11 Great Barrier Reef islands you need to experience now

The Great Barrier Reef is the only World Heritage-listed wonder that can be seen from space, so you can imagine its size. But what you may not realise is the Great Barrier Reef isn’t just made up of colourful coral and a buzzing marine life; it’s also home to over 900 islands, dotted from the Southern Great Barrier Reef to the tip of Cape York. While many are uninhabited, there are plenty of Great Barrier Reef islands that you can (and should!) explore.

To get the most out of your Great Barrier Reef visit, nothing beats staying in the heart of the reef on one of these must-visit islands. This guide will help you discover some of the best Great Barrier Reef islands to stay and play.

1. Lady Musgrave Island

Lady Musgrave Island52km north of Bundaberg in the Southern Great Barrier Reef, the protected lagoon at Lady Musgrave Island makes it a tranquil spot to snorkel – and the manta rays and (harmless) leopard and whitetip reef sharks that play in the waters surrounding the island will make it even more memorable. For scuba divers, there are 10 different dive sites meaning there’s something for all levels. If you’ve never dived before, this is a cracking spot to try an intro dive.

You don’t even need to get wet to have an immersive reef experience on Lady Musgrave – start with a glass-bottom boat tour over the colourful fringing reef. Then, head to the island to laze on the beach or seek shelter from the sun with a walk through the tree-covered trails.

Who will love it: First-time snorkellers, scuba divers and campers.

Where to stay: In keeping with its nature focus, the only way you can stay on Lady Musgrave is by camping. It’s just you and a maximum of 39 other people at any one time. Camping here is completely off the grid, so you’ll need to take everything with you, including water supplies. If you don’t have your own camp equipment, you can hire it from Lady Musgrave Experience. Permits can be arranged through National Parks, and you’ll need to arrange your island transfer whether it be by tour boat or private dinghy.

What’s on the menu: If you’re here for a day trip, tuck into fresh seafood and Bundaberg produce with compliments of Lady Musgrave Experience in between your snorkelling, scuba diving and glass-bottom boat trips.

If you’re planning on staying for longer than just the day trip, you’ll need to pack your own provisions.

Best time to visit: Between April and September each year when your camping adventure is likely to be more sunny than soggy.

Island size: Small on size and big on nature, Lady Musgrave Island is approximately 35 acres (or 14 rugby fields) in size.

2. Hamilton Island

Hamilton IslandOne of the most well-known and accessible islands on the Great Barrier Reef (it has its own airport so you can fly commercial from Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne or Cairns), there’s a reason Hamilton Island is so popular. Tee off on one of Australia’s premier golf courses, relax by one of the resort’s spas or pool facilities, or tackle the 20 kms of walking trails across the island. You won’t be short for ideas to pass the time on Hamilton Island, and you also have easy access to plenty of activities and tours.

Start with a scenic helicopter or seaplane flight over the iconic Heart Reef, throw in some snorkelling at Hardy Reef with Cruise Whitsundays, or go for a more relaxed vibe with a full day of sailing and snorkelling.

A must-do while you’re there is take a 30-minute high-speed catamaran trip from Hamilton Island to the pristine Whitehaven Beach. Voted Australia’s Best Beach, it offers unrivalled views and pure white sands that stretch seven kilometres, touched only by the glassy, turquoise waters that surround it. Find out how to discover it over here.

Kids are well-catered to on Hamilton Island, with quad biking, go karting, a bowling alley, mini golf and a kids club all on offer. They can even have breakfast with koalas at WILDLIFE Hamilton Island.

For more info on what to do on Hamilton Island, check out this 48-hour guide.

Who will love it: Families, those who want to do a bit of everything, and all budget levels.

Where to stay: How Hamilton Island manages to cater for everything from a romantic weekend away to a school-holiday family trip all on the one island is sheer resort mastery. Large rooms, a pool and just a short walk to Catseye Beach makes Reef View Hotel popular with families. So do the variety of holiday homes where you can take advantage of the ‘kids stay and eat free’ offer along with free access to kayaks, snorkelling gear, catamarans and more. If you’re looking for romance, there are options ranging from the ultra luxe qualia to the fully-equipped The Palm Bungalows to suit all budgets.

What’s on the menu: There is no shortage of dining options on Hamilton Island – with everything from casual bites at the Marina Tavern and Pizzeria to long lunches at the Hamilton Island Yacht Club. Throw in fine-dining options like Coca Chu and Bommie Restaurant, and that’s only scratching the surface of the 20 eateries you’ll find island-side.

Best time to visit: Hamilton Island is one of the blessed islands with temperatures that rarely drop below 23 degrees Celsius in winter. Of course, if you’re travelling with kids, time your trip for school holidays where the island puts on a variety of family-friendly events. In late August each year, the island plays host to the Hamilton Island Race Week, where over 250 yachts gather for a week of racing around the Whitsunday Islands.

Island size: It’s the biggest island in this list, sitting at 740 hectares – large enough that you’ll want to hire a golf buggy to get around (or jump on the free shuttle loop).

3. Lady Elliot Island

Lady Elliot IslandYou won’t want to be out of the water for long at Lady Elliot Island – this is where all the turtle and manta ray magic happens. In fact, over 700 individual manta rays are known to live in Lady Elliot’s waters.

Snorkelling the shallow lagoon, scuba diving, skimming across the top in a glass-bottom boat or paddling in a clear kayak are all great ways to take in the action under the ocean here. For divers, there are around 20 sites within a 10-minute boat ride with 20m+, and water temperatures ranging between 18-28 degrees Celsius.

You won’t find a lot of people on this island (it has just 43 rooms), but the bird life outnumbers you nearly 10 times over with more than 105 different species also holidaying here. Between November and February, the island also plays host to different types of guests as the loggerhead, hawksbill and green turtles nest ashore. For more information on the ultimate turtle experience, you’ll want to read this post.

Good to know: Seaplane is the only way to get to this famous find. The island is so remote you can’t take a boat there… or at least, visitors can’t.

Who will love it: Families, wildlife lovers, and those wanting to switch off from technology.

Where to stay: Living up to its eco reputation, you’ll find no telephones, televisions or tablets in the accommodation on this tropical isle. Instead, you’ll find clean and comfortable cabins with mere steps between cabin and coral, so you’re as close to sleeping with the fish as accommodation comes on this list.

What’s on the menu: It’s all about the buffet, which is served each day at the resort’s Beachfront Dining Room. Breakfast and dinner are included and the feed promises to fuel an adventurer’s appetite – think carbs, salads, burgers and no shortage of drinks.

Best time to visit: Pay a visit between November and February each year to watch as turtles come ashore to lay their eggs in the island’s rolling sand dunes. Between February to April, you can catch the encore performance as the turtle hatchlings make their dash back to sea. Plus, almost daily between June and October, you can hear whale song underwater as the humpbacks migrate past the island. Basically, there’s always something happening here!

Island size: It spans just 110 acres, which is small enough to circumnavigate on foot in just 40 minutes.

Want more? These eight reasons to visit Lady Elliott Island will convince you.

4. Magnetic Island

Magnetic Island

Photo by @bec_willox

Just a stone’s throw, 8km, from mainland Townsville, North Queensland, a 20-minute passenger ferry, or 40-minute vehicle ferry will have you arriving at paradise in no time.

What sets Magnetic Island apart is its rocky landscape – unlike most of the other islands on this list, which are blanketed in tropical rainforest, Magnetic Island is filled with large granite boulders and eucalyptus woodlands. Understandably, it’s popular with visitors who like their holiday served with a side of adventure.

On top of the great off-shore snorkelling along the self-guided Geoffrey Bay snorkel trail or a day trip to the outer Great Barrier Reef with Adrenalin Snorkel & Dive or Pro Dive (must-dos while you’re visiting the Great Barrier Reef), Magnetic Island also offers some unique experiences you won’t get on any of the other islands.

Uncover the island’s history along the Forts Walk where you’ll be rewarded with epic views at two WWII military forts. Cuddle a koala at Bungalow Bay Koala Village. Go horse riding along the beach. Or take a walk on the wild side with the island’s large colony of rock wallabies who are known for indulging in human interaction along with any root vegetables you feed them. Your best bet to see them is sunset – check out this post for details.

For more ideas, here’s how to spend 48 hours on Magnetic Island.

Who will love it: Families and those looking for an active getaway.

Where to stay: From budget backpacker accommodation to resort-style villas, Magnetic Island has every type of traveller covered. Intrepid travellers looking for bang for buck should check into the Bungalow Bay Koala Village youth hostel. If your dorm room days are done, Peppers Blue on Blue is full of ‘grown up’ luxuries like restaurants with waterfront views, a spa and a spectacular swimming pool that wraps around the resort.

Looking for more accomodation inspo? We’ve got you covered over here.

What’s on the menu: With more dining options than your average cruise ship, you won’t go hungry on Magnetic Island. Locally-owned Cafe Nourish does a great morning coffee and The Early Bird has the locals’ tick of brunch approval. For dinner, Boardwalk @ Peppers dials up the romance with water views and modern Australian cuisine – think sand crab bruschetta, scallops three ways and tropical crème brûlée.

Best time to visit: Unless you live for humidity, we suggest timing your visit between April and August, when temperatures have cooled down to an autumn/winter average of 25 degrees Celsius. It will also save you from wearing a lycra suit, which you have to wear in the water during summer for protection from stingers.

Island size: 52km2, or about three times the size of LAX.

5. Pumpkin Island

Pumpkin Island | Where to stay on the Great Barrier Reef

Off the mass tourism radar, Pumpkin Island is a private eco-retreat that delivers on peace and quiet, nature and crystal clear water. You’re pretty much guaranteed Nat Geo-levels of wildlife spotting no matter what time of year you visit, from turtles (November-March) to nesting birds (December-March), migrating humpback whales (June-October) and thousands of blue tiger, monarch and other butterflies species (April-May).

If you’re looking to take things easy, grab your fins and snorkel straight off-shore or experience the coral reefs from a glass-bottom kayak or stand-up paddle board. Part of the Southern Great Barrier Reef’s Keppel Group of islands, you’re in close vicinity to plenty of other reefs and islands, which you can explore aboard Keppel Explorer. Don’t forget to pack your fishing rod – this is giant trevally, coral trout and Spanish mackerel territory.

Who will love it: Those looking for an off-grid eco-friendly island experience or to rent an entire island.

Where to stay: Catering to a maximum of 34 guests at any one time, you’re never going to feel cramped on Pumpkin Island. There are five cottages and two beachfront bungalows powered by the wind and the sun. You can even rent the entire island from $2,335 per night.

What’s on the menu: Pumpkin Island specialises in self-catering, but that doesn’t mean you have to live off pre-prepared sandwiches and packaged food. You can pre-order gourmet meal hamper packages from Waterline Restaurant (think Keppel Bay Prawn sliders and sherry-glazed rib fillet) or go big or go home by organising a private chef. For a cocktail or two, make your way to the resort’s licensed bar in the Sunset Lounge.

Best time to visit: Pumpkin Island is located just above the Tropic of Capricorn with a sub-tropical climate. So while it doesn’t have a ‘wet season’ as such, the summer months will still be sticky and humid. Go for the shoulder seasons of autumn and spring for the most comfortable temperatures.

Island size: Good things come in small packages; Pumpkin Island is just six hectares in size. There’s no need to pack your sneakers – at only 150 meters wide and 450 meters long you won’t have much of a commute anywhere you want to go.

6. Fitzroy Island

Fitzroy IslandPicture lush rainforest meeting crystal-blue waters, a beach called Nudey, and you’re starting to see why Fitzroy Island is the most Instagrammed island in Tropical North Queensland. A 45-minute Fitzroy Island Fast Cat ride away from the mainland, this little slice of paradise is positioned approximately 29km south-east of Cairns.

While you can snorkel and dive straight off the shore here (why not try a night dive?), you can also jump on a day trip to Moore Reef Pontoon with Sunlover Cruises on the outer Great Barrier Reef.

Buried within the depths of the casuarina and pandanus palms that blanket Fitzroy Island, you’ll find sulphur-crested cockatoos, kingfisher birds, and emerald doves. Beyond birds, wildlife warriors should tour the Turtle Rehabilitation Centre, a volunteer-operated organisation on the island dedicated to recuperating sick and injured turtles.

Scour this 48 hour guide for the best way to spend your time on Fitzroy Island.

Who will love it: Families and those seeking the rainforest, reef and resort life trifecta.

Where to stay: Fitzroy Island Resort is truly family-friendly. Besides the arcade games and play room for the kids, there are daily activities that may include fish feeding, arts and crafts and an educational ‘touch and feel’ talk on marine life. Adults will enjoy daily massages at the spa, evening yoga sessions and the swim-up bar. If you’re looking for something cheaper, you can camp, too – with the resort restaurants on your tent’s doorstep.

What’s on the menu: You won’t be on island rations on this tropical island. Zephyr Restaurant packs a modern Australian punch with a menu of show-stopping local ingredients. The little ones aren’t forgotten, with four dishes on the kids menu, plus an ice cream sundae for dessert.

Best time to visit: Winter, when temperatures are comfortably cool but never come close to dipping into single digits like Australia’s southern cities.

Island size: 838 acres, almost the exact size of Central Park, New York – and trust us, it’s just as mind-blowing.

7. Bedarra Island

Bedarra Island | Great Barrier Reef islandsJust 10km from Mission Beach (140km south of Cairns), Bedarra Island is just far enough from the mainland that you can no longer see it – giving it real castaway vibes.

It’s all about the landscape (and luxury) here – the island is dotted with coconut palms and pandanus palms just to remind you (in case you’d forgotten) that you’re holidaying in a tropical oasis.

While it’s tempting to finesse your ability to do absolutely nothing here, the reef is within easy reach for those who want to snorkel or dive via private charter. The best bit? You’ll be sent off with plenty of gourmet supplies from the Bedarra kitchen. If you want to stay on land, tennis, rainforest walks and the on-island gym tick the box for something active, while massages and spa treatments are a blissful no-brainer to finish off the day.

Who will love it: Couples looking for serious seclusion and a luxury retreat.

Where to stay: Bedarra Island Resort takes private luxury to a whole new level, all while limiting its eco footprint with an off-grid solar energy system and natural spring water collection. Hidden amongst 45 hectares of tropical rainforest, each of the 10 individual villas offer a different but equally spectacular view. What connects them is their contemporary plantation-style architecture, spacious balconies and sky-high ceilings, while infinity edge plunge pools and outdoor rainforest bathrooms are what will draw you to some of the villas over others. Bedarra has a strict no children (under 16) policy.

What’s on the menu: Guests can expect a tropical breakfast buffet, customised lunch and multi-course dinner experience. We also recommend packing one of the restaurant’s gourmet hampers into a motorised dinghy (which is free for all guests to use) and venturing out to one of the deserted islands that surround Bedarra for a romantic picnic.

Best time to visit: April through to November is known as the dry season when Bedarra Island sparkles in the sunshine. The resort is closed for a few weeks from late January to March each year.

Island size: Bedarra Island is 45 hectares, or two and a half times the size of Buckingham Palace.

8. Heron Island

Heron Island from aboveHeron, one of the quietly confident eco-adventure islands of the Southern Great Barrier Reef, is 72km off the coast of Gladstone.

When the island is named after a bird, you know you can expect wildlife to be plentiful. The eastern side of the island is part of the Capricornia Cays National Park. It’s perfect for exploring, with opportunities to meet some of the 200,000 birds that live or holiday on Heron Island including the noddy tern and muttonbird. Seaside, you’ll be able to snorkel off the beach with shovelnose rays and small reef sharks at Shark Bay. Turtles, manta rays, clownfish, Maori Wrasse, gropers, dolphins and whales (during the annual whale migration from July to October) are regulars around the dive sites, too.

Scuba diving (for first-timers and seasoned divers) and snorkelling tours are available daily. The smorgasbord of diving spots surrounding the island means that in under 15 minutes from the jetty, you’ll have access to 20 dive sites including Heron Bommie, one of underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau’s top diving spots.

From the island, you can join an educational reef walk, be a junior ranger, go behind the scenes in a marine biologist’s heaven at the University of Queensland’s research station, grab a snorkel and walk off the beach at Shark Bay or take in the underwater wonders from an iSpy semi-submersible vessel.

Want to know how to do Heron in a long weekend? Well, here you go.

Who will love it: Families, scuba divers and anyone who wants to see an array of sea animals and birds.

Where to stay: Heron Island is an eco- and family-friendly resort with rooms and suites for around 200 guests. Take your pick of view from your room from the forest to the beach and reef. For pampering, book yourself into a treatment or two at Aqua Soul Spa.

What’s on the menu: As you’re likely to split your island time between the beach and the reef, the Heron Island team have made refuelling your food tank simple. Shearwater Restaurant has you sorted for breakfast, lunch and dinner with a mix of buffet options and a la carte. Sundowners at Ballie’s Bar or the Pandanus Lounge are a must as well.

Best time to visit: Turtle laying (November to December) and hatching season (January until March) is a great time to visit Heron with the family. Diving enthusiasts can visit year-round to see the myriad of natural events on the reef, including coral spawning which happens around November or December each year.

Island size: While Heron Island is small in scale at 29 hectares, with the ratio of wildlife per meter, you’ll feel like you’re on set of your own David Attenborough documentary (he actually filmed part of his Great Barrier Reef series on Heron Island).

9. Orpheus Island

80km north of Townsville, a daily helicopter transfer (1.5 hours) from Townsville or Cairns will transport you from the hustle and bustle of everyday life into Orpheus’s arms.

If you’re in the mood to tick off the Great Eight, Queensland’s marine-animal bucket list, you’re in luck. This is clam country, and the chinchilla lipped clam garden on Orpheus Island is a must-see. You can access it by hiring one of the resort’s motorised dinghies and dropping your anchor close to the 300-strong nursery of molluscs.

The fish life is thriving around Orpheus Island, with over 1,000 species of fish at the island’s principal dive sites. Guided snorkelling tours are run daily by the resort while you can also witness marine scientists at work in the Orpheus Island Research Station. Fishing in the area won’t disappoint either.

If you want to learn more about the best this island has to offer, here are seven reasons to visit Orpheus Island.

Who will love it: Luxury escape-goers and couples.

Where to stay: Sure, you can camp at one of the island’s three campsites: Yanks Jetty, Pioneer Bay and South Beach, but our bet is that you didn’t come this far not to experience the luxury of Orpheus Island Lodge. Here you’ll find contemporary suites, villas and beachside bungalows steps from the water’s edge. This all-inclusive resort means you’ll be well-fed and hydrated with three gourmet meals daily and complimentary Australian wine, beer, sparkling and soft drinks. Unlimited use of snorkelling and fishing gear is also at your disposal.

What’s on the menu: You’re in for a culinary treat at the island’s chef-hatted restaurant. Showcasing the riches of the region, chefs serve up a daily degustation of flavours. Think Moreton Bay bugs, roasted duck breast and dark chocolate crémeux, each paired with one of Australia’s finest drops. To dial up the romance, choose to ‘dine with the tides’ on Orpheus’s pier in a setting that’s ripe with a promise to pop the question.

Best time to visit: Wearing the region’s title of the sunniest place in Queensland with 320 days a year, there’s no bad day to see Orpheus Island.

Island size: Spanning 11km in length, Orpheus Island is more substantial than other islands on this list. The island will take you around two hours to circumnavigate, before retiring to your beachfront bunk for a well-earned siesta.

10. Green Island

Green IslandGreen Island is aptly named because everything about the island is green – from the forests that cover the island to the emerald waters that surround it. 27km off the coast of Cairns, all it takes is 45 minutes and a fast catamaran to arrive on this island.

Just off the beach, you’ll be spoilt with a spectacular reef and plenty of turtles, or just a short boat ride away is one of the best snorkelling sites near the island. See the island and reef from a bird’s eye view via parasailing, or stroll along the jetty for the best spot to see colourful creatures lurking during the day.

For a unique experience, wear an underwater helmet and snap a pic with Gavin the photobombing parrotfish on the Seawalker experience. Perfect for non-swimmers, your guides will throw fish food, triggering hundreds of coloured fish to dance in front of your helmet. Or, visit Cassius, the world’s largest crocodile in captivity, at Marineland Melanesia Croc Park on the island.

The windsurfing is exceptional around Green Island. It even hosts the Australian Windsurfing Championships each year. Guests have complimentary access to windsurfing equipment and the island offers lessons, so you’ll feel comfortable to give it a go.

Guided night walks and stargazing ensure you won’t waste a minute during your stay.

Who will love it: The eco-conscious, families, and those wanting to try a variety of activities in one location.

Where to stay: Space and sustainability are at the forefront of the 46 luxurious hotel suites clustered under Green Island Resort‘s rainforest canopy. The rooms are more like mini-apartments than hotel rooms, ranging in size up to 66m2. Every room comes with its own private balcony to soak up the tropical atmosphere, too.

What’s on the menu: Plenty of seafood! In keeping with the green theme, Emeralds Restaurant and Bar dishes up seafood delights like fresh oysters, smoked mussels and butter-poached bay lobster tails for lunch and dinner. The Canopy Grill is a more casual affair with options for the little ones including cafe-style wraps and fish and chips. Either way, there’s no need to pack deserted tropical island supplies for this adventure.

Best time to visit: While there is no ‘bad’ time to see the reef, the wet season or summer months promise smaller crowds and more availability on snorkel tours if you’re looking for a more secluded Green Island experience.

Island size: With a total area of just 37 acres, Green Island is about a quarter of the size of Disneyland.

11. Lizard Island

Lizard IslandPristine, remote and blanketed in national park, Lizard Island is the most northern island resort in Queensland,1624 km northwest of Brisbane, nestled into the northern Great Barrier Reef.

Besides the 24 beaches, what will win you over is the epic diving and snorkelling without being on a liveaboard boat – this is the jump-off point for one of the best known diving sites in the Great Barrier Reef, the Cod Hole.

Keen divers can join half or full-day dive excursions aboard the MV Serranidae to both inner and outer dive sites while world-class snorkelling awaits a few steps from shore. Tours to the Lizard Island Research Station, which attracts coral reef researchers from all around the world, run twice a week.

Hit the walking trails and keep your eyes peeled for the yellow-spotted monitor that gave Lizard Island its name.

Who will love it: Luxury travellers and couples.

Where to stay: With just 40 luxurious suites and eco tourism nous (you won’t find any plastic bottles or straws here), it’s unsurprising that Lizard Island Resort is one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World and within the Luxury Lodges of Australia portfolio. It’s not just complimentary gourmet meals that are included during your stay. Stand-up paddle boards, clearview sea kayaks, snorkelling gear and access to a motorised dinghy to explore the many surrounding beaches are yours to enjoy.

What’s on the menu: Secluded picnics and sunset beach degustation on private beaches, and five star cuisine in the beautiful Salt Water restaurant. All food and beverages (excluding premium spirits) are included in your stay.

Best time to visit: With an average year-round temperature of 27 degrees Celsius (81°F), anytime is a good time to visit, though with capped visitor numbers you’ll want to book well in advance, particularly during the black marlin fishing season (September to December).

Island size: The granite island is around 10 square kilometres in size – 1013 hectares of national park, to be exact.

For more inspiration on the best islands for you, check out this family-friendly island guide and our list of the best islands to visit on the Southern Great Barrier Reef.