14 Top-Rated Things to Do in Airlie Beach

Written by Karen Hastings
Jan 13, 2023
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Author Karen Hastings and photographer Brian Hastings have enjoyed island-hopping, fishing, and exploring around Airlie Beach multiple times, including a recent trip in October, 2022.

Airlie Beach is known as the "Heart of the Reef" for good reason. Located on the tropical Whitsunday Coast, this laid-back resort town is the gateway to two of Queensland's top tourist attractions: the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef and the idyllic Whitsunday Islands.

View over Airlie Beach
View over Airlie Beach | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Not surprisingly, ocean adventures are among the top things to do in Airlie Beach. You can cruise around the islands, dive or snorkel the coral reefs, swim at ravishing Whitehaven Beach, or fish the clear waters. You can even sleep at the Great Barrier Reef. The Whitsunday Islands also offer some of the best sailing in the Southern Hemisphere.

You'll find plenty of things to do on land here, too, whether you're traveling as a family or backpacking with your mates. Stroll along the waterfront on the Bicentennial Walkway, take a dip in the Airlie Beach lagoon, feast on fresh seafood at alfresco restaurants, or hike the Conway Circuit. Choose your adventures with our list of the top things to do in Airlie Beach.

1. Take a Dip in Airlie Beach Lagoon

Airlie Beach Lagoon
Airlie Beach Lagoon | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Palm trees, glistening aqua water, and sandy shores — it sounds like an idyllic day at the beach, but these are also the top draws at Airlie Beach Lagoon. When the mercury soars, this waterfront pool is the perfect place to take a refreshing dip.

Children can splash around at the kiddie pool and play on the sandy beach. Adults can sprawl on the grassy knolls amid the lush gardens, curl up with a good book, and gaze out at the turquoise Coral Sea. It's also one of the best places to visit in Airlie Beach for a family picnic. Best of all, this popular tourist attraction is free.

After a cool dip, you can take a leisurely stroll along the Bicentennial Walkway, which threads along the waterfront here. And if you prefer a dip in the sea, the beach is steps away.

Address: Shute Harbour Road, Airlie Beach, Queensland

2. Stroll along the Bicentennial Walkway

Bicentennial Walkway
Bicentennial Walkway | Photo Copyright: Brian Hastings

Kick off your sightseeing tour of Airlie Beach with a relaxing stroll along the Bicentennial Walkway. Stretching over five kilometers, this scenic path threads along the waterfront at Airlie Beach all the way to Cannonvale Beach.

Along the way, soak up dreamy views of the Coral Sea and the beautiful Whitsunday Islands. Gaze offshore, and you'll see these low-slung emerald beauties peeking alluringly from the turquoise sea, ringed with fish-rich reefs.

Stop for a coffee or an alfresco seafood lunch at one of the popular restaurants, like The Deck Airlie Beach. Take a break at a sheltered cove, or cool off with a dip at Airlie Beach Lagoon.

Walking with kids? No problem. The trail is flat, well-signposted, and easy to navigate. Plus it's stroller and wheelchair friendly.

If you're looking for things to do in Airlie Beach for couples, this is the perfect place for a sunset stroll. And if you're wondering about a romantic place to stay in Airlie Beach, Pinnacles Resort is within walking distance, and features hot tubs on ocean-view decks with breathtaking views over the bay.

3. Cruise or Sail around the Whitsunday Islands

Sailboat anchored off Hook Island
Sailboat anchored off Hook Island | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Sailing trips from Airlie Beach are one of the most popular things to do in the Whitsundays. In fact, the Whitsunday Islands offer some of the best sailing waters in the Southern Hemisphere. Sheltered by the Great Barrier Reef and close to the mainland, these lush beauties feature relatively safe waters that are easy to navigate — even for novice skippers.

Bareboat charters are one of the most popular ways to explore the best Whitsunday Islands. This involves hiring a yacht, motor cruiser, or catamaran and skippering the boat yourself. Best of all, you don't need any experience or even a boat license to sail around the Whitsundays. Typical bareboat charters include a half-day detailed lesson and all-day support.

Airlie Beach and Shute Harbour are the two launching points for bareboating trips, and several companies offer a range of vessels. Whitsunday Rent A Yacht, Sunsail: Whitsundays, and Whitsunday Escape are popular options.

Boat and Skipper: Still not feeling confident? No worries. You can charter a boat with a skipper, and even add a sailing guide if you require extra help.

Tours: If you just want a little taste of sailing around the islands on a day trip, consider booking the Camira Whitsunday Islands Sailing Adventure. This 10-hour tour takes you on a cruise around the islands to stunning Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island. Here, you'll enjoy a guided hiking tour to Hill Inlet lookout and top off your day with a snorkel stop on the reef.

Feel the need for speed? Sign up for a Whitsundays Guided Jet Ski tour around the islands. This 2.5-hour guided small-group tour accommodates all abilities, from beginner to more experienced.

4. Take a Day Trip to Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island

Whitehaven Beach
Whitehaven Beach

Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island is one of the top tours from Airlie Beach. Tourists come from around the world to see this luscious swirl of sand and sea, capturing it in photos from a series of lookouts atop Hill Inlet.

Whitehaven Beach frequently graces lists of Australia's top beaches, and once you step foot on it, you'll know why. Silky-soft silica composes this seven-kilometer arc of sand. Pure white and powdery soft, the sandy shore glitters against the vibrant palette of turquoise water, blue sky, and lush green headlands.

You won't find any development on this uninhabited island, and that's part of the appeal. Whitsunday National Park protects the beach, keeping it relatively pristine despite the many throngs of international beach connoisseurs who land here each day. Most day tours land at Tongue Bay.

Author, Karen Hastings, enjoying the view over Hill Inlet
Author, Karen Hastings, enjoying the view over Hill Inlet | Photo Copyright: Brian Hastings

Tours: When it comes to booking a tour, you have several options: You can choose from an Ocean Rafting tour, a sailing trip, or a high-speed catamaran cruise on Red Cat Adventures. Most tours are full-day excursions, but some companies offer half-day tours.

One of the most popular tours is the Whitehaven Beach and Hill Inlet Lookout Full-Day Snorkeling Cruise by High-Speed Catamaran. This full-day tour whisks you to Whitsunday Island for a hike to the lookouts overlooking Hill Inlet, a swim at Whitehaven Beach, and snorkeling stops along the reef on the return trip. Also included is a full buffet lunch, expert guides, and snorkeling equipment.

You can also combine a stop at Whitehaven with a visit to Hamilton Island, where you'll find some of the best resorts in the Whitsundays.

No time for a cruise? Hop aboard a seaplane and soar over the marbled seascape on a plane.

5. Snorkel or Dive the Great Barrier Reef

Snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef off Airlie Beach
Snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef off Airlie Beach | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Snorkeling or diving over the colorful coral gardens of the UNESCO-listed Great Barrier Reef is the best way to appreciate its dazzling diversity of marine life.

This is one of the planet's richest ecosystems. More than 1,625 species of fish and 1,400 types of coral thrive here, and the reef also hosts a diversity of other marine life, including sea snakes, turtles, whales, dolphins, sharks, rays, dugongs, and giant clams.

From Airlie Beach, you can book day trips that take you snorkeling or diving.

One of the top excursions is the Great Barrier Reef Day Cruise to Reefworld offered by Cruise Whitsundays. This full-day tour takes you out to a pontoon, three hours offshore, where you can spend the day snorkeling the colorful reefs, diving along the walls, and viewing some of the marine life from the underwater observatory.

Included in your Great Barrier Reef tour are morning and afternoon tea and a full buffet lunch, all your snorkeling and diving equipment, and presentations by reef experts. Guided snorkeling and dives are extra.

Avid divers may prefer to book a liveaboard dive trip, which offer a chance to explore less visited outer reefs. The 3-Day Whitsundays Sailing and Diving Adventure is especially popular and includes meals, activities, and expert guides.

Prefer to stay dry? Don't worry, you still have plenty of options. Besides the underwater observatory, dedicated glass-bottom boat tours and scenic flights are another way to view the reef.

6. Sleep at the Great Barrier Reef with ReefSleep

ReefSleep
ReefSleep| Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Imagine sleeping on a soft bed under a blanket of billions of stars while you listen to the blip of fish splashing on a coral reef below you. You're not on a boat. Instead, you're floating on a pontoon about three hours offshore. It's not a dream — you can actually do this on a two-day ReefSleep adventure, one of the most unique things to do at the Great Barrier Reef.

Start your tour with a cruise out to the reef on a high-speed cat with Cruise Whitsundays. Once you arrive at the Reefworld pontoon, you'll have time to snorkel or dive the reef before you check into your double "luxury swags" on the pontoon overlooking the reef-dappled waters.

Look for turtles swimming in the crystal-clear water, sign up for a dive, take a guided snorkeling tour, take a ride on the semi-submersible, soar over Heart Reef on a helicopter, or watch the fish swimming by in the underwater observatory.

The best perk? After the day-tripping crowds leave on the boat, you have the entire reef to snorkel all afternoon and the following morning.

If you're looking for a more private overnight reef stay, opt for the ReefSuite experience. Descend from the pontoon into this underwater room, and fall asleep watching the fish swimming in the large picture window. It's an experience you'll never forget.

7. Fly over Heart Reef

Heart Reef
Heart Reef

Mother Nature truly worked her magic when she made the Great Barrier Reef. And when you lay eyes on Heart Reef from the air, you'll appreciate this natural wonder even more. Soaring over the shimmering coral gardens reveals the sheer magnitude of one of the planet's richest ecosystems. And yes, Heart Reef really is heart-shaped.

The 60-minute Reef and Island Scenic Flight from Airlie Beach takes you soaring over Whitehaven Beach, Hill Inlet, Daydream Island, and beautiful Heart Reef. Your flight will be accompanied by entertaining commentary from the pilot, and you are guaranteed a window seat. You can also book a helicopter flight from the pontoon over the reef.

Planning to pop the question? This is one of the most romantic things to do in Airlie Beach.

8. Hike or Bike the Conway Circuit

Conway National Park
Conway National Park | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Rainforest experiences are the perfect complement to reef adventures, and one of the best ways to experience the lush environment on land is hiking or biking the Conway Circuit.

Formerly called the Whitsunday Great Walk, this 28-kilometer one-way trail threads along the mountain ridges in Conway National Park. Along the way, you'll hike deep into the rainforest, and negotiate rugged cliffs, with gorgeous views of the Whitsunday Passage vying for your gaze.

The Conway Circuit takes about three days of walking and camping out under the stars. You can also ride the trail on a mountain bike, which takes about four hours for physically fit, experienced riders.

If you're short on time, you can explore the park on other trails, including the 2.2-kilometer round-trip Kingfisher Walk.

9. Cedar Creek Falls

Cedar Creek Falls
Cedar Creek Falls

If you'd like a waterfall experience with your dose of nature, head to Cedar Creek Falls. It's a beautiful place to visit in the wet season, when the falls are in full flow.

Pack a picnic, a swimsuit, and some insect repellent and hang out here for the day. You can take a dip in the rainforest pool while you're here. Wild orchids, white cedar trees, butterflies, lizards, fish, turtles, and many species of birds are found in the cool, dark forest here.

Cedar Creek Falls lies about halfway between Airlie Beach and Proserpine on Saltwater Creek Road. It's an easy stroll from the parking lot, and you can hike up around the falls if you're looking for more of a workout.

10. Shop at the Whitsunday Lions Airlie Beach Community Markets

Whitsunday Lions Airlie Beach Community Markets
Whitsunday Lions Airlie Beach Community Markets | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Strolling along the waterfront and browsing market stalls on a sunny morning is a wonderful way to soak up the vibe of Airlie Beach. At the Whitsunday Lions Airlie Beach Community Markets, you can do that every Saturday morning from 7am to 1pm along Airlie Beach's foreshore.

Colorful clothing, crystals, candles, jewelry, home-baked treats, and souvenirs are just some of the items you can buy here. And you can also fill up on tasty treats at the food stalls — be sure to try some mango sorbet.

Come here to get your coffee fix, too. The earlier the better, so you can nab a parking space.

11. Relax on Boathaven Beach

Boathaven Beach
Boathaven Beach | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Soft sands and calm waters make Boathaven Beach the perfect sunny day hangout. You'll find this lovely little slice of sand about a 10-minute walk from the center of town on The Beacons peninsula.

Come here on a sunny day, and you're likely to see backpackers from around the world picnicking on the shore; kids building sandcastles; and families basking in the sun, gazing out across the turquoise water where boats bob just offshore.

Swimming and sunbathing are the main activities here, and when your belly starts to rumble, just stroll across the street to the marina for a bite to eat.

12. Hang Out at Hydeaway Bay

Aerial view of Hydeaway Bay
Aerial view of Hydeaway Bay

Hydeaway Bay is a hidden treasure. About 50 kilometers from Airlie beach, it's the perfect place to spend a relaxing weekend with the family.

Swim in the crystal-clear shallow, sink your toes into the flour-soft sand, recline under a palm tree, hunt for shells, or flick out a fishing line — no matter what you like to do, there's something for every member of the family here. If you're lucky, you might even spot a dugong, dolphin, whale, or turtle in the crystalline water.

Bringing a boat? You can launch it at Dingo Beach, or if you don't own one, rent a vessel here, too. Hideaway Bay is the perfect peaceful escape.

To get here, take the Gregory-Cannon Valley Road to Dingo Beach Road and then turn into Hydeaway Bay Drive. Choose from five different public access points.

13. Go Fishing

Fishing near Airlie Beach
Fishing near Airlie Beach | Photo Copyright: Brian Hastings

Airlie Beach is heaven for avid anglers. Laced with coral reefs and mangroves, the waters here host a variety of coveted species.

You can fish the estuaries for queenfish, barramundi, grunter, and threadfin salmon or cast off the beaches for queenfish, barra, bream, golden trevally, mangrove jack, and fingermark.

Deep sea fishing on a boat is also popular. Casting along the islands and coral reefs, you can catch everything from coral trout, golden and giant trevally, and snapper to Spanish mackerel and tuna.

Airlie Beach's rockwalls are also great fishing spots. Head to the sailing club or Port of Airlie for mangrove jack, coral trout, whiting, and grunter. Shute Harbour jetty yields trevally, mack tuna, northern bluefin, mangrove jack, and barramundi.

Freshwater fishing in Airlie Beach is also rewarding — you can hook big barramundi in Peter Faust dam.

Insider's tip: Feeling like fresh fish for dinner? Many local resorts will cook up your catch.

14. Enjoy the Views from the Honeyeater Lookout Hike

View from Honeyeater Lookout
View from Honeyeater Lookout | Photo Courtesy of: Tourism Whitsundays

Wondering where to capture beautiful views of Airlie Beach? Hike up to Honeyeater Lookout. At 8.2-kilometers round trip, it's considered a moderately challenging route, and you'll get quite a workout on the steep uphill sections. Keep going, though, and your reward at the end will be breathtaking views over Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands.

Start your hike from the Kara Crescent track entrance at Airlie Beach, and continue along the Conway circuit for 2.3 kilometers to the Honeyeater lookout turn-off. The entire hike will take you about three hours. On a mountain bike, plan for about 1.5 hours.

In this tropical climate, it's always a good idea to start your hike early in the morning before it gets too hot. Wear sturdy shoes on this steep trail, and take plenty of water.

Note that dogs aren't allowed on the trail, so you'll have to leave your furry friend at home.

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