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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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 on board if it rains!
Visiting Cairns? Read my post on Exploring Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef.