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Australia,  Oceania

The Ultimate Travel Plan: The Whitsunday Islands

While travelling along Australia’s East Coast, there are a couple of “must dos” for every visitor. Touching the Sydney Opera House and hugging a koala may be some of the most popular, though one demands respect more than any other – the Great Barrier Reef.

Fortunately, there are plenty of spots from Cairns to just above Brisbane which provide a gateway to the reef. However, it is one tiny beach town which has gained the title of the very best tour in all of Australia – the Whitsunday Islands.

So in that case, here is your ultimate guide to exploring the Whitsunday Islands.

This article may contain affiliate links which I may be compensated for at no extra cost to you dear readers!

The term “Whitsundays” refers to a collection of 74 tropical islands that stand just a stone’s throw away from the coast of Queensland. They also find themself smack bang in the middle of the iconic Great Barrier Reef.

The archipelago gets its name from its largest member – Whitsunday Island – which is also considered the best of them all.

So what are the islands like? Pretty much exactly what you imagine a tropical paradise island paradise to be like. Palm-tree-lined white sand beaches, crystal-clear turquoise waters, and lush greenery behind it all. The islands are also surrounded by pristine tropical reefs which attract some of the world’s most fascinating sea creatures.

Due to their awkward location in the middle of the ocean, the islands are only accessible by sea or by air. Despite that, there are still plenty of ways to get to them.

The first thing you’ll need to figure out is whether you’ll be arriving internationally or domestically.

For those already in Australia, the main aerial gateway to the Whitsunday Islands is the Great Barrier Reef Airport on Hamilton Island. Regular flights connect major cities, including Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane. From there, there are also convenient ferry transfers available to the other islands.

If coming from abroad, the closest international airport is in Cairns. It welcomes flights from a handful of destinations across Asia and Oceania including Japan, South Korea, China, Singapore, Indonesia and New Zealand.

Your next-closest option is Brisbane which includes all the previous destinations and further afield from Dubai, Canada and the US.

The alternative way of getting to the Whitsundays is also the most popular. Airlie Beach serves as the main departure point for numerous sailing tours and cruises.

From charter boats and luxury yachts to budget-friendly booze cruises, there are plenty of ways of not only getting to the islands themselves but to spend a few days amongst them.

The first thing you’ll need to figure out is which islands you would like to visit! 74 islands make up this archipelago, so you’ll have to pick the very best!

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Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island’s coast. Photo by Damien DempseyCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Given that this one island has given its name to the entire archipelago, this is obviously the highlight! The name Whitsundays has become synonymous with exploring Australia’s East Coast thanks to the pristine silica sand and dazzling azure waters that surround this island.

For a detailed itinerary for travelling the East Coast, check out The Ultimate Travel Itinerary: 3 Weeks on Australia’s East Coast.

While tip-toeing along the ever-changing coastline of Whitehaven Beach – which is regularly voted as Australia’s best beach – you’ll come across playful stingrays and lemon sharks that reside amongst the crystal clear waters.

That’s not even taking into account the immense national park that sits just behind the sands. Follow one of the many hiking trails towards the Hill Inlet Lookout for a breathtaking view of the constantly shifting tides.

The island has admirably been able to avoid any major tourist influence by not having a single resort or hotel on it. The only option is to use official camping grounds such as Cairn Beach, Chance Bay or Dugong Beach.

You must have a permit before you arrive at a camping area and bookings can be made online through the Queensland National Parks Booking Service. A permit costs $7.25 per person per night or $29.00 per family per night.

Other than mercifully having flushable toilets, there are practically zero facilities on offer, so come prepared!

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The palm tree-lined beaches of Hamilton Island. A guide to luxury on the Whitsunday Islands. Photo by Internet2014CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While Whitsunday Island may be a more authentic island experience, Hamilton Island is a millionaire’s guide to paradise! It’s by far the most developed island… if the enormous luxury resorts and coastal airport didn’t make that clear enough already.

As it’s all essentially one big lavish retreat, many of the island’s activities and services are provided by the resorts themselves. Whether you want to get into the water, float atop it on a paddleboard or kayak, or even spend your on the back of a quad bike, there are still plenty of ways to experience Australian nature at its best!

If that isn’t your thing, then perhaps a freshly prepared cocktail a few rounds of bowling and some mini golf (yes, really) might take your fancy!

If it wasn’t clear by now, Hamilton Island is about one thing – resorts!

For the pinnacle of luxury, Qualia is at the tippy-top. With impeccable service worthy of A-list celebs, this is the ultimate experience.

Several luxury apartments are also on offer, including Pavillions 1 and Casuarina 18. These are placed right against the water’s edge and within walking distance of the Marina and its many eateries.

The Reef View Hotel and Palm Bungalows are great affordable options without losing too much luxury.

The yacht-filled bays of Daydream Island. A guide to luxury in the Whitsunday Islands. Photo by Jason Lawton on Flickr

Daydream by name and by nature, this spot is yet another idyllic getaway for those in search of luxury.

The 1km long island is effectively taken up by a single resort, though this one has a trick up its sleeve. A 200-meter-long free-form coral lagoon wraps around the central building of the resort, which allows guests to get closer than ever to the incredible marine life that surrounds the island.

While on land, rainforest walks and informal cricket matches can keep you occupied, or perhaps a relaxing yoga session in the fitness centre.

Your only option is the Daydream Island Resort, which has commandeered the entire island.

Deck chairs on the beaches of Hayman Island. Photo by Sarah Lou on Flickr

You thought the others were exclusive, this one is to a whole new level! Much like Daydream Island, Hayman Island has become one enormous private resort with opulence and relaxation as its priority. With spas and saunas on deck and gourmet meals at your command, what more could someone ask for?

The island itself is surrounded by wild bushland, filled with the chirping and buzzing of creatures from down under. For the best views on the island, make sure you head to Dolphin Point Lookout on the island’s northern tip.

The waters surrounding the Whitsunday’s most northern island are also some of the most vibrant anywhere along the reef, with whitetip reef sharks and hammerheads regularly paying a visit.

The only accommodation available on the island is the Intercontinental Hayman Island Resort.

This 5-star resort comes equipped with a spa, fitness centre, multiple fine-dining restaurants and of course for you influencers, a private infinity edge pool. If you like it that much, you can even live there permanently in the Hayman Residences.

Sunset over Long Island. Photo by Rafael Wagner on Flickr

At 9km long and only 400m wide at its widest point, there’s little wonder how it got its name! Though it may be the closest island to the Whitsundays mainland, it is also one of the lesser visited ones on this list. But don’t worry, it’s by no means any less luxurious!

This is yet another island that revolves around the resorts that call it home. Activities like paddle-boarding, kayaking and snorkelling are all part and parcel of the experience, along with a few home comforts of course.

Still, you’re never too far from Mother Nature itself with a vast national park and around 17km of trails to explore!

This time, you have two places to choose from – the Palm Bay Resort or the Elysian Retreat.

While Palm Bay is more of a family-friendly destination with its beachfront villas, bungalows and suites, Elysian is more about luxury and gourmet meals.

The unspoiled coast of Hook Island. Photo by Jipe7 on Flickr

This is by far one of the more authentic island experiences! It may be one of the lesser visited islands, typically only visited by day-trippers, but that makes it all the more special.

This wonderful hidden gem is home to picturesque bays, perfect for ocean explorers. Pristine reefs and coastal bays bring in a litany of wildlife including dolphins, manta rays and even humpback whales from June to September!

By far the most incredible sight can be found at the Ngaro cultural site where you’ll find ancient aboriginal rock wall paintings which survive to this day.

If you came in search of luxury, you’re in the wrong place! Hamilton Island only has a handful of camping grounds as the island is largely uninhabited.

The best spots include Crayfish Beach, Curlew Beach and Maureen’s Cove.

Just like with Whitsunday Island (and the rest of the camping grounds on the islands in fact), you need to make a booking online through the Queensland National Parks Booking Service. A permit costs $7.25 per person per night or $29.00 per family per night.

The entire island chain itself is a highlight all unto itself! On top of that, most of the islands share the same favourable features – stunning beaches, luscious rainforests with winding trails and vibrant ocean reefs with all manner of notable creatures including turtles, sharks and dolphins. You won’t be disappointed no matter which island you end up choosing!

That being said, there are still some worthwhile sites that definitely need to be ticked off the itinerary!

The changing coastal tides of Whitehaven Beach. Photo by Birger Kuhnel on Flickr

As mentioned before, this is the Mac Daddy of Australian beaches! Some might even call it the most beautiful in the world.

The ever-changing curves of Whitehaven Beach are some of the most mesmerizing you’ll ever see and due to its unique geography, it looks different every time you see it! The pure silica sands and crystal clear azure waters make it the number one spot across the entire archipelago.

If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even take a scenic flight for a breathtaking aerial view of the landscape!

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Right in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef. Photo by Queensland at wts wikivoyage, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In case you haven’t noticed already, the Whitsunday Islands are smack bang in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef – the world’s most fascinating underwater paradise.

These waters include a diverse range of animals that you won’t find anywhere in the world. Turtles, dolphins, reef sharks, manta rays and even humpback whales lay claim to the oceans that surround these islands.

Whether it’s part of a day tour or arranged from one of the many resorts, there are plenty of ways and opportunities to explore this watery world.

Though spending a good few hours on Whitehaven Beach is a must, so too is having a bird’s-eye-view of the tides from above! The Hill Inlet Lookout provides stunning panoramic views of the swirling sands and the turquoise waters below.

The heart-shaped reef. Photo by Ayanadak123CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I wonder how this place got its name. In an ocean filled with vibrant reefs and turquoise water, this tiny little heart-shaped reef is a perfect representation of the beauty of Whitsundays. Whether explored from the water or the air, this little spot is well worth checking out.

Now that you know all about the best spots across the Whitsunday Islands, exactly how do you get there to experience them?

The good news is that there are a myriad of options spread across all kinds of budgets and lengths of time. On top of that, you can have the exact kind of experience that best suits you. Whether it’s a laidback sunset cruise or an alcohol-fueled party on the water, there’s plenty to choose from.

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Setting sail with your trusty guide to the Whitsunday Islands

By far the most popular way of exploring the islands is via the water. While day tours (like this one) visit specific islands and dive spots, sailing tours (like this one) visit multiple.

At the hands of a trained guide and a trusty crew, you’ll set sail to an ocean full of adventure amongst the Whitsunday Islands

Along with stepping foot on some dry land, they’ll also offer some chances to snorkel and visit picturesque beaches. Not to mention sunset drinks on deck, or even spending the night sleeping on it too!

If time isn’t a factor, then a cruise package (like this one) is a great option! This way you’ll get an extended experience which allows you to immerse yourself in the islands. Lay back and allow your trusty vessel to guide you through the waters of the Whitsunday Islands.

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All aboard the seaplane!

Another popular way to enjoy the beauty of the islands is from the air! This can be done in a traditional prop plane or could even be by helicopter! Pilots will guide you over some of the most breathtaking spots across Whitsunday.

Thank you so much for reading my guide – The Ultimate Travel Plan: Whitsunday Islands! Now check out these other helpful articles!

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