The Whitsundays is one of the world’s most iconic areas, known for its location near the Great Barrier Reef. Although this archipelago of islands covers more than 2,600 km2, only seven are inhabited. With so many breathtaking places to see and things to do in the Whitsundays, the hardest part is deciding where you’d like to go. If you only have a short time in the area, there are ways to make the most of your time see the best the Whitsundays has to offer. Let me take you on a journey with me. It was an experience of a lifetime in one of the most beautiful places in Australia.
Getting to the Whitsundays
Getting to the Whitsundays is simple. Airlie Beach is the closest town to the Whitsundays on the mainland and often the first stop for visitors. Proserpine Airport, is a about a 40 minute drive from Airlie Beach. Search flights to the Whitsundays. A pre-booked shuttle such as Whitsundays2Everywhere is a fuss-free way to get into Airlie Beach. Once you are in Airlie Beach, you can access the Whitsundays by boat or by air. Both offer the opportunity to take in incredible views on the journey.
Things to do in the Whitsundays
Start in Airlie Beach
No trip to the Whitsundays is complete without staying for at least a few days in Airlie Beach. Whilst Airlie Beach is the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, it’s a destination in its own right. Read our guide to what to do in Airlie Beach.
Visit Hardy Reef
To say I was excited about going out to Hardy Reef was an understatement. Located 39 nautical miles off the mainland, Hardy Reef is famous for several things. It’s known for being a place where divers and snorkellers alike flock to. Here, the reef wall provides a home for hundreds of different kinds of marine animals and corals. Its calm, protected waters make it the perfect place to witness all that the Great Barrier Reef has on offer. Hardy Reef is also known for its proximity to Heart Reef, a heart-shaped coral reef in the middle of Hardy Lagoon.
Like most areas in the Whitsundays, ferries, aircraft and private boats may be used to get to almost anywhere in the area. For our trip to Hardy Reef, we boarded a ferry from the Port of Airlie Marina. Operated by Cruise Whitsundays, they offer a range of day trips, excursions and experiences. Seating is available outside and on upper decks, ideal for those prone to sea sickness. As we were “reef sleeping”, we had reserved spots inside the catamaran, complete with air conditioning, comfortable chairs and a dedicated host. As the boat motored off a safety briefing was provided.
The trip out to Hardy Reef takes about three hours, depending on how the sea behaves. On the day we are there, the seas were a little angry, but the power of the catamaran means that you don’t feel most of it. Occasionally, the boat rocked from side to side, enough to elicit a few gasps from unsuspecting passengers. If you are subject to seasickness, take some medication 30 minutes before you travel. During the trip, staff will come and discuss the activities available at the reef with you and ensure that everything is in place for your arrival. Medical forms, noting allergies, medical issues and emergency contact details must be completed by anyone who wishes to participate in the activities at Hardy Reef.
The trip out to the reef offers a chance to sit back and relax before you spend the rest of the day being very active. There is a kiosk on board and tea, coffee and water are provided as part of your journey. Once in the open water, the scenery becomes the much of the same, with the odd island and plenty of blue ocean and you may even spot a whale during the winter months.
Go Snorkelling From Heart Pontoon
As the catamaran pulled up alongside the Hardy Reef Heart Pontoon, my first impression was that it was huge. Two levels of deck provides the perfect place to house hundreds of day trippers, all eager to get out into the water. We arrived at high tide, the reef instantly noticeable by the clear, turquoise waters. Like a thin ribbon, the reef appears to move and sway as the waves wash gently over it.
The level of excitement elevated once everyone got onto the pontoon. People started stripping down to their swimwear, others went to find the perfect set of flippers and masks. The divers, a group in need of more technically superior equipment went to sort out their needs. The buzz was palpable. With the divers fully covered in wet suits, they are well protected from anything that might bite in the ocean. Snorkellers are less protected, so it was great to see that “stinger” suits are provided here for use by all snorkellers. Whilst snorkelling here is very safe, these warm waters are also home to the dangerous Irukandji and Box jellyfish. Wearing a stinger suit means you can snorkel in these waters as long as you like without ever being fearful. Besides, we all looked just as silly as each other when wearing them.
For beginner snorkellers, there are ropes that you can hang onto and rest stations should you need a break. The pontoon team is always on lookout, from boats and the pontoon lifeguard tower. Day trippers can snorkel and dive until the boat returns to the mainland, via Hamilton Island at 3 pm, each day. Lunch is provided on board.
A semi-submersible boat carries passengers out around the reef to view the underwater world from a different perspective. Glass viewing panels bring the sea to those who perhaps can’t go snorkelling or diving themselves. The pontoon also has a third level, one that is underneath the water, also providing for constant access to the marine life whilst on board.
Sleep On the Ocean with Reefsleep
“The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The day trippers sojourn out to the reef ends at 3 pm. Their salty bodies, tired from swimming about on the reef, minds tired from all they had seen piled back onto the boat, carefully counted one by one. We were happy to wave them goodbye, because their departure signalled the unique part of our Hardy Reef experience. We were ready for Reefsleep. If I was excited to go to the reef, staying overnight here was the peak of that excitement.
Reefsleep is indeed a unique experience. It’s surreal. Left alone by the day trippers, we looked around and realised we were the only people here, in the middle of the ocean. We were truly isolated. It’s not spooky, or weird, or even frightening. It’s quite the opposite. It’s liberating and calming all at the same time. There isn’t any mobile phone service either, so no beeps and rings to shatter the serenity.
There was still plenty of light and life left in the day so we were keen to get back out into the water. With only a few people here, we could now explore other parts of the reef, not accessible during the day. The tide had also receded and the reef protruded further out of the water. It was a stunning sight. We also had our own secret weapon; Johnny Gaskell, manager of the Living Reef on Daydream Island and lover of the sea. When I asked Johnny what his ideal day would be like he answered, “I want to be here all the time, I want to be one of them”. With that as his mantra, I was only too happy for him to seek out a new place for us to explore.
Whilst I never felt crowded snorkelling with everyone else, you are conscious of other people being around. Being able to swim with only a handful of people and no other noise heightens the snorkelling experience.
As the sun set, we made our way to the upper deck of the pontoon. In our absence, it has been transformed into our home for the night. Double sized swags had been set up down both sides of the pontoon. I was so excited I felt like crawling into one straight away. Instead, we poured champagne and watched the sun set slowly over the ocean. The rich, golden hues shining a light on us as we celebrated a special day out on the reef. Dinner was served on board. It’s nothing fancy, but you can’t really expect too much more considering where we are and the facilities available to our wonderful crew.
Eventually, my swag was calling me. I wanted to savour sleeping here. The swags are roomy enough for two people, fitted out with a good mattress makes for a comfortable sleep. I opened all the flaps up, exposing just the mesh. I wanted the sea breezes to blow over me. This wasn’t the time or the place to be all covered up. And so it was, with the gentle breeze and the soft rolling waves behind me, and those beautiful, bright stars overhead, that I found myself drifting off to sleep. That was until the sea birds started their never-ending chorus. Hundreds of birds seem to have made the pontoon their home and they talked all night. I would suggest bringing a set of ear plugs with you just in case these birds join your slumber party too.
Being able to see the sunrise was another beautiful part of the experience. Once everyone had been to breakfast, we all headed out for a final snorkel before we had to leave. This time we went out into Hardy Lagoon, a deeper spot with a sandy bottom.
Typically, those who Reefsleep return via catamaran when it departs at 3 pm the next day. For us, our time in the Whitsundays was reasonably short, and we had more places to see.
Take a Scenic Helicopter Ride Over the Whitsundays
One of the additional activities that can be arranged for anyone travelling to Hardy Reef is a scenic helicopter ride. Quick trips can be taken over the reef, including the Heart Reef, to other islands, or back to the mainland. We took a helicopter back to Hamilton Island, but first, we flew over the Heart Reef and Whitehaven Beach. Words cannot describe what I saw. Such is its popularity, there are images of Heart Reef plastered all over the internet and social media. However, there is absolutely no comparison to flying right over the top of it and having your pilot do circles, just so you can see it again. Flying over the reef is special, particularly when you see the teeny-tiny Heart Reef. But that should not take anything away from the rest of the islands and ocean that you fly over. It’s just stunning. The long white strip of sand that is Whitehaven Beach is like a beacon in the sky. You can see it from miles away, and if you’ve done your research on the area, you will recognise it immediately. All too soon, we landed on Hamilton Island, bringing to an end a day and night like no other.
Visit Hamilton Island
Quite some time ago, Hamilton Island was regarded as a place for luxury holidays and the playground of those who owned multi-million dollar yachts. Its image has changed over time, with it now being known as a great place to holiday for all kinds of visitors. From the luxurious, secluded resort of Qualia, to the self-contained apartments and hotels, Hamilton Island covers the needs of most travellers. With its own airstrip, many visitors arrive directly onto the island. All others arrive via their own boat or the ferries that operate from Airlie Beach.
Our time on Hamilton Island was short, although you can jump on an island shuttle bus that takes 40 minutes to circumnavigate the island. It’s a good choice if you’ve got a little time to spare. We took the opportunity to refuel with some fresh wraps from the Marina Cafe, before heading off on our next aqua adventure.
If there’s one thing the Whitsundays is known for, it is sailing. Who hasn’t seen the images of the bright white sail of a 40 foot sailboat zooming over the blue waters, sand on one side, islands on the other? It’s known as the water playground for people who own large luxury boats and it’s the liquid racetrack that forms the heart of the annual Hamilton Island Race Week.
Could it be even possible that an average visitor to go sailing in the Whitsundays? Yes, it is possible. You can go bareboating. Put simply, bareboating means to hire a boat without any provisioning and without a skipper and when it comes to things to do in the Whitsundays, this is one of the most fun. Go Bareboating offers a variety of boats for hire in the Whitsundays.
Whilst a boat license is not required, having some kind of boating experience would be beneficial. Steve Owens, a long-time staff member of one of the charter companies connected to Go Bareboating explained, “In 19 years of being involved with this company, I’ve only ever refused two people”. With over 143 boats and 1,200 rooms, all with ocean views, Go Bareboating calls itself “the largest floating hotel in Australia”.
- No license is required.
- Some boating experience is advantageous.
- All boats have fully equipped kitchens, include linen and towels, safety equipment and a tender for getting into the islands and from boat to boat if necessary.
- Kayaks, SUP boards, fishing equipment may be hired at an additional cost.
- Safety, area and boat briefings are provided prior to departure.
- Maps showing protected anchorages are also provided.
- If the idea of having your next holiday aboard one of these boats sounds interesting, but you or your travelling party aren’t comfortable driving the vessel, a skipper may be hired for an additional cost. Provisioning up your boat can be done entirely on the hirer’s terms. If cooking your signature dish at sea is part of the dream, you are able to bring all of your food and drinks on board yourself.
- If getting your provisions from the supermarket is logistically difficult, local supermarkets will deliver to the boats if you order online. Alternatively, if sitting back doing nothing is part of the plan, catering companies Like Whitsunday Provisioning can assist with all of your catering requirements.
I was lucky enough to be able to ride on not one but two of the luxury boats in the fleet, heading out to Whitehaven Beach aboard “Whitsunday Dreaming”, a 40-foot power catamaran. With enough space for 10 people, but ideally six to eight, this would be a fine boat to spend time on with a group of friends and family. As skipper Steve put her on auto-pilot, I sat up the front of the boat, taking in my beautiful surroundings and pinched myself that I was actually cruising through the Whitsundays. There’s plenty of space to spread out and comfortable spots to sit around the table either outside or inside, depending on the weather. Overnight anchorage was just off Whitehaven Beach.
Walk Whitehaven Beach
Whitehaven Beach is known for its pure white sand, some of the purest in the world it is thought. It runs for seven kilometres along Whitsunday Island, the longest island in the Whitsundays. We took the tender ashore in the morning so as to not miss out on setting foot on this famous sand.
Our return to Airlie Beach came aboard the “Aquila Sunrise”, a 44-foot power catamaran, and another example of how special it is to be out on the water. As the “Aquila Sunrise” ended her journey at the marina at the Abell Point Marina it also brought to the end our own Whitsundays experience.
For three days, we had snorkelled, jumped off boats in the ocean, eaten fabulous food, dived, chartered boats and flown in helicopters. Best of all, we’d slept under the stars on the reef. My face was smiling, my heart was full, and I left as a very proud Queenslander, knowing all of this beauty, all of this wonder was in my own backyard.
The Fit Traveller was a guest of Queensland Tourism for our trip to the Whitsundays. As always, the words, images and opinions are authentically our own.
Kerri McConnel is the owner of travel blog Beer and Croissants.
A world away from the frantic corporate life she once lead, Kerri now chases her travel dreams with her husband.
Often in a motorhome, they love seeking out unique travel experiences that always include great food and wine.