10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions of the Whitsunday Islands

Inside the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef, the Whitsundays are 74 sun-soaked tropical islands with pearly beaches and popular resorts. The archipelago lies off the coast of central Queensland and is a string of continental islands, the peaks of drowned hills jutting above the turquoise Coral Sea. Six national parks protect their fragile ecosystems. Several are home to nature retreats, beachside campsites, and sybaritic resorts.

Captain Cook christened these stunning islands when he sailed between them on what he believed was Whit Sunday, seven weeks after Easter. Only when his ship ran aground on a coral shoal did he realize the area was protected by an outer reef. Today, that 2,300 km-long reef is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Calm conditions are ideal for sailing, snorkeling, scuba diving, angling, and beach basking. Airlie Beach and Shute Harbour are the main launching points for Whitsunday adventures by helicopter, seaplane, ferry, and luxury yacht.

1 Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef
Great Barrier Reef
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Shimmering beneath the clear Coral Sea, the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef is the only living structure visible from space. To the Whitsunday Islands, it acts as a comforting coral embrace, shielding the waters from large ocean swells and creating ideal conditions for sailing, cruising, snorkeling, and scuba diving. One of the world's richest ecosystems, the reef hosts an astounding diversity of marine life. In addition to more than 1,625 species of fish and 1,400 types of coral, the reef is home to sea snakes, dugongs, giant clams, turtles, whales, dolphins, sharks, and rays.

From the air, sightseers can gain a sense of its enormity and see the famous Heart Reef. Naturally formed, this heart-shaped splotch of coral is a fitting symbol for how travelers feel when they first lay eyes on one of Mother Nature's most awe-inspiring masterpieces.

2 Whitehaven Beach

Whitehaven Beach
Whitehaven Beach
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Renowned as one of the most ravishing beaches in the world, Whitehaven is a sublime 7 km slice of white silica sand and turquoise sea. This sparkling clean beach lies on Whitsunday Island, the largest island in the chain and a popular spot for day trips and picnics. Visitors can explore the beach and island on walking trails. A highlight is Hill Inlet, a pretty cove at the northern end of the beach where shifting tides swirl the bright white sand and aqua sea into a marbled mass of color. From the air, it looks like an abstract watercolor painting. A lookout at Tongue Point provides an impressive perspective, while Tongue Bay is a popular anchorage for bareboats.

Luxury yachts, ferries, and powerboats bring visitors to the island for day trips, and many overnight sailing trips also stop here. Alternatively, sightseers can enjoy a bird's eye view from a seaplane or helicopter. Camping is permitted on the southern end of the beach.

3 Daydream Island

Daydream Island
Daydream Island
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A family favorite, Daydream Island is the smallest of the Whitsunday group and one of the closest to the mainland. Almost the entire island is devoted to the Daydream Island Resort and Spa, which also draws many day trip visitors. Despite its petite size, this popular resort is packed with facilities, including mini-golf, an open-air cinema, sparkling lagoon-style pools, Kids' Club, and an outdoor aquarium where guests can hand-feed stingrays and sharks. Water sports abound along three pretty strands of beach, and visitors can organize rainforest walks, reef fishing, and coral-viewing trips.

4 Hamilton Island

Hamilton Island
Hamilton Island
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Brimming with attractions, resorts, and activities, Hamilton Island is the only Whitsunday Island with a commercial airport. Accommodation ranges from the luxury Qualia on Hamilton's northern tip to palm-shaded bungalows and yacht club villas. Activities are just as varied. Trips to the Great Barrier Reef and stunning Whitehaven Beach are highlights, and the island itself has plenty of its own attractions. Guests can play golf and tennis, hike the many trails, and explore the island in a rented golf buggy, or browse the shops and relax at one of the restaurants in the marina. Wild cockatoos and rainbow lorikeets often join diners here for lunch. Kids will love the wildlife park, bowling alley, go-kart track, and mini-golf.

Like all the islands, water sports are the main diversion, and guests will find plenty to choose from here. Hamilton Island is easily accessible by air and sea. Direct flights operate from major Australian cities, while regular ferries provide transfers from Airlie Beach on the mainland; the crossing takes about 30 minutes.

5 Hayman Island

Hayman Island
Hayman Island
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The most northerly of the inhabited islands in the Whitsunday group, Hayman Island is home to an exclusive five-star nature resort, One&Only. Guests travel to this tiny treasure by seaplane, helicopter, or luxury yacht. One of the first islands on the reef to be developed for tourism, Hayman is incredibly beautiful with rainforests, rocky coves, mangroves, palm-fringed beaches, and even a botanic garden. Beyond these beautiful shores, guests can hop aboard a helicopter to Whitehaven Beach or take a trip to the outer reef for some of the world's best diving and snorkeling. Kayaking, swimming, sailing, golfing on the driving range, and hiking the walking trails to scenic lookouts are other popular pursuits. If that's too much effort, the luxury spa awaits.

6 South Molle Island

South Molle Island
South Molle Island Steve Davidson
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In the middle of the Whitsundays, South Molle Island is home to a network of beautiful hiking trails and a budget resort. The island is part of the Molle Islands National Park and attracts many backpackers, day-trippers, and campers who come here to frolic on its picturesque shores. Rainforests, reefs, rocky headlands, and long blond beaches fringed by arching palms provide perfect postcard scenery. More than 16 km of walking tracks thread through the tropical foliage - some leading to panoramic lookouts such as Mount Jeffreys. Spion Kop Track is a favorite. Golf, tennis, sailing, scuba diving, and snorkeling are the top draws, and a plethora of birds flit about the island, including flocks of brilliantly hued rainbow lorikeets.

7 Long Island

Long Island
Long Island
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Only a kilometer away from the mainland, sleek and slender Long Island is mostly pristine national park. Fringing reefs lie less than 150 m offshore, more than 20 km of walking tracks weave through the bushland, and secluded coves along this snaking island provide safe anchorage for boats. Long Island hosts three resorts offering all the usual water sports, as well as pretty beaches slung with palm-shaded hammocks. Thanks to the island's close proximity to Shute Harbour, (20 minutes by ferry), and an affordable resort with a Kids' Club and spa, this is a convenient island getaway that still manages to capture a back-to-nature-feel.

8 Hook Island

Hook Island
Hook Island
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Rocky and rugged, Hook Island offers some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in the Whitsundays. Many tour boats stop at the reefs along here (Luncheon Bay, Butterfly Bay, and Manta Ray Bay are all favorites). A large part of the island is national park with walking trails to rainforests, coral-strewn beaches, and viewpoints on rocky headlands. On the south coast, long, fjord-like Nara Inlet shelters many yachts with its lush slopes plunging to the sea. From here, sightseers can hike to ancient aboriginal cave shelters and a beautiful waterfall. To visit Hook Island, visitors can book a day trip or pitch a tent at one of the picturesque beachside campsites.

9 Airlie Beach

Marina at Airlie Beach
Marina at Airlie Beach
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A hub for globetrotting backpackers and island day-trippers, the mainland's Airlie Beach buzzes day and night. Tourism is the mainstay of this Whitsunday gateway, where marina and resort developments continue to sprout along the seafront, and alfresco cafés and restaurants line the streets. With such a strong tourism focus, this is a great base for organizing island adventures, many of which depart from Abell Point Marina. Travelers will find a wide range of accommodation, from youth hostels to luxury hotels.

Top tourist diversions include the sparkling lagoon-style pool on the Esplanade and a stroll along the seafront promenade. The beach is not great for swimming due to the possible presence of marine stingers. Every Saturday from 7am to 1pm, tourists and locals alike flock to the Airlie Beach Markets on the foreshore to browse the stalls for fresh produce, souvenirs, crafts, and gifts.

10 Shute Harbour

Shute Harbour
Shute Harbour
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About 10 km from Airlie Beach, Shute Harbour is a little more peaceful than its party-loving neighbor. Travelers can park their vehicles here and board ferries to the islands at the marina where many private boats bob about in the moorings. To enjoy a panoramic view of the ocean and islands, sightseers should drive to the top of Coral Point and snap some photos from the harbor-view headland. Those wishing to explore the area further can embark on several scenic walks in the surrounding national parks. Shute Harbour is also known for its fantastic fishing. Anglers can cast a line from a pontoon near the marina or zip out to deeper waters on a fishing charter.

Tips and Tactics

The following Tips and Tactics will help maximize the potential for fun when visiting the Whitsunday Islands:

  • The best time to visit the Great Barrier Reef is the dry season, between May and October, when humidity is low and visibility is better. During October through May, marine stingers inhabit the waters. For protection, swimmers should wear stinger suits during this time, especially when swimming off mainland beaches. For more details, see Tourism Whitsundays Stinger Information.
  • Due to large tidal shifts, reef access and many activities depend on tide times and heights. Water visibility for snorkeling and diving also depends on the weather. Travelers can read up-to-date weather forecasts at the Bureau of Meteorology website.
  • Camping permits must be obtained in advance. All campers should bring their own water supplies for drinking and cooking.
  • The Aussie sun can be strong. When heading outside, sightseers should wear sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses to protect their eyes.

Getting There

Airlie Beach and Shute Harbour, in Central Queensland, are the most convenient launching points for trips to the Whitsunday Islands. From here, travelers can access the Whitsunday Islands.

By Boat:

  • Commercial boat transfers and yacht charters are available from Shute Harbour or Abel Point Marina in Airlie Beach.
  • For those traveling by private vessel, public boat ramps are available at Airlie Beach, Shute Harbour, Abel Point, Cannonvale, Dingo Beach, Conway Beach, and Midge Point.

By Air:

  • Travelers can fly into Whitsunday Coast Airport (PPP) in Proserpine, about 25 minutes from Airlie Beach, and Hamilton Island (HTI), the only island with a commercial airport.
  • Seaplanes and helicopters offer island transfers and sightseeing tours. Inquire with Tourism Whitsundays for more details.

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