Whitsunday Islands is an Australian destination as obvious as Sydney. The fabulous islands off the north coast of Queensland sits high on many to-do lists. Whitsunday Islands is an archipelago consisting of 74 islands, most of them uninhabited. The most famous spot in the tropical archipelago is Whitehaven Beach. Its mixture of soft sand and salt sea in photogenic pastel-colours has put the beach on the map. Whitehaven Beach is a delight to the eye, lined with low-growing shrubs under a dazzling white sun. The area shows its best side from above or from a sailing ship. If you are dreaming of cruising your way on a sailboat over an azure sea, Whitsundays is the place for you. Located in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef, it is a perfect stop for snorkelling and diving. The area has long been immensely popular, resulting in the negative side effect that it sometimes can feel a bit too crowded. More than 50 tour operators are ready to transport tourists through the archipelago, hardly in need of any marketing. The beautiful surroundings speak for themselves.
The starting point for discovering the island group is the community of Airlie Beach on the coast of central Queensland. With its two ports, it serves as a gateway to the islands and you can easily find a trip that suits you. In this friendly town you are treated to a pleasant atmosphere with lovely people. You can meet anyone, from backpackers to holidaymakers or couples who are looking for a romantic weekend. Openness is the key to the town’s warm atmosphere and you will be guaranteed to tie new contacts and acquaintances with people you meet during your stay.
With less than 2,000 inhabitants, Airlie Beach is a very relaxed community where many choose to spend a week or two of their holidays. Also, many Australians will come here to rest and have fun. The town centre is built around the main street Shute Harbour Road, where restaurants and bars are located wall to wall. Along the main street there is a plethora of tour operators offering various package tours to the islands and where you can get help to book both sailing tours, snorkelling or deep-sea diving. During the day, most people are relaxing at the artificial lagoon, a pool area with free entrance open to the public. This is a good place for sunbathing, resting in the shade under a palm tree or for taking a dip in the pool, suitable for young and old.
Sights and experiences
Discover and explore
At most hostels, hotels and information centres, you can get help with booking a trip to the island group off the coast. You can visit The Whitsunday Central Reservations Centre (airliebeach.com) on Shute Harbour Road and get help with your booking. You have the option of hiring a boat and by the help of nautical charts navigate to the beautiful islands yourself. If you are not a seasoned sailor, you can let someone else do the work for you. Book a seat on one of the sailboats that daily leaves Abel Point Marina and enjoy the fantastic view from the boat. It takes about an hour to get out to the islands and there are daily ferries from Shute Harbour out to several of the islands. Tickets can be purchased at the ticket office in the port. If you choose to book a trip with a sailboat, the cruise will take you to the famous Whitehaven Beach, on the southeast side of Whitsunday Island. The range of trips is great, with both day cruises and tours lasting up to one week (wotif.com/things-to-do/search?location=Airlie%20Beach). You can easily book accommodation in Airlie Beach and spend a day on one of the islands or on a sea cruise, or maybe a day on each island if you want to see as much as possible. If you like outdoor life and want to explore the area around Airlie Beach and its islands, you can book a trip to Conwoy National Park. You can hike in an ancient tropical rainforest and take a refreshing dip under the clear waterfalls (wotif.com/things-to-do/rainforests-waterfalls.a576068.activity-details). If your legs easily get tired, it may be better to see the rainforest via Segway (wotif.com/things-to-do/segway-rainforest-discovery-tour.a523057.activity-details). Or why not go on a crocodile-safari along the Proserpine River (wotif.com/things-to-do/whitsunday-crocodile-safari-on-proserpine-river-with-lunch.a437702.activity-details)?
If you like water sports, there is a lot to choose from in Airlie Beach and surrounding islands. Try Jet Ski (wotif.com/things-to-do/airlie-beach-jet-ski-adventure-airlie-adventure.a439003.activity-details), snorkelling (wotif.com/things-to-do/whitehaven-beach-cruise-with-bbq-and-snorkelling-1-day-tour.a578690.activity-details) or ocean rafting (wotif.com/things-to-do/whitsunday-scenic-flight-ocean-rafting-package.a561946.activity-details).
Out of the 74 islands found in the natural park only seven have settlements. Hamilton Island (tourismwhitsundays.com.au/destinations/hamilton-island) is the most visited one and has a wide range of cosy restaurants, bars and outdoor cafes. Overnight options are available for those who want to spend more than one day on this beautiful island. And why not go here during Hamilton Island Race Week (hamiltonislandraceweek.com.au)? This is a sailboat race, an event which on its last day is celebrated with live music and parties in the island’s village. Hamilton Island also has a small zoo where you can see koalas, kangaroo, wombats and other native animals for a cheap fee (wotif.com/things-to-do/wild-life-hamilton-island-admission.a450487.activity-details). Test what it is like to eat pancakes surrounded by koalas (wotif.com/things-to-do/wild-life-hamilton-island-breakfast-with-koalas.a450489.activity-details). The island also has access to tennis courts, go-carts and pool areas for those staying at one of the resorts on the island.
Daydream Island (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Daydream_Island_Resort_Spa.htm) consists of a resort and spa area where guests have access to mini golf, pool areas and water sports. Unique to the island is its outdoor aquarium open for the resort’s guests, a place where you can see sharks, stingrays and barramundi. Over 140 large fish species and 83 kinds of different corals live in the Aquarium.
Hook Island and Whitsundays Island (tourismwhitsundays.com.au/destinations/hook-island) offers many beautiful views of the inner Barrier Reef, and here you have the opportunity to swim with turtles or be the one finding Nemo. Here are some of the best reefs for snorkelling and scuba diving. Unique to Hook Island is its underwater observatory that takes you nine meters below the water surface to look at the marine life. Only nine kilometres long and 400 m wide at its widest point, Long Island (tourismwhitsundays.com.au/destinations/long-island) offers beautiful beaches, reefs and walking trails through the rainforest.
Hayman Island (hotelscombined.com/Place/Hayman_Island.htm) is made up of a single large resort with spa facilities available for those travelling with a very generous budget. South Molle Island (hotelscombined.com/Place/South_Molle_Island.htm) consists mostly of rainforest where many bird species thrive. Walk along hiking trails here, up to great viewpoints where you have great photo opportunities of the coral reefs. The island also features Adventure Island Resort (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Adventure_Island_Resort.htm) for guests who want to have access to golf, tennis, gym and water sports including snorkelling and diving.
At southern Whitsundays lies Lindeman Island (tourismwhitsundays.com.au/accommodation/lindeman-island/81789), which easily can be reached by ferry from Hamilton Island. Here you have access to walking trails that take you up the mountains for views of the beaches, coral reefs and the 670 hectares of national park that is world heritage listed. Ticket for the ferry can be purchased at the ticket office in the port of Hamilton Island.
If you have access to a car, a hot tip is to travel around an hour south from Airlie Beach. Here is one of Queensland’s most beautiful national parks, Eungella National Park (eungella.com.au) where you can walk through the rainforest along signposted hiking trails and catch a glimpse of various reptiles hiding among the trees. You can also climb one of the smaller mountains that stands tall over the rainforest and will give you a wide view of the national park. The Finch Hatton Gorge is a popular area for those who get to Eungella, with freshwater streams and lakes where you can take a dip during the day. You don’t have to worry about crocodiles, the park has been free of those for many years. If you stop at Finch Hatton after dusk, chances are you can see a platypus peek up over the surface, they thrive in this watercourse.
Sports, entertainment and events
For the adventurous, Whitsundays has a wide range of entertainment. In the reception of hotels or hostels and information centres, you can find information on how to get to hiking trails in the rainforest and where you can go camping for free.
In Sarina, about two hours by bus or car south of Airlie Beach, the Mackay MX Club annually organizes the Grasstree Beach Race (dailymercury.com.au/topic/grasstree-beach-races) for those who enjoy motorcycles. If you did not get your beloved motorbike with you, maybe spending a full day here and watch the race for free will do the trick. You’ll see cross and dirt bikes in all different classes, including the kiddie class where the age limit is four years old. If motorbikes do not impress you, Sarina Beach also offers triathlon.
For the music lovers there is the Wintermoon festival (wintermoonfestival.com) that takes place in October and May each year, where the October festival is the largest and most popular. The festival is held in the middle of Eungella National Park, in Camerons Pocket, about an hour’s drive from Airlie Beach. Mostly local bands playing different genres participate. The festival is green, and an important part is environmental mindfulness. Therefore, all food served is organically grown and locally produced.
There are several small shops along Shute Harbour Road where you can find real treasures. You can also buy clothes, souvenirs and beach gadgets such as sarongs or sun hats. The street shopping offers nice things for a small coin, but the range is not the biggest. If you are looking for a shopping centre with well-known shops, the nearest shopping mall in the area is Caneland Centre in Mackay, two hours south of Airlie Beach. Here you will find most things you might need.
Shute Harbour Road is full of cafés, restaurants, bars and clubs. Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find something suitable. Here are several Australian chains such as Cactus Jack’s or the Hogs Breath Café but also smaller and less known privately-owned restaurants.
If you fancy a drink or a glass of beer, the outdoor terrace at Magnums Bar is an option. They often have live music on a stage, and you will have access to dining and pool tables. Or Paddy’s Bar is a nice Irish pub where you can drink beer and sit down for a chat. This bar, however, is relatively noisy later in the evening when many choose to start their evening here before they move on to the clubs.
For those who rather spend the evening dancing surrounded by loud music, there are several nightclubs. They are located along the main street and are very popular. The highlight for most tourists is Mama Africa near the lagoon. Other options are Phoenix or Evolution that both have large dance floors and up-to-date music coming out of the speakers.
Good to know
The Whitsunday Central Reservations Centre is located right in the town centre of the 259 Shute Harbour Road. For more activities, tickets and accommodation at and around Whitsunday Islands, you can also take a look at Wotif’s website (wotif.com/discover/australia/queensland/whitsunday-islands.d6053152).
Warnings and preparations
Remember to plan your visit to Whitsundays according to season. The rainy season is between Christmas and Easter, the Australian summer. In October, the season for the dangerous jellyfish starts and, in some cases, it is forbidden to enter the sea without a wetsuit. If you choose to rent a boat to sail on your own, you should know that the difference between ebb and flow is up to five meters. This is good to keep in mind when anchoring and mooring the boat. Check the tidal tables as needed.
There is no major grocery store but only a supermarket where you can get some goods at a pretty high price in Airlie Beach town centre. Buses go to Cole’s, a large grocery store just outside the town centre where you can shop at lower prices. It is also possible to walk but it is a walk of about 30 minutes. There are no shops on the islands so be sure to bring what you need before you embark on a trip.
Whether you want to settle on the mainland or one of the islands during your holiday, there is a plethora of options. On South Molle Island (hotelscombined.com/Place/South_Molle_Island.htm), Daydream Island (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Daydream_Island_Resort_Spa.htm) and Hayman Island (hotelscombined.com/Place/Hayman_Island.htm) are resort and spas for those who want to treat themselves to a more luxurious holiday, but on the mainland and Hamilton Island budget options are available too.
There is a variety of hostels in Airlie Beach. Magnums (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Magnums_Backpackers.htm) and Nomads (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Nomads_Airlie_Beach.htm) are cosy options where each dormitory is located in its own cottage. Here you share room with six to eight people in each cottage, but there are also individual rooms for those who want to sleep alone or with a partner. All guests have access to a kitchen, BBQ facilities and free Wi-Fi. Both hostels have their own bar for both guests and people who live elsewhere. Nomads guests also have access to a swimming pool and volleyball area.
A cheaper alternative that is more like a regular hostel with dorms is Global Backpackers, formerly Beaches Backpackers (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Global_Backpackers_Airlie_Beach_formerly_Beaches_Backpackers.htm). Here, all guests have access to a kitchen, a TV and comfortable beds and each room has six to ten beds. The hostel also has a bar and restaurant, which is very popular in the area, and guests receive a discount when they buy a meal in the restaurant.
There are also several hotels and apartments available. Marina Shores (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/At_Marina_Shores.htm) and Peppers (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Peppers_Airlie_Beach.htm) are two options where you rent your own apartment or penthouse with a view of the beautiful coastline.
For those who want to stay at Hamilton Island, there are two good options. Reef View Hotel (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Reef_View_Hotel.htm) is the only hotel on the island and costs a lot. Here you get what you pay for, the standard rooms are 70 square meters and you can choose to have a room where the balcony faces the coral reefs and Catseye Beach. The rooms have wonderful views and you are guaranteed to wake up with a smile on your face. All guests have access to Wi-Fi, tennis court, gym, sauna and golf carts to drive around the island.
For couples or families with children wishing for privacy, Palm Bungalows (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Palm_Bungalows.htm) is available. The area is surrounded by a well-kept garden, giving you the feeling of being out in nature. Guests of the Palm Bungalows also have access to the Hamilton Island’s pool area, which lies next to with Catseye Beach.
A weekend in Airlie Beach
Friday Morning: Start with relaxation
Many buses arrive at Airlie Beach during the mornings. After having checked in or dropped off your bags at your accommodation, spend some relaxing hours in the sun at Airlie Beach Lagoons.
Friday afternoon: Walk through the city
Once you’ve had enough of the sun, take a walk through the city centre. Along Shute Harbour Road lies several small shops to explore, and soon you will spot a lunch restaurant to your liking. While you are on the main street, you might as well visit the information centre and book a day cruise to the islands for Saturday.
Friday night: Enjoy the nightlife
At Shute Harbour Road you will find many restaurants where you can relax and enjoy a tasty dinner. Beaches Bar & Grill is popular with its outdoor terrace where they serve good food at low prices. Continue the evening by enjoying a drink at Magnums Bar or put your dance shoes on for a night at club Mama Africa.
Saturday morning: At sea
Embark on an organized cruise. Many organizers will take you to Hook and Whitsunday Island where they offer snorkelling equipment. When you booked, you found out that the boat will take you to Whitehaven Beach during the day. Use the time it takes to travel to the islands by relaxing on the ship’s sundeck where you can enjoy the view or try to get a glimpse of a dolphin.
Saturday afternoon: Snorkelling over the reef
Spend the afternoon in the water. Whitsundays has colourful reefs and you get the chance to see the marine life from its best side. Try to find a sea turtle to swim next door, it’s an experience you’ll never forget.
Saturday night: Travel company onboard
Enjoy a tasty dinner served on the cruise and spend the evening hanging out with the rest of the passengers. The skipper often has several stories to tell about the islands you pass, so seize the opportunity to learn more about the local history.
Sunday afternoon: Towards Eungella National Park
Early in the morning the boat sails back towards the mainland. Rent a car and drive south until you reach the Eungella National Park. Park and inspect the map. Take a stroll through the rainforest until you reach the Finch Hatton Gorge where you can take a cool dip in the freshwater lake.
Sunday evening: Curious platypus
Stop at Finch Hatton after dusk and sit down at one of the waterways. Here, many tourists and several locals gather to observe the platypus when they start their nocturnal activities. Chances are you’ll see at least one platypus peep up above the water surface.