The Ultimate Whitsundays Travel Guide
Have you been searching for the ultimate Whitsundays travel guide? Perhaps you’ve marvelled over photos of white silica sand stretching for kilometres? Or long harboured dreams of sailing your own yacht into glorious sunsets. Then there’s the world’s only heart-shaped reef to see. And who could forget the world’s largest living coral system to snorkel and dive?
Whitsundays Travel Guide: How to get there
Before we talk about transport and how you can get yourself to this glorious part of the world, let’s cover the most important question…
Where is the Whitsundays?
The Whitsundays is located almost halfway up the Queensland coast. Just two hours north of Mackay and just over three hours south of Townsville.
To explore the mainland from Airlie Beach, fly into the Whitsunday Coast Airport just down the road in Proserpine.
Mackay and Townsville airports are also serviced by daily flights from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
The road trip into Airlie Beach has one of the best view-reveals ever. Drive over the main hill into town to see the blue hues and islands of your dreams.
After a real wind-in-the-hair road trip feeling on the way to Airlie Beach? This is how to do it:
- Driving North from Mackay – Airlie Beach is 1 hour 45 minutes on the Bruce Highway.
- Driving South from Townsville – Airlie Beach is 3 hours 15 minutes along the Bruce Highway.
From Airlie Beach, let the road guide you as you travel this picturesque Whitsundays coastline. Make the most of having a car with these day trip suggestions:
- Airlie Beach to Cedar Creek Falls: A 30-minute drive to a waterfall and swimming hole in Conway National Park.
- Airlie Beach to Cape Gloucester: An hour’s drive to a stretch of sandy beach. Drop into the bar at Cape Gloucester Beach Resort at sunset.
- Airlie Beach to Proserpine: It’s a 30-minute drive to the country town of Proserpine where you can grab a pub lunch. Then, search for treasures at quirky homewares store Colour Me Crazy before heading out to Proserpine Dam to catch a barramundi.
- Airlie Beach to Bowen: On the one-hour drive north to Bowen make sure you stop off at the Big Mango on the Bruce Highway. Grab a must-eat mango sorbet before continuing your journey to Bowen’s beautiful Horseshoe Bay for the afternoon.
- Explore the hidden and secret beaches on the mainland like Rose Bay in Bowen and Cannonvale Beach.
The Cruise Whitsundays Island Resort Connections travels a whopping 413,699 kilometres per year. That’s ten times around the earth’s circumference. It delivers travellers from the Port of Airlie to Whitsunday Island resorts of Daydream Island Resort & Spa and Hamilton Island.
Opted for the luxe escape at InterContinental Hayman Island? Your luxury launch service operates from Coral Sea Marina in Airlie Beach or Hamilton Island Marina. Part tour, part transfer, kick back with a beverage and enjoy the beauty of the journey.
For access to camp sites in the Whitsunday Islands National Park, Whitsunday Island Camping Connections or SCAMPER, will get you there.
Where to stay
74 islands, only four with resorts. You’d be forgiven for thinking there’s limited Whitsundays accommodation and lodgings. But if you’re willing to travel off the beaten path and let adventure be your guide, there are plenty of options in the Whitsundays. Between all-inclusive luxury and out-under-the-stars camping you’ll find an array of places to stay for any style and budget.
For those who prefer luxuriating on a sumptuous mattress to a swag rolled out on the sand, the four resorts are:
Daydream Island Resort is on, you guessed it, Daydream Island. With 280 recently refurbished rooms and suites, it’s go-to for families and couples looking for an easy getaway. It’s also home to the Living Reef, an immersive and educational reef experience. The impressive 1.5 million litre lagoon, which is like a microcosm of the Great Barrier Reef, wraps 200m around the central building. Complete with coral, over 100 species of marine fish, stingrays and starfish you can take a group tour or visit the underwater observatory to touch, see and learn.
Sitting pride of place at the northernmost tip of Hamilton Island, qualia redefines the concept of boutique, luxurious holidaying. Designed for true switch-off escapes the resort is an oasis of calm, where the mirage is real. And just so happens to be one of the seven natural wonders: the Great Barrier Reef. You’ll also find the much-talked about Long Pavilion – a dining experience as much as it is a restaurant.
If you’re after sustainable stays, head to Long Island’s luxury eco-resort, Elysian Retreat. It’s the first resort on the Great Barrier Reef to be 100% solar powered. Which is reason enough to visit. Then, add seclusion, personalised menus and tailored spa experiences to the list. Et voila: a blissful, soul-enriching tropical paradise in which to disconnect from the rat race. Limited to 20 people at any one time, Elysian is perfect for honeymooners, couples and families with children over 14.
Once your luxury launch, helicopter or private seaplane delivers you safely to Hayman Island’s palm fringed shores, you’ll discover the glory of the newly minted InterContinental. The sprawling 168 room hotel is an artful marriage of high-end luxury with down-to-earth service. With five restaurants, an enormous lagoon pool and almost endless activities, it will keep everyone satisfied. The InterContinental at Hayman Island also takes their sustainability seriously with a raft of initiatives aimed at lessening impact on the environment. Single-use plastic reduction, energy conservation and the introduction of a glass crusher for recycling are just some of the strategies. You’ll also find (complimentary) reef-safe sunscreen in all the rooms for your use.
ReefSleep and ReefSuite
Wherever you travel plans guide you, Cruise Whitsundays’ Hardy Reef Pontoon is unmissable. Popular with daytrippers after kaleidoscopic snorkelling and diving, it’s also a surprise accommodation option. Yes, that’s right, ReefSleep is one of the best ways to continue the reef party. Once you’ve had your fill of underwater fun, roll your swag out under the stars and sleep atop the teeming reef below.
For an upgrade on your sleep with the fish experience, check out the new ReefSuites. Only open to four guests at a time, the Australian first is all kinds of special. All-inclusive and awe-inspiring, you’ll almost be too excited to sleep. Spend the night snoozing as the fish swirl around you before waking to the colourful marine matinee just outside the floor-to-ceiling windows.
The Whitsundays travel bucket list
There are so many Whitsundays island experiences to have, it’s a tad overwhelming. What, when, where and how. All important questions, with many answers but if you’re trying to tick and flick, then these are these are must-dos to prioritise.
Whitehaven Beach & Hill Inlet
Believe the hype: Whitehaven Beach is a genuine star. It’s hard to top seven kilometres of swirling silica sand, kissed by the gentle tide of cerulean Coral Sea. But the sweeping views of Whitsunday Island from Inlet Hill are punching well above their weight. Geologists have no real idea where the 98% pure white silica sand on the island comes from but it barely matters. If you haven’t already figured it out: Whitehaven is a stunner, despite the backstory.
There a plenty of ways to explore Whitehaven Beach no matter your inclination.
- Pick up a paddle with Salty Dog Sea Kayaking, offering half-day to day tours or six-day expeditions. Or, choose their freedom kayak option and go your own way.
- Helicopter tours are a great way to quickly see it all from above.
- Beach camping at Whitehaven is an underrated gem. For just $6.65 per person, per night, it’s a no-brainer. SCAMPER will get you there – and equip you with all the necessities so you can really soak in the magnificence.
- Take the Ngaro Sea Trail, an easy 8.4km walk blending hiking through tropical rainforest with cultural attractions and a dash of ocean.
Move over heart of the ocean, the Whitsundays’ outer Great Barrier Reef has the real deal. A naturally-formed reef in the shape of a heart has wooed travellers for over 40 years. By air or by sea, Heart Reef is equally impressive. If you’re staying at Hamilton Island and really want an experience to brag about journey to Heart Island Pontoon. From the moment you (and up to five friends) step off your private heli transfer the state-of-the-art split-level pontoon delivers the goods. Explore via glass-bottomed kayak, snorkel the lagoon or just relax and take in the ambience.
Looking for more ways to discover the Whitsundays? Here’s eight of them.
Sailing and The Great Barrier Reef
Channel your inner Captain Jack Sparrow (bareboating) or let an experienced sailor take the helm (skippered). The Whitsundays is the place to go sailing. It’s the only spot in the world where you can hire a multi-million dollar yacht without a licence. Queensland’s famed sailor’s playground also boasts some of the safest, most protected and highly regulated waters in the Southern Hemisphere.
Common sense and some boating experience are still required, but you can basically call the shots. It pays to have a crew you can trust and who won’t drive each other mad in close quarters so family and friends are a good place to start.
If you’d prefer to let someone else be designated driver, choose a skippered vessel. An experienced captain will run the show, leaving you to kick back as the bow cuts a path to aquatic adventures. Preferably with bubbles in hand.
Snorkel or dive The Great Barrier Reef
Each island in the Whitsundays has cultivated a fringing reef to call its own. There are coral bommies and marine life galore, perfect for snorkelling and diving. Top snorkelling spots include Blue Pearl Bay on Hayman Island and Hook Island’s Butterfly Bay and Luncheon Bay.
Keep your eyes peeled for the Whitsunday Ngaro underwater sculpture trail, dotted around the most accessible parts of the region. Designed to encourage tourism in the area following Cyclone Debbie, the project consists of a series of intertidal art installations. Six artists, working with a variety of materials including steel and concrete created the underwater public artworks, installed in 2019.
Attracting human and marine species alike, the art aims to both spark conversation about conservation and provide housing for a variety of sea creatures. Make your way to one (or all) of the six sites on a day trip, bareboating, travelling the Whitsundays solo or with a guide. Simply check with your individual operators.
Here’s where to find the Whitsundays Ngaro sculpture trail:
- ‘Maori Wrasse’ by artist Adriaan Vanderlugt at Blue Pearl Bay.
- ‘Manta Ray’ by artist Adriaan Vanderglut and ‘Migration of the Mantas’ by artist Brian Robinson at Manta Ray Bay on Hook Island.
- ‘Bywa’ by artist Brian Robinson at Horseshoe Bay near Bowen.
- ‘Turtle Dream’ by artist Col Henry at Langford Spit near Hayman Island.
- ‘Anthozoa’ by artist collective Jessa Lloyd, Caitlin Reilly and Kate Ford at Blue Pearl Bay.
Get a birds-eye view
With so many gorgeous features, taking to the air is one of the best – and quickest – ways to fully appreciate the region’s beauty. Take a seaplane or helicopter over the reef and pass Whitehaven Beach and Heart Reef on your way.
Calling all Eco Warriors
If you want to do more than just see the beautiful Whitsundays, then why not slot some voluntourism into your Whitsundays travel plans? From workshops to marine debris pick-ups and turtle rescue, there’s no shortage of ways to make sure the beauty is here for everyone to enjoy in years to come.
The Coral Sea Academy, an initiative of the Coral Sea Marina Resort in Airlie Beach, is a great place to start. Hosting educational sessions, hands-on-workshops and immersive experiences, these classes are free and open to anyone. Topics range from better boating practices, the health of the reef, ridding the Whitsundays of plastics, and sustainable travel and tourism. Listen up, take notes and then put it all into practice.
Or, why not dedicate some time to an important reef volunteer program? Operating since 2009, EcoBarge Clean Seas is a not-for-profit operating out of Airlie Beach. The organisation, and its legendary volunteers are responsible for removing a staggering 201,919 kilograms of marine debris and litter. In recent years, the dedicated team introduced a turtle rescue centre and a variety of other community and educational programs.