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Cairns to Mackay in 14 Days

Paradise, found: break Instagram as you journey the length of the Great Barrier Reef from Tropical North Queensland to the Whitsundays. 


  • Your own island: stay overnight on the reef on board a pontoon in the middle of the ocean
  • Choose your own adventure: sail the Whitsunday Islands amongst whales, sea turtles and dolphins
  • And for the thrill seekers: get your adrenalin pumping with jet skiing and banana boating at Airlie Beach


Time: 11 Days
Transport: Car
Price: $$$$

It’s like a postcard, but it’s real life. Experience the big blue of the Great Barrier Reef, one of the great natural wonders of the world, on a road trip from Cairns to the Whitsunday Islands. Dive and snorkel the reef in Cairns and camp overnight on a pontoon. Join Jirrbal elders for an Ingan Tour at Mission Beach to learn more about the local Aboriginal people’s connection to the land. Spend two nights aboard a boat in the Whitsundays, sailing amongst the 74 islands of the region and hang with whales, turtles and dolphins. 

Day 1: Cooling off in Cairns

Land in Cairns and stroll the Esplanade taking in the ocean views. Eat, drink, and stop for a cooling dip in the lagoon in the centre of town. Yes, it counts towards your bathing quota. From Friday to Sunday you can mingle with the locals at Rusty's Markets and stock up on fresh local produce, including super fresh and exotic fruits, dairy and seafood, from more than 180 stalls.

In the evening, head to the Cairns Night Market, open 365 days a year from 5-11pm. End your night with a therapeutic massage from one of the many inexpensive stalls.   

If you fancy a different kind of end to your evening, Cairns is known for its  backpacker bars. Head to Spence Street for iconic pubs such as Gilligan’s and The Jack.

Day 2: Camping on the Great Barrier Reef

This morning, meet your Sunlover by Starlight tour and head out to the Great Barrier Reef by boat. You will spend two days and one night afloat on Moore Reef pontoon, snorkelling, diving and helmet diving. Yes, you sleep on water. Just wait ‘til you tell the folks back home about that one.

Situated 40 kilometres (25 miles) offshore on the Outer Reef, on the Moore Reef pontoon, you can watch the sunset and drink with your mates. As night falls enjoy a barbecue dinner and uninterrupted views of the southern night sky. Spot the Southern Cross, planets and Milky Way, before falling asleep in a swag under the stars as you listen to the ocean lapping at the reef.

Day 3: More of the Moore Reef

Channel Kevin Costner in Waterworld and wake up to a stunning sunrise on the pontoon at Moore Reef. Chow down on breakfast before another day of reef activities unfolds.

Find Nemo as you see how many of the Great Barrier Reef’s 1500 different species of tropical fish you can see, from clownfish to colourful angelfish, parrotfish and huge wrasse.

If you’re strapped for time, don’t miss out: take a day trip to Moore Reef instead. The day trip includes four hours moored at the pontoon for snorkelling, guided glass-bottom boat tours and fish feeding. The pontoon also has a sundeck (hel-lo tanlines) and the only theme-park style spaghetti slide on the Reef. Yes, you read that right.

Return to Cairns for a quiet night and fish and chips enjoyed alfresco with a cold beer or eight.

Day 4: When in Doubt, Turn to the Tropics

Treat yourself and head to one of Cairns’ health food cafes such as Snoogies Health Bar or Fusion Organics for a green juice and an infusion of goodness before you hit the road. Say sayonara to Cairns as you turn your path towards the Southern Tablelands, stopping off at Millaa Millaa. Sing a certain TLC song while you frolic in Millaa Milla’s year-round waterfalls which are easily accessible on a circuit walking track.

When you arrive in the beachfront town of Mission Beach, check into Jackaroo Treehouse Mission Beach Hostel, a treehouse set in the middle of the beautiful tropical heritage rainforest of far North Queensland. Eat your heart out Tarzan. 

Day 5: Aboriginal Experience with Ingan Tours 

Meet up with your Ingan Tours transfer to Tully for an enriching Aboriginal experience with the Jirrbal people.

Start the tour with a guided walk with interpretation of the rainforest environment to the beautiful healing pond. Take a dip in the crystal clear Echo Creek as  your guide tells the story of Yunba (Black Water Python) and how this mystical character healed the sick and wounded.

To wrap up, your guides will serve you billy tea and delicious pieces of homemade damper. Plus, you can try your hand at weaving your own bracelet made with fibres collected directly from the rainforest nearby. DIY souvenir.

Hot tip for young players: be sure to wear  good walking shoes and take sunscreen, hat, drinking water and some snacks.

On return to the hostel, ‘wind down’ at Jack’s Jungle Bar located inside. Interpret that how you will. 

Day 6: Get Adventurous with Whitewater Rafting

Feelin’ kinda sporty? Alongside Mission Beach’s relaxed coastal vibe, the region is also known for adventure activities. You can skydive right onto the beach, or head to the Tully River, 45 minutes from Mission Beach, for adrenalin-pumping aquatic activities.

This morning, head out with Raging Thunder for a white-knuckle whitewater rafting experience on the river whose rapids plunge through World Heritage Rainforest. Good times, guaranteed.

And to tell Mum and Dad: tuition is provided prior to heading out on the water so experience isn’t strictly necessary. Make sure you take secure footwear, your bathing suit, sunscreen and a change of clothes for afterwards. Oh yeah, a waterproof plastic bag for that phone of yours.

Day 7: Live the Island Lyf

Farewell Mission Beach and hit the road for Townsville in the early morning. Break up the three hour drive with a detour to Cardwell Forest. In the Girringun National Park, Cardwell Forest Drive is 26 kilometres (16 miles) of scenic loops featuring this natural-fed spa pool, swimming holes and waterfalls with great picnic spots.  Stop at Cardwell ‘spa pool’ for a picnic and a dip. The ‘spa’ is a pool in the creek bed that bubbles and swirls like a natural Jacuzzi. Like a hot tub time machine, but organic.

Continue to Townsville and park your vehicle to take the ferry to magical paradise that is Magnetic Island.  Daily ferries depart roughly every hour and ferry tickets should be booked online in advance.

Magnetic Island sits within the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, but the landscape here is different to the usual tropical rainforest found on many of the Great Barrier Reef islands. Its climate is typical of the dry tropics and it is covered with eucalypt woodlands. The waters are crazy clear, the bush walks crazy long, and the koalas and wallabies are crazy friendly.

Explore the island on foot (or from the comfort of your towel) for the afternoon and settle into the YHA Magnetic Island, set in the heart of Magnetic Island National Park in shut-up-is-this-actually-real Horseshoe Bay.

Day 8: Wildlife and Wreck Dives

Wake up for Bungalow Bay’s one of a kind ‘Breakfast with the Koalas’ experience, held every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Make jaffles and cook them over hot coals while you meet koalas, baby crocodiles and even snakes.

After breakfast, see the friendly staff at the reception desk for a Magnetic Island map and they will send you on your way with all the best places to see on the island.

Every month, Magnetic Island also hosts the Full Moon Down Under party. The locals assure us with a wink this is NOT TO BE MISSED. Loosey goosey were their exact words.

For ocean adventuring, go snorkelling right off the beach or follow one of the snorkel trails at Nelly and Geoffrey Bays. The island also has many top-notch dive sites, including the shipwreck of the SS Yongala, one of the best wreck dives in Australia and one of the top five in the world. 

Day 9: Magnetic Island to Airlie Beach

Shed your tears as you farewell your island paradise but take heart knowing you are going on to yet another beauty. Head back to the mainland by ferry and head further south to Airlie Beach. Airlie Beach is the vibrant hub of the Whitsundays and the ideal mainland base for fun and adventure.

Soak up the laid-back, tropical atmosphere and instantly tune into holiday mode. Sunbake, shop, snack. This is how holidays should be. For local insight, hitch a ride on a tuk-tuk tour through town. 

Day 10: Aquatic and Coastal Airlie Beach

In the morning, make tracks to Abell Point Marina to depart for aquatic adventures. The options include jet ski tours, ocean rafting, kayaking, banana boating or a jet boat ride. Stop off at the Raw Bohemian Café en route to ensure your belly is full.

On Saturday mornings, you can head to the local markets at the south end of the beach. There you’ll find old school local arts and crafts, fresh fruit and vegetables and much more.

Treat yourself to dinner at a bustling seafood café or head to one of the pubs for a few drinks and perhaps even some karaoke. Who knows, you might even find a new friend to do that duet with. Hold Me Closer Tiny Dancer, thanks.

Day 11: Sailing the Whitsundays

Get a job (kind of). Sign up to a liveaboard experience departing from the marina. Liveaboard diving experiences are iconic to the Whitsundays region, providing you with the opportunity to combine diving the Great Barrier Reef, while exploring some of the insanely beautiful  Whitsunday Islands on a sailing boat.  

Make nice with your fellow crew members and the dive operators as you spend two days and two nights living on board a yacht as you sail between the Whitsundays’ 74 islands and snorkel or dive some of the best spots on the Reef. Love boat, anyone?

Day 12: Sun, Sailing and Snorkelling

Spend your second day like a total baller, living a life of luxury onboard a sailing boat in the Whitsundays. Aside from the snorkelling and diving on tap, adventures on land are also in order.

Jump off at Whitsunday Island, the largest island in the Whitsundays, for bush walking and a visit to the world’s whitest sand at picture-perfect Whitehaven Beach. You’ll want to make sure your phone is charged for this one, boi.

If you don’t have time for two nights sailing, there are lots of options for day trips to Whitehaven Beach or the Reef or, for those with sailing experience, try ‘bareboating’ and hiring a yacht to crew on your own. Aye aye cap’n. 

Day 13: Head Out on a Crocodile Safari

Fans of Crocodile Dundee unite! It’s now time to take it off the silver screen and see these crazy dinosaurs IRL. On return to Airlie Beach, spend your last day with a tour through the Proserpine River with Whitsunday Crocodile Safari. You’ll notice that the huge Jurassic Park-looking lizards on the banks of the river are actually real (just don’t smile at them).

A BBQ lunch is included and then a tractor ride through the jungle to learn about the bush.

After you return to Airlie Beach, head to the main street for farewell drinks (note the plural) before you leave this tropical paradise. The liveaboard operators often reserve a table in town for a last hurrah with your fellow crew members before you say ‘hooroo’.