How to Spend 5 Days at the Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Updated August 11, 2020.

Looking for a tropical, iconic, historic getaway? Start planning your trip to Cairns, Australia! From holding koalas to diving at the Great Barrier Reef, there’s something for everyone in beautiful Queensland. I was blown away by the beauty of this area of the world, and I hope you will be, too!

Day 1: Travel to Cairns

Koalas, the Great Barrier Reef, beautiful weather, a rain forest—what’s not to love about Cairns? We flew in from Sydney, so if you’re coming from elsewhere, your day may look a little different!

Morning: Breakfast at the Airport and Flight to Cairns

Plan on an airport breakfast before your flight. We took Virgin Australia up to Cairns, and it was a good experience, but also an early one!

First glimpse of Cairns and the Coral Sea!

Lunch: The Esplanade

Once you get to Cairns and get checked into your accommodation, head down to the Esplanade to take in the warm sea breeze and choose a restaurant with a view—they all have one!

Afternoon: Cairns Museum and Book Tomorrow’s Tour

Do not miss the Cairns Museum! It’s a wealth of information about the region, World Wars I and II, the Great Barrier Reef, and more! The people working here have so many interesting facts to share, and since I knew basically nothing about the area except that the Great Barrier Reef is there, I learned a lot. Plan to spend about an hour here, depending on how interested you are in the region’s history and significance.

This is also prime time to book your tour to the Great Barrier Reef tomorrow and anything else you want to do! We also booked a hot-air balloon ride and a day at the Kuranda Koala Gardens for the remainder of our trip. We didn’t book anything in advance because we were just not sure what all the options were, and we’re glad we waited because we got on a fantastic tour we wouldn’t have known about otherwise!

Good evening, Cairns!
More here: What to Know Before You Visit Australia

Evening: Dinner and a Walk by the Water

Walk along the Esplanade to watch the colors of sunset and work up an appetite for dinner. The first night we were there, we had the most amazing seafood pizza from Barnacle Bill’s!

Maybe the best seafood pizza ever!
Still hungry? What to Eat in Cairns

Day 2: Up in the Air and Under the Sea

This is it! This the largest barrier reef in the world—it’s where Nemo is from! Take advantage of the opportunities to see it from the air and below the waterline.

Early Morning: Hot-air Balloon Ride

You will have to be up and ready to go between 3:30am and 4:00am, but it’ll be well worth the effort when you see the sunrise from above! This is one of those experiences I wouldn’t trade for anything else. Your tour will include pick up at your hotel, a snack, your balloon ride, and drop-off back at your accommodtion. We were finished and back in plenty of time to get breakfast and head to the Great Barrier Reef!

Sunrise Balloon Ride
Read next: How to Get an Australian Tourist Visa

All Day: Tour to the Great Barrier Reef

Your tour will likely leave in the 8:00 or 9:00 hour, so don’t be late! Our first tour took us to Fitzroy Island. We picked up our snorkel gear and set out to explore! I recommend packing water shoes, though, because the beach is not sandy—it’s covered in rocks and dried coral! But if you’re not into snorkeling, you can easily spend your day hiking, take a glass-bottom boat tour, or simply get some sun! I believe there were kayaks for rent as well.

Most importantly, you will need to bring and wear reef safe sunscreen. The Great Barrier Reef has suffered quite a lot of bleaching and other human-induced damage over the years, and reef safe sunscreen is a huge step in the right direction. In fact, the islands of Hawaii and Palau have already outlawed reef damaging sunscreens!

Map of Fitzroy Island

I highly recommend getting in the water to see the coral for yourself. It’s neon!

Grab your water shoes! These dried out coal pieces hurt!
Driving while you’re there? Tips for Driving on the Left

Dinner: The Esplanade

You’ll be tuckered out by the time you get back to the mainland, so clean up a bit, head out to the Esplanade, and find yourself some supper. You have another exciting day ahead for tomorrow!

Day 4: Kuranda Koala Gardens

Koalas are only found in Australia, so take the opportunity to see them up-close! They are mighty rough in real life, however, so don’t try to get too close if you happen to see one in the wild.

Morning: Jungle Excursion and Kuranda Koala Gardens

You’ll get picked up and taken to the jungle to go on a beautiful rainforest walk (did you know the rain forest is actually the most inhospitable climate on earth?), then whisked away to Kuranda Koala Gardens, which is basically a small zoo specializing in Australian animals! Moniters, wallabys, kangaroos, and, of course, koalas are all out for your to see and learn about!

Feeding a wallaby at Kuranda Koala Gardens!

You can also have your picture taken with a koala, which totally made my day!

I can’t even describe how much cuter this sweetie is in person!

We ate lunch here as well, and we really liked trying all the authentic Australian foods like ostrich, emu, and kangaroo!

Crocodile, Kangaroo, and Emu with complementary sauces!

Afternoon: Scenic Train Ride

You’ll round out your day with a scenic train ride before heading back into Cairns. It’s said to be one of the best train routes in the world!


Evening: Dinner and a Walk

Head back to the Esplanade or to downtown Cairns for a meal to round out your day! If you’re like me, you can never get enough seafood. It’s incredibly fresh here!

Day 5: More Australian Adventures

We made the most of our last day in Cairns with a stroll through beautiful gardens and one more round of reef peeping!

Morning: Botanical Gardens

If that jungle tour yesterday was totally your thing, you’ll also love the Carins Botanic Gardens. Admission is FREE, and it opens at 7:30am each day, so morning people, rejoice!

Cairns Botanic Gardens

Midday: Snorkeling and Glass Bottom Boat Tour

We also made sure we could spend one more day out at the iconic Great Barrier Reef. This time, try out Green Island and take a glass bottom boat tour, or simply snorkel all over again! It’s nearly impossible to get tired of looking at the living, breathing reef, replete with fish of every color.

Reef fishes!

Evening: Dinner

It’s your last night, so make it count! Choose a restaurant with a view and amazing desserts. Take another walk along the Esplanade or through downtown, and say a heartfelt goodbye to this tropical paradise.

When does it cease to be shrimp and start to be lobster?

We paired this trip with 4 Days in Sydney, and I recommend you do, too! I hope you’re inspired to plan your own trip if you haven’t already.

Want more Australian adventures? Check out my Australia Page for all the details!

Love this post? Pin it for later!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this:
Verified by ExactMetrics