11 Top-Rated Attractions in the Whitsunday Islands

Written by Karen Hastings
Sep 9, 2019

Inside the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef, the Whitsundays are 74 sun-soaked tropical islands with pearly beaches and popular resorts. This string of continental islands are the peaks of drowned hills jutting above the turquoise Coral Sea off the coast of central Queensland. Six national parks protect their fragile ecosystems, and popular things to do while visiting the Whitsunday Islands include sailing, snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing, and beach basking.

In 2017, Cyclone Debbie devastated some of the island resorts, but many have since reopened even better than before. If you're looking for where to stay in the Whitsundays, you can choose from exclusive boutique resorts, luxury eco-lodges, back-to-nature bungalows, and beachside campsites. You can also stay on the mainland at Airlie Beach, the main launching point for for Whitsunday attractions, and adventures by helicopter, seaplane, ferry, and luxury yacht.

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. Find out more about the best places to visit in this tropical paradise with our list of the top attractions in the Whitsunday Islands.

1. Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef

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, you can gain a sense of the reef's enormous size 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

One of the most beautiful beaches in Australia, Whitehaven is a sublime seven-kilometer slice of white silica sand and turquoise sea. This squeaky clean beach lies on Whitsunday Island, the largest island in the chain and a popular spot for day trips and picnics.

You 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, and you can also enjoy a bird's-eye view of the island from a seaplane or helicopter. Tongue Bay is a popular anchorage for bareboats.

If you want to stay on the island, camping is permitted on the southern end of the beach, but most visitors come here aboard luxury yachts, ferries, and powerboats on day trips. One of the most popular excursions is the Ocean Rafting Tour to Whitehaven Beach. This seven-hour tour by motor raft gives you time for snorkeling in secret spots, basking on the beach, and hiking to a panoramic lookout in Whitsunday Islands National Park.

3. Sailing Trips & Cruises

Sailboat of Whitehaven Beach

The best way to really appreciate the beauty of this island paradise is on a sailing trip or high-speed cruise. This enables you to see more than one island in a day. Many tours also include stops to snorkel on the reef, hike the trails in Whitsunday National Park, and enjoy the facilities of the resorts.

On the Whitehaven Beach and Hamilton Island Cruise, you can cruise to the beach in a high-speed catamaran. This nine-hour tour explores the highlights of this dazzling beach, and then heads to Hamilton Island, where you can hike the trails, browse the boutiques, and enjoy close-up experiences with Aussie animals at WILD LIFE Hamilton Island.

If you really want to feel the wind in your hair and the salt spray on your face, the Whitsunday Islands Sailing Adventure is a great way to tour the islands. This 10-hour tour takes you to stunning Whitehaven Beach, with a guided hiking tour to Hill Inlet lookout, and a stop to snorkel on the reef.

4. Hamilton Island

Hamilton Island

Brimming with attractions, resorts, and activities, Hamilton Island is the only Whitsunday Island with a commercial airport. Accommodation ranges from the luxury Qualia Resort on Hamilton's northern tip to palm-shaded bungalows, family-friendly apartments, and yacht club villas.

Activities are just as varied. Like all the islands, water sports are the main diversion, and tourists will find plenty to choose from here. Trips to the Great Barrier Reef and stunning Whitehaven Beach are highlights, and the island has plenty of its own attractions.

You 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 interacting with Aussie animals at WILD LIFE Hamilton Island, as well as bowling, speeding around the go-kart track, and playing mini-golf.

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.

Official site: http://www.hamiltonisland.com.au/

5. Hayman Island

Hayman Island

Sublime Hayman Island is home to the five-star InterContinental Hayman Island Resort, which reopened in July, 2019 after a $100 million renovation. Hayman is the northernmost of the inhabited islands in the Whitsunday group, and guests travel to this tiny treasure in style-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. Long Island

Long Island

A perfect back-to-nature getaway, sleek and slender Long Island is mostly pristine national park. Fringing reefs lie less than 150 meters offshore, more than 13 kilometers of walking tracks weave through the bushland, and secluded coves provide safe anchorage for boats. Best of all, the island is easy to access. It's only 20 minutes by ferry from Shute Harbour.

Long Island hosts two beautiful boutique resorts. Opened in 2019, the luxury adults-only eco-resort, Elysian Retreat is the first solar-powered resort in the Whitsundays, with a maximum of only 20 lucky guests.

Sprinkled around a peaceful pocket of sand and sea, Palm Bay Resort Whitsundays is a more affordable boutique resort with Balinese-style villas, suites, and houses. This resort offers rare self-catering accommodation, so you can cook your own meals.

Besides all the usual water sports, hiking through the national parks is one of the most popular things to do here, or simply relaxing in a palm-shaded hammock gazing out to the turquoise sea.

7. Daydream Island

Daydream Island

A family favorite, Daydream Island is the smallest of the Whitsunday group and one of the closest to the mainland. Popular with day trippers, almost the entire island is devoted to the Daydream Island Resort, which reopened in 2019 after an extensive facelift.

Despite its petite size, this attractive resort is packed with facilities, including a spa, sparkling lagoon-style pools, a kids' club, and an outdoor aquarium where guests can hand-feed stingrays and sharks. Water sports abound along three pretty strands of beach, and sightseeing options include rainforest walks, reef fishing, and coral-viewing trips.

8. Hook Island

Hook Island

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, you can hike to ancient aboriginal cave shelters and a beautiful waterfall.

To visit Hook Island, you can book a day trip or pitch a tent at one of the picturesque beachside campsites.

9. Whitsunday Islands National Park

Whitsunday Island aerial

Arguably one of the world's most beautiful national parks, Whitsunday Islands National Park encompasses 32 of these idyllic tropical islands. Nature lovers will be in heaven exploring both on land and in the surrounding reef-dappled waters.

The Ngaro Aboriginal people first inhabited this area and are one of Australia's earliest recorded indigenous groups, first sighted by Captain Cook in 1770. You can view some of their rock art at Nara Inlet on Hook Island. Other popular places to visit include sublime Whitehaven Beach on the uninhabited Whitsunday Island and the scenic hike to scenic Hill Inlet from here.

Favorite things to do in this multi-island park include diving and snorkeling along the reefs; fishing; and hiking the many trails, especially on Whitsunday Island, Hook Island, Border Island, and Langford Island.

Wildlife viewing is also popular. On land, look for goannas, unadorned rock-wallabies, flying foxes, and many species of birds. In the water, you might spot dugongs, rays, humpback whales, sharks, sea turtles, and many species of vibrantly colored reef fish.

The best way to experience the park is to camp on one of the islands. Dugong Beach, Naris Beach, and Joes Beach offer sheltered sites on Whitsunday Island, and you can also set up camp at smaller sites on Hook Island at Crayfish, Steens, and Curlew Beaches or Maureen's Cove-which offer fantastic snorkeling from shore.

Camping permits must be obtained in advance, and all campers should bring their own water supplies for drinking and cooking.

Official site: https://parks.des.qld.gov.au/parks/whitsunday-islands/

10. Airlie Beach

Coral Sea Marina at Airlie Beach

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 Coral Sea Marina. Travelers will find a wide range of accommodation, from youth hostels to luxury hotels.

A great way to get a feel for the area, and one of the best free things to do in Airlie Beach is to stroll along the four-kilometer Bicentennial Walkway, which takes you along the waterfront and past Coral Sea Marina. Stop for a snack or drink along the way at one of the many cafes or restaurants. Another top attraction is the inviting lagoon-style pool on the Esplanade-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 Lions Airlie Beach Markets on the foreshore to browse the stalls for fresh produce, souvenirs, crafts, and gifts.

For a unique outdoor adventure, hike or bike Conway Circuit. This 28-kilometer one-way hiking or mountain biking trail takes you along the mountain ridges in Conway National Park, through rain forests and along rugged cliffs. It's a rewarding way to experience the lush, tropical wilderness and see spectacular views of the Whitsunday Passage. The trail takes about three days of walking and camping out under the stars, or four to five hours on a mountain bike.

11. Shute Harbour

Shute Harbour

Shute Harbour, about 10 kilometers southeast of Airlie Beach, was once a popular jumping-off point for island tours and fishing trips before Cyclone Debbie pummeled the marina and much of its related development in 2017. Luckily, plans are underway to rebuild the marina, as well as hotels, resorts, restaurants, residences, retail space, and an aboriginal cultural center.

While this picturesque little tropical town awaits its $252 million facelift, many tourists still come here to hike or drive to the top of Coral Point for panoramic views of the ocean, islands, and harbor. And if you want to explore the area further, you can hike some of the scenic walks in the surrounding national parks. The 7.2-kilometer Mount Rooper Circuit and Swamp Bay track is one of the most popular.

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Quintessential Queensland: Queensland is all about tropical beauty and adventure. While you're in the Whitsunday's you'll be able to explore the fish-rich reefs of the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef. Head south from here, and you can four-wheel drive on Fraser Island, the world's largest sand island, or surf some fantastic breaks at Noosa Heads and the Sunshine Coast.

Queensland's Tropical Towns: About a three-hour drive north of Airlie Beach, you'll find plenty of things to do in Townsville. Stroll along the palm-lined seafront promenade called The Strand, dive a famous wreck, and see wild koalas on Magnetic Island. Drive north from here, and you'll hit the tourist hot spot of Cairns, another great base for Great Barrier Reef trips. Even farther north, are picturesque Port Douglas and Cape Tribulation, where the rainforest meets the reef.

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