Have you got the itch for a white sandy picture-postcard destination? Then it’s time to pack your backpack and head north to Airlie Beach and the rest of the islands in the beautiful Whitsundays. Forget about that shiver as you inch your way into the water – here, the average water temperature is 26 degrees, and you are surrounded by picturesque national parks. The Great Barrier Reef is only about 200-250 km away and can be reached on a day trip with a variety of tour operators.
There are 74 islands in the Whitsundays, and Airlie Beach provides the perfect mainland base for visiting as few or as many as you like. Some of the most popular islands are Hamilton, Daydream, Lindeman, Hook and Long. But there are also many small and quiet islands for camping and visiting for a day. The beaches in these parts are up there with the most beautiful in the world, but for the average traveller, they can come at quite a price tag. That’s why we have put together this super handy guide for how backpackers can do Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays and still have enough money left over for a few beers at the end of each day.
The Whitsundays are located on the far north coast of Australia and are serviced by two main airports: the mainland airport at Proserpine and the Great Barrier Reef airport on Hamilton Island. Proserpine is the main gateway to the region, and usually the cheapest to fly to. You can also take the train with Queensland rail’s Sunlander route from both Brisbane and Cairns. Or if you want to make stops along the way, you could hire a car or van and hit the wide-open road. Just remember to check the distance before you set out. Even from Brisbane (the closest capital), it’s almost 1000 kilometres to the Whitsundays and this has caught out many international backpackers who don’t realise how big Australia really is!
Where to stay
When it comes to where you’re going to lay your head, make sure to consider how close your bed is to the DJ booth at your destination, especially if you want to commit to early morning snorkelling and hikes. If not, then embrace the bass.
The good news is there is no shortage of good cheap backpacker options in and around Airlie. We recommend starting here and then maybe exploring the wider Whitsunday Islands via camping or reefsleeping. Options include:
Base Airlie Beach Resort
This tidy budget resort has a room type for just about any traveller. Dorms, suites, campsites, and even somewhere to park your van, all within a six-acre sprawling resort complete with palm trees and pools. It’s right in the middle of Airlie, so is convenient for everything. There’s free WiFi in the lobby, or you can pay a bit extra to have it in your room. Streetside rooms can be noisy, so if you forget the earplugs, ask for a room at the back.
Magnums is also huge. It is pretty much a small city within the surrounds of Airlie. It has dorms, twins, doubles and a much more party atmosphere than Base. If you came to get loose, this is the place for you. However, if you wanted a more tranquil time, or a detox from the rest of your adventures, this might not be the right locale.
Cruise Whitsundays gives you a great way to make your stay in Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays unique. Don’t just see the most beautiful reef in the world, SLEEP ON IT! The Reefsleep option is for anyone who has ever wanted to wake up next to a turtle, or just roll out of bed and be instantly surrounded by awe-inspiring scenery. Keep your flippers next to the bed for the ultimate morning swim. Not as cheap as a dorm bed, but 100% worth it for at least part of your stay.
Camp on the islands
There are 74 islands within the Whitsundays, and you can camp on some of them. Molle Islands National Park and Whitsunday Islands National Park both have really cheap camping options. But they are cheap for a reason. This is wilderness at its absolute most basic. Don’t come expecting a flushing toilet and camp kitchen. However, there are some companies that offer camping supplies if you didn’t bring your own and want to give it a go. And remember to stock up on drinking water before you head out. Book your campsite via the Queensland National Parks website.
The main things that people come to do in the Whitsundays are:
- Island hopping
- Scuba diving and snorkelling
- Lazing on the beach
Some of the places you shouldn’t miss include:
Of course, the Great Barrier Reef is a major draw for most backpackers, and Heart Reef is one of the most accessible parts from the Whitsundays. This stunning coral formation has been naturally shaped into a heart for some pretty spectacular photos (especially if you’ve got a drone).
This pristine award-winning beach on Whitsunday Island is exactly what it sounds like. A haven of perfect white sand stretching across aquamarine water, set aside some time to soak up the rays here.
Hamilton is a beautiful care-free island covered in bushland and fringed by coral. See marine wildlife, as well as koalas, kangaroos, wallabies and kookaburras. Take a hike up to Passage Peak with stunning views of the surrounding islands.
This is another amazing beach close to Hamilton Island perfect for relaxing and enjoying a wide range of water sports. Grab a windsurfer, catamaran or kayak. Or, take a guided snorkelling tour.
There are so many snorkelling and scuba diving operators that will offer everything from gear hire to multi-day trips. You can even do a dive course. Make sure to put some time aside to get up close and personal with the unique marine life in the region. Airlie Snorkelling Tours and Adventure Free are reputable providers with great prices.
So there you have it. We are sure that’s gotten you excited about your trip to Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands. Once you are done, make sure to stop in to Cairns, a definite backpacker hub, before heading back to Proserpine and on to your next destination. You might go to Brisbane or the Gold Coast for more of what Queensland has to offer, or on to Sydney for some iconic city snaps.
The choice is yours!