Inside Airlie Beach's $23 million makeover

Airlie Beach is known as the gateway to Queensland's Whitsundays, but don’t pass through without stopping any more.

View across white sands and mountain Whitsundays, Queensland, Australia.
  • Lee Mylne
  • August 2018

Sailing the warm blue waters of the Whitsundays has long been a popular pastime along the Queensland coast. For me, it took on a new dimension on a half-day out skimming along the calm waters of Shute Harbour on an outrigger canoe called Ohana (it’s Hawaiian for family).

View along sailing yacht in Whitehaven Beach in Whitsunday Islands National Park.
There is so much to offer now at Airlie Beach.

With the sails up, you can luxuriate in the fact there’s very little paddling to be done (at least on this day) and truly take in the surroundings. Whitsunday Sailing Outrigger owners Stephen and Michelle Lynes take only four guests on each trip from Airlie Beach, offering a very personal experience.

I’m lucky enough to be one of only two guests – the other is a French backpacker called Joanni – and although armed with a paddle each, in reality we had little to do. When the sails were set, the wind carried us off to meet turtles and stingrays as they cruised by.

Top things to do for families in the Whitsundays

Beautiful colorful sunset over sea and jetty seen under the palm.
Airlie Beach at sunset is a sight to behold.

Airlie Beach, the Whitsunday Coast resort village that is sometimes overlooked in favour of its glamorous island neighbours, has received a $23 million injection and sports a fresh look. Smart hotels and resorts have sprung up, and the new Port of Airlie marina provides a sophisticated gateway to the islands and the Great Barrier Reef. Here you’ll find the Mantra Boathouse Apartments, which have marina and sea views from the balconies – and the odd visiting sulphur-crested cockatoo.

Another good apartment stay, if you don’t mind being a 10-minute (but somewhat steep) walk from the town centre, is Pinnacles Resort. Take in the Coral Sea views from your balcony or the infinity pool.

In town, there are many options including the family-friendly BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort, the boutique Heart Hotel and Gallery, or the luxury of the stunning Coral Sea Resort, perched on its own little peninsula a five-minute walk from the main street.

Coral Sea Resort’s Clipper Restaurant offers fine dining, specialising in local seafood, with ocean views and sea breezes. For more casual fare, head to Mangrove Jacks, where the menu includes pizza, pasta and bar food for the whole family. For the best sunset views with your drink or dinner, visit the Whitsunday Sailing Club on the foreshore at Airlie Beach or check out Hemingway’s (named for author Ernest Hemingway) at Abell Point Marina.

Another delight of Airlie Beach is the Bicentennial Boardwalk, which runs for 3.7km from the Port of Airlie along the coastline to Cannonvale, with fabulous views of boats bobbing on the Coral Sea. At times, the path weaves through stands of mangroves, and sculptures of birds and sea life are dotted along the way. Walk, run, cycle or take a personal motorised scooter tour along the boardwalk, while others soak up the sun on the beach or picnic on the grass.

Aerial view of Airlie Beach pool and Lagoon in the town center Shute Harbour Road Queensland Australia.
The picture-book perfect colour of the lagoon at Airlie Beach.

The boardwalk also passes the Airlie Lagoon, a large man-made swimming area. It’s well used year-round but is especially popular during summer when marine stingers make a dip off the beach a bad idea.

Stop off near the lagoon at the Beach Book Boutique for a huge selection of new and second-hand books to boost your holiday reading. For other buys, head to the Whitsunday Markets, which sprawl along the esplanade on Saturday mornings. Discover local art and crafts, fresh produce, hand-made jewellery, clothing and souvenirs – and even line up for a camel ride.

A classic view of White haven beach in queensland australia.
The award-winning Whitehaven beach can be reached by any number of boats at Airlie Beach.

Along Main Street, Airlie’s holiday atmosphere reigns, with souvenir shops selling brightly coloured shirts and sarongs, buckets and spades, postcards and all things beachy. As those who linger discover, there’s more to Airlie Beach than meets the eye.