There are some places in the world that are bigger than the hype, better than the Instagram images, and more captivating in real life than you could ever imagine.
North Queensland’s Airlie Beach is such a place. While that might sound like quite a lot of expectations to put on the suntanned shoulders of one little beach town, relax. Because it’s not just what Airlie ‘is’ that’s so irresistible; it’s the many possibilities that it presents. Cheeky, charming and full of character, Airlie Beach is the gateway to the overwhelming beauty that is the Whitsunday Islands. It also affords access to the pretty coastal town of Bowen — which has to be one of the best little surprise packages in the region.
Here are ten of the best things to do in Airlie Beach.
1. Splash down at the Airlie Beach Lagoon
October through to May is peak stinger season in North Queensland, making the fabulous Airlie Beach Lagoon the safest option for a splash. Open all year round, this popular community facility is surrounded by lush gardens and offers plenty of shady spots for enjoying some towel time. It comes complete with a beach and has a shallow swimming area for the littlies.
2. Go to a gallery or festival
While it’s big on beach culture, Airlie also has plenty to interest more traditional culture vultures. Art Whitsunday is a cooperative of 80 members, who regularly display paintings, prints, sculptures and photographic works in a gallery space on the top floor of the Heart Hotel. Those with a particular interest in photography (or just looking at gorgeous pictures!) should pay a visit to Shane Batham’s Into The Blue Gallery — one man’s homage to the big blue of the Whitsundays. Shane’s large format panoramic images are nothing short of inspiring. If your own piccy skills aren’t up to the job of doing the region justice, you can take home one of these instead.
The region hosts a packed calendar of festivals and cultural events. Head to the Tourism and Events Queensland website to find out what’s on during your visit. The annual Great Barrier Reef Festival (held in August) is a highlight.
3. Experience local Indigenous culture
The traditional owners of the Whitsunday region are the maritime Ngaro people and this was one of the first places Europeans had contact with the Indigenous peoples of Australia. For a privileged encounter with some ancient Ngaro rock art, visit the Ngaro cultural site on Hook Island. It’s a little bit of a climb to get there, but well worth it to see this priceless historic legacy in situ.
4. Soak up the beauty of the Whitsundays
Pretty much everybody is in Airlie Beach for one reason, and that’s to get out amongst the 74 islands of the Whitsundays. There are plenty of ways to experience the vast, iridescent blue-osity of this incredible region — and, yes, that is a made up word, but honestly, you just have to see the blueness to believe it! #nofilterrequired
Make it a day to remember in the Whitsundays on the Thundercat with Red Cat Adventures. Visit the lookout at Hill Inlet for what’s been deemed one of the world’s most Instagrammable views — the swirling silica sands of Whitehaven Beach. Once you land on the beach itself and sink your toes into that silky soft sand, a tick can well and truly go on the bucket list.
5. Explore on a Segway
Back on dry land, a boardwalk tour at sunset with Whitsunday Segway Tours is a fun and relaxed way (once you’ve got the hang of it!) to explore the Airlie waterfront. Leaving from the Abell Point Marina, you’ll head along the Whitsunday Bicentennial Boardwalk past Shingley Beach and the Botanic Gardens to Cannonvale Beach. A casual bistro dinner is included in the tour price. It’s also possible to do a rainforest tour through the lush Conway National Park.
Listen to a podcast of our tips for top things to do in Airlie Beach:
6. Step back in time in Bowen
The town of Bowen is located an hour-or-so’s drive north of Airlie, and is well worth a day visit. It’s best known for its mangoes, and as the shooting location for the blockbuster movie Australia (and, yes, the stories about the Hugh Jackman commemorative beef pies are true!). But as Queensland’s oldest town, it also has a rich history to explore. Delve into the backstory at the excellent historical museum and Catalina Display on the waterfront, which commemorates the part the town played in WWII as a base for the famous Catalina flying boats.
7. Check out the Big Mango and best beach
One of your rewards for the drive from Airlie to Bowen is a stop at the Big Mango — an icon amongst the ‘bigs’ of regional Australia. And, while the theft of the three-storey structure some years ago turned out to be a stunt by Nando’s, the impressive stature of this fruity superhero cannot be denied. Once you’ve posed for the obligatory selfie, your most important task is to sample the frozen mango sorbet made from the famous Bowen fruit. Maybe only a mango lover will understand, but it’s kinda like a little bit of heaven in a cup…
While you’re in Bowen, don’t miss the opportunity to head up Flagstaff Hill for the jaw-dropping 360-degree views over Edgecumbe Bay. Then spend an hour (or a day, or forever…) at Horseshoe Bay, which regularly makes the list of Australia’s best beaches. As well as soaking up the sunshine on this enchanting strip of sand, make sure you do the walk up to the lookout. It’s a reasonably easy 15-minute hike to the top and the views are out of this world.
8. Eat out…a lot!
The term ‘food trail’ is bang on trend at the moment, but when it comes to Airlie Beach and Bowen there really is a definitive (and pleasurable) path you can follow from the paddock to the plate. From still-all-but-jumping seafood and oversized (and not of the genetically modified version) fruit and veges, to the full-bodied Whitsunday Gold coffee, you might have to invent another meal to legitimately fit it all in!
Le Sorelle, The Sisters Coffee House is one of those discoveries you sort of want to keep to yourself but you just know it’s never going to happen. It’s that good. And it’s in Bowen. That’s the first surprise, but it just keeps getting better. This delightful coffeehouse and florist was established by three local sisters with a shared vision of bringing a little bit of Melbourne to North Queensland. It’s definitely job done, and from the décor and menu to the superb coffee and creative floristry, Le Sorelle wouldn’t be a bit out of place in our cosmopolitan southern capital.
Bird’s Fish Bar is another of Bowen’s delightful foodie surprises and, whatdya know, another family success story! Bowen Fisherman’s Seafood Company has been catching and exporting seafood around Australia and internationally for 30 years. The addition of the fabulous Bird’s Fish Bar is the brainchild of the latest generation and it’s proving an unequivocal success.
Back in Airlie, the Fat Frog Beach Café is another little outfit that punches well above its weight in terms of standout coffee, hearty homemade food and a waterfront position worth writing home about. Their claim of ‘funky, fun and just a little bit quirky’ suits them to a tee. Lychee and coconut muffin? Yes please.
Situated on the main street of Airlie, Fish D’Vine is an award-winning restaurant that serves fish. And it’s divine. So far so good. But this light-filled dining space also has a vivacious alter ego as the infamous Rum Bar. You can work your way through more than 500 varieties of rum and the Rum Bar has actually been awarded the honour of the best mojito in the world! The restaurant also runs cooking master-classes, under the tutelage of the very entertaining Food Junkie, aka owner Bec Clark. Do yourself a flavour, I mean favour…
9. Get some holiday retail therapy
Power-shoppers, it’s time to give yourself and your credit cards a much-needed break and just enjoy the low-key retail offering in and around Airlie. The revitalised main street offers fun, funky shops where you can pick up souvenirs, swimwear, resort wear and anything you might find a need for on holiday. The Airlie Beach Community Markets are another relaxed option. They’re held in the Airlie Esplanade beachfront park on Saturdays.
10. Do a sunset champagne cruise
One of the most wonderful ways to wrap up your time in Airlie is a sunset champagne cruise with Sundowner Cruises. This unforgettable experience takes you through the ‘magic hours’ from dusk, to sunset and dark, as you motor slowly around the port against the backdrop of the twinkling lights of Airlie Beach.
But don’t be sad that you’re leaving Airlie, because you’ll be back. Resistance is futile.
Where to stay in Airlie Beach
Sky View Units
The Sky View Units in Bowen provide everything guests need for a comfortable self-contained stay, and the complex is within walking distance of the beach. There’s a choice of spacious studios or one and two bedroom apartments (all with well-equipped kitchens). The facilities include a lovely pool, free Wi-Fi, undercover parking and a 24-hour reception.
Heart Hotel and Gallery
The absolutely delightful Heart Hotel and Gallery Whitsundays is Airlie Beach’s newest upscale boutique hotel. With various levels of accommodation — ranging from a standard Luxury Room to a Club Floor Luxury Ocean View Spa Suite, no stone has been left unturned to ensure the comfort of guests. A central location and touches like L’Occitane toiletries and Nespresso coffee machines make this one of the most desirable holiday addresses in town.
Mantra Club Croc
Having recently undergone a $5 million renovation, Mantra Club Croc in Airlie Beach provides comfortable and contemporary resort-style accommodation. Club Croc has 160 rooms, which offer a mix of garden, pool and ocean views. Interconnecting rooms are available for families. The resort is built around a huge lagoon pool and there’s a spa, bar and bistro, free parking and Wi-Fi.
Coral Sea Resort
The fabulous Coral Sea Resort is an Airlie Beach icon and brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘sea view’. Situated right on the ocean, the resort offers a range of rooms, suites, apartments and penthouses. The facilities include a magnificent 25-metre pool, an award-winning restaurant and a gorgeous private jetty.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Airlie Beach? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Julietta Henderson is a Melbourne-based travel writer and author. Originally planning to visit London for six months, she ended up staying for ten years and now divides her time between her home in Australia and several months of the year in the UK, Italy and France. Julietta has travelled extensively through Europe, North America, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia and Russia, and believes the keys to a great travel experience are an open heart, an open mind and an open-ended ticket. Her first novel — The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman — is now available in bookstores.