Sleeping under the stars on the Great Barrier Reef, hikes to secret coves and swims among stingrays at Australia’s most beautiful beach – and I did it all from my Airlie Beach base, says Felicia Arhontissas.
For anyone venturing to tropical North Queensland, Airlie Beach is a must-visit destination. On a recent trip to the Sunshine State, my time revolved around this lively beach town. Year-round tropical weather, an electrifying night life and a UNESCO World Heritage site at its doorstep make it the perfect base for adventures to the Great Barrier Reef and Whitsunday Islands.
This is how I spent my short-but-sweet time in The Whitsundays, packed to the brim with incredible day trips.
Discover Airlie Beach
Club Wyndham Airlie Beach
Airlie Beach Apartment-Style Resort with Ocean Views & Outdoor Pool
Ultra-Stylish Airlie Beach Apartment Escape Near the Waterfront
The Boathouse Apartments
Stylish Airlie Beach Apartment Escape for up to Seven Guests with Views of the Whitsundays
Airlie Beach Luxury Villas Overlooking Funnel Bay with Onsite Day Spa
Daydream Island Resort
Iconic Daydream Island Great Barrier Reef Escape in the Heart of the Whitsundays
Be sure to enjoy recreational amenities, including an outdoor pool, a spa tub, and a fitness center. This aparthotel also features tour/ticket assistance and barbecue grills.
Sea Star Apartments
Enjoy recreational amenities such as an outdoor pool and a spa tub. Additional features at this hotel include complimentary wireless internet access, babysitting (surcharge), and tour/ticket assistance.
Take advantage of recreational opportunities offered, including an outdoor pool, a sauna, and a fitness center. Additional amenities at this aparthotel include complimentary wireless internet access and tour/ticket assistance.
The Sebel Whitsundays Airlie Beach
Enjoy a range of recreational amenities, including an outdoor pool, a fitness center, and bicycles to rent. Additional amenities at this hotel include complimentary wireless internet access, concierge services, and wedding services.
Day 1: Whitehaven Beach
My time in The Whitsundays began with a visit to Whitehaven Beach with Red Cat Adventures. After their shuttle whisked me from The Boathouse Apartments to Coral Sea Marina, I was handed a wetsuit before boarding a speedy scarlet catamaran – one of the fastest in The Whitsundays. “Hold onto your hats,” our guide advised, “because we’re only stopping for a lost hat if there’s a head attached to it.”
Cue AC/DC’s Thunderstruck, blaring from the speakers as the boat sped over choppy waves, intermittent sprays of saltwater drenching the first five rows, much to the delight of the thrill seekers up front. At Tongue Bay, we disembarked and meandered to Hill Inlet Lookout for some of the best views in the Whitsundays. The turquoise water below swirled in ever-changing patterns drawn by sand, the shapes dictated by the changing tides.
Itching to get into the water, we headed back along the walking trail, turning right off the main path toward the beach. The sand underfoot, made from quartz and 98% silica beads, felt soft as silk. And through the crystal-clear water we could clearly see the dark shapes of stingrays moving in a graceful dance around us while we swam.
Day 2: Reef World, Outer Great Barrier Reef
One of the best ways to experience the Great Barrier Reef? Sleeping on the Reef World pontoon above Hardy Reef. Here I was to learn about the Outer Great Barrier Reef firsthand, thanks to a Reefsleep stay with Cruise Whitsundays.
By late morning we arrived at our pontoon and home for the night. We were invited to don wetsuits and set off on a snorkelling safari, sign up for a diving excursion or simply soak up the sunshine with an icy drink on the top deck.
Snorkelling in Hardy Reef feels like dreaming in technicolour. Picture shimmering turquoise parrotfish, yellow-striped butterflyfish, fluorescent-blue-tipped hard coral, and peachy soft coral swaying with the current. Deeper out, we spotted a big-lipped Māori wrasse, giant clams, silver giant trevally and a 350kg Queensland grouper called George who liked to hang around the pontoon – he’d become a sort of celebrity out here.
The overnight included drinks and all meals prepared by a French chef. We even snacked on sunset canapes with prosecco. Dinner kicked off with scallops, cooked oysters with chili and grilled prawns followed by Spanish mackerel prepared to perfection and served with velvety sweet-potato mash and roasted broccolini and asparagus. A decadent brownie drizzled with raspberry compote capped off this memorable meal. Post dinner, I descended below deck to the underwater observatory. Here, time fell away as I sat mesmerised by a silver wall of giant trevally swimming before me, attracted by the lights from the pontoon.
We slept in two-person swags on the top deck, overlooking the reef and kitted with a mattress, night light and fan. While every part of the Reefsleep was memorable, the moment that lingers in my memory was witnessing the sunrise from the comfort of my swag’s flap door. Watching the sky shift from grey to purple, gold and finally blue as the sun rose over the horizon was well worth waking early for.
Day 3: Airlie Beach
Airlie Beach is worth a day all to itself. Locals typically organise a catch up 'at the Lagoon' where you can enjoy a splash or find a quiet spot on the grassy knoll for a sneaky afternoon nap. If you’re willing to venture just out of town, you’ll find some of Queensland's most impressive beaches including Hideaway Bay, Coral Beach and Grays Bay.
I opted to spend my evening soaking up the town. My self-contained two-bedroom apartment boasted a prime location along the marina, and my furnished balcony overlooked super yachts docked in the marina – it was the perfect spot for a sunset drink.
I was an easy five-minute walk from the town’s main street where I passed restaurants, pubs, bars and shops. On the hunt for live music, I followed the crowds to Magnums’ beer garden and was met by cheap pints, a buzzing atmosphere and some toe-tapping tunes. For dinner, I was spoilt for choice, with everything from juicy burgers and frozen daiquiris at Little Vegas Burger & Bar, to seafood towers at Airlie Beach institution Fish D’vine, and sizzling steaks at KC’s Bar & Grill.
Day 4: Hamilton Island
Hamilton Island is ripe with experiences for any type of traveller, from nature enthusiasts to spa seekers and gourmands in search of their next feast. Today, I branded myself a hiker, keen to explore some of the bushland – which makes up 70% of the island.
My backpack crammed with sunscreen, water, snacks and a camera, I set off for Coral Cove. Following the trail through bushland, I paused at the halfway point to take in views of the mangroves cropping out from aquamarine waters. This moderate trek takes approximately two hours to complete and starts just a five-minute golf buggy ride from the marina. The prize? A pristine beach, fringed by palm trees and featuring a giant swing. I stayed for what felt like hours, enjoying a mini picnic, lazing on the sand with a book in hand and cooling off in the glassy water.
Felicia Arhontissas visited The Whitsundays as a guest of Tourism Whitsundays.
Feature image courtesy of Tourism and Events Queensland.
Ready to visit Airlie Beach? Book a stylish, self-contained stay at The Boathouse Apartments.