Why you need to book a trip to the Great Barrier Reef now

The downside of most of our travel bucket list experiences is they’re on everyone else’s bucket lists too.

If you’ve ever craned your neck over a crowd to catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa, or queued for hours for a spot on a Statue of Liberty ferry tour, or been shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of others shuffling through the Vatican, you’ll know the more iconic the attraction, the bigger the crowds.

Wouldn’t it be nice to feel your experience at these iconic spots was a little more … intimate?

Right now, in many parts of Australia, it can be – even if it’s a by-product of some pretty unfortunate circumstances.

Tourism-dependent regions across the country have seen visitor numbers nosedive due to the COVID-19 crisis. Far North Queensland, for example, lost its crucial influx of international tourists at the start of the year, and copped a double whammy when state border shutdowns locked out the usually heavy stream of winter visitors from Victoria and NSW.

The Sunlover Reef Cruises pontoon and catamaran at Moore Reef, on the outer Great Barrier Reef. Picture: Brendan RadkeSource:News Corp Australia

There’s barely a silver lining to be gleamed from these dire straits. But it has created a bittersweet glimmer of opportunity for Australians who are able to travel right now – some of our biggest and best tourist attractions are as quiet and crowd-free as they’ll ever be, so if you’ve ever thought about ticking them off, and are able to do so, now’s the time to strike.

Plus, you’ll be giving support to regions who really need some love right now.

There are few places where people will be so palpably happy to welcome you than Cairns, where I recently enjoyed one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions, the Great Barrier Reef, without the usual peak season frenzy.

I went to Moore Reef, less than two hours by boat from Cairns, on a day trip with Sunlover Reef Cruises.

Tourists prepare to snorkel off the side of the Sunlover pontoon. Picture: Calypso PhotographySource:Supplied

Tourists head off on a guided safari tour with marine biologist Pablo Cogollos (left). Picture: Brendan RadkeSource:News Corp Australia

Sunlover has a 50m long, two-storey pontoon at Moore Reef, which is basically a mini theme park in the middle of the Coral Sea.

During four hours of downtime on the pontoon, visitors can snorkel and scuba dive at their leisure, visit the underwater observatory, take a glass-bottom boat tour, splash around in the kids’ pool, enjoy the touch-tank presentation, watch the fish feeding display, take in the views from the sundeck, and launch themselves down the only theme park-style water slide on the Great Barrier Reef.

Visitors take a closer look at the reef on a glass-bottom boat tour.Source:Supplied

The underwater observatory on the pontoon. Picture: Calypso PhotographySource:Supplied

Sunlover had been seeing an up-tick in bookings when a reopened Queensland announced it was “Good to Go” in July, and there was a healthy crowd of us that boarded the catamaran in Cairns for our tour – but not so many it felt impossible to social distance.

There was no massive queue to check in, no jostling to board, and plenty of room to breathe – a welcome relief after months of avoiding crowds and isolating at home.

There have been some tweaks to Sunlover’s tours for COVID safety – the on-board buffet has been replaced by a packed lunch (a personal smorgasbord that includes a wrap, sushi, salad and a muffin), and there are new rules about using snorkels and goggles (you must stick with your own all day).

One of the interesting reef characters. Picture: Calypso Reef ImagerySource:Supplied

A marine expert shows off one of the resident sea turtles. Picture: Sunlover Reef CruisesSource:Supplied

Once the catamaran pulled up alongside the pontoon, the fun really began. As the other visitors buzzed about collecting equipment and choosing activities, I joined a guided snorkel safari tour with marine biologist Paolo, who took me and a couple of others far beyond the swimming boundaries to a less-visited area of the reef.

Paolo delivered expert commentary as we fluttered along, explaining the varieties of sea creatures and coral we were seeing, giving updates after the mass coral spawning event in November, and excitedly pointing out the odd sea turtle that calmly cruised below.

Sunlover staffers take photographs of local turtle Lulu. Picture: Brendan RadkeSource:News Corp Australia

The Sunlover pontoon, catamaran and glass-bottom boat at Moore Reef. Picture: Brendan RadkeSource:News Corp Australia

But it’s hard to not be distracted by the beauty of the scene below the water – the kaleidoscope of colours, the interesting shapes, the serene flow of life, the meditative silence.

At one point on the tour I popped my head above water and realised we’d meandered a long way from the pontoon, which by then seemed to be a mere speck in the distance. So pleasantly lost had I been in my own little stretch of paradise, kilometres out to sea: no crowds, no pandemic, no worries.

If just for a little while.

WHILE YOU’RE IN TOWN

BY DAY: Kuranda Scenic Railway

The historic Kuranda Scenic Railway takes you deep into the lush, World Heritage Listed rainforest.Source:Supplied

Experience another of the region’s natural wonders with a trip on the delightful Kuranda Scenic Railway, which takes you deep into the World Heritage Listed rainforest to the charming village of Kuranda, less than two hours from Cairns.

The track runs along the sides of steep gorges, crosses historic bridges and passes dramatic waterfalls – there are lots of photo opportunities along the way – and the beautifully restored wooden carriages date back to the early 1900s.

If you can, splash out on a first class ticket for a dose of old-world service, but the journey in the regular carriages is just as enjoyable. Once you arrive in Kuranda, spend a few hours exploring its artsy markets, shops, galleries, eateries, gardens and attractions, including the fun-for-all-ages Australian Butterfly Sanctuary.

BY NIGHT: Wolf Lane Distillery

The recently opened Wolf Lane Distillery in Cairns is a gin-lovers paradise. Picture: Brendan RadkeSource:News Corp Australia

The distillery is from the same team who launched Cairns’ first small bar, Three Wolves (pictured). Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied

Down a quiet brick laneway in the heart of Cairns is the city’s first distillery bar, Wolf Lane Distillery. The label was founded last year by the same team who opened the city’s first small bar, Three Wolves, on the other side of the lane.

But it’s already racked up an impressive achievement – its Navy Strength Gin claimed the top prize in the international 2020 Gin Guide Awards. The gin specialists – who pivoted to producing hand sanitiser during the pandemic – use an array of local botanicals to create their range, from the finger lime used in their Tropical Gin to the hero ingredient in their Davidson Plum Gin.

They also make a mean coffee liquor called The Barista – it’s spectacular neat or in one of the best espresso martinis you’ll find anywhere.

STAY: Riley

The stunning resort pool at the Crystalbrook Collection’s Riley in Cairns. Picture: Tourism Tropical North QueenslandSource:Supplied

In a prime location along the famous Cairns Esplanade, a quick stroll from the hub of town, Riley is a stylish, five-star resort by Crystalbrook Collection that’s ideal both for family holidays and romantic escapes.

The rooms are contemporary, comfortable and spacious, and at the heart of the resort is a stunning resort-style pool, complete with a sandy beach edge and sun lounges. You’ll make the most of that Instagrammable poolside scene from the al fresco restaurant Paper Crane, which serves breakfast by morning and modern Asian dishes by day and night.

But the views are even better from the resort’s glamorous rooftop bar and restaurant Rocco, which offers 270-degree panoramic views of the city and the Coral Sea. It’s the highest rooftop bar in Cairns and a favourite spot for locals as well as Riley guests.

The writer travelled to Cairns as a guest of Tourism Tropical North Queensland.

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