Visiting the Whitsundays is a common fixture on every Australian travellers list, and so it should be! From picture-postcard white sands to epic snorkelling in the Great Barrier, the Whitsundays offer the perfect tropical island experience. The archipelago of 74 islands off the coast of Queensland is a true paradise on earth, where turquoise waters mingle with white sand. There are several options for exploring these postcard-worthy landscapes. Here are our tips for planning a successful trip to the Whitsundays.
The Whitsunday Islands
This archipelago is made up of 74 islands within the famous Great Barrier Reef, one of Australia’s best-known spots. It is located off the coast of Queensland, 900 km north of Brisbane, or 620km south of Cairns, on the east coast. it is located between Bowen & Townsville.
Before being discovered by Captain Cook, these islands were inhabited by Ngaro Aboriginals who mainly survived by fishing.
Today, the islands are home to white sandy beaches, clear water, coral and colourful fish. Exploring the Whitsundays is an incredible and unforgettable experience that will surely be one of your best memories of Australia.
The starting point for discovering these paradise islands is Airlie Beach, a small seaside resort town. On its main street, Shute Harbor Road, you will find youth hostels, bars, restaurants and various shops. You can also sunbathe along the artificial lagoon of the city or walk along the beautiful esplanade. It is easiest to get around Airlie by car, but all the points of interest are more or less nearby so you can easily walk to them.
It is also possible to camp in the Whitsunday Islands National Park. However, you must obtain a permit. Also, note that campfires on the Islands are strictly prohibited. To reach the islands you generally have to take a taxi boat. Rates range between 50 AUD for the nearest Island up to 150 AUD for the farthest.
The best season to visit the Whitsundays
With a mild climate all year round, the Whitsunday Islands can be enjoyed all year round, though it is advisable to visit between May and September as during July and August the water can be quite cool. September is therefore considered to be the best month to visit the archipelago. Indeed, though the temperatures are mild, it is still whale season and the jellyfish haven’t yet arrived! In addition, prices are lower than during the high season because it is not the school holidays or summer.
Between November and May, swimming is often forbidden or restricted because of the deadly jellyfish that can be found in the water. You can still dive, snorkel or swim with a wetsuit (you can rent one or tours often provide them).
The most popular spots and islands
Hamilton Island is a small paradise on earth, with lots of spots to discover and several activities available. The hotels and resorts on the island are open for day guests (usually except for private resorts).
If you want to explore the island’s wildlife and diversity, you can visit Hamilton Island Wildlife park. This park is open daily from 8am to 4pm and entry costs $32. While visiting, you can have breakfast next to koalas or see dingoes, reptiles, kangaroos and many more animals.
You can also discover the island by hiking its many trails. There are several routes to choose from, depending on your ability and walking time. Hideaway Bay (moderate level) comes to mind as a good all rounder. As the name suggests, this hidden beach is just a short walk from the Scenic Trail entrance. Discover this secluded bay where you can enjoy the calm waters and views of Whitsunday Island.
Some of the best things to do are water sports such as windsurfing, kayaking, snorkelling, diving and jet skiing. If you prefer to relax, then the island’s beautiful beaches, such as Catseye Beach, are plentiful.
To explore the island, we recommend renting a buggy. This will allow you to drive on all terrains and access more isolated corners so you can really explore. Don’t forget to book in advance though, as you won’t find them easily in high season.
Daydream Island is one of the smallest islands in the Whitsundays, one kilometre long and only 500 metres wide. It is popular for its three fantastic beaches where you can snorkel, dive and paraglide. There are also many other sporting activities such as tennis, volleyball and badminton. The island has its own open-air cinema and an outdoor aquarium with stunning views of the Great Barrier Reef.
This white sandy beach is known worldwide and lives up to its name. The 7 kilometre stretch of white quartz sand and crystal clear water is pristine and preserved. No wonder this beach is ranked among the most beautiful beaches in the world! The sand contains 98% silica which means it is extremely fine and soft – some people even compare its consistency to baby powder. Because of the silica, the sand does not store heat and is therefore perfect for walking barefoot even when it is very hot.
To get to this beach, you will need to take a boat (such as on a day trip) or by plane or helicopter.
Hook Island is known for some of the best diving and snorkelling in the Whitsundays. For scuba diving enthusiasts, Luncheon Bay, Butterfly Bay and Manta Ray Bay are the places to go.
On this island, you can do a lot of walking in the forests, discovering beaches and viewpoints. From Nara Inlet (south), you can follow several walks to explore waterfalls and Aboriginal sites. Camping is also available on the island (booking required).
Hayman Island was one of the first islands in the archipelago to be developed for tourism. It is full of breathtaking rainforests, coves and palm-fringed beaches.
The island is home to the luxurious InterContinental Hayman Island Resort (facilities are only accessible to hotel guests). With suites costing a minimum of $800 per night, hotel guests usually arrive on the island by seaplane or helicopter… in short, a luxury survice for luxury clientele.
Tours and Activities
There are several ways to visit the archipelago; by boat, helicopter or plane – there are options for every budget!
Cruises around the Whitsunday Islands are a great way to discover them. You can go on snorkelling trips, dives and visit the islands. There are many companies that offer cruises to the Whitsundays. The duration can range from one day up to three days. Depending on the price and the type of boat, the atmosphere will be different and more or less party-like. Departures are generally from the Airlie marina, usually early in the morning. You can park your car on the premises (charges apply) or walk from the city centre.
Here is an example of an itinerary of a cruise in the Whitsundays :
- Tour for half a day, ideal if you have limited time. You can admire the archipelago and enjoy the iconic Whitehaven Beach!
- 1 day tour: You will be aboard a speed boat. In the program: Whitehaven Beach, Swimming, Snorkeling and walking to the viewpoint Hill Inlet.
- 2 days & 1 night tour: You will visit the best spots of the Whitsundays including Whitehaven beach, there are 3 sessions of snorkeling, and the night on the boat is unforgettable!
Diving on the Great Barrier Reef
Depending on your budget, you can go snorkeling or scuba diving. Both options will give you the chance to see colourful fish, turtles and coral. These excursions depart from Hamilton Island and Airlie Beach. Popular spots to visit include Manta Ray next to Hook Island and Black Island. Some agencies also offer night diving, which gives you the opportunity to see the Great Barrier Reef in a different way.
Go on an adventure, hire a boat and make your own way around the islands. These boats do not require a special licence and can accommodate between 6 and 12 people. The rental agency will give you all the information you need to manoeuvre the boat. All you have to do is hoist the sails!
The best way to enjoy this unique place is to take a plane and fly over the archipelago. Two airlines offer flights from Airlie beach: Air Whitsunday and GSL Aviation. Air Whitsunday uses seaplanes while GSL Aviation uses small passenger planes.
We advise you opt for a scenic flight, which passes over the Great Barrier Reef in addition to Whitsundays!
You can also choose to see the Whitsundays via a helicopter tour, too. Prices are usually higher but it is simply breathtaking!
Departure is from the airfield of Airlie, which is located right next to the airport of Proserpine. Be aware that you will have to take a shuttle bus (30 minutes) to get to your starting point. The shuttle bus transfers are usually included in the price of your tour.
For those who want to combine a thrill with seeing the Whitsundays from the air, a skydive is the best option. Airlie Beach Skydive offers jumps at either 3,000 or 4,000m depending on your choice. You can choose to take the video and photo option to keep a souvenir of your jump over the Great Barrier Reef.
How do I book a tour to the Whitsundays?
There are several ways to book tours and excursions. You can go direct and book with tour operators in the Whitsundays, but this is not always guaranteed as there are often no places left a few days before departure. Alternatively, you can go to a tourist information centre or travel agency in a major city ahead of time. They will have many options for you to choose from, for all tastes and budgets!
Hiking in the Whitsundays
There are many walking routes on the different islands. There is something for all tastes and abilities. The key to these hikes is the magnificent views that await you. Here is our selection of the best tours:
Hamilton Island :
- Escape Beach: 6.5km (moderate level)
- Flat Top Hill Lookout: 2.5km (moderate)
- Hideaway Bay: 1.8km (easy)
A map of the trails is available here.
Whitsunday Islands National Park :
- Solway Circuit : 1.2km (intermediate level)
- Chance bay: 3.6km (intermediate)
- Hill Inlet lookouts: 1.4km (easy to intermediate)
- Dugong-Sawmill track: 3km (easy to intermediate)
- Whitsunday Cairn: 4km (difficult)
- Passage peak: 5.1km (intermediate)
- Whitehaven beach overlook: 3.2km (intermediate)
- Whitsunday peak track: 4.3km (difficult)
South Molle Island
- Balancing Rock: 2km (intermediate level)
- Paddle Bay: 2.2km (easy)
- Spion Kop: 4.2km from Sandy Bay (difficult) – 2.35km from Bauer Bay (intermediate)
- Mount: Jeffreys: 4km from Sandy Bay (intermediate) – 3km from Bauer Bay (intermediate)
- Sandy Bay: 4.2km (intermediate)
- Lamond Hill: 4.4km from Sandy Bay (difficult) – 3.3km from Bauer Bay (intermediate)
- Ngaro cultural site: 340m (intermediate level)
- Cateran bay track: 1.2km (easy to intermediate level)
To find out more about the walking routes, click here.
There are two golf clubs, one on Hamilton Island and one on South Molle Island, both courses are close to the sea. As you play the course, you can enjoy the scenery and the Great Barrier Reef at the same time.
South Molle Golf Club is part of a resort and has direct access to the island’s national park. If you are not a guest of the resort you can still play a 9-hole course for $10.
How to save money when booking a tour to the Whitsundays?
There are a few tips to save some money on tours! Indeed you can either book it when you get to Airlie Beach as a last minute booking. Sailing boats depart from there every day, so you’re sure to bag yourself a bargain via a travel agent trying to fill up places on a boat sailing the next day. You’ve got to be flexible here, but if you can book one day and go the following day, you’re almost guaranteed a good deal. Another option is to book early ! Book your sailing trip way in advance so you can negotiate the price with the agent ! More and more companies are offering deals when you book in advance so they are sure to have full boats !
Also compare prices and packages from different tour operators to find the best deal available when you are visiting the islands. Consider taking a shorter tour or a half-day tour instead of a full-day tour to save on costs.
If you can, try to avoid peak season (December to January) as prices tend to be higher.
How do I get to the Whitsundays?
To get to the Whitsunday Islands, you need to get to Airlie Beach. By road, you just have to take the Bruce Highway. From Cairns, it’s a 620km drive, so it takes about 2 days to get there. From Brisbane, it’s over 1000km.
By bus, Greyhound or Premier Motor Service operate between several towns on the coast to Airlie.
Take the ferry
You can also take a ferry or shuttle to the island or islands of your choice. Departures are from Airlie Marina. This option is usually part of an overnight package, but not always.
You can go to DayDream Island or Long Island for some great hiking or Hook Island with its beautiful seabed. You can also take the ferry to Hamilton Island for the day. Once there, you can enjoy the pools and restaurants of the resorts, go to the beach, visit the island’s zoo…
The ferry from Airlie Harbour leaves approximately every hour from 7am and costs AUD 60 per person (one way).
From Shute Harbour, there are only 3 departures per day. The journey time is shorter, taking only 35 minutes to reach the island.
There are also water taxis that connect the mainland with the different islands. Prices vary between $50 and $150 depending on the distance.
Direct, domestic flights are available daily from several major Australian cities such as Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne to either of the two airports of the archipelago (Airlie Beach or Hamilton Island). The cost is around $100 per person, depending where you are coming from.
Accommodation in the Whitsundays
Unless you’re in a van or camper van, you’re bound to spend a few nights in the area and there are the different types of accommodation available in the Whitsundays. Be sure to choose an option that suits your needs, though. For example, some options are too far from the centre to walk so if you don’t have a car, pay attention to location as the area is quite hilly and it can be easy to get caught out.
Hotels and hostels in Airlie Beach
Depending on your budget, you will find lots of different types of hotels or hostels in Airlie Beach. For a standard dormitory-style hostel, expect to pay around $50 per person. If you are looking for a higher standard of accommodation, you should expect to pay around $130 for a room in a hotel close to the centre.
For a higher-end hotel, you can expect to pay between $200 and $300 per night.
Booking hotels and hostels in Airlie Beach
Compare the prices of several accommodation options in Airlie Beach using Booking.com
Flat Hotels and Airbnb
Via “Airbnb” type platforms, you will find a lot of nice and well-located options for accommodation. Count on spending about $150 per night for a flat or a room in the centre. Keep in mind that these prices can quickly skyrocket in high season, long weekends, during school holidays, etc.
For a single room in a guest house, expect to pay around $80 per night.
The main resorts on the islands are located on Daydream Island, Hamilton Island or Hayman Island.
Daydream Island : 400 to 600$ for a double room – 1200$ for a suite (50m2)
Hamilton Island : 400 to 650$ for a double room – 700 to 1500$ for a suite.
Hayman Island : 1000$ to 1500$ for a double room – 800 to 1500$ for a suite. And $1500 to $9000 for suites or villas (more than 4 people).
If you’re still keen to spend a night or 2 amongst the Whitsunday Islands, then why not considering a camping excursion there? As a National Park, many of the Whitsunday Islands have wonderfully cheap camping spots that can be enjoyed for as little as $7 per night! Facilities are basic, but it’s the ultimate way to enjoy the beautiful surrounds of these tropical islands on a budget. Plus, you’re very likely to have the place for yourself. Winner!
You will need to obtain a permit beforehand though, so some fore-planning is required for this option. Please note that campfires are strictly forbidden on the islands.
FAQs about the Whitsundays
Apart from discovering the islands of the archipelago, you won’t need much time to explore the rest of the region. However, plan to spend 1 or 2 days at Airlie Beach to enjoy its artificial lagoon, to walk around or to go shopping on the main highstreet. On top of that, add in the time for the excursions you plan to discover the islands (we would recommend a minimum of 2 days)
The islands are part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, which means that they are part of the world’s largest living ecosystem. The ‘fringing reefs’ that surround the islands offer incredible dive sites, with exceptional wildlife!
Hamilton Island Airport is the main air hub for the Whitsunday Islands and Great Barrier Reef. You can fly there directly from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. You can also land at Proserpine Airport which is a major tourist airport in the region.
The very fine sediments found in the waters of the region attract the bright blue part of the light spectrum. This is what makes the water appear so clear.
Yes, Irukandji jellyfish, box jellyfish, bluebottles and other dangerous species can be found in the waters around Whitsundays and can cause serious reactions in humans should you be stung by one of these. This is especially true during certain times of the year, when you will need to dive in wetsuits for your safety.