A Guide To WhitSunday

The WhitSunday Islands is a premiere destination in Queensland. It offers stunning islands and some of the best sailing experiences in the world. The islands are part of the Great Barrier Reef, and most are designated as National Parks. Whitehaven beach was recognized as the best beach in the Pacific by TripAdvisor readers in 2015. When you land on this beach you’ll recognize immediately what all the fuss is about. The azure blue sea laps against the glistening soft white silica sands. At the northern end of the beach sits a stunning cove, where the tide shifts with the sand to create a beautiful fusion of colors.

There are several ways you can enjoy the WhitSunday. The most popular is to do an overnight sailing tour, to leisurely traverse and explore this wonderland; sampling different islands, coves and beaches. If you have the money then you can stay at one of the luxury resorts, such as Hamilton or Hayman islands. Alternatively (if you’re on a budget), you can still enjoy this island paradise by doing a DIY tour using the island camp sites on WhitSunday Isalnd National Park (check out Whitsunday Island Camping Connections).

Sadly, Airlie Beach is the primary gateway to these beautiful islands. During my travels I’ve generally enjoyed all the towns I’ve visited. Airlie Beach is the exception. There were lots of bars catering to young backpackers, giving this miserable place a run down Daytona Beach feel during Spring Break. Thankfully, I was only there for one night. My recommendation is get in to see WhitSundays and then leave Airlie Beach as quick as you can. Unless you want to spend your days and nights with drunk fraternity/sorority backpackers.

 

How To Get There

Airlie Beach is the main gateway to the WhitSunday. You can reach it by:

Plane: There are two main airports that service WhitSundays. The Great Barrier Reef Airport located on the Hamilton Island (HTI) and WhitSunday Coast Airport in Prserpine (PPP).

From the HTI there are ferries that operate to transfer passengers to Airlie Beach and other resort areas. PPP is 25 minute drive to Airlie Beach and is serviced by buses and taxis. There are also ferries to available to island resorts.

From – To Flight Time
 Cairns – Hamilton Island 1 ½ hours
 Brisbane – Whitsunday Coast 1 ½ hours
 Brisbane – Hamilton Island 1 ½ hours
 Sydney – Hamilton Island 2 hours
 Melbourne – Hamilton Island 3 hours

Road:  Airlie Beach is approximately 1100km north of Brisbane and 600km south of Cairns. The two closest Queensland cities are Mackay, 150km to the south, and Townsville, 300km to the north.  You can drive to Airlie Beach by car or camper. There’s also a hop-on / hop-off greyhound option that operates between major cities like Sydney and Brisbane to Cairns with stops at many popular destinations like Noosa, Byron Bay and others. Those tickets are valid for three months from purchase.

To view the map of the greyhound route click here. For more details on purchasing a greyhound ticket click here.

 

Best Time To Visit

The Whitsundays enjoys year round tropical climate of hot wet summers, warm dry winters and a pleasant spring and autumn. September has the best conditions with consistently sunny days and low humidity, you’ll also avoid stinger season and the school holidays for the majority of the month.

October through May is known as ‘stinger season’, when the waters may contain the infamous box jellyfish and Irukandji both of which can deliver potentially deadly stings. During this period swimmers should wear a stinger suit.
 


How To Do WhitSundays

How you explore the WhitSundays depends on your budget and time constraints. Below are some ideas on how to plan a trip to this incredible place.

Resort Vacation: If you have the resources and are looking for a luxurious vacation then you’re in luck. The WhitSundays has incredible resort options that are hosted on exclusive islands. You can island hop from your resort to visit any of the other amazing islands, coves or beaches while still having access to all the finer things in life.

Enjoy family resort vacation in WhitSunday
Enjoy family resort vacation in WhitSunday

 

Sailing: This is the most popular way to see WhitSunday islands. There are number of private chartered boats that offer sailing cruises around the isles. Cruises normally range from 2 to 3 day excursions; this is how I chose to explore the WhitSundays, and I loved it. Prior to booking, it’s important you do your research. Not all boats are equal, and your enjoyment will be directly impacted by the crew, the size of the cabins and the people who join you on the cruise. So make sure you do the following:

  • Decide what experience you’re looking for: Are you looking for a booze cruise or a more relaxed adult atmosphere. Usually the bigger the boat, the more likely it’ll be a party tour.  Bigger boats tend to be cheaper and attract more of the young backpackers. Smaller boats tend to be more expensive and attract married couples, older travelers and others looking to enjoy a relaxed cruise environment.
  • Size matter: The size of the boat will influence the attention you get from the crew. The boat I sailed on only had 13 guests. That meant that I not only got to know other travelers but also the crew very well. The crew took the time to explain more about the island, marine life and sailing. It enhanced and enriched our sailing experience. On a large boat that kind of attention isn’t possible.
  • Research the boat and crew: Make sure you take the time to research the boat and crew. Read as many online reviews as possible to get a feel for the vessel and team you’ll be sailing with. All it take is one bad crew member to ruin an experience. As an example, at the start of our cruise there was a mix up on the reservations for the master cabin in the boat. Two couple booked it. The captain (realizing that one of the couples would have to downgrade) went out of his way to apologize and really worked hard to make the sailing experience even more special for the downgraded couple and everyone else on the ship.
Waltzing Matilda
I did an overnight cruise of the WhitSundays on the “Waltzing Matilda”

 

Camping On The Islands: Budget should not be a reason to limit your access or enjoyment of the WhitSunday Islands. Camping on the islands gives a more authentic experience compared to the tour groups that rush in and out of area. Once all the tourist boats have cleared out, you’ll have the island all to yourself and fellow campers. I imagine Whitehaven beach on sunrise and sunset to be a magical place. Prior to planning your camping trip make sure to do the following:

  • Camping basics: Make sure to go to the WhitSunday Parks Camping page to learn about all the camping sites and rules and regulations. (Parks Link)
  • Scamper is your best friend: Scamper is a water taxi service that will ferry you from Airlie Beach to any island camp site. They also offer rental services for camping kits that include tents, pots/pans, sleeping mats and more.
  • Beware the mozzies: This is a tropical area meaning there are lots of insects and mosquitoes. Make sure you bring insect repellent or be prepared to be eaten alive. Australian bugs are mean buggers. Every time I was bitten, a massive red welt would appear and they were painful as hell.
  • Don’t leave food out: This is more of a general camping rule, but food will attract wild animals. Make sure that you secure your food in coolers and don’t leave it lying around, unless you want to meet your local wildlife in the middle of night.
Amazing WhiteHaven Beach
Throughout the Whitsundays there are islands you can camp on, including the amazing WhiteHaven beach

 

Daytripping: This is another option for budget conscience travelers. You can base yourself from Airlie Beach and then do daytrips to explore the area.  There’s a wide selection of activities you can do. Some of the more popular options include:
  • Visit an Island: Of course the most popular daytrips focus on visiting popular islands and iconic spots like Whitehaven beach.
  • Scuba diving and snorkeling: The WhitSunday islands are considered to be part of the Great Barrier Reef and there are many reefs teaming with corals, fish and large marine life to see. It’s a great place for scuba diving and snorkeling experience.
  • Aerial view of islands: The islands are amazing to see on land, but more so from high up. Helicopter rides offer once in a lifetime view of this world-wonder landscape. Not to be missed is seeing Whitehaven beach from the air and Heart Reef, a natural reef that’s formed into the shape of a heart.
  • Fishing Day Trips: The reefs surrounding the islands are full of small fish, which in turn attract larger fish. This makes it perfect grounds for day trip fishing.

Aerial view of Heart Reef
Aerial view of Heart Reef

Related Videos

Below is a video of an overnight cruise I took on the “Waltzing Matilda”.

Also, you can read about the experience in this post.