Like beautiful sirens rising from the waters of the Coral Sea, Queensland’s Whitsunday Islands beckon to world-weary travellers with gentle whispers that float on the ocean breeze.
Too much? Trust us, you’ll be waxing lyrical too at the first sight of these 74 exquisite gems off the State’s north coast. The beaches are white and bright, the water seems impossibly blue, and lush temperate rainforest clads much of the terrain. Welcome to paradise!
Your first decision when planning a Whitsundays escape is where to stay. Contrary to what you may read online (much of which is out of date), currently there are only four inhabited islands in the Whitsunday group — Hamilton, Daydream, Long, and legendary Hayman. For the active holidaymaker who wants to explore widely, Hamilton is probably the best option. It has an airport and frequent ferry connections to the mainland, and offers a good choice of places to stay. Start by booking Hamilton Island accommodation, then nut out your to-do list.
Here are ten of the best things to do in the Whitsunday Islands.
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. Hit the beach…
As mentioned, the beaches in this part of the world will blow your mind. That said, care must be taken when entering the water. The small but seriously nasty Irukandji jellyfish hangs around in the waters of North Queensland from October through to May (although they can be present right throughout the year). So, you’ll need to make use of a ‘stinger suit’. These most fetching of garments are generally readily available for hire and once you’ve mastered the art of getting into one, in you go.
On Hamilton Island, gorgeous Catseye Beach is located adjacent to the Resort Centre and is ideal for swimming and snorkelling. Over on Daydream Island, Sunlovers Beach is calm, protected, and fringed with delicate coral. Hayman Beach is suitably spectacular and offers access to a wide range of water-based activities. Long Island is largely national park and offers endless coves and secluded stretches of sand to lounge on at your leisure.
2. …and the pool
The resorts of the Whitsundays have invested big bickies in making their pool areas as impressive and inviting as is humanly possible, so it’s beholden to you to make good use of them. The swim-up bar in Hamilton’s Main Pool is always a hoot, while the Bougainvillea Pool overlooks Catseye and has more of a lagoon feel. Hayman’s two expansive pool areas won’t fail to impress, and neither will the boutique Elysian Retreat’s magnesium mineral pool on Long. It’s beautifully integrated into the natural setting, and has been designed to relieve stress and rejuvenate the body.
3. Snorkel the outer Great Barrier Reef
The Whitsundays sit in the centre of the 344,000-square-kilometre UNESCO World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and the Reef’s outer fringe is situated about 70 kilometres to the north-east. Cruise Whitsundays offers a popular daily excursion out to their permanently moored recreational pontoon at Hardy Reef — known as ‘Reefworld’. There you can swim, snorkel, dive, or glide along the reef water in a semi-submersible vessel.
The cruise originates in Airlie Beach and picks up guests from Daydream and Hamilton. All equipment is provided, and a hearty buffet lunch is included in the cruise price (drinks can be purchased from the bar). The number of passengers on board can feel a little overwhelming at first. But trust us, once you’re in the water, it will feel like it’s just you and the fishies.
4. Walk on the white sand of Whitehaven Beach
Whitsunday Island is the largest in the Whitsundays group and home to two world-renowned natural wonders. The first is astonishing Whitehaven Beach — seven kilometres of fine white silica sand (so fine, there’s a conspiracy theory doing the rounds that it’s brought in from elsewhere) framed by the bluest of water. Whitehaven was recently named in the top five of the 50 best beaches in the world, and once you’ve been there you’ll understand why! Cruise Whitsunday’s ‘Chill and Grill’ day trip from Airlie, Daydream, and Hamilton includes a gourmet BBQ lunch and plenty of towel time.
5. Soak up the views of Hill Inlet
From Whitehaven, it’s an easy hike up to a series of vantage points overlooking swoon-worthy Hill Inlet — swirling swathes of white sand shaped by the tides and interspersed with channels of almost iridescent water. OK, you can stop pinching yourself now. It’s real. Stop!
6. Spend a day in Airlie Beach
Cheeky, charming, and always good fun, Airlie Beach is the land-based gateway to the Whitsundays and a holiday hot spot in its own right. Party central for the region’s backpacking workforce, the town has a main strip lined with bars, restaurants, and cafés, a beautifully landscaped foreshore, a manmade swimming lagoon, and a modest retail offering. Cruise Whitsundays offers reasonably priced ferry transfers between Airlie, Hamilton, and Daydream, which makes doing a day trip to the mainland a doddle. If you’re booking online, ensure you select a ferry to and from the ‘Port of Airlie’.
Kick off your visit by joining Marty and the team at Just Tuk’n Around on a tuk tuk tour. Their Secrets of Airlie Tour covers all the main sights, and you’ll pick up a great tip for a lunch venue. Cool off in the afternoon at the Lagoon, before heading back to the Marina for your return ferry. If you happen to be visiting Airlie on a Saturday, enjoy a browse in the characterful Lions Club Community Markets.
7. Meet the local wildlife
You’ve met some of the marine-dwelling locals; now it’s time to say ‘g’day’ to the landlubbing wildlife. The Hamilton Island Wildlife Park is located on the island’s resort side and is home to a menagerie of scaly, furry, and feathered critters. For an all-round introduction to the various inhabitants, join one of two daily guided tours conducted by the park’s animal keepers (included in the cost of your entry ticket). You can also opt to take part in a variety of wildlife encounters (additional costs apply). Hold a koala, pat a dingo, and handle a variety of reptiles — excluding the park’s feisty saltwater crocodile!
8. Play a round with a view
Dent Island is Hamilton’s closest major neighbour (just a ten-minute trip from the Marina by ferry) and boasts what is possibly one of the world’s most idyllic golf courses. Branded as the Hamilton Island Golf Club, the 18-hole championship course follows the spine of Dent’s central ridge and affords players incredible views along the way. Retire to The Clubhouse afterwards for a refreshing bevvy or relaxed lunch. If you’re not a golfer, this course might just inspire you to take it up!
9. Go for a hike
Looking to burn off those pesky extra holiday calories? Hamilton, Hayman, and Long all have extensive networks of walking trails. Choose from nine interconnected circuits on Hamilton Island, each of which is rated by the required fitness level. The popular Passage Peak trail will take you up to the highest point on the island, and your reward for doing this relatively strenuous stride is a sweeping 360-degree view and a nice addition to your Insta feed. Go as early as possible to beat the heat.
10. Fly over Heart Reef
Splash out on one extra-special activity during your stay in the Whitsundays by booking a scenic flight over winsome Heart Reef. This naturally formed, heart-shaped coral cay is located in Hardy Reef and can really only be appreciated from the air. You’ll also pass over Whitehaven Beach, Hill Inlet, and Hook Passage, and create a long-lasting holiday memory in the process.
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 top things to do in the Whitsundays? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Envato
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.