The Best Way to Experience the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the great natural wonders of the world. Million of people from around the world flock to see its breathtaking underwater views and exotic wildlife. But while day trips and snorkelling are great ways to get a taste of this undersea marvel, there’s only one way to truly experience the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef.

Great Barrier Reef Sailing Cruises

The engines are cut, the sails unfurled, and you’re gliding along some of the most beautiful ocean in the world driven only by the wind — what’s not to love?

The most common way people like to enjoy the Great Barrier Reef is a series of day-trips out to the water for snorkelling or diving. You might stay in a cabin or camp out on one of the islands, but you still bounce from water to land daily.

With overnight reef sailing cruises, you get to experience the Great Barrier Reef day and night. Explore the depths of the reef by day with snorkelling and diving. Watch the sun set over land, enjoy the open night air free from light pollution, before witnessing sunrise over the pacific ocean. There’s nothing quite like it.

Reef sailing cruises also allow you to visit multiple locations during your trip and explore some of the less populated areas of the reef. You can get cruises to take you to all 74 islands of the incredible Whitsundays, or to travel between several smaller coral reefs.

Something we particularly love about reef sailing cruises is the small size of the ships, and therefor the low passenger counts. We’ve obviously got nothing against eager tourists, but sometimes it’s nice to explore a new place without dealing with large crowds. On a small reef sailing cruise boat, you’re typically limited to around 30 or so people, max. Most actually hold significantly less, allowing you a more personal, intimate outing on the reef.

Features and Inclusions

Overnight reef sailing cruises depart from Townsville, Cairns, and the Whitsundays. Trips are typically either 2 days / 1 night or 3 days / 2 nights. More expensive reef sail cruises can last up to 5 days.

Each ship comes with a small crew compliment along with meals and activities. Activities include reef snorkelling, scuba diving for certified divers, and even introductory dives for people who don’t currently hold a diving license. Some sail cruises offer specialty activities such as guided kayaking tours as well.

Popular reefs to explore in sailing cruises include Moore, Briggs, Thetford and Milne reefs. The Whitsunday islands are also an obvious crowd favourite. If you do plan to visit the Whitsundays, check out our epic travel guide for other things to do while you’re there.

The largest of the ships will only hold around 30 people, making them ideal for large groups or those who want to enjoy the reef at their own pace. Because the passenger numbers are so low, tours are often tailored specially for the groups rather than relying on hard and fast itineraries.


The pricing of a reef sail cruise can vary quite a lot, starting around $300 per person and going all the way to $3,500 or more for a private charter.

Getting There

Cairns, Townsville and the Whitsundays are all easily accessible by plane from any of the major cities along the east coast of Australia. The ports where the sail cruises depart are fairly close to the airports, and airport transfer shuttles are plenty. It’s best to arrange an airport shuttle service, as taxi prices in Australia can be fairly high.

Final Thoughts

The Great Barrier Reef is, as we said, one of nature’s greatest wonders. Everyone should experience it at some point in their lives, and we believe there’s no better way than an overnight reef sailing cruise. 

The itineraries are customised to your group, you get to enjoy the reef both day and night, and you have an intimate group rather than a bustling crowd. Additionally, sailing is a much more environmentally friendly way of exploring this natural beauty than with engine-powered boating. Much of the reef is in danger of bleaching and dying; being able to explore it without contributing to further damage is surely the best option to not only enjoy it for yourself, but to ensure others can enjoy it in the future.

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