on December 7, 2010
Okay, so you've decided to come to Cairns, Australia in order to see the Great Barrier Reef in person. But your decisions aren't over yet, since Cairns (and other nearby cities such as Port Douglas) offer a wide variety of choices of How to visit to the reef: big or small boat, closer or outer reef, one or multiple stops, include an island or not, scuba or snorkel, overnight cruise or day trip,...To aid our decision, we read (books and online) a lot at home, made a spreadsheet of various costs and options, and talked to friends who had been there. The first consensus was that we should really try to get to some part of the outer reef, since it's generally superior. We didn't book with any particular operator until we got there, because we thought that once on the ground locally, we could maybe find a better bargain than a computer web interface would allow. Delaying the decision did work out well for us as we did wind up with a bit of a discount, we could get local advice, and we could adjust our schedule a little for weather. You probably don't want until the very last minute however, as boats can fill up (I think ours was nearly at capacity when it sailed).In the end, we chose Sunlover Reef Cruises. They take a huge catamaran (about 300 passengers) to a part of the outer reef where they have big permanent pontoon platform. Part of what we liked about Sunlover, is that in addition to all the snorkeling you want, they also offer a semi-submersible ride where you are inside and watching the reef through big windows, a glass bottom boat ride, and a few other activities, such as a viewing window on the pontoon where they do a fish-feeding at the end of the day.Sunlover also had a pretty good base fare, and the add-on for scuba diving was cheap with the special rate we got there. Obviously, you're trading off that lower fare for the bigger crowds and less individual attention. But the number of passengers turned out to not be such a big deal for us. Sunlover manages the crowd pretty well, and the pontoon area is big enough that you aren't terribly overcrowded. We got our turn on the semi-sub and glass-bottom boat with no problems. I did the scuba dive option (I was previously certified) and my dive was first thing after arriving at the reef, without too much waiting around.All right, how was everything? The big catamaran gave a pretty comfortable ride to and from the reef. Getting everyone aboard in the morning was the one time the crowd size was a hassle since they wanted to take professional photos of each couple or family. They took other photos during the trip, and on the ride home you could purchase prints for a ridiculous price.The reef location was good. We had fun seeing a variety of corals, fish, and giant clams. Their equipment for scuba and snorkeling was plentiful and good. They have a nice large area for snorkeling in so we weren't constantly bumping into others. The amount of time we had on the reef was about right (around 4 hours).Their semi-sub ride was an fun and different way to see the reef. The glass-bottom boat ride wasn't as impressive. On the pontoon, they have a tank containing various small sea creatures that you get to handle that was fun. Watching the fish feeding frenzy at the end of the day was also pretty cool.Sunlover served a pretty nice buffet lunch with a lot of food and good variety. I mentioned before the crowd size was really well managed. An interesting aspect of the crowd was seeing the oriental men dressed up in business attire for what we were thinking of as a very casual day cruise.In the end, did we make the perfect choice and see the perfect part of the reef? Probably not, but we had a very enjoyable outing, everything ran very smoothly, we loved the underwater reef that we did get to see, and we had a fun day for a pretty fair price. Next time I would pick a smaller, more personal, boat, but Sunlover was very nice for a first time experience.
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