A truly stunning chain of islands sprinkled across the Great Barrier Reef, the Whitsundays are Australia’s number one destination for sailing trips, also offering both world-class beaches and scuba diving, all set amongst the sparkling Coral Sea.
There are 74 islands in the Whitsundays in total, each covered with sub-tropical rainforest and surrounded by sandy beaches and fringing coral reefs. Accommodation, ranging from budget rooms to luxury resorts, is available on eight of the islands, with the rest being basically undeveloped. Most famous is Whitsunday Island, which is home to Whitehaven Beach. With its silica sand and spectacular setting, Whitehaven is regularly named near the top of “Australia’s best beaches” lists. There is hardly a sailing trip in this part of Australia that doesn’t stop there, however visits are generally brief meaning it never gets crowded.
Privately-owned Hamilton Island is the most developed of the Whitsundays. Facilities on Hamilton Island include an airport, big marina, large apartment building, shops and banks.
If you want an extravagant luxury resort, safely away from the prying eyes of day-trippers, then Hayman Island is probably for you. South Molle Island has recently rebranded itself as Adventure Island. It offers more budget-friendly backpacker accommodation and tour options, while a Club Med resort can be found on Lindeman Island.
Hook Island has a fantastic underwater observatory for viewing the reef and offers the best island-based opportunities for budget travellers wanting to scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef.
Tiny, picturesque Daydream Island, with its lovely beach and good snorkelling is also a great resort option.
Camping is available at 34 campsites dotted throughout the Whitsundays. Amenities are limited however so you will have to go well prepared, for example by making sure you take enough drinking water. You will also need to book a permit (www.epa.qld.gov.au – this is an Australian government website) and organise your own transport. If the more remote the better is your policy, then check out reef-surrounded Denman, Planton and Tancred islands.
Back on the Australian mainland, Airlie Beach is the main gateway to the Whitsundays and is also one of Queensland’s biggest party towns, being one of the main tourist hubs on the east coast of Australia. Located in the heart of Australia’s cane growing country, it offers a huge array of budget and backpacker accommodation, while not neglecting the family holiday and luxury travel markets.
Airlie doesn’t have a great beach as such, but it does boast an excellent man-made lagoon, complete with BBQs, which is a brilliant place to chill out.
It is Abel Point Marina, just outside Airlie Beach, from which most Whitsunday sailing trips depart.
Whitsunday Islands Sailing Trips
The number of companies offering sailing trips to the Whitsunday Islands is considerable, so shop around to find exactly what sort of boat you want. Available boats range from catamarans and racing maxis to antique tall ships. Also note that some trips are so-called “party boats”. Expect to join plenty of Australians and backpackers drinking their own bodyweight in alcohol if you find yourself travelling on one of those boats. Trips are available for one, two or three days, with three generally being the most popular option. While on board, the boat crew prepare all food, plus lead guided walks and scuba dives or snorkles. Be wary that sometimes when tour operators sell “three day sailing trips”, the excursion only involves one full day and two half days. Also, most sailing trips around the Whitsundays spend the vast majority of the time on the water, with limited, brief island stops, for example at Whitehaven Beach. So, ask the right questions if you have a particular island you want to see. Also, don’t just go for the cheapest boat trip – the Whitsundays is probably the Australian travel destination worst afflicted by cowboy operators, so you very much get what you pay for!
Whitsunday Sailing Charters
Sailing around the Whitsunday Islands is one of the top travel experiences in Australia, which is perhaps why so many tourists, both from abroad and Australia, choose to rent a boat and do it themselves. Luckily, like with the organised Whitsunday sailing trips, there’s a huge range of companies offering sailing charters. You don’t need a licence to hire a yacht without crew (known as bareboat), but at least one of you will have to demonstrate you have the necessary skills on the first day you rent the boat. If you’re not up to scratch, you might have to hire a skipper or take lessons. Most sailing charter companies insist on a minimum five-day booking.
Dive trips and dive courses can easily be arranged through a number of scuba companies in Airlie Beach, while most of the island resorts also have their own dive schools, predominantly PADI.
There is great fringing coral at the northern tip of Whitsunday Island, at Manta Ray Bay, Langford Reef and Butterfly Bay. Some of the best coral and marine life can be found on the Outer Great Barrier Reef, which is about 30km from the Whitsundays. Good dive sites include the Bait Reef Marine Park, Knuckle Reef, Hardy Lagoon and Hook, Line and Sinker Reefs.
The east coast of Australia is graced by humpback whales between June and September, when the giant acrobatic mammals migrate up the Australian coast from Antarctica in order to give birth, before heading back south through Queensland and New South Wales waters with their calves. Whale watching trips can easily be booked through tour operators in Airlie Beach or island resorts. However, if you’re really keen to see whales up close, Hervey Bay, further south in Queensland, is widely regarded as the best place in Australia to watch them.
Some of the best fishing in Australia can be found on the Great Barrier Reef, which is why the Whitsundays are also a popular travel destination for anglers. Once again, many tour operators offer charter boats out of Airlie Beach (and also Mackay).
Australian waters aren’t always home to the friendliest of creatures. In Queensland, there are high numbers of jellyfish between November and May, a time referred to as Stinger Season. Stings could potentially cause anything from mild discomfort to death, so swimming around the Whitsunday Islands without wearing at least a thin stinger suit in these months is not advisable. All good tour operators and holiday resorts will provide stinger suits.
The Whitsundays are in the state of Queensland and are serviced by two regional airports – the Whitsunday Coast Airport (about a 25-minute drive from Airlie Beach) and Great Barrier Reef Airport, which is on Hamilton Island. Daily flights are available from Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Cairns, operated by Jetstar, Virgin Blue and Qantas. Car hire is available from Whitsunday Coast Airport and Airlie Beach. Passengers arriving on Hamilton Island can easily arrange connections to other islands, whether by boat, seaplane or helicopter, especially if staying on one of the luxury resorts, for example on Hayman Island.
Airlie Beach is easily reached by road, about 20km off the Bruce Highway. However, being situated about halfway between Cairns and Hervey Bay, distances are big. It is well serviced by bus companies such as Greyhound and Premier Way.
If visiting during the Whitsunday Reef Festival (October), Schoolies (November), or around Christmas and New Year