For many people, visiting the stunning tropical islands on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is a dream come true. The magical underwater world of the Reef is waiting to be explored and water sports like swimming, snorkelling, and diving are on the agenda.
If you can picture yourself relaxing in the sun on a beautiful palm-fringed beach then this article is for you. But which island will it be?
There are more than 900 tropical islands and cays on the Great Barrier Reef. It’s the largest coral reef system in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site stretching for 2,300 kilometres along the northeast coast of Australia.
Well, I spent my holiday in Cairns and had a lot of fun exploring the islands of north Queensland. To help you find your tropical island paradise I’ve made a list of the best islands to visit and how to get there from Cairns.
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10 Stunning Islands on the Great Barrier Reef
These 10 stunning Islands on the Great Barrier Reef are perfect to explore from Cairns, Port Douglas, Mission Beach or Townsville.
Fitzroy Island is gorgeous! Imagine turquoise water and white coral beaches surrounded by palm trees, lush rainforests and colourful coral reefs.
It’s a real tropical paradise with crystal clear water and the most beautiful views imaginable. It’s my favourite island in north Queensland and Fitzroy Island is one of the best islands to visit from Cairns.
Of the islands near Cairns, Fitzroy Island is relatively large, around 4 km long, and it has several beaches ideal for swimming, snorkelling and sunbathing.
The main beach is near the jetty on Welcome Bay and some of the island’s best snorkelling can be found on the coral reef around the rocks at the far end of the beach.
There are no cars on Fitzroy Island so the only sound you’ll hear is the wind blowing through the trees, the waves lapping the shore and the people around you.
It’s fun to explore the island on foot and there are some great hiking trails to follow. The most popular is the short walk to Nudey Beach, a gorgeous, secluded beach made up of bleached coral and sand, perfect for sunbathing.
The path to Nudey Beach passes through the rainforest and takes around 15 – 20 minutes. But Nudey Beach is not a nudist beach so make sure you leave your swimmers on while you’re relaxing.
There’s a longer, more difficult walk to the lighthouse if you want to explore further and the lookout on the Summit track delivers a superb view across the island on a clear day. Look out for whales swimming by in the winter months.
Fitzroy Island has a Turtle Rehabilitation Centre and you can book a tour to meet some of the resident turtles on the island.
The 4-star hotel accommodation, The Fitzroy Island Resort gets excellent reviews. There’s also a campsite not far from the jetty on the island. It’s possible to hire snorkel gear, kayaks, paddle boards (and stinger suits in the summer months).
Foxy’s café and bar serve meals, coffee and alcoholic drinks and there’s also a general store next to the resort on Welcome Bay where you can buy a sandwich or an ice cream.
Fitzroy Island has toilets and locker facilities to keep your gear safe while you’re swimming and exploring.
How to get to Fitzroy Island
A public ferry and boat tours take people across to Fitzroy Island several times a day and you can book a glass bottom boat tour of the reef or hire your snorkelling gear for the day on the boat. Glass bottom boat tours and reef tours with a marine biologist are also available.
Fitzroy Island is around 22 kilometres from Cairns and the boat trip takes 45 minutes each way. It can be a bit rough on the water so it’s best to be prepared if you’re prone to seasickness.
I enjoyed a full-day Fitzroy Island adventure tour with snorkelling & you can also book a return catamaran transfer to Fitzroy Island from Cairns.
Green Island is one of the most popular islands near Cairns and, of the islands in north Queensland, it’s perfect to visit on a day trip.
There’s a luxury resort on Green Island so you can stay as long as you like in this tropical paradise and enjoy the various water activities, lovely beaches and coral reefs nearby.
Gorgeous Green Island is a coral cay and part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The island is covered by a lush green rainforest that supports around 55 different species of birds. Beds of seagrass grow in the clear water around the island providing food for sea turtles and dugong.
The coral reefs of Green Island are made up of a huge variety of soft and hard corals found in the shallows and in deeper water.
A shaded boardwalk takes you to a large sandy beach, perfect for sunbathing, swimming and snorkelling. The water is shallow and ideal for young children and beginner snorkelers to discover the magical underwater world of the reef.
It can get very windy on Green Island but the main beach is fairly protected and there’s a lifeguard on duty in peak times.
Green Island also has a wildlife zoo where you can meet Cassius, a huge old crocodile, one of the largest in Australia.
All kinds of water activities are available on Green Island and you can hire kayaks, paddleboards and your snorkelling and diving gear. There are toilets, change rooms, showers and lockers available for day-trippers.
The resort has a selection of places to eat and there’s a coffee shop, a bar and a swimming pool.
How to get to Green Island
The most popular way to get to Green Island is by boat and it’s easy to book a boat tour. Lying 27km offshore, it takes around 45 minutes to reach the Island on a fast boat from Cairns.
It can get a bit rough out on the water so take precautions if you’re prone to seasickness.
I loved the combined fly and cruise package to Green Island. The scenic flight over the Great Barrier Reef was absolutely stunning, the connections to the boat were well coordinated and there was a buffet lunch provided on board the Big Green Catamaran at Green Island.
The Frankland Islands
Uninhabited and covered in green forests, the Frankland Islands on the Great Barrier Reef offer a true taste of paradise.
The Frankland Islands National Park is made up of a group of small islands surrounded by colourful fringing coral reefs that are home to many species of marine life including turtles, octopuses, and brightly coloured clownfish.
Manta Rays and even whales can be seen in the right season.
How to Get to the Frankland Islands
A boat will take you to these lovely protected islands and you can snorkel from the beach to the colourful coral reefs where a vibrant underwater world is waiting to be discovered. Kayaking, reef and island tours are also on offer.
Frankland Island Reef Cruises operate day tours to Normanby Island, one of the Frankland Islands on the Great Barrier Reef. The cruise begins in the rainforests of the Mulgrave River south of Cairns.
Michaelmas Cay is a small coral cay on the western tip of Michaelmas Reef in the Coral Sea and it’s one of several tiny islands near cairns. Coral cays are formed when sand collects on the reef and over time, a small island appears.
There’s little vegetation on Michaelmas Cay and from the air, all you can see is a stretch of white sand surrounded by a stunning coral reef and turquoise water.
Michaelmas Cay is one of the smallest islands on the Great Barrier Reef and part of a protected World Heritage Area.
Teeming with birdlife, Michaelmas Cay is a sanctuary for sea birds and an important nesting site. During the breeding season up to 20,000 pairs of birds nest on the island and the airspace around Michaelmas Cay is a no-fly zone for aeroplanes.
The best way to see Michaelmas Cay is from the air on a scenic flight or on a private boat tour from Cairns.
Of the islands near Cairns, Upolu Cay is a popular boating, snorkelling and diving spot amongst the smaller sandy islands on the Great Barrier Reef. With crystal clear waters, many different types of coral, colourful fish and green turtles, Upolu Cay is a great place for beginners to see the reef. You can snorkel straight from the beach in the shallow waters of the Cay.
On the outer edge of Upolu Reef is the “Wonder Wall” an ideal place to snorkel and dive with giant clams, and a huge diversity of coral and colourful reef fish that are a delight to discover.
Upolu Cay is sometimes completely submerged at high tide so it’s best to go there on a Great Barrier Reef tour or on a private boat tour from Cairns.
Like many baby islands on the Great Barrier Reef, Vlasoff Cay was formed by sand collecting on the surface of the coral reef system. Stunning turquoise waters and a magical underwater world can be found on the reef surrounding this tiny island. The golden stretch of sand is enveloped by a colourful coral reef with darting fish, giant clams and sea turtles swimming peacefully by.
The Low Isles
The Low Isles consists of two small islands joined beneath the water by a coral reef. One of the islands is covered with mangroves and the other, Low Island, is an idyllic coral cay with a lovely sandy beach and an amazing variety of coral just a few metres offshore.
You can snorkel in the clear, calm water of the Low Isles and see endangered sea turtles gliding by. In fact, I saw several in just a short time snorkelling only a few metres off the beach in the Low Isles. I was also thrilled to see a black-tip reef shark swimming quickly by, lots of brightly coloured fish and a giant clam.
Although there was some coral bleaching a few years ago, the coral reef in the Low Isles has mostly recovered and is the perfect place to snorkel. The shallow waters are ideal for children and beginner snorkelers.
The lovely beach on Low Island is perfect for sunbathing and there is a lighthouse and two houses that accommodate the lighthouse keeper and researchers who monitor the reef from the Low Isles.
How to Get to the Low Isles.
Access to the Low Isles is by boat. I booked a half-day tour with Calypso Reef Cruises and can recommend them. The snorkel gear and wetsuits provided were in very good condition, and they offer a guided snorkel tour of the reef and a glass bottom boat tour if you want to see the underwater world without getting wet.
There’s free time to swim, snorkel and explore and an island tour is also included. It’s a small group tour and their experienced guides give a personal touch to the outing.
The Calypso boat leaves from the Crystalbrook Marina in Port Douglas and it takes around half an hour to reach the Low Isles. The crossing can be rough if it’s windy so be prepared and if you’re prone to seasickness, take a tablet 20 minutes before you leave the marina.
Of the Islands on the Great Barrier Reef, Lizard Island is as close to heaven as you can get. This secluded Island has an exclusive five-star resort, ideal for honeymooners and couples looking for privacy and superb accommodation.
With 24 undisturbed beaches, turquoise water, and coral reefs this remote piece of paradise is an opportunity to escape from the world on an all-inclusive tropical island retreat.
The resort on Lizard Island caters only for adults and children over 10 years old.
But watch out for crocodiles in the waters of far north Queensland and around Lizard Island.
How to Get to Lizard Island
Lizard Island is in far north Queensland, 240km north of Cairns and there are no regular or scheduled boats, ferries or flights. To visit you must use your own private transport, charter a flight or a boat, or book a package that includes transport at the Lizard Island resort
Named Coonanglebah by the local indigenous people, Dunk Island is a tropical island paradise with palm-fringed beaches and golden sands.
Of the idyllic islands on the Great Barrier Reef, Dunk Island is one of the closest to the mainland and lies just 4 kilometres off lovely Mission Beach.
For many years there was a popular resort on Dunk Island but, in 2011, cyclones Larry and Yasi destroyed the resort and the island is now uninhabited.
Dunk Island has some beautiful secluded beaches and is surrounded by coral reefs and covered with lush, tropical rainforests. The southern section of Dunk Island is a protected National Park and a sanctuary for wildlife.
Scenic walking trails are a highlight of a visit to Dunk Island and there’s a suspension bridge and a lookout that delivers breathtaking coastal views.
How to get to Dunk Island
Although Dunk Island is only a 10-minute boat ride from Mission Beach, the local water taxi service was not operating when I was there in July 2022.
Another company offering fishing tours was taking people across to the Island but you need to book ahead if you want to make the crossing and explore Dunk Island.
You can visit on a day trip and camping is permitted.
Dunk Island is 110 kilometres south of Cairns. Premier and Greyhound buses run from Cairns and Townsville to Mission Beach and the trip takes around 2 hours.
One of the larger islands on the Great Barrier Reef, Magnetic Island is a haven for wildlife and retirees. Covered in green forests, with a huge choice of tropical beaches and secluded coves, Magnetic Island is the perfect place to relax and unwind.
The beautiful beaches of Magnetic Island are connected by walking trails and there are scenic lookout points in various places across the island.
The Fort Walk is one of the most popular trails. It’s a short 90-minute return walk that takes you to a deserted Fort built during the 2nd World War to protect Townsville on the mainland from attack by sea.
There are some stunning views from the Fort but the main attraction along the trail is the resident koalas. Magnetic Island is one of the best places in Australia to see koalas in their natural habitat. Rock wallabies are another attraction on Magnetic Island and they can be found on the rocky Point near Geoffrey Bay.
Endangered Sea Turtles nest on the beaches of Radical Bay, butterflies flit around the forests and in July, the bright yellow wattle trees are blooming in the bush. Magnetic Island is truly a delight for nature lovers!
Magnetic Island has permanent residents and a suburban feel in places. There’s a good selection of accommodation for all budgets on the island. I stayed in Picnic Bay, a less developed part of the Island and I loved the quiet, beautiful surroundings.
Gorgeous Horseshoe Bay is an idyllic location that has some lovely cafes and restaurants overlooking the beach and I can recommend Nourish Café for breakfast or lunch. Nelly Bay, near the ferry terminal, has a supermarket and lots of restaurants and hotel options.
Arcadia has stunning beaches, restaurants, cafes and a general store.
On Magnetic Island, a bus service runs regularly and it’s easy to get around the island without a car. But if you prefer, you can hire a car near the ferry terminal in Nelly Bay. Small eco-friendly electric cars are popular to hire on Magnetic Island.
How to get to Magnetic Island
There are 2 ferry services operating to Magnetic Island from different terminals in Townsville and you can book your return ferry transfer to Magnetic Island in advance. The Sealink ferry is a passenger service and takes about 20 minutes to make the crossing while the Magnetic Island Ferry takes vehicles across to the island.
You can travel to Townsville by bus or train and the trip takes around 5-6 hours from Cairns.
When to Visit the Islands on the Great Barrier Reef
The best time to visit the islands on the Great Barrier Reef is from May to October. During winter the weather is warm enough for swimming and the water is a balmy 25°C.
Visibility is good for snorkelling and diving and there’s less rain. In the shoulder seasons, April to May and September to October there are fewer tourists and accommodation rates are lower.
October to May is stinger season and Box jellyfish and the dangerous Irukandji jellyfish are in their highest numbers in the water. You can swim in summer but wear a lycra stinger suit and swim only at patrolled beaches.
Crocodiles are also more active during the warmer months, especially in far north Queensland. Stay out of the water and keep away from the water’s edge, in rivers, estuaries and beaches.
Essentials for Travel in Australia
A Travel Guide for Australia will help you to plan your visit to the islands on the Great Barrier Reef and always comes in handy when you’re away. I rarely travel without my trusted Lonely Planet Guide.
Travel Insurance is essential for peace of mind while you travel in Australia. I always use travel insurance so I can concentrate on enjoying my trip without worrying about something going wrong.
There are hundreds of gorgeous islands on the Great Barrier Reef and these are just a few lovely islands near Cairns in north Queensland.
The Great Barrier Reef is huge and extends further south for hundreds of kilometres and there are many more stunning islands to explore along the coast in the Whitsundays and near Bundaberg.
The Great Barrier Reef scenic flight was a highlight of my trip to Cairns and the reef is so beautiful to see from the air. Flying and cruising to Green Island was a spectacular way to spend a day on the Great Barrier Reef!
Of the islands to visit near Cairns, my favourite was the Low Isles for snorkelling. This is where I saw a large variety of corals, turtles, a reef shark and a giant clam.
But Fitzroy Island was a real tropical paradise and I loved the bushwalks on the island. Magnetic Island was also great for bushwalking with some amazing lookout points, stunning beaches and an abundance of wildlife.
How many islands are in the Great Barrier Reef?
More than 900 tropical islands and coral cays can be found in the Great Barrer Reef, dotted along the beautiful northeast coast of Australia from Bundaberg to Cape York. And many of these stunning islands are uninhabited.
Can you stay on the islands at the Great Barrier Reef?
Yes, there are lots of islands that are large enough to stay on in the Great Barrier Reef. Magnetic Island, Green Island, Lizard Island and Fitzroy Island all have resort facilities and offer comfortable accommodations and a tropical island getaway.
What is the best Island to visit from Cairns?
There are lots of islands that you can visit from Cairns. Both Green Island and Fitzroy Island are very popular but which is better to visit? Green Island and Fitzroy Island both offer resort facilities with diving and snorkelling on the reef and there are regular daily ferry services operating from Marina Wharf in Cairns.
There are smaller islands and Cays like the Falklands, Opolu, Michaelmas Cay and the Low Isles that can be visited on a day trip from Cairns.