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7 Day Great Barrier Reef Itinerary

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The Great Barrier Reef is a dream trip! We knew we wanted to stay near Cairns as we had heard the reef nearby was one of the best.  We had also heard that Cairns didn’t have a ton to do, so we decided to split our time between Cairns and Port Douglas. 

Port Douglas is an amazing place – it’s a quaint town with access to great beaches and has a local feel.  If you’re familiar with Naples, FL in the US, Port Douglas is its soul sister with tropical beaches and mountains all around. We enjoyed our time in both PD and Cairns before/after our time on the reef!

What should I know?

You can fly into Cairns and then take a local shuttle up to Port Douglas.  Most local companies will charge around $40 per person.  We found this option to be cheaper than renting a car when factoring in gas but definitely look into renting a car, especially if you plan to venture out to some of the options noted on Day Three below.

Trip Snapshot by Day:

OneAirport to Port Douglas
TwoPort Douglas
ThreeRoadtrip around Port Douglas
Four-SixLive Aboard Dive Trip
SevenCairns to Airport

Day One: Airport to Port Douglas


After arriving into Cairns airport, find your local shuttle company waiting for you (I’d recommend booking in advance, we went with Sun Palm Transport Group) or go pick up your rental car and start the ~1-hour journey north. 

Settle into your accommodation.  We chose to stay at By the Sea, a really great budget option right next to the beach. 


Hop on some cruiser bikes (our hotel included them in our stay for free) and ride around town.  Our bikes were able to go on the sand so we biked along the Four Mile beach before biking back into town to pick up groceries. 


We made dinner ourselves with food from the local grocery store.  However, 2 Fish Restaurant, Nautilus, On the Inlet, Watergate Port Douglas, The Little Larder and Zinc Port Douglas all looked like great options. For dessert, consider an ice cream from the delicious Capannina.

Day Two: Port Douglas


Hop on your bike cruisers again and head west to the other side of the inlet for the Sunday market on the grassy area of Rex Smeal Park.  There are all sorts of vendors and you can enjoy a nice breakfast here. My favorite was the coconut chai latte!


Spend the afternoon lounging at Four Mile Beach.  It’s a beautiful beach with a great landscape.


For dinner, try one of the spots you haven’t gotten to yet suggested above and stroll to Rex Smeal Park to watch the sunset.

Day Three: Roadtrip around Port Douglas

Consider spending the day exploring further inland at Daintree National Park (and stop at the Daintree Ice Cream Company – apparently it’s delicious) or visit Mossman Gorge where you can also rent a stand-up paddleboard (check out the Sweet Farm Tours here). 

Check out and for even more daytrip ideas.  We didn’t get an extra day for these activities but they all look amazing and Port Douglas is the perfect base for them.

Days Four – Six: Liveaboard on the Great Barrier Reef

Join a liveaboard tour out the Great Barrier Reef for a couple days.  If renting a car, you could drop it back off at the Cairns airport at this point and join the tour from Cairns (sometimes the tours are cheaper from Cairns than from Port Douglas). 

Otherwise, you could just join a tour that departs from Port Douglas or take the shuttle back to Cairns to join a boat from there (with the benefit of the boat dropping you back off in Cairns where you’ll fly out of).

We went with Divers Den (departing from Cairns) but the other popular option is Pro Dive Cairns.  Both companies get great ratings.

We definitely enjoyed our time with Divers Den.  Ryan did the scuba dive program to become certified (he started the in-classroom portion at home and then just did the in-sea training on the Great Barrier Reef so as not to waste vacation days in a classroom) and I simply snorkeled. 

In some cases, my pictures were better than his so don’t discount snorkeling if you’re not comfortable with scuba diving! It’s fun meeting people from all over the world and is a great experience overall. After your liveaboard program, you’ll need to wait about a day before you can fly. I’d suggest spending the night in Cairns.

Day Seven: Cairns


Start your day with breakfast at Perrotta’s at the Gallery. To walk off breakfast, consider a stroll along the Esplanade. It’s a gorgeous waterfront path with lots of family-friendly areas to stop – such as playgrounds and a little swimming pool area.

From here, explore some of the shops in Cairns. Many are fairly commercial, and there is a mall in town if interested. However, we just wandered and popped into stores as they caught our (mainly my) attention.


Once you’ve worked up an appetite again, go to Prawn Star for lunch. It’s a seafood restaurant located on a ship in the harbor and they serve delicious food. It’s really fun to sit on the boat and enjoy the sights and sounds of the harbor over a relaxing lunch.

Post lunch, pick up some ice cream from Gelocchio and enjoy it from a bench overlooking the water.

Later this afternoon, you’ll be about 24 hours post diving (if you chose to dive). Consider heading to the airport this evening for a flight to another great city in Australia – accessible and relatively inexpensive on JetStar.

For more trip inspiration, read my guides here.

Happy Planning!

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