Ah, the Whitsundays. 74 magical islands in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef, nestled in the warm waters of North Queensland’s Coral Sea. Palm trees, sunshine and endless beauty.
Some people call this place paradise; others even go as far as to call it Never-Never land, because the rules of real life don’t seem to apply here. The locals call it a sailing town with a drinking problem. I called it home for four delightful years.
The hub of this area is the township of Airlie Beach. Located on the mainland about 13 hours north of Brisbane, Airlie Beach is the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands. One of the longest running jokes is that half the people that live there originally came for a holiday and then never quite left. After you have spent some time here, you begin to understand why.
Upon entering Airlie Beach, whether it be driving through the lush green cane fields (en route from Proserpine Airport) or flying into Hamilton Island, you are sure to feel the magic as soon as you arrive. Time stops, and the feeling of relaxation takes you over. You check into your accommodation (most likely with ocean views) and wonder what to do next. Let me give you some options:
1. Island Hopping
No trip to the Whitsundays is complete without visiting the Whitsunday Islands!
There are so many islands to choose from, it can become overwhelming. The first thing to decide is if you want to do a day trip (great if you are time-limited), an overnight sailing trip (just make sure it’s not too windy) camping (cheap and you get to wake up on some of the world’s best beaches) or a night or two at one of the resort islands. There are also options to hire your own bare-boat for a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Whichever option you choose, Hill Inlet and Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island are a must see. No matter how many times I walked the short track up to the lookout at Hill Inlet I was always blown away with the beauty of this place (and I come from WA so I am quite the beach snob).
Snorkelling trips are a great way to see the outer reef, but the fringing reefs that surround the islands are at times just as colourful and full of life as the actual Great Barrier Reef. It is not rare to spend your time swimming amongst a school of giant fish or diving down to get a closer glimpse of Nemo.
Temperatures rarely drop below 20 degrees here, even in winter, so visiting between June and September is a great way to escape the winter cold. During this period you are likely to see whales frolicking around the place, maybe even the iconic white whale Chalkie, or a few dugongs and dolphins.
The most popular resort islands are Daydream Island and Hamilton Island. Hamilton Island is the most developed island, with various restaurants, endless activities, beaches, pools and even a nightclub. There are minimal cars on Hamilton as everyone drives around on golf buggies. It’s a different world!
Daydream is Hamilton’s laidback cousin, with one massive resort, a swim-up pool bar, an epic Australia-themed mini-golf course and an outdoor cinema! No matter what you do, the islands will give you memories that will last a lifetime.
Recommendations for snorkelling trips to the Whitsunday Islands:
Ocean Rafting is a great day trip! This company uses vessels which are super fast allowing you to experience a fun ride and ensuring you get to experience a variety of different areas to snorkel and explore and relax. You are guaranteed to see some fish and colourful coral. It’s a great jam-packed day.
If you prefer a slower-paced, authentic sailing day trip then the Derwent Hunter is the way to go. This tall-ship was originally built in 1946 and has a rich history to go alongside its beauty. The crew will let you have a shot at mastering the sails and unlike most other day trips they forego Whitehaven Beach in lieu of some amazing north-end snorkelling spots. Keep your eyes peeled for turtles if you go to Langford Reef. Just make sure it’s not too windy (I once went on this during 30 knot winds… I was fine but my girlfriend spent the whole day battling seasickness).
If you are looking for something sturdy and family friendly, Mantaray Charters is another great company which will take you snorkelling, diving and exploring throughout the Whitsunday Islands, all in a day.
In terms of overnight sailing trips, there are so many to choose from that it really does come down to price and preference. As most boats do roughly the same route throughout the islands what you will want to choose will be based upon whether you are looking for adventure, relaxation or a mixture of both.
If you are an avid diver, Wings is a great option. If you want to live like a pirate, the Solway Lass is a beautiful tall-ship option for a few nights at sea. If you are looking at a once-in-a-lifetime type of trip then look no further than bare-boating. Basically, you get a group of friends together or round-up the family (dad’s shout of course) and sail yourself around the Whitsunday Islands, all on your own! You can find a quiet bay, do a spot of fishing, some kayaking, snorkelling, cliff jumping, cave exploring (the list goes on) then sit back and watch the sun set as you pop of bottle of bubbles, have a couple of beers and use your BBQ to cook whatever you managed to catch. . . heaven. on. earth. For more information check out Whitsunday Escape.
Recommendations for accommodation on the Whitsunday Islands:
If you are planning on spending a few nights on one of the resort islands, the cheapest way is to use the stand-by rates. A locals trick, rather than paying for your accommodation and ferry ticket separately you can call a few days before your intended stay to see what’s available on the stand-by rates. For as little as $130, you can pull up on a ferry to your tropical island paradise, be picked up in an Audi, and driven to your accommodation where you will be greeted with a welcome drink and a friendly smile. If you do choose to stay on Hamilton Island, make sure you head to One Tree Hill at sunset for amazing views and a cheeky pop-up bar. AMAZING.
2. Night Life
Did someone say $4 drinks??
One of the perks of Airlie Beach being such a transient town is that due to the constant influx of backpackers making their way down the East Coast, the prices of important things (such as drinks) are cheap!
It doesn’t matter what day of the week it is, you are bound to find a bargain. A favourite pastime of a visiting backpacker is to work your way down the main street, grabbing all the freebies you can (read: free pizza on Mondays, free entry to clubs mid-week, $4 spirits and cheap jugs pretty much year round). This makes for a confusing night-life, in the sense that the weekends mean nothing and you can head out on a Tuesday night for one of the wildest nights of your life.
If you are into the finer things in life, Airlie Beach can still offer that. Another perk of being in a small town means no annoying travel time: the main street of Shute Harbour Road provides a variety of eating options, whether it be poolside dining at a Balinese-style resort (check out De Ja Vu), watching the sun set on the beach with fish and chips, or heading upstairs to a swanky seafood restaurant (FYI Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie booked out the entire venue of Shipwrecked when they visited, check it out).
There are two nightclubs on the main street, which host a variety of well-known DJ’s on the regular, as well as numerous beer gardens which often host the likes of Pete Murray, Xavier Rudd, Sneaky Sound System and The Preatures, just to name a few.
In a nutshell, no matter what day of the week or what venue you go to, there will always be something happening in this little party town.
Recommendations for bars/restaurants in Airlie Beach:
Sorrento Restaurant & Bar: a great place to watch the sun set with a drink. I recommend the platters and the pizza!
Little Vegas Burger & Bar: An American-themed hangout filled with burgers and American-themed street food. Make sure you try the Cheeseburger Spring Rolls!
Tides Restaurant at Peppers Resort: A little more pricey than the other restaurants, Tides is a great place to celebrate a special occasion or just to treat yourself! Again, delightful ocean views come alongside your meal.
Beaches: This is a casual beer-garden style pub (that doubles as a hostel) that does cheap $15 meal and drinks deals. A great place to play some pool, drink some beer, and listen to live music.
Magnums: With rows and rows of outdoor tables, an indoor club and an upstairs terrace bar, this place always has a good vibe. There’s live music every day from 4:00pm – 6:00pm and lots of activities going on year round.
3. Nature At It’s Finest
Once you have gained your sea legs and drunk yourself silly, it’s time to get back to nature to rejuvenate.
There are a number of day trips you can do that are only a short drive from Airlie Beach (your best bet is to hire a car for the day so you have full flexibility).
Hideaway Bay is only a 45 minute drive from Airlie, and offers a beautiful stretch of beach perfect for a bit of kayaking or jet-skiing, as well as a few beach-front resorts which will serve you fresh seafood and delicious platters while you dip your toes in the sand and relax. Visit Monte’s Reef Resort or Cape Gloucester Beach Resort.
An hour’s drive from Airlie Beach will get you to Bowen, the land of the mango. Take a tourist pic at the iconic Big Mango, then treat yourself to some delicious mango sorbet and a drive to some gorgeous beaches and coastline. Pack a picnic, and make a day of it.
Eungella National Park is a 2 hour drive from Airlie Beach and well worth it. Immerse yourself in nature at its finest, with waterfalls, gorges and an abundance of friendly platypus! The small township of Eungella is perched high in the mountains which adds to the mystery of the area. Head to the Eungella Chalet (built in 1933) for sweeping views of the valley, as well as lunch and a cheeky beverage. It is likely you will find a number of hang-gliders at the chalet, making the most of the ramp that was originally built back in the 1970’s. Eungella is a great day trip, with options to stay the night if you aren’t quite ready to leave.
So there you have it. One of the seven natural wonders of the world right here in our own backyard. Now pack your bags and get going!