If I could sum up the Whitsundays in just one word, it would be: paradise. Because that’s absolutely what the Whitsundays are. Barely located north of the Tropic of Capricorn, this region has all the benefits of a tropical climate: warm, sunny days, without going into extremes of heat or humidity.
Airlie Beach has long been a haven for backpackers, but I’m sorry to say, Aussies have discovered it. While there are about a dozen hostels dotted around the town, the large, commerical resorts have started moving in. According to a local I spoke to, there is even a proposal to begin building high rises along the beach, although the local population are having none of that. But one way or another, the honeymoon is over.
The town is still the perfect jumping off point for any Whitsunday adventures. The recently built Port of Arlie is home to Cruise Whitsundays, who, in addition to running the ferry service from Hamilton Island Airport, offer a wide range of cruises throughout the island chain. With very professional service, and a great team of staff, I can absolutely recommend them to anyone who is planning on visiting Airlie.
The main attractions in the Whitsundays are: Whitehaven Beach, and of course, the Great Barrier Reef.
The Great Barrier Reef is actually a series of 2900 reefs and 300 islands, stretching 2700 kilometres along the Queensland coast. There are a number of towns that act as jumping off points for the reef, primarily Cairns, but Airlie Beach is another popular spot, with the beautiful Heart Reef located just 80 kilometres from Airlie Beach.
Cruise Whitsundays offers a full day at their offshore Reefworld facility on Hardy Reef, with snorkelling and a semi-submerged glass-bottomed boat included, with the optional extras of scuba-diving and helicopter rides over the reef and Whitsunday Islands.
While I wasn’t lucky enough to see many of the cooler, more famous reef-dwellers, the reef sharks, the sea turtles and so on, I did find Nemo. At least, one of the guides who knew where a clownfish lived, showed us Nemo.
Unfortunately, you spend more time getting out to the reef and back than you do on the reef. For a complete, 8-6 day out of Airlie, you spend about three hours on the reef. And those three hours could not possibly go any faster than they do. So you’re quite limited in the number of activities you can do. I suggest, wholeheartedly, that you scuba-dive. It costs a bit extra, but it is 100% worth it, even for an absolute beginner.
If you have no experience (like me), the guides will hang on to you the whole time, keeping track of your depth and showing you all the way along the reef. If you start having second thoughts early on, you get a complete refund on the scuba session. My guide said that they’ve had people ten minutes into the thirty-minute session get total refunds. Compared to other companies, who have a ‘wet head’ policy, meaning as soon as your head gets wet, you don’t get a refund, this is a great feature.
Whitehaven Beach is considered Australia’s best beach, and in Australia, that’s really saying something. The pure, almost powder-like 98% silica sand is a sight to see. It’s completely protected by the government, and removing sand from the beach apparently carries a five-figure fine.
Make sure you book your tours in advance, because not every tour to Whitehaven Beach takes you past the iconic Hill Inlet. I left mine to the last minute, and could only book a cruise to the south end of the beach. At 7km long, there was no way for me to walk from that end of the beach all the way to Hill Inlet and back without being left behind.
As for accomodation, I stayed at the superbly-located Waterfront Hostel, in a four-bed dorm, with its own ensuite and balcony, for just $30 a night. I was pretty lucky with that booking, a stuff-up with Booking.com left me with a reservation at an international-only hostel. But a quick ring around town by the lovely lady behind the desk at Base Hostel found me this room.
A brief reminder that Queensland’s tropical seas are home to box jellyfish and other deadly stingers. I would not suggest you go out in the ocean without at least a wetsuit, as any skin contact with these almost-invisible creatures is a potential death sentence. Stinger season is basically all year except winter.
To counter this, Airlie Beach has built a fairly large lagoon near the city centre, and you almost wouldn’t know it wasn’t an actual beach, with sunbathers, lifeguards and honest-to-goodness sand around the water.
And let’s face it, you don’t go to Airlie Beach for the beach. You go there because it’s the gateway to the Whitsundays. So if you want to go swimming, stick to the lagoon, and don’t potentially ruin your entire trip.