The Whitsundays – they’re two words that instantly conjure images of tropical islands, OTT resorts and lazing by the pool. You’ll find all that, of course, but beyond the kaftans and cocktails there’s plenty more to discover. Whether it’s a pre-wedding getaway, a luxury honeymoon or a big bash with all your guests, there are some seriously amazing things to see and do in the glorious Whitsundays. Slap on some sunscreen, put a flower in your hair – you’re in the tropics.
When you touch down in Proserpine, just under half an hour’s drive from Airlie, you’ll be instantly hit with a balmy breeze and perfect sunshine. A tropical Queensland cliché? Perhaps, but it’s one you’ll happily welcome. As you make your way to Airlie, the landscape changes from countryside to hinterland, rainforest to beach like slides in a View-Master, but it’s when you reach the entrance to Airlie that you’ll be silenced by the view. If you talk to the locals they’ll tell you it was this stretch of road that made them pack their bags and move to the region. And with dazzling waters framed by palm-topped mountains, you’ll understand why.
The main strip is dotted with casual beachside cafés, bustling bars and top-notch restaurants.
After checking into your accommodation, resist the urge to relax by the pool and, instead, head out to soak up the sunshine. Humble in size, Airlie’s main township can easily be explored by foot, but for something unique and truly memorable book a tour with Just Tuk’n Around. Much like the tuk tuks of Thailand that tourists board in their multitudes, these bicycled chariots are the best way to see the sights and you’ll be treated to a larger-than-life character as your driver and guide. The top spots for a drink, where to go for the best views, who owns that multi-million-dollar yacht – they’re all questions your driver will be happy to answer as you meander along scenic Bicentennial Walkway and past golden stretches of sand.
A lazy breakfast is a holiday must-do and you won’t be disappointed in Airlie. Just across the road from the beach you’ll find Airlie Beach Hotel’s Capers on the Esplanade, a laid-back joint open seven days with quality Merlo coffee and a breakfast menu that means business. If you’re not already in a food coma, cross the road to Port of Airlie and board the town’s most stunning old dame – Lady Enid. Launched in 1961 and an Australian yachting icon, the opulent timber yacht is the sort of vessel you would have expected to see John and Jackie Kennedy getting around on back in the day. Book in advance for the all-day cruise, complete with morning tea, gourmet lunch and plenty of island-hopping. Including stops at Tongue Bay, Hill Inlet, Betty’s Beach and Whitehaven, it’s a full day of romance.
Port of Airlie Marina is home to some of the country’s most impressive (and expensive!) superyachts. Here you’ll find Lady Enid – board this grand dame for a leisurely sail to the breathtaking Whitehaven Beach.
Believe it or not, but there’s actually more to the Whitsundays than the islands and Airlie Beach. An hour’s drive inland you’ll discover one of the region’s best-kept secrets – Bowen. A real country town by the sea, this little gem is home to spectacular views, the loveliest of locals and beaches that look like they belong in Hawaii. Film buffs, this is where Baz Luhrmann filmed Australia. While taking in the 360-degree views from Flagstaff Hill Lookout, you’ll recognise the pier that Nicole Kidman herded cattle onto (without a hair out of place) and the pub that Hugh Jackman stumbled out of. You won’t actually find him there though. I checked.
When you stop admiring the beauty of Bowen’s historic buildings, pop into Le Sorelle Coffee House for your morning dose of caffeine and generous servings of homemade cakes. Easily the most stylish spot in town, the café pumps out decadent, Insta-ready frappes and will please the strictest of coffee snobs. My advice? Share the lemon meringue cheesecake – emphasis on the word ‘share’.
Back toward the coast, there’s an experience that you simply can’t miss. We all know the selling points – a natural wonder and the only living thing visible from space – but the Great Barrier Reef really is one for the bucket-list and there’s only one way to see it. Yes, I’m talking a helicopter. When you take off from Abell Point Marina with Airlie Beach HeliPad you’ll have a hard time pretending like it’s no big deal – “oh yes, we do this sort of thing all the time”, you’ll shamelessly joke in your best A-list celeb voice. Leaving the mainland and flying toward the reef, civilisation slips away and islands emerge, looking like giant creatures dozing lazily in the waters below. From the deep blue, scatterings of shockingly turquoise reef appear – teasers for what’s about to come – and before you know it you’re staring at the Great Barrier Reef. Of course, you’ll take an embarrassing amount of photos and catch yourself saying, “There it is!” as you circle over the famous Heart Reef – a Whitsundays celebrity in its own right. Surprisingly small and utterly enchanting, it’s a sight that’ll have you gushing like a Bachelor contestant… and you won’t even care.
After passing over rays, sharks and an almost endless stretch of reef, Whitsunday Island nears. When the helicopter lands on the world-famous Whitehaven Beach just try and stop yourself from racing toward the cool waters like a kid that’s spotted a playground, (just try). A regular on ‘world’s best beaches’ lists for a reason, this little pocket of paradise is the perfect spot for a dip while your pilot sets up your picnic on the pristine, white sands. Seafood and sparkling wine complete the beach picnic ideal, but for something a little different, the cheese platter features charcoal brioche – an unexpected but delicious find from a local baker.
Shaking off its reputation as a two-day destination and growing up from its backpacker past, the Whitsundays have all the makings for a dream tropical getaway. Despite the helicopters, superyachts and celebrities that frequent the region, it’s like one big small town and its people are proud as punch to show it off. Whatever your excuse – whether it’s a pre-wedding getaway, the ultimate hen’s trip or a honeymoon– this spectacular region is brimming with must-see sights and is truly worth rediscovering. Soon.
The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Whitsundays.
Where to stay
An apartment-style hideaway on the outskirts of Abell Point Marina, Mirage Whitsundays boasts some of the region’s best views and all the mod-cons you could want – the penthouse even has its own rooftop lap pool. With a restaurant and spa also soon to open, the resort is a one-stop-shop for a sumptuous Airlie Beach getaway. 1300 088 988
Heart Hotel and Gallery Whitsundays
How does a boutique hotel in the heart of Airlie with a bespoke butler service and personalised limo service sound? This brand new hotel is a stylish option that’s hard to beat. Indulge with helicopter flights to Whitsunday Island and Peter Alexander pyjamas provided in-room (all part of their Romance Package). 1300 847 244
Rose Bay Resort
If you want absolute beachfront, you can’t go past Bowen’s Rose Bay Resort. Expect self-contained apartments that open out onto palm-lined beaches, spectacular sea and island views – and it’s all only 45 minutes drive from Airlie. Heaven. 07 4786 9000
Blue Horizon Resort
A sister property of Heart Hotel and Gallery Whitsundays, Blue Horizon Resort is modern, family-friendly, and conveniently located close to the main strip. Take a stroll to the centre of town after watching the yachts depart nearby Port of Airlie from your balcony. The rooms are Balinese-inspired, and all come complete with spacious balconies overlooking the Coral Sea. Holiday bliss. 07 4946 3500
Toscana Village Resort
If you’re bringing the family together for a big wedding weekend, Toscana Village Resort offers convenience and panoramic views from its hillside location. With one, two and three bedroom apartments available, the resort has a relaxed vibe all your guests will love. 07 4946 4455
Dreaming of a romantic honeymoon but don’t know where to start? Check out our honeymoon directory here for gorgeous accommodation around the world