The Whitsunday Islands are a group of 74 islands that lie off the coast of Queensland, Australia and form part of the Great Barrier Reef. The islands are one of the most popular Australian tourist destinations. The vast majority of islands are designated national parks and major attractions include access to coral reefs for snorkeling and diving, pristine beaches, especially Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island and clear aquamarine warm waters. They are well connected by two major airports on Hamilton Island and the mainland town of Proserpine. Over half a million visitors come to the Whitsundays each year.
The name comes from Captain James Cook, the first European to navigate the east coast of Australia, when he sailed here on 4 June in 1770. He was struck by the area's beauty and named the island after the day he thought it was - "Whit Sunday", the seventh Sunday after Easter, in the Christian calendar. It later turned out his calendar was wrong, it was not Whit Sunday, but the name has stuck. From looking around you can see many expensive yachts sailing about, the playground for Sydney's rich and Queensland's property developers. For those who are still saving for their own yacht, several ferry companies operate from Airlie to bring people on daytrips around the sights. A typical daytrip might include a visit to Whitehaven beach, a trip to a part of reef for some snorkeling and a prepared lunch. The most visited island have accommodation, but that still leaves many less visited islands with no accommodation in the protected national parks. But for the more adventurous an enormous choice of camping sites dot every island, where nobody else will come.
Before tourism, the Whitsundays were used for logging. Aboriginal people had traditionally used the trees here for timber, which might account for references in Captain Cook's diary about grasslands when he first came here. White settlers did the same, after the Aboriginal population had been nearly annihilated by European diseases and bloodshed. Nowadays, there is no visible trace of logging ever having happened in the Whitsundays (except for the old dam that was used by the sawmill on Sawmill Creek in Cid Harbour Whitsunday Island), although on Hook there are two clues of previous industry. One is that at the Nara Inlet there are Aboriginal cave paintings. This can be accessed by boat, either on private charter (bareboating) or on one of the backpacker sailing yachts who sometimes stop in. The second is that if you stay on Hook (and on some other islands) you may hear bleating in the forest. Goats were introduced by the colonialists so that ship wreck survivors could find food and later so that loggers could have something to hunt in the event that food ran out.
Hamilton Island and Proserpine are the airports that service the region. Boats depart from adjacent to the airport at Hamilton to many of the Whitsunday Island resorts. Alternatively you can get the bus from Proserpine to Shute Harbour, and out to the islands from there. There are agents that will offer and price inclusive of this transfer.
There are buses from Airlie Beach to Shute Harbour as well, and it is a popular stopping off point. Sometimes standby rates for the island resorts are available there.
Even though it isn't that far off the Queensland coast, access by private boat isn't as simple as you may first think. Hamilton Island has many coral reefs near it and the tidal range is 5.9 m. There is a marina (call in on Marine VHF radio Ch 68 or ☏) but prices start at about $17 per hour or $60 per day (2011). It makes stopping by for lunch at one of the many restaurants a bit less attractive.
Hamilton Island is visited occasionally by cruises. Most must tender their passengers to shore, where they have immediate access to a modest selection of rather nice resort shops and restaurants.
Ferry transfers from different arrival points and between some islands are provided by Cruise Whitsundays. Ferries are available from:
- Hamilton Island Airport to: Long Island Resort, Daydream Island, Shute Harbour and Abel Point (Airlie Beach)
- Hamilton Island Marina to: Abel Point and Shute Harbour
- Prosperpine Airport via Abel Point to Hamilton Island marina, Daydream Island and Long Island Resort
Ferries are scheduled to meet most flights to the two airports. Ferry prices are quite expensive, at $50–70 for adults and children depending on route. Children under 4 are free. Bookings are available from Cruise Whitsundays directly or through your resort, for the same price.
- Bus from Proserpine to Airlie beach
- The airport, some residences, and most of the hotels, shops and restaurants on Hamilton Island are serviced by free shuttle buses.
- Atlantic Clipper Whitsundays is one of the largest vessels in the Whitsundays that has onboard diving.
- Avatar Sailing is one of the fastest sailing vessels in the Whitsundays.
- Cruise Whitsundays takes you to many places and also a catamaran called Camira and a pontoon on the reef at Knuckle Reef.
- Mantaray Charters takes you to Whitehaven Beach and to a beautiful reef for snorkelling. Scuba diving possible for certified divers and introduction dives. Maximum 34 passengers in a chilled atmosphere.
- Ocean Rafting. Fast and fun with high speed boats that can brave all conditions. This company actually caters for the island hopping day trippers, but can comfortably fit a few campers' packs and water on board. The price is $164, according to their brochure available in Airlie beach (the website quotes $180, possibly to get more money from an unknowing distance booker). This is part of their two-day package for touring all around the islands, and should mean taking you to several different locations for snorkelling. If this does not interest you, there is no reason that they should not charge the normal day rate of $97, if you plan on going to one of the locations that they visit on their typical route (e.g. Whitehaven beach). The staff are super friendly, professional and efficient. They lend you stinger suits (should you feel the need for one) and snorkelling equipment for free, but do not give you water, so you just need to sort it out in Airlie.
- Pacific Sunrise Whitsundays provides sailing trips of the Whitsunday islands and the great barrier reef from Airlie beach.
- Schooner Whitsunday Magic, a 115-ft Mediterranean luxury schooner doing Whitsunday Island sailing trips.
- Solway Lass Whitsundays is a restored tallship, over 100 years old, doing cruises of the Whitsunday Islands from Airlie Beach.
- Spank Me Whitsundays, a maxi racing yacht doing Great Barrier Reef and island trips with onboard diving.
- Wings Diving Adventures, a sail and dive tour operator with two boats in their Wings and Emperor Wings fleets. They offer guests the opportunity to sail and scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef. Eco-certified tour operator with high standards of safety on all their vessels. They offer live aboard cruises on 2- or 3-night adventure tours around the Whitsunday Islands and the Outer Great Barrier Reef. Their tours depart Airlie Beach 6 days a week.
- ZigZag Whitsundays Day Tour, a company that started in Airlie Beach in 2017, uses dynamic pricing and has a good staff. The boat has 1,200-horsepower Suzuki engines with comfortable padded seats and includes lunch and snorkel equipment in the price of the ticket. The tour visits Whitehaven Beach, South Whitehaven Lookout, Chalkies Beach and Haslewood Island Lookout plus one snorkel location.
- 1 Prosail Whitsundays, 350 Shute Harbour Rd, Airlie Beach (beside national bank), ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. 7AM-6PM. Operates overnight sailing tours to the Whitsunday Islands, Whitehaven Beach and Great Barrier Reef. In 2022, they commenced specialty charters running once a month including Whitsundays spearfishing charters, freediving charters and yoga retreats. The boats depart from Coral Sea Marina and they have a reservations office in Airlie Beach. A$699.
Whitehaven Beach is by far the most recognised of all the Whitsundays landmarks. Stretching about 4.5 km and consisting of fine, brilliant white sand, it presents the image that is used most often in tourism brochures and regularly on TV advertising in Australia. The view from the lookout across Hill inlet is remarkable and on a sunny day (Like most days are), it is nothing short of spectacular.
The sand at Whitehaven Beach is 98% pure silica. The water lapping along the beach which is usually sheltered during the south easterly trade winds (Most of the year) and so the water where the sea meets the beach is often crystal clear and makes for perfect swimming. It is also a "nursery" for baby sharks and stingrays which can be seen just by walking along the flood line.
In 2019, National Parks opened a new lookout platform at the southern end of Whitehaven Beach. The walking trail to the lookout is an easy grade of 900 metres each way. 180-degree views from the south platform include the full length of the beach in one direction and back towards the mainland in the other direction.
Hamilton Island is the most developed and populated Whitsunday island and has its own airport, post office and bank. It boasts some of the most valuable real estate in Australia, and has many options for accommodation, which range from a standard hotel room to your own house! The most cost effective way of staying on the island is a house or apartment, especially for larger groups eg for weddings. There are many developments including unit complexes, the Great Barrier Reef Yacht Club, the newest resort, the 6-star Qualia (on the island's northern tip) and the golf course and accommodations planned for Dent Island. High rise is on the island - the Reef View Hotel, Whitsunday Apartments and Yacht Harbour Towers are iconic. A bit 1970s/80s in style from the outside, they are nevertheless testaments to the island founder Keith Williams' genius as the views from the upper rooms are stunning.
Hamilton Island and Dent Island are privately owned by the Oatley family, founders of Rosemount Wines in Australia. The island is owned on a perpetual lease from the Commonwealth Government. Bob Oately bought the island from previous owners Banker's Trust, a publicly listed company. The island was founded in 1984 by Keith Williams, who also started Sea World, on the Gold Coast. In the 1990s Williams went bankrupt due to complications with a pilot's strike and banking problems and the island was briefly taken over by Holiday Inn.
Despite development, the island remains a haven for options in getting out to reef areas and Whitehaven Beach (about 1/2 hr by boat, Great Barrier Reef about 2 hours), fine accommodation, plenty of restaurant options, good walking around largely untouched island (Passage Peak hike is a tough effort but being the highest point on the island the views are very well worth it, it takes about an hour hard walking from the back of Reef View to the summit or allow 3 hours round trip if you want to stroll. Some brave souls run it or take their mountain bikes!), and nice beaches. There is certainly plenty to do on Hamilton (or Hammo to the locals) or you can definitely just relax by one of the pools.
There are regular ferry services from the mainland and other islands, but even though it isn't that far off the Queensland coast, access by private boat isn't as simple as you may first think. Hamilton Island has many coral reefs near it and the tidal range is 5.9m. There is a marina but prices start at about $17 per hour or $60 per day (2011). It makes stopping by for lunch at one of the many restaurants a bit less attractive.
Don't expect a deserted tropical island though - it can get very busy during peak times (September/October and Christmas period). The feel is more small town, down to the community atmosphere, stopping for chats along the street and friendly helpful locals. Quite a few locals have been on island for years but there is also a huge number of young "transients" who only stay a few months. Due to the developments there are also many who regularly holiday on the island, whether they rent an apartment or own their own.
The island's populated areas are loosely divided into three main areas - Marina Village (or Front Street) - this is where most of the shops and restaurants, the bank, the post office, the general store and the newsagency are; Resort side - Catseye Beach, the main pools and the resort accommodations - Reef View Hotel, Whitsunday Apartments, Palm Terraces/Bungalows and the Beach Club are here; and the "northern end" where most of the apartments and houses are as well as the newest resort Qualia on the island's northern tip. None of these areas are more than 5-10 minutes by golf buggy (the main mode of transport) away from each other.
Dent Island is west of Hamilton Island and is owned by the same owner as Hamilton under the same lease from the Commonwealth Government. It has been known in the past as Hamilton Island West.
- 1 Hamilton Island Golf Club. In 2009, Hamilton Island owner Bob Oatley opened an 18-hole, par 71 golf course on the island with a golf club house and villa accommodation.
Whitsunday Island is the largest island in the archipelago, and home to the famous Whitehaven Beach. Most day boat trips come here and it is on most people's "must-see" list of things while here. Whitehaven beach faces east towards the open sea, making some boat journeys there very choppy. The size of the island also means there are dozens and dozens of little coves and inlets where people with yachts or boats can pull in away from it all. Many boats also go to Tongue Point, which has a well trodden trail up to a built lookout over Whitehaven. Some of the boat packages on offer for first-time visitors can have the feeling of a troop march for one camera shoot place to the next, so if doing daytripping, choose your boat company wisely.
Whitehaven beach's main attraction is the pure white silica sand, along a 7-km (4½-mile) stretch. Sunglasses are essential (seriously!) Different theories about the sand exist, one of the more interesting that Australia's tectonic plates rubbed together and the silica oozed up from the Earth's, before being washed up here. Because of the sand's purity, it was almost mined by the American government in the 1960s for military uses. The substance can be used for satellite dishes. Luckily that did not come to pass, and the beach is now protected under the national park. Well over a hundred people dock here daily on tours, and it is always being voted one of the best beaches in the world, by the people who vote for these things. But between about 4PM and 10AM it is entirely deserted, for the intrepid few that camp overnight (or people who own yachts). There is a pit toilet behind the beach and no running water.
Hook Island is the second largest in the archipelago. The first maps of the area were drawn incorrectly, and depicted Hook Island in the shape of... yes, you guessed correctly! In fact, Hook is shaped something like the Peloponnese in Greece, looking like three downward pointing fingers. Hook is home to an underwater observatory, leaving 95% of the island as national park.
Enquire at Coral Sea Marina in Airlie on the Queensland Coast for excursions or charters. ☏
The Coral Observatory
A local businessman built an underwater coral viewing station here for opening in 1969. Apparently, in order to build observatory's foundations, he exploded the coral bed and thousands of dead fish floated the top. Frustrated at what he had just done he exclaimed, "Struth, I wanted people to see the bloody coral, but I can't get to it without blowing the bastard up!"
Today the observatory is distinctly unremarkable. The windows for your "observing" are 30 cm wide and fogged up. It does however serve as a pier to the island. Try not to be sold this as a reason to come, because snorkeling is a better option, and the rest of the island is lovely anyway.
Hayman Island is beautiful, and by far the most exclusive resort in the Whitsunday group. The whole island is privately owned and people without prior arrangements may not dock. Some of the most beautiful coral reefs are just off shore from here on the north west side of Hook Island.
Daydream Island is a small single resort, with paths connecting the resort activity centers with the accommodation rooms. The island is quite family friendly, and includes a range of activities for guests.
Long Island is mostly undeveloped save for three resorts. One is largish — the Club Croc Resort on Happy Bay. The other two are smaller, more intimate "eco" style resorts — Peppers Palm Bay and Whitsunday Wilderness Lodge on Paradise Bay.
South Molle Island
South Molle is a small resort island. The company also operates Koala Resort backpackers in Airlie Beach and three backpacker boats that are run out of Airlie.
Lindeman Island is being redeveloped.
Outrigger Cup. During June or July each year is the Outrigger Cup. Outrigging is a Hawaian sport using canoes with one "outrigger ama" to balance the boat on the ocean. During this week the action is mostly centred on Catseye Beach (on the resort side of the island) with 1-, 2- and 6-person canoes competing over days in various events including short sprints and longer marathons, the most difficult being the Hamilton Cup marathon where the paddlers go right around Hamilton Island. For the fitter crews (Hawaii mens are particularly strong) this takes about 3 hours — that's hard paddling! The atmosphere is festive, the competition fierce and well-known Australian Iron Woman Lisa Curry-Kenny is a regular competitor. Her Noosa team is a very strong competitor in the women's divisions.
Hamilton Island Race Week. August sees the famous Race Week, started by Keith Williams in the 1980s. This sees hundreds of yachts from 30-foot boats rented for the week to billion-dollar super yachts finely tuned for serious racing. Famous yachts that regularly compete include Skandia, Alfa Romeo and one of the Wild Oats yachts - owned by the island's now owner Bob Oatley. Various classes of racing range from cruising division (despite the name some crews in this division are very competitive!) to IRC divisions for the yachting professionals. Race Week is when the island really comes alive with hundreds of sailors filling the marina and hotels, from the serious bustle of the mornings getting ready to race, the colourful spinnaker starts (on the last day various tourist boat operators take their vessels out with guests to watch the starts), to the sunburnt yachties straggling one and two boats at a time into the marina after a days racing to crack open a beer, put some music on and then head to the Marina Tavern for some hard "relaxing" after a day of hard racing. The night life is almost as important as the day's racing! Many Australian entertainers such as Jimmy Barnes have regularly performed at Race Weeks and there is live music every night from various performers. By far the most anticipated highlight is the Whitehaven Beach party - no-one wants to miss it! Only two divisions race over to Whitehaven but all the yachts go, along with the tour boats and ferries and barges. Bars and barbecues are set up on the beach and everyone plays beach cricket (during the 1980s, famous Australian cricketers would play on the beach, and famous Australians such as Elton Flatley and Lachlan Murdoch have attended), throws a frisbee or a footy, plays volleyball and generally mucks around. Footwear not required, bikini or boardshorts, hat and sunnies essential. Some island local girls plan their bikini outfit well in advance!
See Hamilton Island#Sleep for Hamilton Island facilities.
There is a superb variety of choices for campsites on the Whitsunday islands for people who want to get away from all the pre-packaged tourism. The first thing to check out is the basic brochure online from the Queensland Government. It gives a good outline of the different campsites and a map of where everything is. To stay on a campsite you need to phone up the Queensland Department of National Parks, Sport and Racing on ☏ , or visit their office in Airlie. It costs $4 per person per night and offers a brilliant way to see the scenery unhindered during the day, and stars when night falls when no one is left in sight. You just need a pack for some food, some water and a tent and you are away.
The national parks of the Whitsundays also fall under the regulatory oversight of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA). As detailed in the online brochure, campers are required to have sufficient water. The recommendation is five litres per person per day, and three days more for emergencies. In practice three or four litres a day will last people who are careful. So as not to be overcharged purchase the water or big containers to carry some at a petrol station or supermarket in Airlie. Another regulation, from the collective wisdom of the two authorities, is that boat companies need special permits in order to drop campers off on an island (even though someone with their own boat would need no permission!)
- Daydream Island Resort, ☏ , toll-free: 1800 075 040, fax: , email@example.com. Family-oriented resort occupying an entire island. Activities include an artifiical reef, sailing and kayak hire, snorkelling and glass bottom boat tours. Childcare is available at Skippers Club, providing childcare for children from 6 weeks of age. $175-400 per room per night.
Hayman Island is the most upmarket of the Whitsunday resorts. Lindeman Island has quite a few facilities, if you go for the "Club Med" resort feel.
"Qualia on Hamilton island and Paradise Bay Eco Resort on Long Island will cost you as much, if not more than Hayman and all are unique experiences.
- Fantasea's Reefsleep accommodation is on Reefworld, a floating pontoon on the Great Barrier Reef, 40 nautical miles (74 km) from land. It provides either a king-sized bedroom or a four bunk-style bedroom suitable. Overnight, only the staff are on location to look after you as all other guests have departed to the mainland, leaving you with exclusive use of the pontoon and its underwater viewing chamber. Overnight guests also get an al fresco dinner including wine, full breakfast, buffet lunches, sunset beverages, and two scuba dives or a guided snorkelling safari.
There are many daytripper boats out to the Whitsunday Islands, but you can also take a day or two trip to Airlie Beach on the mainland if you like.