of amenities – we checked in with no issues and enjoyed going to bed to a thunderstorm in the night.


Snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef




I pre-booked tickets (via email) with Reef Magic Cruises. A day tour costs $210 per person. Seems a bit pricey but when I googled around alternatives, they all had similar rates, average of $195 per day per person.
The reason we chose Reef Magic is because they have great reviews on TripAdvisor and also they claim to be the only pontoon on the outer reef with a covered area. A day trip lasts 5 hours at the reef, so if it had been a very hot sunny day, cover would be nice.
The boat departs at 9am  every day from the Cairns Reef Fleet Terminal.
Check-in commences inside the Cairns Reef Fleet Terminal, 1 Spence Street, at 08:00. Vessel departs Cairns Marlin Jetty at 09:00 arriving at the reef by 10:30, leaving the reef at 15:30 and arriving back in Cairns by 17:00.
What you get in the $210pp price (Adult):
  • Boat transfers and shuttle bus pick up and drop off at your hotel. (Boat takes 1.5 hours to get to the outer reef).
  • Before departure tea/coffee (no hot drinks are served while boat is moving).
  • Morning tea (cakes and biscuits)
  • Buffet lunch while on the pontoon.
  • All gear – snorkels, wetsuits, spring suits, flippers, floating noodles, life jackets.
  • A free glass bottom boat tour on the day (from the pontoon)
  • Access to a small under water area on the pontoon where you can see a bit of underwater action.


Additional items for an extra cost:
  • Introductory diving
  • Guided snorkel tours with marine biologists (Adventure)
  • Guided snorkel tours around pontoon area
  • Helicopter flights
  • Massage


There are many operators that take people to the outer reef and the reef is huge so each boat pretty much gets their own reef to explore.
Common questions:
Are there many people on the boat?
Yes, and most boats will over-fill their capacity. Reef Magic boat capacity is 300 people but they will only book a maximum of 200.
Is the pontoon overcrowded?
On the day we went, we had a few tour groups of elderly people from Germany and Spain(?) and they were not super keen on the snorkelling but chose the glass boat options so it felt less busy in the water. People tend to disperse around the pontoon, some snorkelling, some diving, others on the glass boat so it never feels over-crowded.
I got to meet “Wally” the Maori Wrasse


What’s for lunch?
The buffet lunch is served around 12.30pm and the staff help serve the hot dishes. You can help yourselves to salads etc. Overall the food was pretty healthy with options like sushi, pasta salad and green salad. The hot meals included chicken curry and lasagna.
We paid $45 pp for a Guided Snorkel Safari (Adventure Tour) with a marine biologist. On the day it was only myself, my husband and one other guy. The tour was 1 hour and a small boat picks you up at the pontoon, and takes you even further away from all the snorkellers (there is a roped off area around the pontoon to snorkel at) where you can see some really big schools of fish and hear the marine biologist talk about the different species and take us through on a real adventure around the reef. It was incredible!
I had my life jacket on the whole time as I am not a strong swimmer, that way you can just keep cruising along and it’s truly amazing!
The Magic Reef Cruises staff are superb, very helpful, fun individuals who just want to make it a fun day out for you and your family and friends. I was really impressed with their service and care.


Snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef – unbelievable memories


Day 3:
Visiting Green Island
Green Island Arrival


So impressed by the snorkelling on our day out at the reef, I wanted to jump into the water the next day. It does get a bit pricey to spend $400+ for 2 people for a day of snorkelling, so I looked for some alternatives. From Cairns there are a few islands you can explore, perhaps the closest one is Green Island. Only 45 minutes by boat, the island has a resort and beautiful beaches. You can snorkel off the beach or in the package we got, we opted in for a snorkelling trip by boat off the island ( 1 hr for $45 pp). This tour is not guided but a boat will take you out to a reef (not outer reef) close by and you can snorkel for 45 minutes.
I booked everything online (while on the 90 min boat back from Reef Magic pontoon :))


Operator: Big Cat Green Island Reef Cruises
Cost (pp): $90
What’s included:
Snorkel gear (you can hire stinger suits when recommended)
2 way ticket to Green Island from Cairns Marina
Departs 9am and 11 am from Cairns
Do a Full-Day (if you can)
There are options to do full days or half days. I strongly recommend to do a full day. Jump on the boat at 9am and the last one leaves the island on the way back to Cairns at 4pm. With all the activities, or just laying on the beach, it’ll be a full day trip in the end.
Pre-book your activities either at the desk in the Marina (Cairns), online or on the boat. You can choose from snorkelling, glass bottom boat, diving, helmet diving. 
Where to eat:
You can grab some lunch on the island. There are a few eateries available – all really casual cafes, with a bit of a queue for anything (the island gets pretty busy!) Most options are the usual burgers, fish and chips and soft drinks.
For $25 pp extra for the boat ticket you can include a buffet lunch option on board the “Big Cat” ship.


Day 4:
Daintree River Cruise


This was our official last day on on holiday since we only had the long weekend +1 day.
We rented a car at the Cairns airport for 1 day and drove to Daintree.
Cruises run from 9.30 – 3.30pm. Most are 1 hour in duration.
I tried to book the sunset cruise but was told that those are no longer operational.
Cost: $28pp
Baby Crocodiles in the Daintree River
Sunbathing on the sandbank


We slowly made our way up to Daintree through Palm Cove and Port Douglas. Both really beautiful places but I prefer Palm Cove. There are so many amazing eateries and an incredible vibe. Port Douglas is bigger and there are so many amazing villas and spas to stay at.
Two metre crocodile hiding in the mangroves


The Daintree River Cruise was a great way to wind down a day of driving. 1 hour cruising along the Daintree river with a really experienced guide and trying to spot some crocs.
We say a total of 4, which apparently is very lucky. Around September/October it gets a bit too hot for the crocodiles to sun themselves on the sand banks, so in the murky water it was a bit hard to see them.
Still an amazing experience and we learnt a lot about the mangroves, croc animal behaviour and their habits.




Bring your zoom lens for the trip. It’s really hard to spot the crocodiles with the naked eye and they are such camouflage masters that you’ll think the branches are them and vice versa.