With 74 islands to choose from on the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef, the Whitsundays have claimed their spot as Australia’s ultimate island destination. The vast majority of the islands are uninhabited, with the remaining few offering their own unique accommodation options, stunning scenery, facilities and tour options – which makes choosing the right one for you an incredibly daunting undertaking. We’ve taken the hassle out of it, so you can get your head around what’s on offer and which spots most suit your travel style.
Hamilton Island has claimed top spot as the island that caters to all travellers and excels in doing so. The only Whitsunday island with its own airport, Hamilton Island is one of the most convenient and hassle-free spots to stay in the region with direct flights every day from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Cairns. It even feels like its own little village complete with road rules, multiple resorts and a vast offering of activities and dining options, but it is actually owned and managed by a single organisation.
This takes a lot of the hassle out of booking and means that all traveller types are catered for, whether its’ a family holiday at Reef View Hotel, group getaway in the Palm Bungalows, or romantic retreat at Qualia. There are several day-trips that visit the Great Barrier Reef and Whitehaven Beach from the island each day, and a choice of more than 65 activities on the island itself. Hamilton Island is hard to look past as the place to stay for a week in paradise.
One of the newest resorts in the Whitsundays, Daydream Island Resort has seen a $100 million makeover since the devastating damage of Cyclone Debbie in 2017, and it’s back with style. The 4.5 star resort has caters to travellers of all types, but perhaps more so to those looking for a back-to-nature island experience. The island’s marine biologists have been hard at work on a reef recovery program, with the Living Reef, a coral lagoon home to over 100 species of fish and 80 species of coral, forming the island’s spectacular centrepiece.
Not unlike Hamilton Island, there are a myriad of tours and activities on offer each day, but the small-resort feel of the island offers a completely different holiday style. You might not find the choice of dining venues as vast as Hamilton Island, but there are three idyllic beaches and coral reef to explore just metres from the sand, perfect for snorkelling on the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef, no tours required.
Most people considering a trip to the Whitsundays will have seen photos or heard about the impressive natural beauty of Whitehaven Beach. The world-famous silica sands and sparkling blue water have become an iconic attraction of Australia and you might be surprised to discover that the beach lies on a completely uninhabited island accessible only by boat, kayak, sea plane or helicopter.
Hundreds of tours, charter boats, scenic flights and day-trips visit Whitehaven Beach and Whitsunday Island each week, but there are just a handful of campsites that have to booked in-advance for overnight stays. If waking up for a stunning sunrise on one of the world’s best beaches, alongside just a few other campers, sounds like an absolute dream, then Whitsunday Island might be the place for you. Be sure to check out Jackson Groves’ article on Whitehaven Beach camping for a full showcase of what the island has to offer.
When it comes to luxury getaways, there are few destinations in Queensland that can match the appeal of an idyllic escape on Hayman Island. Best for high-end travellers and honeymooners, the InterContinental Hayman Island resort offers an iconic private island experience away from the hustle and bustle, and within touching distance of some of the iconic spots of the Whitsundays. Nearby Langford Island Reef and Hook Island offer some of the best snorkelling in the Whitsundays, along with the spectacular Blue Pearl Bay on the Western side of Hayman Island, and have all been chosen as spots on the Whitsundays’ new underwater art trail.
The resort boasts luxury accommodation and a spectacular ocean-front pool, and has become incredibly appealing as a private island destination for weddings and honeymoons, without the added cost and hassle of overseas travel. It might be one of the pricier destinations in the Whitsundays, but for those looking for a far-from-rugged island getaway, Hayman Island might just be the perfect answer.
Rugged and wild, Hook Island is almost entirely covered in dense National Park forest and is perhaps the greatest example of what the islands would have looked like before human settlement. There are no resorts on the island, leaving camping and private yachts as the only options for overnight visits. There are four self-sufficient campsites on the island, with unrivalled access to pristine bays lined with vibrant coral reefs.
Because of the incredible underwater landscape, the island is one of the most popular spots for local tour operators to visit on snorkelling trips. The island has even become a hotspot for manta rays and impressive species of fish such as the Maori Wrasse. Nara Inlet, one of the island’s most popular anchorages, is a historically important site with ancient rock wall paintings by the Ngaro Aboriginal people.
One of the closest resort islands to the mainland, Long Island is the perfect spot for those short on time or looking for a more low-key island escape than some of the nearby, commercial alternatives. Elysian Eco Retreat is and all-inclusive eco island resort perfect for those looking for a romantic escape from the crowds. The first solar powered resort on the Great BarrierReef, Elysian sits at the Southern tip of the island, on a private cove surrounded by tropical rainforest. It is family owned and operated, adults-only and hosts a maximum of 20 guests at any one time.
Palm Bay Resort, nestled in the neck of Long Island, is the only self-catering accommodation in the Whitsundays. With villas, suites and houses ideal for couples and families, the resort caters for up to 60 guests at any one time. Much like Elysian, the resort also sits on its own secluded private cove with views to the Whitsunday Passage and Coral Sea. Just a 20 minute shuttle from Shute Harbour on the mainland, travellers can find themselves off the plane and exploring the walking tracks of the island in less than an hour –the perfect spot for an easy and relaxed island escape.
If the above accommodation and camping options don't appeal to you, there are several other options available to those wishing to explore the Whitsunday Islands and nearby Great Barrier Reef.
Most of the islands nearby the mainland and Airlie Beach have a number of campsites available to adventurous travellers looking for an island escape from the crowds. North Molle Island, Molle Island, South Molle Island, Planton Island and Denman Island are all incredible spots to pitch a tent for the night and enjoy the secluded bliss of an island campsite just a short jump away from town. There are shuttle services that off a drop-off service to most of these campsites, with a pre-agreed pick-up time.
Airlie Beach is the mainland hub of the Whitsunday Islands. It is the departure point for many of the tours that visit the nearby islands and Great Barrier Reef, with a relaxed small-town vibe that is all too easy to fall in love with. For road-trippers travelling by car, backpackers looking for cheaper hostels and nightlife, or those looking for an Airbnb or holiday house within touching distance of the reef and islands, Airlie Beach is the perfect spot. There are plenty of great cafes, shops and restaurants in town, and a myriad of hiking trails and inland waterfalls to explore in the nearby National Parks.
ON THE WATER
Bareboating in the Whitsundays has to be one of the best ways to experience the magnificence of the islands. A number of charter companies offer private yacht hire from several marinas around Airlie Beach - and the best part is anyone can hire a yacht for a multi-day self-catered trip around the islands. You don't even need a boat license or previous experience to charter a yacht in the Whitsundays. Out on the reef, another unforgettable Whitsundays experience lies on-board Cruise Whitsundays' Hardy Reef pontoon. Reef Sleep and Reef Suites offer overnight accommodation in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef on a secluded floating pontoon. Reef Sleep offers the experience of sleeping under the stars on the pontoon's top deck, while Reef Suites are Australia's first underwater hotel rooms, just a few metres below the water surface. For a truly unique Whitsundays holiday, it's hard to go past the experiences available on Cruise Whitsundays' Great Barrier Reef pontoon.
Cover photo by Jason Hill - Tourism and Events Queensland