Why the Whitsunday Islands must be part of every Australia itinerary

It was almost 15 years ago that I realized my love for crystal clear blue-green sea waters and I remember searching the internet for the best beaches on the planet. There wasn't a lot of content overload online back then and as I went through the limited posts available, I came across this gorgeous picture of a white sandy beach called Whitehaven Beach, which I instantly fell in love with. Further research led me to understand that it was an untouched haven located on the Whitsunday Islands in Australia and that's when I knew; if, rather when I make it to the land down under, I will make this stunning destination a part of my Australia itinerary.

What are the Whitsunday Islands

This archipelago located on the northeast coast of Queensland is majorly uninhabited with the region's central hub located in Airlie Beach. It is also the starting point of the Great Barrier Reef, although most of the coral in the area is now dead and the environment is not that friendly to the existence of a wide variety of sea life either.  However, this tropical paradise is home to some dense forests, hiking trails and most importantly, secluded, fascinating blue water and white sand beaches.

Airlie Beach makes for a good base to explore the Whitsunday Islands because this is where the budget-friendly accommodation is located and several tours depart on a daily basis to visit Great Barrier Reef as well as some incredible surrounding islands. An expensive and lavish yet idyllic alternative to Airlie Beach (which is usually full of backpackers) is Hamilton Island. Several resorts and luxurious home-stays line the coast of Hamilton Island, making it a popular romantic destination for couples and also those looking to get away from lively, buzzing streets to a quiet and blissful place.

The Whitsunday Islands

How to get to the Whitsunday Islands

Fly into Proserpine Airport: If you are staying at Airlie Beach, Proserpine Airport is the closest airport to fly in to. You can find direct flights to Airlie Beach from Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney. Unfortunately, there are no direct flights from Cairns.

Three airlines fly into Proserpine Airport (PPP): TigerAir and Jetstar, the low-cost airlines and Virgin, the better option. The airport is about 30 minutes away from the city centre. You can either pre-book your transfer or take a taxi from the airport to the city centre.

Fly into Hamilton Island Airport: If you're staying in Hamilton Island, you can catch a direct flight from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Cairns, operated by Jetstar, Virgin Australia and Qantas. If you're staying at Airlie Beach and are unable to find a direct flight from your origin to Airlie Beach, you have the choice of flying into Hamilton Island Airport and then taking a ferry to Airlie Beach operated by Cruise Whitsundays, 6 times a day, 1-hour duration.

Train from Brisbane / Cairns: Another alternative is to take a train from Brisbane or Cairns, operated by Queensland Rail, called Spirit of Queensland (find the timetable here), once a day from both the cities.

Bus from Brisbane / Cairns: There are 5 buses operated by Greyhound Australia on this route and 1 by Premier. The journey from either of the cities takes about 10 - 11 hours.

Self-drive: Although it is a long drive, to me it seemed like the most convenient option. It is cheaper than flying, less time taking and more flexible than the train as well as bus, and although it may be a long drive, at least you can choose to stop on the way at the numerous cities (Townsville makes for a great half-way scenic stop) and get there comfortably, at your pace. However, rental companies can charge quite a huge one-way fee (I paid AUD 180 one-way fee and AUD 100 as the daily rental charge).

Click here to rent-a-car in Queensland.

the Whitsunday Islands

How to experience the Whitsunday Islands

There are numerous options for how to experience the Whitsunday Islands. Here are a few:

  • Take a scenic flight on a helicopter or seaplane (book here)
  • Stay overnight on a catamaran (book here)
  • Get an adrenaline rush with Skydiving at Airlie Beach (book here)
  • Take a day trip to Whitehaven Beach & Hill Inlet Lookout (read in detail below)

3 days in the Whitsunday Islands

Day 1: Explore Airlie Beach

The perfect launch pad for exploring a stunning piece of heaven in the Pacific Ocean, Airlie Beach is a lively backpacker vacation spot. It is the gateway to enjoying water activities for the adventure lovers and island-hopping tours for the beach bums. It is also the access to Great Barrier Reef although most of the reef in the nearby areas is now almost dead and gone, so if you're looking to dive, you might need to head at least 2.5-3 hours out into the sea to get good coral and sea life.

the Whitsunday Islands
Airlie Beach Lagoon

The town of Airlie Beach is quite small and compact - which means you can easily walk around and explore the area. Several boutique shops, bars with live music and a lagoon are pretty much all there is to see here. If you like beachwear, this is your place to grab some unique, colourful and inexpensive stuff. You could also take a dip in the lawn-fringed Airlie Beach Lagoon to cool off or try some fresh seafood in one of the many restaurants.

If you like, you could board the ferry to Hamilton Island or enjoy a jet ski tour during the day. At night, bars come alive with live music, performances and DJs. If nightlife is your thing, you're going to love Airlie Beach!

Suggested budget stay in Airlie Beach: Whitsunday on the Beach

the Whitsunday Islands
The lawns around Airlie Beach Lagoon

the Whtsunday Islands
View from Airlie Beach Lagoon

Visiting Sydney? Read about my perfect Sydney itinerary for 4 days.

Day 2: Whitehaven Beach & Hill Inlet Lookout

Visiting Whitehaven Beach was the main reason why I included the Whitsunday Islands in my Australia itinerary. You will find several options for boat tours that will take you to different parts of the Whitehaven Beach (it is, after all, a 7-km stretch of powder white sand and crystal clear blue waters), but what you need to ensure is that the tour also takes you to the Hill Inlet lookout, a scenic viewpoint which offers unparalleled, awe-inspiring views of one of the best sandbars and ocean you'll ever see.

Although the summer season is also the wet season for this area and you're likely to encounter some rain during your tour, it is highly unlikely to last for hours. I chose Whitehaven Xpress for my day trip and was not disappointed. The full-day tour lasts from 9 am - 5 pm, includes pick up from your Airlie Beach hotel, takes you to a lesser crowded area of Whitehaven Beach, followed by the Hill Inlet lookout and also snorkelling/ glass bottom boat tour in an area packed with colourful fish and sea life. The boat itself has an indoor seating (which is not air-conditioned) for those who are not fond of being splashed and an outdoor deck for the ones who want to soak up some sun and don't mind being spattered by sea water.

Whitehaven Beach

While sailing towards Whitehaven Beach from the Airlie port (a 1.5-hour journey), you will cross Hamilton Island and several other smaller islands dotting the ocean. The colour of the ocean changes from dark blue to light blue-green and I highly recommend grabbing a cup of coffee (or a beer on a hot day) and taking it to the deck to enjoy the gorgeous scenery. They serve complimentary tea/ coffee/ cookies on board (alcohol and other soft drinks are available but payable). You can also rent a stinger suit for a nominal fee, which is usually recommended in the jelly-fish months of summer.

Once you're at Whitehaven beach, the boat docks a little distance away from the shore as none of the boats are allowed to dock on the shore itself. A dinghy will bring you from the boat to this glorious beach, where swathes of white sand formed by quartz welcome you to take a swim, snorkel or simply walk on the shores. Although it was a weekend and we had often heard that the beach gets crowded, we were lucky to land in an area that was not swarmed by too many tourist boats.

After about 1.5 hours, we were served a barbecue lunch on the beach, under a small thatched roof with a dining table set up. There are absolutely no commercial establishments on the island which means no restaurants, shops, hotels or even sunbed rentals. There are no umbrellas either which means the trees are your only options if you're looking for some shade.  There are toilets on the island which is a big relief. The barbecue lunch served by Whitehaven Xpress usually consists of meat, seafood and some salads so if you're strictly vegetarian, you must let the crew know in advance.

the Whtsunday Islands

After spending about 2.5 hours on Whitehaven Beach, the boat moves towards the Hill Inlet Lookout which is about 30 minutes away. The boat takes you to Tongue Bay from where the walking track starts. An easy to moderate walk through local bushland (with a bit of a steep climb in some places) is a 1.3 km journey and takes about 20 min one way. There are no bathroom facilities in the area. There are two lookout points; from one, you can view the gorgeous Betty's Beach below and from the other, the famous blue ocean pools trapped between white silica sands. The view from this point is absolutely mesmerizing, and although I was there on a very cloudy day, I was not disappointed when I walked towards the platform and the wide expanse of the blue waters opened up in front of my eyes.

the Whtsunday Islands
Hill Inlet Lookout

the Whtsunday Islands

The third and the last stop on this day trip is for snorkelling in an area that was once filled with colourful and pretty coral but now, as we were told by our boat crew, the reef seems to have died due to environmental changes and the increasing temperatures of the sea waters. Nevertheless, you will get to see quite a variety of fish so if you're not keen on getting into the waters with your snorkelling gear, then you have the luxury of taking a glass bottom boat tour (included in the price of the trip) instead.

the Whtsunday Islands

the Whtsunday Islands

the Whtsunday Islands

Also visiting Melbourne? Read my post on Melbourne- to go or not to go.

Day 3: Crocodile Safari

Now, you may not be a fan of these wildly intimidating creatures, but Australia's waters are infested with them and a trip through the estuaries and wetlands of the Whitsundays is bound to take you up, close and personal with these toothy reptiles. As you cruise the Proserpine River, which enjoys the highest density of saltwater crocs per kilometre in Queensland, you're highly likely to see several of these majestic yet terrifying creatures basking in the sun. Although they do not guarantee a sighting on the tour as the mangroves are natural habitats rather than a protected farm, the tour operates during low tide which is the best time to catch a sight of the crocodiles.

Book your tour here

the Whtsunday Islands

the Whtsunday Islands

The day trip usually lasts from 8.30 am - 3.30 pm and includes an Aussie barbecue lunch in a picnic set up, transfers to and from your Airlie Beach Hotel and an open wagon tour through the wetlands and forests before arriving at the boat safari area. Courtesy rain ponchos are also available onboard if it rains!

Visiting Cairns? Read my post on Exploring Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef.

Planning a trip to Australia? Why not consider a group tour


72 thoughts on “Why the Whitsunday Islands must be part of every Australia itinerary”

  1. The Whitsundays have been on my list for a while. I have a fantasy of chartering a boat and sailing the islands for a couple of weeks. Your day trip from Whitehaven does sound enticing. I would definitely snorkel and, yes, put on a stinger suit / dive skin.

  2. The boat tour sounds like the perfect way to spend a day. I love how they take care of everything for you – the food, the snorkeling, etc. Your pics from snorkeling are amazing btw. The Whitsundays are for sure on my bucket list!

  3. The Whitsunday’s look totally amazing and would love to check them out when I return to Australia again. Anywhere where there is nature, beach, sea, sun, and I am there!

  4. Completely agree with you. This totally seems like a must visit. Sad that the corals in the area are dead, but hope people preserve what is left on and around these beautiful islands! Great tips about Whitsunday Islands and Whitehaven Beach.

  5. I just love the shades of blue and white sand surrounding Whitehaven Beach. Feels like I want to stay there for long. Glad that you could visited the spot that weren’t too many tourists around. The view from Hill Inlet Lookout is amazing, too! I agree, a visit to Whitsunday Islands should be in everyone’s itinerary when visiting Queensland.

  6. I had never heard of Whitsunday Islands in Australia but I love how it is a little off the beaten track. The crocodile safari looks awesome. I love the photos of the fish that you got. Those are cool. We head to Australia next year and will definitely keep this for future ideas.

  7. What an amazing part of the world to visit! You don’t need to ask me twice to visit The Whitsunday Islands! Whitehaven Beach is gorgeous and doesn’t look as busy as I thought it would. I love that you also did a crocodile safari, it just sounds so Australian! I really hope to visit Australia one day, and Whitsunday Islands will be top of the list!

  8. Your post really echoes what my sister told me many years ago, she said Whitsunday Islands were one of her very favourite places of her weeks in Australia. I don’t know which beaches she visited, so I appreciated your run down on Airlie making a good base, and where else to visit. Whitehaven Beach looks gorgeous as does Hill Inlet.

    1. I was so glad that Whitehaven Beach wasn’t crowded, I expected it to be jampacked, as most popular touristy beaches usually are.

  9. Really interesting frames here… I loved how the seagull ended up in a couple of the frames. Almost as if it knew what it was doing!

    Also loved the underwater pics. Something I have never tried.

    1. Haha, the seagull was following me and posing for my pics I guess 😉 Well observed, Jitaditya!

  10. This looks amazing Medha. Reading your post made me fall in love with Whitsunday Islands. The islands have it all what I love Be it staying in luxurious all inclusive resorts, or living as a backpacker. I see that you did Snorkelling, and the bumped looks majestic. I would definitely love to go a step further and try out Scuba Diving as well.

    1. I did my dive from Cairns, further out into the Outer Great Barrier Reef. In the Whitsundays, the reef is dying so I decided to stick to only snorkelling here and dive in Cairns 🙂

  11. Medha, this is completely new for me. I can relate to your feeling of love for crystal clear water beaches, even I keep looking for them over the Internet. Whitsunday Islands should surely be a part of my Australia itinerary. I wish I can spend at least 3 days there similar to your plan. Would be a great vacation!

  12. Wow! You brought me back amazing memories of my adventures in Australia! The cruise ship I was on docked at Airlie Beach so Whitehaven Beach was definitely my priority. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to get to Whitehaven and come back before the ship set sail and we “just” went to a snorkeling trip nearby. But I’m planning to go back and spend some time at Whitsundays to finally get to Whitehaven so your post with all those useful pieces of information will definitely help me a lot. And it’s great that you got to see Wolly!! (This is how they used to call the Napoleon Fish around there, do they still call it that way? 😀 ) Great post!

  13. Those blues!!! It is one of my big regrets not visiting the Whitsunday Islands while I was in Australia. It looks truly stunning. Just means I will have to go back one day!

  14. Medha, you had actually found and explored another gem of Australia i.e. Whitsunday Islands. Water is so blue there and inviting. I would love to try snorkeling there. Your shots are perfect as always. Would like to see some crocodiles too.

  15. OMG, the water there looks so heavenly. I wish I could have gone there. The scuba and snorkeling here would have been perfect. Loved your shots – including the underwater ones. Well done, Medha

  16. You’re right — the Whitsunday beaches are just stunning. I could totaly revel in views like that, and I’m assuming the water is warm, too. Wow! Just heaven! Now on the topic of the saltwater crocodiles…do they ever come out into the open ocean? Because that could really ruin those perfect beaches!

  17. What a gorgeous white sand beach! I didn’t know the Whitsunday Islands were part of the Great Barrier Reef. The cruise looks like a fun leisurely way to explore.

    1. If budget isn’t a constraint, I would recommend one to do the helicopter or seaplane tour. The views from the sky are surely even more spectacular!

  18. Such stunning beaches. It’s no surprise you were drawn to them for so long. Loved you snorkelling stop. The colours are incredibly vibrant. Sad to read about the environmental impact, and I do hope things get better over time. Id love to get my feet wet at Whitehaven Beach and hope to make it there soon.

    1. People are becoming more conscious about the environment now so maybe it’ll help rebuild what we, as humans, have managed to spoil!

  19. I’ve never been to Australia – it’s so far from Europe…. However, seeing these pristine beaches makes me all dreamy. I also love to snorkel, so this actually seems like the perfect place for a vacation.

    1. Australia is really far from where I live, too (Dubai) but it was totally worth the time, effort and money to get there 🙂

  20. Had never heard of the Whitsunday islands so thank you for sharing! The pictures look absolutely amazing and it’s going to be on my list if I ever go to Australia again. Seems like a must-visit for anyone who likes beaches!

  21. I am planning my Australia adventures for next year and this post is very helpful to add what to see and visit on my list. Honestly, I had not heard of Whitsunday Island before. Surely something special as you visited a few islands but this one stands out. I am a sucker for beaches and the clear blue water of the sea and marine life stands out . I would definitely look to visit it on my trip to Australia Thanks for sharing a gem.

    1. I am a sucker for gorgeous beaches too Amar, so I assure you, you will love this place!

  22. What a great little gem you found! Islands are so nice especially when it is surrounded by gorgeous turquoise water. I can fully understand your fascination. I liked that you explained the different ways to get there. Also the detailed itinerary of your 3 days there.

  23. Honestly, I had not heard of Whitsunday Island before. The place seems to have made a mark on you, as you had seen about the island some 15 years back! No wonder it did. The place is simply gorgeous. The turquoise blue water of the sea, the marine life and everything look just perfect. The 3 days itinerary covers the best things there. Thanks for sharing such a detailed guide.

  24. Ah, the turquoise waters of Whitsunday Islands really make me want to go there right now! I’ve never heard of these islands, but I’ve never been in Australia either. Can that be used as an excuse (lol)? Whitehaven Beach looks like indeed like a white retreat, as the name suggests.

  25. I’m Australian and I’ve never been to the Whitsundays. Always thought it was too expensive and too touristy. But your photos have almost made me change my mind. Maybe it’s time for a trip up north…

    1. Honestly, I did not find it very touristy. Maybe it was the season (March) but even the famous Whitehaven Beach wasn’t that crowded!

  26. Airlie Beach on Whitsunday sounds sublime. I love it that we can take the rail there from Cairns. The water is that perfect shade of blue. It looks like a little slice of heaven.

    1. We drove but I’m sure the train journey would be a great one too if one has the time to spare. It almost takes the whole day!

  27. That’s so sad that the coral has died in the Whitsundays. I’ve always heard that the Whitsundays are an incredible place to dive, but the Great Barrier Reef has really suffered from coral bleaching the last couple of years. Still, what a gorgeous place on our planet. I hope to visit someday sooner rather than later.

    1. It is a pity, even my dive in the Outer Reef (which was further ahead of Cairns) wasn’t that amazing. I ended up feeling like my dive experience in the Philippines was much better!

  28. I would love to stay overnight on a catamaran at Whitsunday Islands! The beaches look so soft and lovely. You have some fabulous pictures of the island. I think you three-day getaway had the perfect mix of adventure which the safari tour and peaceful relaxation on the beach outlooks and tours.

  29. wow its a great place I love this place and shortly i will be there beautiful island in Australia I am planning to visit in next month what will be weather condition there can you let me know

    1. It begins to get a little cooler in May but it’s drier than the ‘summer’ months Nov – Mar. It will be amazing!

  30. Either a catamaran or the helicopter sound like brilliant ways to experience the Whitsunday islands. Ah crocs do still make me shiver, the only animal in the world that scares me.

    1. If it wasn’t a little over my budget, I would have loved to see the Whitsundays from the sky!

  31. I love your detailed description of the Whitsunday itinerary and how to get to the islands. Most of my Australia travels have been limited to the western region. Next time we’ll definitely include this archipelago in the list of places to visit. I’d love to do the crocodile safari!

    1. I did mostly the east coast this time but would love to make it to the West on my next trip!

  32. We haven’t explored much of Australia and your post reminds me of that. Whitsunday Islands looks so tempting with those greenish crystal clear waters. Would love to spend a few days here enjoying the peace.

  33. Looks like such a wonderful area, your water shots are gorgeous. Whitehaven Xpress tour is an excellent tip too, so thanks for that! Will definitely seek them out next time I’m in the area. Also, love the shot of your new friend Mr. Grouper, hilarious. I think he was smitten by you. 😉

    1. Haha, it’s a Maori wrasse I believe, and I was the one smitten, couldn’t help taking lots of pictures 😉

  34. Oh, this would be a must stop for us when we finally do our road trip via car from Melbourne to Cairns! Thanks for the tip about Whitsunday Islands and Whitehaven Beach.

    1. That’ll be one amazing road trip. It’s a long journey, hope you’re spending a couple of weeks doing it!

  35. You are right I am not a fan of crocodiles but on a tour such as your Crocodile Safari I think I would really enjoy that. The Whitsundays are a beautiful part of Australia and Whitehaven Beach is famous. The colours and the silky silver sand are glorious. Your photos are beautiful.

  36. I agree that the Whitsundays should be part of every itinerary. I learned to dive in the Whitsundays. There is so much to do there and so beautiful.

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