While scuba diving or snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef is one way to explore this magnificent world wonder, taking a Great Barrier Reef scenic flight is another must do experience in my book. During a flight over the GBR, you will be able to see the crystal clear waters below, with various shaped reefs in all directions. This guide will go over how to fly over the Great Barrier Reef and what to expect along the way.
1) Where to Fly Over the Great Barrier Reef
There are a few main towns to situate yourself when exploring the Great Barrier Reef. These include Airlie Beach, Cairns, and Port Douglas.
During my trip to Australia, I decided to head on a GBR scenic flight from Airlie Beach, the main hub when exploring the Whitsundays. This guide will go over the flight from Airlie Beach and how to go about your trip there.
I chose Airlie Beach for the experience since I not only would be able to enjoy to enjoy views of the Great Barrier Reef from above, but I also would have views of the Whitsunday Islands, including Whitehaven Beach and the Hill Inlet swirling sands.
If you ever come across photos of the famous Heart Reef (yes a reef that is shaped just like a heart), the flights from the Airlie Beach area will give you the chance to see that too.
Overall, I was very happy with the decision to take part of the Great Barrier Reef scenic flight from Airlie Beach and I have a feeling you will have a great experience as well.
Note → you can also take part of helicopter rides over the reef from these towns. While I opted for the small plane, you can spend some extra $ to have a heli ride out to the reef too.
2) How to Book Your Flight from Airlie Beach
Since Airlie Beach is where I took off from, I will mention how to go about booking your flight from there. There are several companies that run scenic flight rides over the GBR but I decided to go with a combo package that included both the scenic flight as well as the Ocean Rafting day trip.
This package includes an early morning flight over the GBR from the small Airlie Beach airport, followed by a full day adventure out exploring the Whitsunday Islands by boat. The day included snorkeling spots, Whitehaven Beach, and the Hill Inlet Lookout, as you ride around the Whitsundays.
» Here is a link to book the combo Scenic Flight & Ocean Rafting package
» If you are looking just for the flight you can book your Great Barrier Reef Scenic Flight here
3) Where to Stay in Airlie Beach
Airlie Beach is not that big of a place and you should not have too much trouble finding accommodation options near the main area. It is nice to be within walking distance of the lagoon, restaurants and bars so that would be my advice vs. staying a bit farther away from town.
Below are some highly rated accommodation choices:
Looking for a great budget option? Check out Airlie Beach Magnums!
4) Great Barrier Reef Scenic Flight Experience
Now that you have a little bit of background about the GBR flight and how to book it on your own, let’s dive into what to expect during your scenic flight experience.
In the case you opt for the combo package, your scenic flight will start very early on in the morning around 6-7AM. If you just opt for the scenic flight on its own, you will have a bit more flexibility with your flight time as there are morning and afternoon time slots available.
» Helpful Tip: if you have the flexibility in your schedule, opt for the flight time to be closer to low tide. In the case of seeing the swirling sands of the Hill Inlet, going around low tide will give you the best chance to actually seeing the swirling sands vs. just a high tide view of a river.
The day will start with getting picked up from your hotel and driven to the small Airlie Beach airport. Now this airport doesn’t accommodate commercial flights (nearest airport is in Prosperine or Hamilton Island). It just is here for small aircrafts to land and take off from.
You will be given a short briefing by the safety crew and then be brought out to the tarmac where you will board your small prop plane and put your headsets on. Do not worry as much what side of the plane you sit on as the pilot will make sure both sides of the plane get views of the top landmarks from above.
Immediately after take off you will be over the Coral Sea as you get to see many of the 74 Whitsunday Islands from above. The pilot will be mentioning them out loud through the headsets along with other helpful info along the way.
You will soon come across Hamilton Island – the more luxurious alternative to Airlie Beach, and the most developed island of the Whitsundays, before looping around to Whitehaven Island itself.
Whitehaven is home to the famous Whitehaven Beach and Hill Inlet lookout. The plane will fly all along the 7 km beach, which will immediately be followed by a view of the Hill Inlet swirling sands.
Once that part is done, the pilot will make the turn and follow the beach so the other side of the plane can get in the views as well.
As you can see in my photo below, the flight was taken closer to high tide and those swirling sands were not as prominent. But like I said, if you opt for a flight time closer to low tide you will have better swirling sand views.
The next 10-15 minutes are not as exciting as you leave behind the Whitsunday Islands and head towards the Great Barrier Reef over the open sea. Sit back and enjoy the views and get ready for what is about to happen next!
Soon enough, the open blue sea will turn into never ending views of the Great Barrier Reef from above. These views are one of a kind as you can see the intricacies of the reef and its various shapes and sizes all throughout the sea floor.
The water down there is crystal clear so you will have a great vantage point of how the reef is laid out and what makes it so unique. Be sure to have your camera ready for some beautiful shots!
Just some of the reefs that you will head over include Hook Reef, Line Reef, and Hardy Reef among several other spots.
After some time of flying high above the Great Barrier Reef, you will come across the famous Heart Reef (named for the coral shaped just like a heart). Once again, the pilot will fly by it in both directions so all sides of the plane will have the view.
It is then a bit more flying above the reef, before turning around and heading back to Airlie Beach. You will once again cross the open sea and then back over some of the Whitsunday Islands before making the landing at the airport.
If you signed up for the combo Ocean Rafting package, you will then head back into the arranged transport and to the marina area, where you will continue on with your day. If the scenic flight is all you signed up for, then it is back to your hotel to finish up your day.
Overall, Great Barrier Reef scenic flight is something I would recommend for anyone visiting the Airlie Beach area. While on the expensive side, it is something that I believe is worth the cost.
Have fun out there and safe travels!