The Best Hotels to Stay in Near the Great Barrier Reef
Australia’s ecosystems have taken a hit as hot temperatures, high winds, and little rainfall plague the mainland. Thankfully, one area that hasn’t been affected is also one of the country’s most precious: the Great Barrier Reef. The beaches, islands, and port cities that trace Queensland’s northeastern coast are still sunny, still beautiful, and primed to welcome visitors. Below, we've rounded up where to stay near the Great Barrier Reef, because if snorkeling this natural wonder of the world is still on your bucket list, it’s time to go—NOW.
InterContinental Hayman Island Resort
When Cyclone Debbie ripped through the Whitsunday Islands in 2017, it devastated more than the coral reefs. Hayman Island, one of Australia’s most stunning private island resorts, was damaged nearly beyond repair. But, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, she returned as an InterContinental Resort and is, unbelievably, better than ever—a punctuation mark to luxury this side of the Barrier. In addition to five award-winning restaurants and bars (from modern Australian to pan-Asian to its own kombucha brewing production), you’ll find an ethereal spa, two infinity pools, and all those over-the-top experiences—jet ski excursions to hidden beach coves, seaplane rides over Heart Reef and Whitehaven Beach, sea turtle spotting in Blue Pearl Bay, sunset cruises off Hook Island—Hayman is famous for.
You need a helicopter to reach this all-inclusive off-the-grid island oasis, less than a mile from the mainland, and once you get there, you’ll be sharing it with just 19 other guests. That’s right—no more than 10 timber waterfront villas front the rocky shoreline, featuring verandahs with hammocks and swing chairs ready to rock you into island time. The goal is to unplug in every way possible: there are no locks on the doors (it’s as safe as can be here), restaurants offer no menus (let the chefs surprise you), phone service is spotty at best, and everything is solar-powered. Don’t let the sustainability lean fool you, though—this place is barefoot luxury to the core. The all-inclusive rate includes three daily meals including multi-course dinners with wine; sunset cocktails and canapés; and use of water gear including glass-bottom kayaks in addition to the resort’s boat, Lotus, which can whisk guests to Whitehaven Beach and surrounding reefs. After a dip in the stress-relieving magnesium pool and a turn at the spa, ask the chefs to prepare your day’s catch for dinner before tucking in.
You might find it ironic that one of the standout resorts in the Whitsundays does its best at blending in. Everything at qualia, which occupies its own peninsula on Hamilton Island, was designed to melt into its lush landscape: retractable walls; the absence of humming air conditioners (sea breezes are all you need here); pavilions built from local timber that hide from each other among Australia eucalyptus, with open walls and infinity pools. It’s the perfect place to escape, relax, and explore—whether that’s to neighboring islands aboard the resort’s yacht, around the peninsula to spot cockatoos and wallabies on your suite’s buggy, or simply to the spa for a mud wrap, massage, and marine mineral facial during the three-hour Whitsunday Escape treatment.
Lizard Island Resort
There’s no bad room at Lizard Island Resort: the 40 villas and suites at Australia's northernmost island resort are tucked away on the beach or hillsides, so guests can go an entire day without seeing another soul. Because you're on such a remote swath of the Great Barrier Reef (one that hasn’t been hard-hit by devastating coral bleaching), you’ll see some of the world’s best aquatic life during guided snorkeling and diving tours to nearby coves or fishing the outer reefs—and, because tours are run by the Lizard Island Marine & Dive team, you’ll have access to areas no other divers will. That is, if you ever manage to leave land. The island has 24 private beaches, so even if you stayed a week, you’d have to sink your toes into over three a day to see them all.
Daydream Island Resort
At 277 rooms, resorts in the Whitsundays don’t get much bigger or family-friendly than Daydream Island Resort. Just look to the myriad whimsical touches like mermaid statues and giant chess set. Here, it’s all about getting involved: there are rainforest walks, scavenger hunts, beach volleyball, mini golf, non-motorized water sports, nightly live music and movie screenings, and—our favorite—a man-made Living Reef lagoon where you can hand-feed stingrays and take guided snorkeling tours with a marine biologist. There’s also an underwater observatory if you don’t want to get wet. While there's no sandy beach at your doorstep, two pools (including one with a swim-up bar) provide all the waterside lounging you need, and most of the beach-chic guest rooms have balconies overlooking it all if you really can't live without a water view.
Thala Beach Nature Reserve
Guests have lots of room to roam at this secluded nature lodge—a 45-minute drive from Cairns—whose property’s 145 acres stretch from its rainforest perch high above the coast all the way down through coconut groves to its private beach below. The views are expectedly spectacular from the open-air lobby and each of the wooden bungalows, which are linked via stone pathways that wind through the trees. Curated art, guided walks, Aboriginal performances, stargazing sessions—you won’t be surprised to learn that this place is family-owned. We love the two natural swimming pools (one has its own waterfall) but not as much as the canopy-level Osprey’s Restaurant, where guests dig into breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the trees often occupied by observant kookaburras and rainbow lorikeets.
Orpheus Island Lodge
There’s just one lodge on Orpheus, a seven-mile-long narrow island that divides Hazard Bay from the Great Barrier Reef. The rest is national park—part of an archipelago owned and overseen by indigenous locals—some of whom work at the resort and lead island tours as a unique cultural experience. History aside, there’s lots to love about this remote 17-bungalow retreat—and we’re not just talking about the world-class snorkeling and diving opportunities, local wildlife, or indulgent spa and infinity pool. No, we’re talking about the food. Gourmet meals use vegetables grown in the tennis-court-turned-garden and daily catches grilled on an open fire and are served in sublime settings—from tapas-style outdoor lunches to beach bonfires and degustation menus some dinnertime. For something even more special, book the “Dining with the Tides” experience, where you and your partner will dine on a personally designed menu on the pier beneath the stars.
The Reef House - MGallery by Sofitel
If Palm Cove’s Reef House makes you feel like you’ve escaped to your own private hideaway, you’re not entirely wrong: a family did actually live here before Sofitel took over. During the day, ask the concierge to arrange a Daintree Rain Forest hike, parasailing over the Trinity Inlet, or—of course—reef snorkeling, or strike out on your own with one of the hotel’s cruiser bikes. Returning will feel like coming home: the 67 plantation-style guest rooms were made for naps and reads with their shuttered windows and wicker furniture, the three pools ensure you always have a lounger arranged poolside (heads up: sorbet is served at 3 p.m.), and “Twilight Hour” invites guests to convene over glasses of punch and canapés before dinner shaded by Melaleuca gum trees at the restaurant.
Shangri-La Hotel, The Marina
Cairns, Australia’s traditional gateway to the Barrier Reef, offers many fabulous places to stay, but Shangri-La Hotel, The Marina earns our vote for its waterside address and chic, modern décor that keeps things fresh and luxurious without being over the top. It’s both an easy entry point for exploring the reef and the city on its own, thanks to buzzy restaurants and bars, palm-shaded swimming pools, and spacious guest rooms with balconies and views of the yacht-filled bay or Australian rainforest. Spring for a Horizon Club room if included breakfast, sundowners, and canapés sound up your alley.
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