Destination Guide: Cruising Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef

A tropical paradise with crystal-clear waters, colourful coral reefs and fascinating marine life, Australia is a stunning superyacht destination that is drawing increasing interest from the yachting-set.

As the cyclone season comes to a close in May, many set their course to the South Pacific, arriving in Australia to spend time on the water ‘down under’ where white sandy beaches give way to cosmopolitan coastal cities, lush rainforests and deserted outback plains beyond.

View across Cape Tribulation Queensland

Named as the 2015 ‘Destination of the Year’ by Condé Nast Traveler and boasting a total of 19 UNESCO World Heritage-listed sites, marine infrastructure has dramatically improved in Australia in recent years to serve and support the world’s superyacht fleet as they travel this unique landscape.

With superyachts over 35m now permitted to access key parts of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Superyacht Owners’ Guide (SYOG) spoke to Joanne Drake at the Super Yacht Group Great Barrier Reef and Cameron Bray of Bray Management about the highlights of cruising Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef aboard a superyacht.

Cruising itinerary

Set proudly in the ‘Sunshine State’ of Queensland, cultured Cairns is the gateway to many of Australia’s famous UNESCO sites, including the Great Barrier Reef, the Whitsunday Islands, Fraser Island and Queensland’s tropical north.

Day One: Opal Reef

After a few days spent exploring the city of Cairns, start your onward journey by meeting the superyacht at Cairns Marlin Marina. Settle in and enjoy a leisurely lunch aboard while the crew gets the yacht underway to Opal Reef to the northeast, marking the first of many opportunities to see and experience the Great Barrier Reef (GBR).

Aerial view of people on Vlassof Cay, Great Barrier Reef

At 348,700sqkm, you could spend forever exploring the 2,900-plus individual reefs, 300 coral cays and 600 continental islands that make up the GBR, but Opal Reef is a great place to start. This large and shallow dive site has ample variety of sites and species to explore. Crescent-shaped, you’ll be largely protected from the prevailing wind on the inner side allowing you to spend the day exploring the changing ecosystems of the 12 or more dive sites that make up Opal, before enjoying a peaceful night’s rest at anchor with good food and great company.

The Reef is best experienced during the summer months when the winds are low and the visibility is good, but comfortable water temperatures make it accessible all year around. It is the only place in the world where the spectacular coral spawning can be accurately predicted and witnessed. Visit at the right time of year and you’ll find this stunning show taking place; here in the outer reef, it occurs in November and December, while it’s slightly earlier in the inner reef during October.

Day Two: Agincourt, Escape and the Ribbon Reefs

Awake to the sounds of the ocean and soak up the scenic cruise north along the inside of the Great Barrier Reef to the Agincourt Reefs where you’ll snorkel and kayak at your leisure while enjoying a lazy breakfast buffet.

Watersports on the Great Barrier Reef

Afterward, hop to the next reef to meet your fishing charter and local guide for a day of deep-sea game fishing at Escape Reef before heading on to the Ribbon Reefs to begin a couple more days of spectacular diving. There are more varieties of fish living on the GBR than in any other marine ecosystem on earth, so you are likely to see, meet and catch bigger and more diverse varieties of fish than anywhere else on earth.

When the heat gets too much, take a plunge into the waters at ‘Steve’s Bommie’; a legendary dive site and isolated pinnacle southwest of Ribbon Reef No.3. Here you’ll be surrounded by large schools of pelagic fish and gardens of hard and soft coral. Seek out Steve Bommie’s memorial plaque at 25m and look out for cruising Barracuda and White Tip Reef Shark; you’ll enjoy views of numerous large coral heads within the lagoon, and a tremendous variety of colourful tropical fish.

If visiting in June or July, it’s worthwhile taking a visit to Ribbon Reef No.5, known as ‘Andy’s Postcard’. Here guests may be lucky enough to see dozens of migrating Minke Whales who often swim up to the yacht’s stern, allowing you to join them in the water for the firsthand experience of a lifetime.

Enjoy the sunset on the deck while the crew prepares a feast of your freshly caught fish from the day, to eat while appreciating the changing southern sky, which provides a great opportunity for stargazing from the deck.

Aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef corals

Day Three: Pixie’s Reef and Lizard Island

Schedule the crew to move the boat overnight for an early arrival at Pixie’s Reef between Ribbon Reefs 9 and 10 - renowned for its exceptional underwater photography. There are a number of different dive sites here for those of varying diving abilities, including Pixie’s Cave, Pixie Gardens and Pixie Pinnacle.

Lunch today will be enjoyed at anchor at Dynamite Pass, with the afternoon spent snorkeling another world-class dive at Cod Hole alongside Australia’s infamous Giant Potato Cod who are well used to friendly divers and can be handfed.

A sunset cruise to Lizard Island will follow, allowing you to feel the heat of the Australian sunshine. Arrive at Lizard Island, the largest of six islands making up the Lizard Island National Park, and anchor in the picturesque Watson’s Bay for the night. Entertainment for the evening will be provided by the yacht’s underwater lights, which should attract huge Grouper and schools of Trevally off the stern all night long.

Giant Potato Cod swimming Great Barrier Reef

Day Four: Cooktown

An early start will afford you the best morning swim from your anchor at Watson’s Bay, and a view of the enchanting Clam Garden with its sea of ‘giant’ clams. Climb aboard to get underway to the mainland for an excursion to Cooktown – a quaint town and the site of Australia’s first indigenous settlement.

Tender ashore to climb the 162m up Grassy Hill - Captain Cook’s Lookout, for 360-degree scenic views out across the Southwest Rocks. Between May and July and August and October you might catch sight of Humpback Whales and dolphin as they swim past the headland, and many species of birdlife and wild flower can also be spotted.

There are plenty of cultural sites to indulge in in Cooktown, including the Cooktown Light active lighthouse, the James Cook Historical Museum, Natures Powerhouse and the Botanical Gardens to name but a few.

Alternatively, take a walk along one of the many walking trails to Walkers Bay – a beautiful setting for a picnic lunch. There’s opportunity for windsurfing or beach volleyball here, but finish in good time to make the most of the daylight with a short scenic helicopter ride before sunset to really appreciate the panoramic colours of the reef from above the waterline.

Cooktown lighthouse lookout

In the evening enjoy music and cocktails on the fly bridge deck as the sun sets before heading south on the yacht overnight.

Day Five: Mackay Sand Cay and Daintree National Park

Start the day with a relaxing swim in the turquoise shallows of the Mackay Reef and then refuel with a solitary breakfast ashore the picturesque Mackay Sand Cay. Take a little time to relax and appreciate what may be the last of the Great Barrier Reef as the afternoon will be a busy one on the mainland.

Heading west to the coast, you’ll want to take a private tour of the rainforest scenery of the Daintree National Park and Cape Tribulation. The Daintree Rainforest contains the oldest surviving rainforest in the world, littered with mountainous scenery and breathtaking sights and experiences. The best time to take a rainforest tour is in Australia’s summer, between December and February when it’s at its most luxurious with the rivers and waterfalls flowing.

Day Six: Port Douglas and Kuranda

Spend the morning exploring Port Douglas eating, shopping at the boutiques or relaxing at one of the town’s fantastic day spas. Further south at Kuranda you’ll be able to take a ride of the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway or Kuranda Railway, and white water raft along the Tully River.

Kuranda Railway moving through Queensland tropics

Day Seven: Onward…

Your final days in Queensland offer a range of further places to explore and sights to see. Enjoy outstanding service standards at the private Double Island retreat, which, accessible by launch or helicopter, allows you to spend time relaxing in oversized hammocks hung in the trees, or relaxing in the meditative Zen Garden; visit the remote and obscure region of Kimberley, which, practically undiscovered is home to the famous Horizontal Waterfalls, Kings Cascades, the Mitchell Plateau and 40,000-year-old hidden Bradshaw Art; or travel by land to Milla Milla Falls or the Undara Lava Tubes, which span 1,300km.

Heading south aboard, you’ll arrive at Airlie Beach - the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, or further afield, Fraser Island; the world’s largest sand island.

Superyacht berthing

When travelling Queensland aboard a superyacht, you’re likely to spend most of your time at anchor, but Australia’s marinas are of an extremely high class.

Milla Milla Falls Queensland

Cairns Marlin Marina - Queensland

Cairns Marlin Marina is a popular choice in the tropical far north of Queensland. With dedicated superyacht berths of 140m set within a secure and gated development, Marlin Marina is set within a stone’s throw of the city centre and its bars and restaurants. It’s 10-minute drive to the international airport, plus there is a helipad adjacent. Duty-free fuel bunkering is available on site.

Abell Point Marina – Hamilton Island

Abell Point Marina offers the perfect base for superyachts in the Whitsunday Islands with berths up to 60m and dockside power, fuel and marine services on site. There is a ‘blue carpet’ service for superyacht owners, which includes the use of a courtesy car and a heli-taxi to take guests to the secluded spots of the Whitsunday Islands and outer reef.

The Reef Marina – Port Douglas

Located in Port Douglas, The Reef Marina is Queensland's northernmost marina and one of Australia's premier nautical destinations with 135 berths accommodating permanent and visiting vessels, including superyachts up to 50m LOA. The marina has numerous dining, entertainment and shopping options and is the embarkation point for reef tours, fishing charters and sailing adventures.

Climate and cruising conditions

Sitting in the tropics, Queensland experiences two very distinct weather seasons: The ‘wet’ or monsoon season arrives here in the summer months, between December and February, while the ‘dry’ season spans April to August. The cyclone season in Australia is November to May, and the most popular time for superyachts is therefore typically between April/May and October.

VaVa II in berth at Cairns Marlin Marina

Tropical Cairns has hot and humid summers with temperatures reaching from 23°C to 31°C, and mild, dry winters of an average temperature of 18°C. Most of the region’s annual rainfall occurs in the summer months, although the temperature is still warm and the humidity is high resulting is humid days and stormy nights. This provides some of the best opportunities to experience the tropical rainforests, rivers, waterfalls and oceans of Queensland.

Even though it is the wet season, summer is the time of year when GBR diving is at its best, with the winds calm and underwater visibility sometimes at more than 50m. Water temperatures vary on the Reef from a comfortable 22°C in the winter to 29°C in the summer, ideal for round-the-year enjoyment.

One of the most popular times to visit Cairns is in the winter, with May to August being the peak tourist season. The cooler temperatures and lower humidity are ideal for exploring the region on land and by foot, offering perfect conditions for golf and setting sail in the Whitsunday Islands.

Cruising regulations and clearances

96 hours prior to arrival in Australia, the Australian Border Force (customs), immigration, quarantine and the relevant port authorities should be notified.

Diver with large stingray shark

Superyacht ports of entry include Thursday Island, Cairns, Townsville or Mackay. Bear in mind that a pilot is required for vessels below 50m LOA for entry via a port. Similarly, vessels over 70m LOA require a reef pilot to traverse through the Great Barrier Reef.

Unless Australian or New Zealand passport holders, superyacht crew require a 488 Visa to work aboard a superyacht.

Australian charter formalities

Foreign-flagged charter vessels approved by the Australian Marine Safety Authority, and with a full contingent of qualified crew, can now charter in Australia under a temporary Coastal Trading License valid for 12 months.

GST will be payable to the Australian Tax Office on any charter income and APA.