The Whitsundays is often thought of as a luxury destination. With five star island resorts, helicopters and super yachts. And whilst all this is possible in the Whitsundays, it can come with quite a price tag, and it’s certainly not the only thing this beautiful part of Australia has to offer.
My name is Sally, from the travel blog Sally Sees. And I’m here to tell you two things. First, The Whitsundays doesn’t need to be expensive! And second, there is more to the Whitsundays region than just the islands (as amazing as they are!).
My partner Brayden and I recently spent a jam-packed week experiencing the best the Whitsundays region has to offer, without breaking the bank. Here we will share our 7-day itinerary, showing you how to have an amazing Airlie Beach adventure without a big budget!
We flew into the Whitsundays on a short 90-minute flight from Brisbane. We touched down at Whitsunday Coast Airport (Proserpine) and had organised a shuttle into Airlie Beach with Heart of Reef Shuttles. They were ready and waiting for us as soon as we walked out of the airport, and dropped us right to the door of our hostel for just $36 per person return.
We checked into our hostel, Backpackers by the Bay which is a short ten-minute walk into the main street of Airlie Beach. The hostel had a great vibe and was full of travellers from all over the world.
We spent our first afternoon exploring the town of Airlie Beach. Airlie screams holiday, with its palm-lined beach, sparkly blue waters and plethora of amazing restaurants and bars. We wandered along the Bicentennial Boardwalk to the Coral Sea Marina, went for a sunset swim in the Airlie Beach lagoon and enjoyed a seafood dinner at Fish D’vine. If you Google ‘best mojito in the world’ this place pops up. And we can confirm, they were great mojitos! If you come to the Whitsundays and skip Airlie Beach, the region’s mainland hub, you are missing out!
Our second day started as all days should – with coffee! We headed to a local favourite, Fat Frog Beach Cafe in the neighbouring suburb of Cannonvale. This busy cafe has a prime spot right on the beach and serves up a range of delicious breakfast dishes (I can recommend the breakfast panna cotta!).
Fuelled up for the day, we headed to the Conway National Park to climb Mount Rooper. This 5 km circuit is a steep climb to the top. But we were rewarded with stunning views of the surrounding Whitsunday Islands, and it was well worth the effort!
This afternoon it was time for us to hit the water. We boarded the mighty Atlantic Clipper with True Blue Sailing for a three-day two-night sailing trip. By far the most popular boat in the Whitsundays and the best choice for young people, the Clipper is complete with two waterslides, a hot tub, a huge open sun deck and room for 54 passengers.
After a safety briefing from the crew and meeting the 23 other passengers on board, we set sail out of Airlie Beach. Our first stop was Bower Bay, where we enjoyed the waterslide and put the hot tub to good use!
We sailed off into the sunset (literally!) to our overnight anchor point. The crew cooked up a delicious dinner of fish and salads. Night one finished off with some drinks on the top deck and getting to know our fellow sailors. The full moon rose over the islands, and we spotted hundreds of stars without any light pollution around. We were even lucky enough to see some marine life swimming alongside the boat, attracted by the spotlights. A school of large fish, a small reef shark and even a dolphin came to say hello.
Seeing the sunrise from the top deck of the Atlantic Clipper was the perfect start to our second day of sailing. After a delicious breakfast of fruit, muesli, yoghurt, toast and spreads we headed for our first stop. This morning we were visiting the iconic Whitehaven Beach and Hill Inlet. The crew dropped us off in the tenders on Whitsunday Island, and we started the short 15-minute walk to the Hill Inlet Lookout. Famous for the swirly white sands and aqua blue waters, seeing this natural phenomenon in person was far better than any of the photos. There are three different lookouts, and it took us a while to drag ourselves away from the stunning views.
But Whitehaven Beach was calling our names, and we walked down onto the soft silica sands towards the clearest, bluest water I have ever seen! Consistently rated as one of the best beaches in Australia (and the world), it was not hard to see why! The sand gets its powdery texture and white colour from silica, and at 98.9% silica, it is perfect for scrubbing up your jewellery or exfoliating your skin. We enjoyed a couple of hours of swimming in the amazing waters of Whitehaven, watching stingrays fly by and even a baby lemon shark swim past. We explored the beach and its rocky coves, and enjoyed experiencing a true post-card perfect paradise!
Lunch was waiting when we boarded the boat. We all scoffed down the wraps, rolls, salads and meats on offer for us. We hit the hot tub while we sailed towards our snorkelling and dive spot.
True Blue Sailing gives you the opportunity to decide if you want to snorkel or scuba dive. We decided to try scuba diving for the first time, and it was an incredible experience. The two dive instructors on board were amazing, and literally held our hand underwater the entire time. If you have never tried diving before and are interested, we would highly recommend taking up the option to do it on board the Atlantic Clipper. The snorkelling in the area was also great, with a large variety of fish and colourful corals.
Tonight’s sunset was made even more special with the appearance of some humpback whales off in the distance. We had a delicious dinner of spaghetti bolognese and garlic bread, perfect after a busy day in the water!
Night two is when the famous ‘Atlantic Clipper show’ happens. Involving the crew, dress-ups, dancing and games with the aim of crowning the king and queen of the Clipper. It was a lot of fun, and the perfect way to spend our final night on board.
There were a few sore heads this morning, but the crew had the perfect cure! The two waterslides were up and running. And there’s no better way to wake up than sliding into the blue Whitsundays waters on a huge inflatable slide! After a few hours of sliding, jumping and swimming it was sadly time to head back to Airlie Beach.
We arrived back at the marina with a group of new friends, some amazing experiences ticked off the bucket list and incredible new places visited. We initially thought a sailing trip around the Whitsundays was going to be out of our price range. But we couldn’t believe the value! Accommodation, all meals, the experience of sailing plus all the activities we did starts at just $350 per person! Price is dependent on when and where you book.
We couldn’t stay away from the water for too long though! That night we did a sunset cruise with Sundowner Cruises. With a glass of champagne and nibbles included, we spent two hours cruising around the harbour and watching the sky light up the surrounding mountains. This is definitely the best way to see the sunset in Airlie Beach! We hopped off the boat and had a delicious Italian dinner at Sorrento Restaurant, which is a stone’s throw away from where we disembarked.
Today we hit the road and headed north towards Bowen. We made a pitstop on the way in Hydeaway Bay, a local secret. This area is full of beautiful, empty beaches with mountains for backdrops. The town is sleepy, but we couldn’t think of a better spot for a relaxing beach day. Top tip: we hear the sunsets are great here.
We continued towards Bowen and our first stop was of course the iconic Big Mango! We couldn’t say no to a 100% mango sorbet, which was delicious. Bowen is quite a big place, and you definitely need more than one day to explore it all. There isn’t one stretch of straight coastline here, but rather a number of bays bordered by rocky coves. The landscape was really interesting, and there were a ton of great walks and lookout points. We visited Horseshoe Bay, a beautiful beach with great snorkelling right off the sand. Nearby Rose Bay was also stunning, and you can complete the Cape Edgecumbe walk connecting the two.
No visit to Bowen is complete without fish and chips at Birds Fish Bar. This fish and chip shop is nestled in the marina, with waterfront views and a gorgeous patio with flowers, murals and neon signs. We got a seafood basket which melted in the mouth and was great value.
Today was a Saturday, and the weekly Airlie Beach markets were happening on the foreshore. It was the perfect spot for a coffee and some brekkie before we were picked up by Salty Dog Sea Kayaking. We had a half-day tour booked, kayaking around the inner islands of the Whitsundays.
Our guide Laura gave us a quick briefing before we jumped in our double kayak and headed out into Shute Harbour. Laura led the way, stopping every now and then to give some information on the islands and marine life. We landed on a small island for some morning tea, and we had the opportunity for a quick snorkel. We love kayaking, and we couldn’t think of a more beautiful setting to do it!
After some lunch in Airlie Beach, we headed to the GSL Aviation office to check in for our scenic flight over the Great Barrier Reef. The 60-minute flight exceeded all our expectations. It was mind-blowing to fly over the ocean and all of a sudden see the reef appear out of nowhere. Seeing it from the sky really gave us some perspective on how vast this organism is, and how lucky we are to have something so special in our own backyard here in Queensland.
Our final night in paradise was spent at Northerlies Beach Bar & Grill. This amazing beachfront venue is nestled in a hidden cove about 15 minutes from Airlie Beach, but they offer a courtesy bus. We absolutely loved the vibe at Northerlies and enjoyed some drinks and dinner on lounges by the beach under the palms.
Our Airlie Beach adventure sadly came to an end today. Heart of Reef Shuttles picked us up from Backpackers by the Bay and dropped us off at the airport. On the plane, we reflected on an amazing week, and were already planning our return to the Whitsundays!
We hope this itinerary has highlighted that the Whitsundays is an amazing destination for those on a lower budget. There are so many amazing free natural attractions to experience, and Airlie Beach is the perfect base with its many hostels and cheap food and drink options. You can tick off so many bucket list experiences like we did without needing a lot of money!
This blog was provided courtesy of @sallysees, guest of Tourism Whitsundays.