The Whitsunday Islands: Heart of the Great Barrier Reef

My first introduction to the Whitsundays was nothing short of incredible. In just one day, I explored beautiful islands, sunbaked on white-sand beaches, swam and snorkeled in dazzling turquoise waters, experienced close encounters with colorful coral, fish, and even a turtle! From that moment on, I fell in love with the area and have been blessed to be able to call it my home on and off for the past seven years.

Blue skies over the Whitsundays

The Whitsundays are a must-see for anyone heading to Australia. They make up part of a chain of seventy-four islands, located off the northeast coast of Queensland, Australia. Smack bang in the middle of the world heritage listed Great Barrier Reef marine park. The main port and therefore gateway to the Whitsundays is the small, sailing town of Airlie beach. Fondly referred to by locals and visitors as the ‘heart of the great barrier reef.'

Getting to the Whitsundays

Whitsundays coast airport is located in Proserpine, a small town about thirty minutes drive away from Airlie Beach. There are plenty of affordable shuttle buses and car rental options ready to get you to Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays. While the airport is not international, flights from all capital Australian cities are available daily. Another Airport is located on Hamilton Island, a half an hour ferry ride away from Airlie Beach. Hamilton is the most developed of the Whitsunday islands and provides holidaymakers with world-class restaurants, water activities, a golf course and a wide selection of boat trips that will take you out to explore Whitehaven beach and some of the other Whitsunday islands. If you are looking for an upmarket, luxury, resort-style island escape, stay on Hamilton Island and base your Whitsundays holiday from there. For those that want to explore the mainland, Airlie Beach is a wonderful place to stay. Despite the constant influx of tourism, Airlie has not lost its small-town charm. Ranging from backpacker hostels to five-star resorts, Airlie Beach has accommodation, restaurants, bars, and activities to suit any style and budget.

Getting out to the Whitsunday islands

There are a plethora of sailing and motor boats ready to show you what the glorious Whitsundays has to offer. From action-packed day trips, relaxing 3-day tall ship cruises and everything in between. The Whitsundays: Paradise on earth

Whitsundays Day Trips 

Ocean Rafting and Thundercat

Both popular day boats that depart from Airlie Beach. Because of their high speeds, these trips are the best way to make the most out of your Whitsundays experience if you're short on time. No matter what the wind conditions are like, you can fit in a visit to Whitehaven beach, a bush walk up to the beautiful hill inlet lookout and plenty of snorkeling time. Both trips include a buffet lunch, snacks and pick up from your accommodation. Depending on where you situate yourself on the vessel, these trips cater to both adrenaline junkies and people who haven't quite got their sea legs yet. The friendly crew will inform you about this on the day. You can book any Whitsundays trip you like from the wide selection of travel agents located on Airlie Beach's main drag.

Cruise Whitsundays

A large company based both out of Airlie Beach and Hamilton Island. Cruise Whitsundays have a variety of day trips ranging from a half-day trip to Whitehaven beach to all-inclusive full day trips that will take you out to more of the Whitsunday islands and include some snorkeling, food, and refreshments. All of Cruise Whitsundays trips can arrange pickup from your accommodation for a small extra charge, either from Airlie Beach or Hamilton Island.

The breathtaking view of hill inlet and Whitehaven Beach

Overnight Trips

Because there are so many different tour companies, all suited to very different travelers, make sure you do some research before selecting your overnight trip around the Whitsundays. Below is some information on two fantastic tours that I have experienced personally.  I’m sure you will find one to suit your timeframe, budget, and style.

Solway Lass

The most aesthetically beautiful ship in the Whitsundays. At over one hundred years old, Solway has a rich history and feels like you're sailing on a real-life pirate ship. You spend 3 nights and 3 full days aboard, making it a fantastic way to explore the best of what the Whitsundays has to offer – with plenty of time to relax on the large deck space. Snorkelling, bushwalking, a rope swing and the opportunity to help the crew hoist the sails are just some of the activities available to guests. All that adventure and the open ocean air can make one quite hungry.  Solway's onboard chef has you covered, preparing delicious meals and snacks around the clock. Solway Lass is one of the few vessels with a licensed bar onboard so after an action-packed day, you can grab a drink to wind down and watch a beautiful sunset over the Whitsundays. The majestic Solway Lass under a classic Whitsundays sunset.

Ride to paradise

Is a unique overnight Whitsundays experience. Instead of sleeping on a boat, the accommodation is based in a spacious, luxury resort. Spend part of your days exploring and snorkeling around the Whitsundays by high-speed catamaran and your nights eating, drinking and relaxing in the companies resort: ‘Paradise Cove’. Paradise Cove is located on the mainland not far from Airlie Beach, however, it is only accessible by boat so it feels more like a private island oasis. The resort boasts a large swimming pool, hot tub, tennis court, beachside firepit and not one but two private beaches. Paradise Cove resort is exclusive to guests that are booked onto the Ride to Paradise tour. Paddleboards and other water activities are available on the beach at no extra charge. There is also plenty of time to spend relaxing in one of the many hammocks strung between the palm trees. Accommodation ranges from affordable dorm rooms to private luxury villas. Guests have the option to spend either one or two nights on this award-winning tour.

Paradise cove definitely lives up to its name

The best time of year to visit the Whitsundays

Because Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays are located in tropical Australia, instead of having four seasons, there is only two: a wet and a dry season. An optimum time to visit is in the dry season (may to November). Although it is technically Australia's ‘winter’ you can expect clear sunny skies and warm temperatures. In the months of June to September, there’s a high chance of spotting some humpback whales. During the winter months, these wondrous creatures make their annual migration from Antarctica up to Airlie Beach, the Whitsundays and Great Barrier Reef. They spend this time raising their calves in the warm, safe, tropical waters until they're strong enough to make the long journey home. Don’t make that put you off going in the summer/rainy season. Yes, you may experience some rain and scattered thunderstorms but sunny days are not uncommon. Some benefits of the wet season are that the rolling hills surrounding  Airlie and the Whitsundays themselves are exceptionally lush and green.  Additionally, a stunning waterfall located close to Airlie beach only flows during this time of year and is a perfect way to escape the heat and humidity of the tropical summer. No matter what time of year you visit, you won't be able to deny the region's beauty.

Ellie McMaster

Ellie McMaster is a writer, blogger, and full-time wanderer, currently residing in Sri Lanka. Her favorite pastimes are eating, surfing, freediving, and playing with puppies. While Australia will always be home and have her heart; she suffers from perpetually itchy feet and is always on the move.