Exploring Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays

Exploring Airlie Beach

Airlie Beach (Not to be confused with the first hits of these boyos) is the coastal town that provides the gateway to exploring the Whitsundays Islands,  Australia's world-famous white sand island group. Located almost halfway between Brisbane and Cairns, and 275kms south of Townsville, Airlie Beach is considered by most to be the perfect mix of tropical beauty, warm climate, and adventure activities (Although for some Airlie Beach is just one very long street, and an obligatory stop while you wait for your two day booze cruise on the Whitsundays). Both views have their merits, as the town of Airlie Beach itself is quite small, and the island life mantra is popular- which can appear a bit slow for some people. Swimming off the shore of the town isn't very popular due to stingers, so, like Cairns, there is a huge man-made lagoon right in the centre of town. This closes at night and is patrolled by security, who will kindly ask you to leave if they catch you skinny dipping. As a seaside town, Airlie Beach has a variety of departure points for the Whitsundays and the Barrier Reef: Abell Point Marina, Shute Harbour, and the Port of Airlie.

 Lifes a b**ch in paradise isn't it?, Whitehaven Beach and Whitsunday Island from Above

Lifes a b**ch in paradise isn't it?, Whitehaven Beach and Whitsunday Island from Above

Departing for the Whitsunday Islands is the main reason to visit Airlie Beach, and for good reason.  The Whitsundays are composed of 74 tropical islands, containing some of the most beautiful white sand beaches in the world (So good that all the tour guides will tell you they filmed Pirates of the Caribbean here). The islands range from the ironically named 0.01km Titan Island to Whitsunday Island itself, the 109km behemoth in the centre of Whitsunday Islands National Park, to Hamilton Island, the largest inhabited island of the Whitsundays.  There's also world famous Daydream Island Resort, and one of the world's first 6 star resorts on Hayman Island. The islands receive 3.5 million visitors a year, varying from backpackers looking for a good time, young families who want to see amazing beaches, to romantics getting married (There are over 1500 marriages annually).

Best Time To Visit

Airlie Beach climate.png

The Whitsundays are accessible year round due to the fantastic subtropical weather they experience, which tends to have less of a wet season than Far North Queensland and Cairns. The average temperature is soothing 27.4 degrees in the summer months, while in winter its 21 degrees- Not bad if you are coming from Northern Europe! Located close to the Tropic of Capricorn, its the same latitude as Honolulu in the northern hemisphere. The temperatures allow year long swimming, water sports, and visits to the barrier reef. However, like all of Queensland, it does have a cyclone season, usually from January to March/April, and cyclones do hit semi-annually with vigour. When cyclones hit other parts of Queensland the Whitsundays are often still affected- but boats will go out provided the winds are less than 30 knots. Cyclones mean cancellations do happen, so be sure to have travel insurance! 

How to Get To Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays

Whitsunday Islands Map with Walk Icons ExploreWhitsundays Dec 17.jpg

As one of the top destinations to visit in Australia, there are various ways to visit the Whitsundays. You can of course drive, taking the Airlie Beach exit off the Bruce Highway and continuing on 20kms to Airlie Beach. If you're travelling by train, Proserpine is the nearest stop to Airlie beach, with 7-8 arrivals weekly, and a shuttle bus can be taken from Proserpine to your Airlie Beach accommodation. For many, flying is the most feasible option- and there are two large airports on the Whitsundays: Proserpine (PPP) and Hamilton Island (HTI). Hamilton Island is serviced by flights from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Cairns, but tends to be more expensive, and if you're not staying on Hamilton, you need to pay for a shuttle ferry to Airlie Beach. Proserpine Airport is about 20kms away from Airlie, and you can get to Airlie Beach via shuttle bus, courtesy coaches, or taxi. Proserpine is serviced by the low-cost airlines, Tiger Air and Jetstar, and has good connections with Cairns, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. For anyone flying in, the views tend to be awesome from the air, so try to get a window seat! Of course, been one of the largest collection of yachts in Australia, you can of course sail to Airlie Beach too. Finally, like all major tourist destinations on the East Coast, you can catch a Premier Motor Service, Greyhound, or Loka coach to here. Premier and Greyhound have daily stops here, and if you're travelling northbound, will drop you off in time for your 2 night Whitsundays cruise that day.

Where to Stay Airlie Beach

Been a tourists paradise, Airlie Beach and Hamilton Island have no shortage of places to stay. Hamilton Island is more classy, with Beach Club, Qualia Resort, and Whitsundays Apartments all stunning places to stay, albeit expensive. However if you’re a backpacker, there are no low-cost options for Hamilton Island- so no camping, no hostels, and no low-cost options, with Palm Bungalows or Reef Hotel coming in at the cheapest- around $300 a night. So my advice is to have a look around Hamilton, then get on that ferry asap to Airlie Beach!

 Base Airlie Beach

Base Airlie Beach

Airlie Beach, on the other hand, has plenty of options for budget travellers. As the town is one long street, all the hostels are located within 10 minutes walk from the coach stop. For the classy flashpackers out there, and the smelly campervan owners (A nice oxymoron if I do say so myself), Base/Nomads Airlie Beach is the place to stay. The hostel itself is awesome- big rooms with ensuites, large toilet/shower facilities for campers, and huge palm tree-filled grounds, with a massive swimming pool in the centre, surrounded by hammocks for relaxing. It's a big enough hostel that there is always a mix of people- so if you want to party, there'll be like minded people, while if you prefer to relax and get a good night's sleep in comfy beds, it's still suitable. Rooms start from $26 for an 8 bed dorm during the week, but rise at weekends and in high season, while campers can park up for $5 a day.

For a guaranteed chilled few days, in a less commercial hostel, think about heading to Magnums Airlie Beach. Family owned, Magnums is located right across from the Airlie Beach Lagoon, and feels very much like a jungle retreat. Accommodation is in 8 person cabins or 8 bed dorms, and they have the cheapest double beds in Airlie Beach if you're looking for a bit of jiggy jiggy (Or, you know, if you value your privacy). Been family owned means Magnums has a certain charm that Base and Nomads hostels sometimes lack, and its location means your right in the centre of Airlie Beach, a minutes' walk to the shops, and a minutes' walk to the bars. They also have a volleyball court, luggage storage, on-street parking, and their own funky bar.  Beds start at $28 a night and privates from $60.
 

 Backpackers By the Bay

Backpackers By the Bay

For those who prefer to be close to the sea, Backpackers by the Bay is a good alternative to the hostels named above. Small and friendly, Backpackers by the Bay usually has a good atmosphere with nightly activities, along with free wifi, a games room (including free pool), and off street parking. You can have a BBQ on their decking overlooking the Port of Airlie and Airlie Beach Bay, not a bad way to spend the evening. If you don't fancy lugging your bags up Airlie Beach's main street, you'll be happy to know that Backpackers By the Bay is right by the drop off for Premier and Greyhound- literally a minutes' walk. This does come at a price though, with rooms costing from $28-$34 a night, depending on the time of year.

Hostel Prices: Dorm Room: $28pn-$35pn, Private rooms: Starting from $60.

Hotel Prices: From $125 for a double.

Things To Do

Obviously, there are cruises to the Whitsundays, but there is much more than just that to do in and around Airlie Beach. There's the Airlie Beach lagoon, for people who'd prefer not to swim with the jellyfish around the beaches of Airlie Beach, plenty of pubs and restaurants for your evenings, and for those who like an argument, even a Coles and Woolworths (Coles in technically in Cannonvale).

If you’re driving to Airlie Beach, Conway National Park is well worth checking out, with rainforest clad mountains, deep valleys, and most of all, amazing views over the Whitsunday Passage and Islands, especially from Mount Rooper. The park is the large area of lowland tropical rainforest, and also contains the Whitsundays Great Walk, for those who like long hikes. Shorter walks can also be accessed from Brady Creek, about 30kms south of Airlie Beach. For the waterfall lovers out there, Cedar Creek falls lies between Airlie Beach and Proserpine, and is like a well-kept secret- surrounded by trees and rocks and hidden from the view of passersby. Between Airlie Beach and Mackay, there are two great parks- Eungella National Park, where you can find platypuses and waterfalls, and Cape Hillsborough National Park, where you can find untouched forest, and quiet beaches to relax on.

 Heart Reef. Credit GSL Aviation

Heart Reef. Credit GSL Aviation

If you'd prefer to stay in Airlie Beach, or simply don't have a car, there is the Airlie Creek Track which twists up the hill behind Airlie Beach and carries you through a quiet rainforest, ending up at some rock pools. It takes about an hour, and you can get there from Waterson Way. Another option is to follow the Bicenntenial track all the way to Cannonvale Beach. Other activities you can do around Airlie Beach are segway tours, jetboating with Pioneer Jetboats, jet ski tours with Eco Jet Safari, or aerial acrobatics with CQ Adventure flights, skydive over the Whitsundays and land on a beach.. Or perhaps the top-rated- take an hour-long scenic flight on a seaplane over the Whitsundays and the Barrier Reef to see the Heart Reef with GSL Aviation. You can even land on Whitehaven Beach on the way back (Although it will hurt your pocket, its a one of a kind way of seeing the beach!)

Prices:

Jetboating: $69

Scenic Flight: $129 (Islands) $229 (Islands, Great Barrier Reef, and Heart Reef)

Jetski: $380

Aerial Acrobatics: $250-$450

Skydive Airlie Beach: $270 + levy (14,000 ft)

Whitsundays

However, the most popular way to visit the Whitsundays is, and will always be, by boat. Boat tours depart from all the marinas, daily, so be sure to check whether your leaving Port of Airlie, Abell Point Marina, or Shute Harbour, and often times your cruise company will pick you up from Airlie beach. The vast majority of companies stop to snorkel at the small reefs around the islands, which are located in the Great Barrier Reef National Park (But the reefs are not actually the Great Barrier Reef).The main islands to see on the Whitsundays are Hook Island, Whitsunday Island, Heyman Island, and Daydream Island, and, in general, you'll only physically disembark on one (usually Whitsunday Island, weather permitting). Whitsunday Island is where Whitehaven Beach is, known for having 7kms of the whitest, finest sand in the world, that is made of almost pure silica (98%). This high silica content means the sand never retains heat, so you can walk comfortably on it in the height of summer, and was used in the creation of the glass for the Hubble Space Telescope. The beach is the most photographed beach in Australia because of its snowy complexion, the transparent, light blue waters around it, the hills of Whitsunday Island in the background, and the ample wildlife in the waters nearby. The best place for a photo of Whitehaven Beach is Hill Inlet Lookout, a viewpoint where you can also view neighbouring islands. So make sure your boat actually stops here (I'm looking at you Zig Zag!). Efforts to preserve the beach has led to only two companies actually been allowed to dock on Whitehaven Beach, and in an effort to help preserve it, at Tripfarm, we only support certified eco-friendly tours.

One Day Cruises

 Ocean Rafting

Ocean Rafting

For those in a rush or on a budget, there are a variety of different one-day options for visiting the Whitsundays. Ocean Rafting is one of the aforementioned companies that stops directly at Whitehaven Beach. They offer half day trips from Abell Point Marina on former rescue boats-high powered semi-rigid vessels- and  are the fastest day boat in Whitsundays. These boats go in almost all weather conditions- in fact the higher the winds the wilder the ride. They are the only day trip to offer options for the Whitsundays- You can do the Northern Exposure and spend more time snorkelling around Hook Island, before visiting Whitehaven Beach for an hour, or you can do the Southern Lights trip where you visit two beaches, and snorkel for less time. Finally, this trip is cheap- at $159 its the cheapest day trip to the Whitsundays (And we get it for $149 at Tripfarm), and you can add a buffet all you can eat lunch on Whitehaven Beach for $20.

 Thundercat

Thundercat

Another great one day trip is Thundercat, which uses a high powered catamaran that is more stable than Ocean Rafting, so it's better suited for those who get seasick. Thundercats day is longer, from 9am to 5pm, and is a bit more flashpacker than Ocean rafting- They have toilets on board, lunch is included, and its BYOB (except glass and red wine). Thundercats trips depart daily from Abell Point Marina, and they offer pick-ups from your accommodation. Prices start from $179 ($159 Tripfarm).

For those on Hamilton Island, Cruise Whitsundays do a half day trip direct to Whitehaven Beach, for $109, twice a day. Cruise Whitsundays use a fast powered boat, and this is a quick, no-frills trip. In general, Cruise Whitsundays focus on an older demographic, so don't expect a party boat!

 Derwent Hunter

Derwent Hunter

Finally, if you just want a sailing cruise around the Whitsundays, Southern Cross and Derwent Hunter have day trips around the islands where you can chill out, snorkel, and learn to sail. These boats are beautiful vessels, and perfect for a relaxing day, however, they do NOT stop at Whitehaven Beach. Prices range from $165-$195, and you can get a special with a day trip on Derwent Hunter and Ocean Rafting for $333. If you want to do sailing and visit Whitehaven Beach, then your only option is an overnight boat.

Prices:

Ocean Rafting: $159/$179 ($149/$169 @ Tripfarm)

Thundercat: $179 ($159 @ Tripfarm)

Cruise Whitsundays: $109

Derwent Hunter: $195/ $165 concession

Southern Cross: $179

Overnight Boats

If you're not in a rush, an overnight boat is 100% the way to go, as you see the maximum around the Whitsundays, you can enjoy the sunrise/sunset over the islands, and you get to sleep on your boat. Here is a standard itinerary for the boats- They depart Shute Harbour (1 night boats before 9am, 2 night boats around lunchtime), head north around the top of Hook Island where they stop and snorkel for a little while on one of the various reefs here, before continuing around Hook Island for the afternoon. At night, they stop in one of Hook Islands tranquil little inlets, where they anchor up in calm water for the night. The next morning, boats often head straight to Hill Inlet lookout and Whitehaven Beach, and spend a few hours here where you can relax, swim, or do short walks around the island. Then, after returning to the boat, you spend the afternoon and evening snorkelling. If you’re on a one-night trip, you return to Airlie Beach, if your’re on a two-night trip, you anchor up again at Hook Island, and get ready to celebrate with your new sailing colleagues, as the second night you tend to know everyone. The next morning the two night boats have one final destination to snorkel or dive, before heading back to Airlie just before lunchtime.

On all overnight boats, all your food is provided, so breakfast, lunch, and dinner while on board- and the food is normally good, with vegetarian/vegan options available. All of your snorkel gear, stinger suits, and equipment are provided, with some boats also offering SUPs and sea kayaks. Large bags are not allowed but can be stored in either your check-in office or your hostel beforehand. The boats are almost all BYOB, so stock up in the bottlo (Although glass bottles and red wine are not allowed). Every boat has its own reputation, some are quieter, some are more social, some are a nice mix of quality and fun, and they all depart on different weekdays. The following paragraphs will give a brief overview of the different options.

Chilled out Whitsundays cruises

If your idea of visiting the Whitsundays is a relaxed few nights, feeling the sea breeze in your hair, and enjoying the beautiful landscapes, you've come to the right place. For one night trips, Waltzing Matilda and SV Whitehaven are two lovely small sailing ketches, with group sizes of under 20, and comfortable living conditions. SV Whitehaven also has sea kayaks you can take out. If you're looking for a 2 day 2 night trip, Wings 2 and Wings 3 are both awesome catamarans, that were refurbished with modern interiors in 2017. Wings 3 even has a jacuzzi, and they are both just really good quality, nice catamarans. All of the food and equipment is also of the highest quality. The only downside is at night, the living room/dining room becomes a bedroom, so people who booked the 'saloon' beds at a cheaper rate get woken up quite early. In general, the age range for all these boats are late 20s/ early 30s, but all ages are welcome.

 SV Whitehaven in all its glory

SV Whitehaven in all its glory

Prices:

SV Whitehaven/Waltzing Matilda: $395pp

Wings 2/3: $499 Single, $479 Saloon ($479/$459 in winter)

mix of relaxation and social

 New Horizon

New Horizon

If you're on a budget, Habibi is the overnight boat for you. It's the cheapest eco-friendly way to view the Whitsundays for 2 nights, with guests, a good positive crew, and all the necessities covered, although the boat is a little bit older. The reason it's in the mixed category is that with the budget boats you can never predict who will book on- it could be the wildest party of your life or a mellow chill-out. New Horizon is another great mixed boat- it's the sister boat to the Atlantic Clipper, the party boat of the Whitsundays, and it's smaller, has a giant slide, and tends to have a higher proportion of women than men. Nights on New Horizon can be crazy, but they can just as easily be relaxing.

If you're looking at something that's completely different to sipping bags of goon in a dirty campsite, then Ride to Paradise is the ultimate 2 day 2 night trip (They also offer overnight trips on Fridays). Ride to Paradise uses Thundercat, the high powered catamaran, to ferry people to its resort on Paradise Cove- so you sleep that night on land, in amazing accommodation. This resort is similar to 5-star resorts- world-class food, massive swimming pool, hot tubs, bubble baths sunken into the decking, hammocks- literally paradise, at a flashpacker price. If you're a couple looking for a romantic, amazing overnight stay, stay here- Ride to Paradise includes two trips to the Whitsundays, and provide kayaks that you can take out at Paradise Cove. They also offer helicopter flights over the Whitsundays. There are sometimes epic parties here, depending on the group you get, so while the private rooms are tranquil, the dorms are not guaranteed to be.

Habibi: $459 ($350 in winter)

New Horizon: $499 ($410 in winter)

Ride to Paradise 1 night: $299-$409 (Single beds to honeymoon suite)

Ride to Paradise 2 day 2 night: $589-$809

Ride to Paradise helicopter flight: $300

Party Boats

 Siska Whitsundays

Siska Whitsundays

For those of you who see the words 'overnight boat trip', and immediately think 'BOOZE CRUISE!' this section is for you. First off, if you’re short on time, there are two one night boats that focus on having a good time: Hammer and Siska. Both are sleek racing maxis, that hold a max of 19 passangers, and both are often booked by large groups looking to live it up. As one night boats, they leave early, and will get you up early after your night long session, whether you like it or not!

 Tongarra

Tongarra

If one night isn't enough, you could consider Tongarra, a 24 person catamaran that has one huge point that separates it from the crowd: you sleep on the deck, looking at the shooting stars and constellations above you. Tongarra definitely leans more towards a cheaper party boat, and there have been stories of wild stripping games on board... So it’s not for the faint-hearted! For those who prefer a sleeker stylish piss up, look no further than the Racing Maxi's, specifically British Defender and Boomerang. These yachts often get booked by big group tours such as Contiki and Ozexperience, and those guys know how to party. These yachts are all between 15 and 30 passengers, and teach you to sail onboard, if you can still stand.

 The Atlantic Clipper in all its glory

The Atlantic Clipper in all its glory

Finally, if you want the ultimate booze cruise, you have the one and only: Atlantic Clipper. The Clipper is a unit, with 54 passengers, and a reputation like an English lads first visit in Magaluf. It's got 2 waterslides, a jumping deck, banana boat rides, a jacuzzi, SUPs, and a massive freezer for holding everyone's booze. The first night is the 'get to know everyone by drinking your weight in goon' night, while the second is a competition to become King and Queen of the Clipper- and the royalty gets 10 free drinks in Airlie Beach. Over sexualised, excessive, and a damn good time, the Clipper is king of party boats on the Whitsundays.

 The Great Barrier Reef from Airlie Beach- Credit Hamilton Island

The Great Barrier Reef from Airlie Beach- Credit Hamilton Island

For those of you who want to visit the Whitsundays and not scuba dive hung-over, there are some specialised dive boats from Airlie Beach. For a one-day dive trip, Mantaray visit both Whitehaven Beach and offer scuba dive's around the islands (NOTE not the Great Barrier Reef itself), and is well known for its high quality. If you want to visit the Great Barrier Reef, Cruise Whitsundays do a day trip from both Airlie Beach and Hamilton Island. The location is generally less crowded than further north in Cairns, as it's a full 50kms to get out there, but it's well worth checking out.

 Apollo

Apollo

If you're looking for a liveaboard dive boat, you have two main options: Apollo and Kiana. Apollo is the James Bond racing yacht of the Whitsundays- Black, slick, and sexy. At 3 days and 2 nights, Apollo spends much longer at sea than other 2 night boats and includes an intro or certified dive as part of its price. It's an excellent way to visit Whitehaven Beach, the Whitsundays Islands, and the small reefs around there. They don't, however, head out to the Great Barrier Reef. They are also the only 2 night boat that offers night dives to certified divers- so if you're a scuba diver and have already seen the Great Barrier Reef, this is the boat for you.

 Kiana route

Kiana route

Kiana on the other hand, brings you on a 3 day and 2 night tours out to the Outer Great Barrier Reef, along with all the hot spots of the Whitsundays Islands. Kiana is a small boat, with only 14 guests per trip, and prides itself on its amazing food and relaxed atmosphere. They visit Bait reef, one of the best preserved reefs on the Barrier Reef, and cater to all divers- even intro divers. Like Apollo, the first dive is free, and their food is sensational. However, because of the extra fuel costs and its exclusivity, Kiana is pricier than Apollo.

Prices:

Mantaray: $179

Cruise Whitsundays Adventure: $259

Apollo: $589

Kiana: $749

Farmwork

Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays rely primarily on tourism rather than farmwork to thrive, however, there are always opportunities if you look hard enough. South of Airlie Beach is Mackay, there is plenty of sugar cane work year around, and having a HC or UD licence will give you a significant advantage in finding farm work here. The most popular working hostel in Mackay is Geckos. In Airlie Beach itself, some resorts will be able to sign you off while your working for them, provided they are located within the Great Barrier Reef National Park, and you are working outside- Be sure to confirm this with your new employers before taking the job!

For a guide on how not to do your farmwork, you can read my story here.

Tips:

  • Book in advance: The Whitsundays do book out, completely in December/January/February, so book well in advance before those times!

  • Or take the chance; However there are often standby rates 3 days before departures- but probably not on your preferred boat.

  • Outdoors BBQ Aussie style: There are free public BBQs in the parks in Airlie Beach.

  • Hidden wonders: Check out Hideaway Bay- its got some amazing untouched beaches, and is only 30km from Airlie Beach.

  • Don’t: attempt to visit the Whitsundays Islands on a blow-up mattress- Just take a boat.

  • Let others in the future enjoy the Whitsundays: Pay attention to the tour your booking- make sure they are certified eco-friendly tours, as not all are. If they are crazy cheap compared to others, it’s for a reason!

Did we miss anything? Tell us what you think in the comments.

Looking for other exploring guides around Australia? 

Check out:

  1. Exploring Cairns

  2. Exploring Magnetic Island and Townsville

  3. Exploring Fraser Island

  4. Exploring Brisbane

  5. Exploring Byron Bay