great barrier reef 88 29.
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Out of the world's seven wonders, the Great Barrier Reef is arguably the most beautiful and the most impressive.
And getting there is not as challenging - or as expensive - as you might think.
Located off the eastern coast of Australia, you can get to the reef from Israel in under a day of travel. Qantas Airlines, conveniently, is a partner in El Al's frequent flyer club, so you can use points you have accrued to get to Australia on Qantas, which is the world's only airline that boasts a perfect safety record.
The closest airport to the reef is in Cairns, a quaint town of some 130,000 people in northern Australia. It's best to fly into Sydney first to recover from your long journey before heading northward.
Just like in Europe and the United States, discount domestic airfares have taken off in Australia. You can fly to Cairns from Sydney or Melbourne on Virgin Blue or Jetstar Airlines for only 70 Australian dollars (less than $60 US).
Cairns has dozens of accommodations to choose from, including everything from the luxurious Hilton and Shangri-La hotels to cheap options for backpackers. We chose to stay in the Cairns Reef Apartment Motel, a short 15-minute bus ride from the marina, the center of town and the esplanade - a street full of shops and restaurants with a thriving discount night market open until 11:30 p.m.
The apartments, run by a charming couple named John and Doreen Harris, include full kitchens and bathrooms, washing machines and dryers, bedrooms with balconies and lounges with two free movie channels. The motel also has a free excursion booking service, tennis courts and a pool surrounded by palm trees.
It is warm all-year-round in northern Australia and hot in the summer months (December to February). We stayed in Cairns for four full days in May and we were determined to maximize every minute of them.
We had a fun-packed day on a Tropical Horizons tour of the Daintree Rainforest and Mossman's Gorge. There was a short hike, a river cruise with a nature guide and an exciting crocodile-spotting cruise and "Croc Attack" show at Hartley's Crocodile Farm. A highlight was lunch at the five-star Daintree Tea Room, whose staff went out of their way to serve us salad and double-wrapped kosher Barramunda fish on paper plates so that we could eat with the rest of the guests. Lunch was followed by a fascinating and delicious exotic fruit-tasting with commentary.
Another must-do on a trip to the reef are the scenic railroad and cable car through the rainforest to and from Kuranda, a village with antique shops, a wildlife park and a butterfly sanctuary. Nearby Rainforestation offers a close-up look at the native Aboriginal culture, including boomerang-throwing lessons and a ceremonial dance show.
The reef itself is a 2,000-kilometer stretch of 900 islands and 3,000 reefs that are made up of millions of organisms and coral formations.
Don't miss out on the incredible snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities on the reef, especially at Michaelmas Cay, where the fish are beautiful and enormous. You can also take an underwater tour in a semi-submersible vessel to see the fish and coral without getting wet.
Green Island, a short 45-minute boat ride from Cairns, is a unique site - the only coral cay with a rainforest growing on it. You can get a guided eco-tour explaining the flora, fauna and origins of the island and walk its entire perimeter in a pleasant, half-hour stroll. There are also snorkeling, diving, boating, helicopter rides and parasailing off the coast of the cay.
But Cairns doesn't only offer fun and excitement. It is also a romantic place to visit. The highlight of a visit for honeymooners and couples seeking a quiet time together is a sunset gondola ride through Cairns harbor.
Cairns Gondolas, operated by a friendly gondolier named Simon, offers all the trimmings for a magical evening on the water. The gondolas feature sheepskin-lined seats, plush red pillows, romantic lighting, Italian music and champagne glasses for those who want to bring a picnic dinner. One warning, though - don't forget the mosquito repellant! Kosher travelers should print out the list of acceptable Australian food products, as most are not labeled. Cairns has no synagogue, but it does have a kosher restaurant: Baskin Robbins ice cream shop on the Esplanade. Ask a staff member for a list of kosher flavors made in the US and Canada.
For one last thrill before you leave, make sure you find a local pub that offers toad racing. For a few dollars, you can "lease" and name your own toad and cheer him on as he races his amphibian companions. Prizes include trips and tours in the area.
A short drive from Cairns are Port Douglas and Palm Cove - newer resort areas that cater to higher-end travelers and celebrities. These areas have lovely beaches and trendy boutique shops. Former US president Bill Clinton put Port Douglas on the tourism map when he visited a few years ago.
So if you are looking for a vacation in a tropical paradise, you don't need to fly westward to the Caribbean. You can fly eastward instead to the "Australian Caribbean," and enjoy the adventure, the romance and the relaxation of Cairns.