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The Ultimate Aussie Holiday

The Ultimate Aussie Holiday

Australia has something no other nation on Earth does — the Great Barrier Reef, a natural formation so large it can be seen from outer space. A trip to this natural wonder of the world will take you to sights that will leave you breathless.

If you delight in witnessing the wonders of nature, then one of the great Australia holidays is a trip to the Great Barrier Reef. This chain of 2,500 individual coral reefs and islands stretches 1,600 miles along the Queensland coast of northeast Australia, from the mainland towns of Port Douglas to Bundaberg. Together they form an ecosystem of incredible richness and beauty that seems to defy description.

By donning a snorkel mask and swimming a few hundred yards off Helmet Island, for example, you'll enter a shimmering world of colors filled with brilliant purple parrot fish and striped angelfish, spotted red coral trout, sweetlips, moray eels, and giant manta rays. More than 400 species of fish alone, not to mention an almost infinite variety of sea cucumbers and other invertebrates, inhabit the Reef around it. The island also attracts thousands of birds, including more than 17,000 noddy terns, which nest on every available branch around a cay only a mile around. You'll also see mutton birds, reef herons, and white-breasted sea eagles.

Unfortunately, you won't see the actual Reef, for it lies 35 to 100 miles offshore and is difficult to reach. To truly enjoy the reef experience, you should stay on a true coral cay — formed by the accumulation of sand and vegetation on top of coral. But you can only stay on three of these cays have accommodations for visitors — Green Island, near Cairns at the northern end of the reef, and Heron and Lady Elliot Islands toward the southern end near Gladstone.

You can hop between the pristine, palm-fringed islands on the surface, then explore the rainbow- colored coral islands and marine life below.

Begin by partying in Airlie Beach, a vibrant coastal town filled with palm-fringed beaches, waterfront parks and alfresco dining restaurants. You'll love its bohemian charm and relaxed ambiance. Airlie Beach is also the gateway to the Whitsundays, the 74 pristine islands in the north of Queensland's Great Barrier Reef where you can bask in the sun or relax in a spa or sip cocktails by the pool of a deluxe resort. With palm-fringed secluded white sand beaches surrounded by clear blue waters, the Whitsunday Islands are the epitome of a tropical paradise.

Or you can hit the water sports on Hamilton, or just chill out on the soft, white sand of Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island. Or head to Green and Fitzroy islands near Cairns, and Dunk, Bedarra, Hinchinbrook and Orpheus islands further south. For great diving, head to Hayman, Heron and Lizard Islands. Queensland's warm, tropical climate means that winters at Airlie Beach are very mild and perfect for enjoying water activities year round.

Even if you're not a diver, you can still see technicolor coral and marine life through a glass-bottomed boat from coastal towns such as Cairns, Port Douglas, or Airlie Beach. Or experience the reef's smooth seas, deep drop offs, underwater tunnels and caves with a dive school or day trip operator. Or you may prefer to snorkel or dive the edge of the continental shelf at Agincourt Reef from Cairns, explore the SS Yongala shipwreck from Townsville and Magnetic Island and the Llewellyn shipwreck from Mackay. See sea stars, crabs corals, molluscs at Fitzroy, Capricorn and Bunker Reefs near Gladstone. Or kick through vivid coral canyons past marine turtles near Lady Elliot and Lady Musgrave Islands.

If you prefer to ride the smooth waves, take a crewed charter from Port Douglas for Low Isles, a secluded island jewel discovered by Captain Cook in 1770. Or if you're an experienced sailor, hire a bareboat charter from Hamilton Island or Airlie Beach and sail through the turquoise water of the Whitsundays and the sheltered waters of the Coral Sea. Anchor overnight at picturesque moorings such as Whitehaven Beach, Cid Harbour and Butterfly Bay and visit the reefs of Black, Langford and Bird Island along the way.