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If you’re travelling up the east coast of Australia on a backpackers trip as I did when I was 20, then you’ll definitely want to add a visit to the Whitsunday Islands to your Australia itinerary along with Fraser Island.
We opted for the traditional backpacker option of joining a small group on a yacht for a few days. Expect rather a lot of alcohol (or goon; a cheap box of wine) and an even larger amount of fun. There are other ways to visit the Whitsunday Islands too. You can actually travel there without being part of a tour for a more relaxing experience. If you’re planning on visiting the Whitsunday Islands, here’s a guide on how to do so.
About the Whitsundays
The Whitsunday Islands are a group of 74 islands off the coast of eastern Australia in the state of Queensland. They’re visited by hundreds of thousands of people every year. These Australian Islands are best known for their white-sand beaches and turquoise waters (especially Whitehaven Beach). It’s the type of place you’d see as a computer background or screensaver.
The Whitsunday Islands are also a gateway to The Great Barrier Reef so they’re teeming with marine life and coral.
Where are the Whitsunday Islands and a Whitsundays map
The Whitsundays are off the east coast of Australia in Queensland between Cairns and Brisbane (but much closer to Cairns!).
The closest town is Airlie Beach which is where most people will board a ship for the islands.
This Whitsunday Islands map shows you the main islands.
How to get to the Whitsunday Islands
Unless you’re doing a sailing trip, you’ll need to decide which island of the Whitsundays you want to visit.
Flights to the Whitsundays, Australia
There are two main places you can fly to when visiting the Whitsunday Islands. There’s the Hamilton Island airport or the airport in Airlie Beach.
Hamilton Island is one of the larger islands in the Whitsundays and the airport on Hamilton Island has daily flights from Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.
The Whitsunday Coast Airport is on mainland Australia in Airlie Beach.
Need to book flights to the Whitsunday Islands? Check out Skyscanner, they’re my go-to whenever I’m booking flights as it’s super easy to find a great deal through them. AND for my top tips for finding cheap flights, check out this post.
There are 2 ferry routes operating between the mainland and the Whitsunday Islands. Cruise Whitsundays operates the routes from Airlie Beach (Port of Airlie) to Hamilton Island Marina which runs 10 times per day, and the Shute Harbour to Hamilton Island Marina route which departs about 3 times daily.
If you’re planning to stay in one of the hotels, or want to camp, taking a ferry is a great option.
Sailing to the Whitsundays
The Whitsundays is the only place in the world you can rent a luxury yacht without a sailing license (but I’m not suggesting you just go and do that!). One of the best and most popular ways to visit the Whitsundays is to join a skippered sailing trip in the Whitsundays. On these Whitsundays trips, you tend to sail from island to island and spend your days diving, exploring, snorkelling or relaxing onboard the boat. Sailing trips start and end at several of the towns along the coast with the most popular being Airlie Beach.
If you’re backpacking the east coast of Australia and stay in Airlie Beach, you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to companies that offer sailing trips to explore the Whitsundays. They’re everywhere and pretty much all of the ones aimed at backpackers on a budget offer the same thing.
Expect to pay between 490-550 AUD per person for a 2-night sailing trip. Take a look at the tours below for an idea of what to expect. Pretty much every tour of the Whitsundays will include a Whitehaven beach tour too.
- Whitsunday Islands & the Great Barrier Reef
- Whitsundays tour – 2-night Whitsundays sailing adventures
Where to stay in the Whitsundays
There isn’t a huge amount of accommodation on the Whitsunday Islands, Australia since they’re pretty small and mostly uninhabited. A lot of people will be staying on their yachts but if you do want to stay in a hotel in the Whitsundays here are some of the best options.
Whitsunday Island hotels
A couple of the larger islands have Whitsundays resorts. These hotels don’t come cheap so if you’re travelling Australia on a budget then look at the sailing trips instead. Most hotels will offer a shuttle service to come and collect you upon arrival in the Whitsundays. There’s not really such a thing as “cheap Whitsunday Islands hotels” and one of these resorts is sure to add a luxury touch to your holidays in the Whitsundays.
- Daydream Island Resort: If you’re looking for somewhere special to stay in the Whitsundays then check out Daydream Island Resort. So-called as it’s on Daydream Island, this hotel has incredible ocean views, includes breakfast and has an open-air cinema, outdoor pools, bars and restaurants onsite.
- Intercontinental Hayman Island Resort: On Hayman Island, this Intercontinental hotel is absolutely beautiful. A tropical oasis of white sandy beaches, lush palm trees and sparkling waters await you on this private island. Easily one of the best Whitsunday Islands resorts.
- Reef View Hotel: One more of the beautiful hotels in the Whitsunday Islands, Australia is Reef View hotel is just opposite Catseye Beach and each room comes with a balcony overlooking the gardens or the Coral Sea. The room price also includes free return transfers to Hamilton Island Airport.
Hotels in Airlie Beach
Chances are you’ll spend a night in Airlie Beach either before or after your trip to the Whitsundays. Here are a few places to stay in Airlie Beach that are highly recommended.
- Mirage Whitsundays: An aparthotel, Mirage Whitsundays gives you all the comforts of home and a lot more too! It’s just a 5-minute drive from Airlie Beach, and the apartments have an outdoor pool to enjoy. Breakfast is included and the suites have self-catering facilities too.
- Island Gateway Holiday Park: This holiday park has camping spots, cabins, motel rooms, chalets and villas available to book. It’s a great place to base yourself for trips out to the island and soaking up that sunshine! It’s perfect for those travelling on a budget too.
- Airlie Guest House: Airlie Guest House has beautiful rooms with ocean views and includes breakfast for a very reasonable price. There are shared lounge space and you can arrange Whitsunday tours through the hotel too.
- Airlie Waterfront Bed & Breakfast: This B&B in Airlie Beach has won multiple tourism awards and is located on the waterfront, just 20 yards from the beach and 200 yards from the swimming lagoons. Each room has a furnished balcony or patio with ocean views.
Camping in the Whitsundays
Alternatively, you can make your own way over to the island and camp by catching the ferry. This is probably the cheapest way to visit the Whitsundays but does involve a bit more preparation. There are no shops in the Whitsundays you’ll have to pack everything you need for the duration of your stay.
Whilst you might be hoping to camp on Whitehaven Beach, unfortunately, you won’t be able to. Whitehaven Beach is located on Whitsunday Island which is part of the Whitsundays National Park. While you can camp on Whitsunday Island, it’s illegal to camp on Whitehaven beach.
Take a look at this information on camping in the Whitsundays which includes where to camp too. Personally I think these campsites are up there among the best Whitsunday Islands accommodation options!
How much does it cost to visit the Whitsundays?
If you’re trying to work out how much to budget for your trip to the Whitsundays, this should give you an idea. Prices are in US$.
Hostel & hotels before the boat trip
Most people will spend the night before and after their boat trip in a hotel or hostel in Airlie Beach. There are plenty of choices here but in peak seasons they book up quickly. A bed in a hostel here will cost you about $20-35 a night. Hotels will cost more (see above).
Food and drink
The boat companies that cater to backpackers allow you to bring drinks on board which will make your sailing trip a bit cheaper. It’s a good idea to stock up with a few drinks and also snacks. Head to the supermarket before you set sail and spend about $30 on drinks and an emergency chocolate bar or two!
Cost of a Whitsundays sailing tour
Whitsunday Islands sailing tours for 2 days/2-nights usually start at just over $300. This includes your accommodation for two nights, your food and activities for two days too. If you’d like a bit of a longer trip sailing around the Whitsundays then a 3 day, 2-night sailing experience in the Whitsundays will cost about $400+. You can also book Whitsunday Islands tour day trips too (see below).
Best things to do in the Whitsundays Islands
Still wondering what to do in the Whitsundays here are a few more ideas. Most sailing trips around the Whitsunday Islands will cover at least a few of these top Whitsundays attractions.
Whitehaven Beach & Hill Inlet
Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays is a place you’ve probably seen plenty of pictures of, even if you didn’t know its name. Grab a few pictures from Hill Inlet lookout before heading down to the beach itself.
An award-winning beach, the sand at Whitehaven Beach is super white (hence the name). It’s said that geologists still aren’t sure where the sand has come from – what do you think?
How to get to Whitehaven Beach: There are numerous ways to get the beach. If you’ve booked a tour of the Whitsundays then your tour guide will take you. Otherwise, you can book boat from Airlie Beach or Hamilton Island to the beach.
View Heart Reef from above
You’ve definitely seen this island on a postcard before. I used to think it was photoshopped but it turns out Heart Reef is for real. This heart-shaped reef is on the outskirts of the Great Barrier Reef. The best way to see Heart Reef (and kind of the only way to get the shape) is to book a scenic flight and look down from above.
- Book a 60-minute scenic flight from Airlie Beach over Heart Island, the Great Barrier Reef, Whitehaven Beach and other islands.
- 30 minute helicopter flight over the Whitsunday Islands
Sailing the Whitsundays
If you’ve booked yourself on to a sailing trip as suggested above then you’ve already got this one in the bag. However, if you were just planning to stop over at Airlie Beach then try and get out on one of the Whitsundays boat tours even if just for one day, it’s a truly amazing way to experience this part of Australia.
Here are a few Whitsunday day trips. These Whitsunday trips from Airlie Beach also include a return there.
- Whitsundays catamaran experience: Leave from Airlie Beach for a day full of sailing in the Whitsundays. Visit Whitehaven Beach, walk to Hill Inlet, and snorkel the inner reef. A delicious BBQ lunch, beer and wine are included.
- Whitehaven Beach hike and inlet tour with lunch included: Departing from Airlie Beach, board a boat and head to Whitehaven Beach for swimming, hiking, sunbathing and soaking up the sun.
Do a sunrise hike
Passage Peak on Hamilton Island is one of the best places to watch the sunrise in the Whitsundays. It’s a fairly steep 2.5km (roughly an hour) climb to the top but it’s well worth it. Don’t forget to pack a headlamp!
Snorkel the Great Barrier Reef
Every island of the Whitsundays has a reef with its own coral and marine life. They make great snorkelling and diving spots with some of the best being Butterfly Bay on Hook Island and Blue Pearl Bay at Hayman Island. This is by far one of the best water sports in the Whitsunday Islands!
- Snorkelling in Whitsundays: Get picked up in Airlie Beach and jump on board for a day snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef. Includes 2 locations, lunch and equipment.
Watch a sunset at One Tree Hill
One Tree Hill is a popular sunset spot in the Whitsundays on Hamilton Island and it always draws a crowd.
Buy a drink from the local bottle shop and head up early to stake out your spot for the sunset. You can also get a drink from the bar at One Tree Hill which does delicious cocktails and craft beer but it’s definitely more pricey!
What to pack for a Whitsundays sailing adventure
- Towels: Pack a couple of these lightweight travel towels. One for the beach and one for drying off after a shower.
- Swimsuit: You’re not going to be able to resist jumping in that water!
- Suncream: It’s hot out there and you’ll burn even easier out at sea thanks to the reflection of the sun bouncing off the water
- Sunglasses: Don’t pack your Raybans if you’re worried about them falling overboard!
- Flip flops or sandals: Onboard you’ll be padding around barefoot, but for when you dock up on land you’ll want some good sandals or flip flops
- Anti-sea sickness tablets: If you’re prone to seasickness make sure to pack some of these. You can pick them up all over town at Airlie Beach and your guide is bound to have some on hand should you be caught off guard.