Where to get the best out of a Whitsunday Islands holiday in the Great Barrier Reef

Found: the perfect stays for families, solo travellers and those seeking their own love island. Just add swimming, sailing, snorkelling, cocktails and more.

Boys on a homemade log swing at Dingo Beach, near Airlie Beach in the Whitsundays.
  • Paul Ewart and Tracy Withers
  • February 2020

Airlie Beach, Daydream Island and Hamilton Island are the jewels of the Whitsundays. We test the waters at this Queensland paradise.

Best for solo travellers: Airlie Beach

Mega yachts, clear blue skies and turquoise ocean as far as the eye can see. The view from the private balconies at each of the Mantra Boathouse Apartments’ self-contained rooms is definitive (and stunning) proof of exactly why this lodging, on the Queensland mainland and an hour by ferry to Hamilton Island, is the embodiment of the “location, location, location” maxim.

Set smack bang on Airlie Beach’s marina waterfront, it’s a breezy, balmy five-minute walk to the town centre, but far enough to avoid any late-night revelry – or join in if you want. And that’s the beauty of Airlie Beach, it lets you pick and choose what you want to do. You can use it as a jump-off point to explore the surrounding islands, be it the touristy – yet unbelievably pristine and dazzling – sands of Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island, or lesser-known islands such as Armit, Olden and the spectacularly unspoiled Gloucester (about 40 kilometres north from Airlie).

Airlie Beach Day Sailing takes small groups to secluded spots around the Whitsunday Islands for a full day of snorkelling and seafaring. A gourmet lunch is included and it’s BYO tipple.

A woman on a rubber ring next to a sailing boat.
Enjoy a day on the water followed by a gourmet spread with Airlie Beach Day Sailing.

While getting offshore is top of mind for most visitors, a quick drive inland from Airlie provides the location for one of the best kept secrets in the Whitsunday hinterland – a series of picturesque walking trails through the lush rainforest and seasonal waterfalls of the Conway National Park. Absolute Airlie offer a range of guided bushwalking tours that explore the natural beauty through the ancient parkland. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for goannas, paradise kingfishers and the gorgeous neon-blue Ulysses butterfly before cooling off with a dip.

Back in town choose between a hit of tennis, a relax poolside within your apartment complex, or the huge palm-fringed man-made Airlie Beach Lagoon where you can swim all-year round, stinger-free (elsewhere the stinger season lasts from October to May). It’s also here where the Bicentennial Walkway begins.

Airlie Beach Lagoon.
Indulge in some stinger-free swimming at Airlie Beach Lagoon.

The four-kilometre-long waterfront walk is perfect for a sunrise stroll and stretches from Airlie to Cannonvale Beach, showcasing stunning coastal views along the way. Once at Cannonvale, you can reward your labours with a slap-up all-day brekkie at the Fat Frog Beach Cafe. Serving what locals cite as the best coffee in town, the café enjoys prime position directly opposite the beach to help induce extra feel good vibes. Talk about breakfast with a view.

Best for families: Daydream Island

“And here comes our main attraction!” laughs our guide, as Luanne the stingray waves her fins under the water, before shimmying onto my wetsuit-clad body in the hope of feasting on the bite-size fish morsel I’m holding in my palm.

You can snorkel at many holiday resorts, however you don’t usually get to pet and feed such huge aquatic critters up close – but then this is newly opened Daydream Island, home to the Living Reef, a 1.5 million litre eco-friendly lagoon that wraps 200 metres around the main hotel building. (Beloved by Aussies since it opened in 1932, Daydream Island was a victim of 2017’s Cyclone Debbie. After a AUD $100 million makeover, it’s back.)

Palm trees and bungalows overlooking the water.
You can snorkel at this family-friendly, eco-hotel.

Outside your door, the Living Reef is home to baby stingrays, starfish, sea cucumbers, colourful coral and plenty of other fascinating underwater creatures. And while perhaps specifically geared towards children, it appeals to kids – and adults – of all ages. The snorkelling experience is for children aged 10 and up, but there are plenty of other wet- and-not-too-wild opportunities for little ones to get hands-on with the marine life. The Reef Exploration Centre has a “touch tank” and there’s a new underwater observatory – both will educate and excite the whole tribe.

But the Living Reef isn’t the only brush with wildlife and family fun at Daydream; come sunset, wallaroos come out to play, cockatoos like to say goodnight and someone small will inevitably ask: “What are we doing tomorrow?” Pool, beach, kids’ club, lunch, dive, relax, meet a sea cucumber…

Best for couples: Hamilton Island

What will it be today? An energy-charged bushwalk to a sandy secret cove or an easy dawdle to the glimmering resort pool? How about sundowners at One Tree Hill with views across the Whitsundays? From the hammock on the deck of your garden-enveloped bungalow you’ve got choices to make. But no rush – you’re on “Hamo” (Hamilton Island) time now and Palm Bungalows with its laid-back tropical luxe for lovers vibe has a 24-hour front desk to help make anything happen on land or sea.

A beach hut surrounded palm trees.
These high-end huts are perfectly placed for enjoying The Whitsundays.

The beauty of these modern, upscale takes on a beach hut (apart from a cloud-feel king-sized bed) is that you feel blissfully remote but you’re right up close to all the island’s highlights – the calm, coral-dotted bay of Catseye Beach, where guests at the bungalows can pick up free kayaks, snorkels and stand up paddleboards, is two minutes’ walk away; a massage at Spa Wumurdaylin or yoga stretch at the glossy Sports Club is even closer.

Hire a golf buggy to whizz around on (maximum speed 20km an hour) and soak up a cocktail and the panoramic view of a sunset that makes every other pale by comparison.

Your bungalow has a neat kitchenette but we’d stick to making breakfast. South East Asian hawker food at Coca Chu restaurant (have the “son in law eggs”) change your life and local seafood at the Yacht Club’s Bommie Deck call for a waterside lunch or dinner.

A man standing next to a palm tree on Catseye Beach.
Head to Catseye Beach for a spot of snorkelling or stand-up paddle-boarding.

Lovers, if you really want to level up, reserve your spot on the new Hamilton Island Air “Journey to the Heart” experience. A helicopter coasts above the Whitsundays’ heart-shaped reef then sets you down onto the “Heart Island” pontoon to explore turquoise lagoons via snorkelling and glass-bottomed boat.