One year ago, Cyclone Debbie unleashed her full category four storm cell on Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays. With winds in excess of 195 kilometres per hour, she hit the islands and mainland with all the force of the strongest cyclone to hit Queensland since 2011. It flattened Daydream Island and made the luxurious resort on Hamilton Island look like a bomb had gone off in the middle of the ocean. Seas normally turquoise had turned dark brown, and waves of up to 11 metres smashed into the Great Barrier Reef. On land, Airlie Beach and Shute Harbour were not spared. Significant damage cost the owners and the economy tens of millions of dollars.
Fast forward to today, and it’s incredible to see how this small community continues to pull together to make the Whitsundays sing once more. Tourists are returning in their droves, many oblivious to the devastation experienced here not so long ago. Instead, the Whitsundays is being viewed once again as it always has been; a destination I can only describe as heaven on earth. This travel guide features places to stay, where to eat and what to do in Airlie Beach while visiting the Whitsundays.
The Whitsundays and Airlie Beach
The Whitsundays are a group of islands that form part of the Great Barrier Reef, one of the world’s seven natural wonders. Located one hour south of Cairns and 1.5 hours north of Brisbane getting to the Whitsundays is easy by air and an area accessible by many other forms of transport.
The diving in the Whitsundays rivals the best in the world, with people from all over making specific trips to the Great Barrier Reef and the Whitsundays to explore it for themselves. Of the 74 islands that make up the Whitsundays, only seven are developed. The remainder make amazing stops for those who choose to sail in this area. With pristine blue water, white sand beaches and amazing weather, the Whitsundays is a dream location for a short trip or a longer stay.
Airlie Beach is the closest mainland town for access to the main resort islands of the Whitsundays. Quite often, it is used as a base for spending time in the Whitsundays.
Where to Stay in Airlie Beach
There’s a lot to love about these apartments but perhaps the best of all is its location right on the Port of Airlie Marina. My tip would be to secure an apartment with a private balcony that overlooks the magnificent array of boats moored in the protective waters of the harbour.
The Mantra offers spacious, self-contained apartments with two and three bedrooms. They are priced affordably and are great if you are sharing your time away with friends or have a family. A short walk away from the centre of Airlie Beach, they are well positioned away from the noise of the main eating and nightlife area.
If you plan on staying close to the apartment there are a variety of retail shops, cafes and coffee shops on the ground level.
Whilst it is easy to self-cater, especially with the close proximity of nearby supermarkets, there are also some other catering options. As we had an early start the morning after we stayed here, going to breakfast at a cafe was not an option. Thankfully, Airlie Beach has some great catering companies that are ready to help out. Peach and Pear Catering offer healthy food options for breakfast and dinner, and have some amazing platters and hampers that are just perfect for a day trip around the area, or for taking out on a boat.
Mantra Boathouse Apartments also encourages activities through their swimming pool and tennis court. Alternatively, there are also plenty of outdoor spots to just relax and take in the North Queensland sun.
Later this year, a unique type of accommodation will be open to the public in Airlie Beach. A ten minute drive from Airlie Beach, Freedom Shores offers guests a chance to get away from the tourist hub, whilst still being reasonably close. The accommodation will offer 10 rooms shaped like the front of a boat, with views out over the water and surrounding gardens. Three one-bedroom apartments will also offer a fabulous ocean view, being built higher up on the hill. For a little more luxury, a two bedroom beach house with kitchen, pool and spa facilities will also be on offer.
Perhaps the biggest advantage is its tranquil location, right on the ocean, with a beautiful beachscape. The Northerlies Beach Bar and Grill, a short two-minute walk from the apartments, offers an easy place to eat.
Where to Eat in Airlie Beach
Once a town where cafes and fast food were the mainstay, Airlie Beach is really starting to grow up where the food scene is concerned. I was very happy to be able to road test these impressive Airlie Beach restaurants.
“Live the full life of the mind, exhilarated by new ideas, intoxicated by the romance of the unusual” – Ernest Hemingway
With a large image of the famous writer, and this quote in the entrance way, I couldn’t help but think that Ernest himself, a lover of a good drink, would approve of this place. Tables, softly lit with candles, glowed against the golden light that was shining over the Abell Point Marina. The sun was going to bed, but for us, it was a chance to dine on food from a restaurant recently awarded a Chef’s Hat by the Australian Good Food Guide.
Serving modern Australian cuisine, Hemingway’s is attracting both visitors and locals alike. The menu is kept simple, so as to not over complicate the diner’s choice and the work needed to be done in the kitchen I imagine. With inclusions like beef strip loin, the North Queenslanders are bound to be happy.
As one might expect, fresh local seafood also features on both the lunch and dinner menu. Other items such as blue swimmer crab pasta and chicken with pea and speck risotto also looked incredible. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pull apart the soft, white flesh of a saltwater barramundi fillet. The fish alone would have been perfect, cooked in a way to respect its tender flesh. I was immediately pleased that it was served with a pea puree, mixed grains, cooked al dente in turmeric oil and fennel.
Just when I thought I couldn’t eat another morsel, a dessert plate, containing mignardises (bite-sized sweet treats) came to tempt me. I must admit, it’s the perfect end to a meal. Without having to fight your way through a large dessert, the light biscuit, chocolate truffle ball and ever so smooth mango-passionfruit sorbet that I saved until last was sensational.
Northerlies Beach Bar and Grill is one of the popular new restaurants in town and if my visit was anything to go by, I can see why. Rich, warm timber is the first thing I noticed as I entered the restaurant. With high, vaulted ceilings, I immediately felt as though I was in a resort. The sea breeze hit my face and I couldn’t help but feel at home. I grew up in this region and the constant sea breezes are something I eternally miss. If there was any misconception about where I was, a quick glance towards the bar, built like a boat, completed the equation.
Ken Meighan, General Manager of both Northerlies and Freedom Shores, was clearly excited by the years of work he had already expended on these large projects. “It is exciting to watch the unique design and plan for this place coming to life”. Meighan worked with a friend on this project from the beginning, providing all the design expertise to mould it all. Unfortunately, the friend passed away, leaving Meighan to continue the legacy they dreamed of together.
If the size of the steaks are anything to go by here, there would be no one leaving hungry. Large, juicy pieces of beef showcase the best of producers in the Darling Downs, Clare Valley and Cape Grim areas. Equally huge, the Barkers Creek pork was suitably tempting.
The menu covers off all tastes with the heavyweight grill getting a fair share of diner attention. As expected, seafood, both cooked and raw dominates, and I can see why when the enormous platters make their way to our table. Piled high with Alaskan crab, local Whitsunday prawns, ceviche, salmon, oysters and bugs, it’s a seafood lover’s dream.
Passing over the burgers and risotto, my eyes settled firmly on the duck confit. I am quite simply, a sucker for anything duck. Confit ups the level of excitement even more. Teamed with roasted cauliflower, raisins, goats cheese and pearl couscous, it was truly delicious.
At Northerlies, diners and drinkers alike are given freedom to eat or drink wherever they like. Eat inside at the more formal dining tables, or pull up a bar stool on the deck outside. If getting close to the ocean is your thing, you can sit on the grass with a drink in your hand. For those that can’t sit still, take a walk on the rocks, exposed by the outgoing tide, or throw a few balls down the cricket pitch to your mates.
Getting to and from Northerlies requires a car, so catching a taxi, or the complimentary shuttle are the best options.
The bold statement of “best coffee in town” is a clear call out to those who are enslaved to the dark brew. The chalkboard of the Bohemian Raw Cafe at Abell Point Marina seems to be on a winner, both for its coffee and it’s healthy food and drink options. A dog friendly place to sit and spend some time with friends, the service is both friendly and efficient. Salads, wraps, smoothie bowls, juices and other raw drinks are the mainstay.
How to Get Around Airlie Beach
- Airlie Beach is an easy town to get around. Whilst there are hills rising up around the town, the main area is flat and easy to walk. Walking from one end of the town to the other takes around 15 minutes. For a more scenic walk, take the timber boardwalk that runs around the coastline from Airlie Beach to the Abell Point Marina. It is well-lit at night and perfectly safe to walk here.
- A bus service operated by Whitsunday Transit operates daily servicing nearby Shute Harbour, Airlie Beach, Cannonvale and Proserpine.
- Scooters and bicycles may also be hired from Airlie Beach.
- Taxis are also available and the main rank is in the centre of the town.
- For an unusual, and highly relaxing way to take in the sights of Airlie Beach, why not hire a tuk tuk? That’s right, Just Tuk’n Around have the perfect way to keep your entertained and show you around Airlie Beach. Why not do a sunset tour, a tour of the town with one of the energetic and knowledgeable team of riders? Better still, book a progressive food tour, taking in three local restaurants, all with your own private rider.
What to Do in Airlie Beach
Whilst Airlie Beach is undoubtedly the entry point to the Whitsundays, there’s still plenty to keep you occupied in and around the town.
Swim in the Airlie Beach Lagoon
Located in the centre of Airlie Beach and right on the waterfront, the lagoon is one of the most popular activities here. Even though the beaches are so close, many opt to spend a day here, relaxing in the pools or on the surrounding grassed area.
Walk on the Bicentennial Boardwalk
Partly destroyed in Cyclone Debbie, the boardwalk has been rebuilt, much to the delight of those who love to use it. The four kilometre timber walkway runs from Abell Point Marina to the Airlie Beach town. It takes in the beautiful waters of the Whitsundays, and at night, the lights from nearby houses and restaurants glisten on the water.
Enjoy the Airlie Beach Nightlife
Airlie Beach is known as a party town and names like Magnum’s and BOOM are legendary here. The Abell Point Marina has developed into a location for great restaurants and cafes and the Esplanade, in front of the ocean has more casual dining offerings.
Go to Boathaven Beach
Close to the Port of Airlie is Boathaven Beach, a white sand beach perfect for swimming and relaxing by the ocean.
Tackle Some Adrenaline Sports
Airlie Beach with a variety of operators in the town offering jet skiing, skydiving, segways, sea plane flights, diving and even charter boat fishing.
What to Do Near Airlie Beach
Visit Cedar Creek Falls
Locals will tell you it’s a secret, but the word is out on Cedar Creek Falls. A 20 minute drive from the heart of Airlie Beach will reward you with a picturesque landscape of water hole and waterfalls. The wet season from November to April is the best time to visit to ensure the water is fresh, flowing and at its most spectacular.
Visit the Whitsundays
Once you are in Airlie Beach, visiting the Whitsundays is an absolute must. Getting to the Whitsundays is easy, with so many choices from charter boats, charter flights and commercial day trip operators. The hardest decision to make is how you want to get there, where you want to go, how long you want to stay and what to do in the Whitsundays.
Cruise Whitsundays have an excellent variety of experiences to choose from. Half day reef adventures, sleeping on the reef and island adventures combined with boating, jet skiing and snorkelling are just some of the great activities. Or, you can catch a ferry to Whitehaven Beach or the iconic Hamilton Island, where you can spend a few days lapping up life in this luxurious island town.
How to Get to the Whitsunday Islands
There are several ways to get to the Whitsundays. Whilst the Whitsunday Islands reach out along the coast, for most people, access is via Airlie Beach, the closest town on the mainland.
By car – With road trips a key part of the travel scene in Australia, many choose to drive into Airlie Beach. A two-hour drive south is the closest city of Mackay, whilst three hours north is Townsville. A common form of vehicle seen in Airlie Beach are campervans, usually the transport of choice of the backpackers. Cars may also be hired in Airlie Beach if you are planning on doing some local day trips.
By air – Airlie Beach is serviced by nearby Proserpine Airport, a 30-40 minute drive away. Jetstar, Tigerair and Virgin Australia all fly into this airport. Search flights to the Whitsundays. If you don’t have a hire car booked at the airport, the easiest way of getting into Airlie Beach is via a pre-booked shuttle like Whitsundays2Everywhere. The drivers are on hand inside the airport to assist with luggage and the vehicles are air-conditioned. Drop-offs can be made at a variety of locations in Airlie Beach, including your accommodation.
By rail – The Spirit of Queensland train travels between Brisbane and Cairns five times a week, stopping at Proserpine Rail Station
By bus – Two bus companies, Premier Motor Service and Greyhound service the coast roads and will stop at the dedicated Airlie Beach Bus Terminal located at the Port of Airlie.
By sea – Local boats and seaplanes are also a lovely way to get from Airlie Beach to the Whitsundays.
The Fit Traveller was a guest of Queensland Tourism for our trip to Airlie Beach and 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.