Top 10 Things to Do in Airlie Beach and Bowen, QLD
Queensland's Airlie Beach has long been a popular stop on the east coast backpacker trail, but today it's a holiday hot spot for anyone wanting to experience the beauty of the Whitsunday Islands. Break out the boardies and bikinis, and tick off these ten fabulous things to do in Airlie and its northern neighbour Bowen.
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. And while that might sound like a lot of expectation 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 it presents.
Cheeky, charming, and full of character, the town itself has plenty to entertain visitors — including a fabulous recreational swimming area (the Airlie Beach Lagoon), palm fringed foreshore, oodles of eateries and relaxed shopping boutiques, and a jumping social scene. Just over the horizon, you have the overwhelming beauty of the Whitsunday Islands to marvel at, and beyond that, the outer Great Barrier Reef to explore. A stay in Airlie also affords easy access to the coastal township of Bowen — one of the best little surprise packages in the region.
Here are ten top things to do in Airlie Beach and Bowen.
Watch our video of top things to do in Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays:
Queensland’s Airlie Beach has long been a popular stop on the east coast backpacker trail, but today it’s a holiday hot spot for anyone wanting to experience the extraordinary beauty of the Whitsunday Islands and Great Barrier Reef. Think turquoise waters, amazing beaches, palm trees swaying in the breeze, and incredible snorkelling and diving.
1. Take a dip in the Airlie Beach Lagoon
October through to May sees the highest concentration of ‘stingers’ (highly venomous Irukandji jellyfish) in North Queensland’s waters, making the Airlie Beach Lagoon the safest option for a splash. Open all year round and free to use, this popular civic facility is surrounded by lush gardens and offers plenty of shady spots for enjoying some towel time. It comes complete with a sandy beach and has a shallow swimming area for the littlies.
2. Ride in a tuk tuk
Airlie is a very walkable place, but why stride when you can ride? Just Tuk’n Around offers a variety of pedal powered tuk tuk tours; you sit in the back and relax, while your driver/guide does the leg work and talking. The Secrets of Airlie Tour covers a surprising amount of ground for what is a relatively compact place, and will equip you with lots of local intel to draw on for the rest of your stay. You’ll pick up tips for places to eat, fun facts about the town, and tidbits of local gossip for good measure. Do this on day one of your holiday.
3. Go to a gallery
While it’s big on beach culture, Airlie also offers some more traditional cultural pursuits. Art Whitsunday is a cooperative of 80 artists and displays paintings, prints, sculptures, and photographic works in a gallery space on the second floor of the Heart Hotel and Gallery on the main street. It’s free to see and open to all (even if you’re not staying at the hotel).
Further along Shute Harbour Road, Shane Batham’s Into The Blue Gallery is one man’s homage to the big blue of the Whitsundays. Shane’s been photographing the region’s diverse landscapes — including famous Hill Inlet on Whitsunday Island and the outer Great Barrier Reef — for decades, and his large format panoramic images are nothing short of jaw-dropping. If your own piccy skills aren’t up to the job, you can take one of these home instead.
4. Soak up the beauty of the Whitsundays
Pretty much everybody is in Airlie Beach for one reason, and that’s to get amongst the 74 islands of the Whitsundays. There are plenty of ways to experience the vast, iridescent blue-osity of this stunning 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 of high speed fun by riding one of Red Cat Adventures’ distinctive red Thundercats between the islands. You’ll visit the lookouts over Hill Inlet on Whitsunday Island (the largest island in the group) to admire what’s been deemed one of the world’s most Instagrammable views — swirling white sand sculpted by the tides and interspersed with channels of vibrant turquoise magnificence. There will also be plenty of time to wiggle your toes in the ultra white silica sands of iconic Whitehaven Beach (recently named in the top five of the 50 best beaches in the world!). That’s a massive bucket list tick right there!
Another opportunity to feel the wind in your hair awaits you on board Cruise Whitsundays‘ 85-foot sailing catamaran Camira. Painted a vivid purple and sporting a 100-foot mast, this baby flies under sail and will also have you snorkelling, swooning over Hill Inlet, and relaxing on Whitehaven Beach in no time. A delicious BBQ lunch is included in the cost of the tour, as are alcoholic drinks. A day on the Camira is all about fun in the sun, but there are shaded areas on board for the fairer holidaymaker.
5. Sleep on the Reef
The Whitsundays lie right in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park — and next to visiting the islands themselves, most visitors want to catch a glimpse of the intricate world beneath the waves. It’s easily done on a day trip with Cruise Whitsundays to Reefworld — the company’s permanently moored recreational pontoon at Hardy Reef — 40 nautical miles from the mainland. Day activities include snorkelling, scuba diving (for an extra fee), riding in a semi-submersible vessel, and gazing through the floor-to-ceiling windows in the underwater observatory.
A select number of guests opt to stay overnight on the pontoon. Known as ‘Reef Sleep’, it’s a night under the stars — or water as the case may be — like no other! Most sleep in the on-deck Reef Beds — a row of permanent swags with lighting, sheets, towels, and a small amount of storage provided. There are also two exclusive underwater Reef Suites on board, and yes Hollywood heartthrob Zac Efron slept in one of them. Expect plenty of marine life to drop by and say ‘hi’ during your stay. All meals and drinks are included in the price of the Reef Sleep experience, and we can’t recommend it highly enough.
6. Explore local Indigenous culture
The traditional owners of the Whitsunday region are the Ngaro, and Lieutenant James Cook recorded one of the earliest known European encounters with these seagoing people in 1770. For a privileged viewing of their ancient rock art, plan a visit to 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 wonderful historic legacy in situ. The start of the track up to the Site can only be reached by boat. You can book a private charter, or join Whitsunday Paradise Explorer on an Indigenous-led tour of the area.
Listen to a podcast of our tips for top things to do in Airlie Beach:
7. Travel back in time
History buffs will find plenty of opportunities to dig into the past during their stay in Airlie. The award-winning Proserpine Historical Museum — 25 minutes’ drive from town in the rural hub of Proserpine — is a cavernous space chock-a-block with this-and-that from yesteryear. It charts the history of the Ngaro, European settlement, the establishment of the sugar cane industry, the interwar years (in particular Italian migration to North Queensland), the rise of tourism, and much more. And as the saying goes, you learn something new every day (we certainly did!): the glass louvre was invented right here in Proserpine.
The historic town of Bowen is located an hour-or-so’s drive north of Airlie Beach and is well worth a day visit. It’s best known for its mangoes and as the shooting location for the blockbuster movie Australia. But as North Queensland’s oldest European settlement, it also has a rich backstory to explore. Drop by the excellent Bowen 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.
8. Check out the Big Mango and best beach
One of your rewards for doing the drive to Bowen is a stop at the Big Mango — a leading light amongst the ‘bigs’ of regional Australia, and the accomplice in a much talked about Nando’s publicity stunt some years ago (which involved the apparent theft of this hefty piece of fruit). Once you’ve posed for the obligatory selfie, your most important task is to sample the frozen mango sorbet available from the visitor centre. Made from the famous Bowen produce, it’s like heaven in a cup…
While you’re in Bowen, don’t miss the opportunity to spend an hour (or a day, or forever…) at Horseshoe Bay, which has previously been named one of Australia’s best beaches.
9. Trawl the stalls at the Airlie Beach Community Market
If you happen to be around on a Saturday, schedule two or three hours to explore the bustling Airlie Beach Community Market. It’s held on the Foreshore and brings a host of artisans, growers, and providores to town. Browsing the stalls is a lovely way to interact with local residents and stock up on good vibes in the process. And let’s face it, who can’t find use for a second bread board or lace kaftan?
10. Do a sunset cruise
Wrap up one of your days in paradise on a sunset cruise from the Coral Sea Marina with Sundowner Cruises. This relaxed experience will see you traversing the waters of Pioneer Bay, complimentary glass of bubbles in hand, as golden hour approaches and the lights of Airlie begin to twinkle in the background. Keep an eye out for sea turtles and other marine life surfacing to enjoy the last of the sun’s rays for the day.
And if this cruise marks the end of your holiday, don’t be sad. You’ll be back. Resistance is futile.
With the exception of Whitsunday Paradise Explorer, the writers travelled as guests of all the tour operators referenced in this post.
Top Oz Tours offers a great range of Airlie Beach day tours and guided experiences. There are no booking or credit card fees when you book through us, and you’ll have access to the widest choice of activities and most competitive prices.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Airlie Beach and Bowen? 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 two novels — The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman and Sincerely, Me — are now available in bookstores.
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of Top Oz Tours and Travel Ideas, and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger, and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa, and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.