The perfect jumping off point for all the adventures the Whitsunday Islands has to offer, Airlie Beach is a unique destination with something for everyone.
By Allie Metz
What to expect
- Spend a day discovering the quieter side of the region in Bowen
- Head out on a day trip to Whitehaven Beach and snorkel the Great Barrier Reef
- Take in the beautiful surroundings on a chartered sunset cruise
- Time: 3 days
- Distance: 158 kilometres (98 miles)
- Transport: car
- Price: $$$
Long regarded as a backpacker haven, Airlie Beach is certainly buzzing in the summer months. However, this little haven on the fringe of the Whitsunday Islands also has a range of sophisticated offerings making it equally attractive to young couples, families and adventure-seekers. Start in Bowen, which formed much of the set of the feature film Australia, where you’ll discover tranquil beaches and stunning lookouts. Later, head to the heart of Airlie Beach and out to the Great Barrier Reef to enjoy scenic views and incredible wildlife experiences.
Day 1: Bowen
Arrive at Whitsundays Coast Airport in Proserpine and head north about 80 kilometres (50 miles) to the coastal town of Bowen. This small fishing village may seem sleepy, but it is worth spending a day to discover its charm and there are plenty of things to see and do.
Stop at the Bowen Visitor Information Centre for a picture with the Big Mango and to grab a delicious mango sorbet from the adjacent shop. Let the friendly team of volunteers inside tell you the story of when the Big Mango was stolen a few years back. They can also provide you with helpful recommendations for your stay.
Take the short drive into town and stop at Le Sorelle for lunch. This spot is a favourite in among locals for coffee, snacks, sandwiches and great burgers. Don’t leave without a selection of their signature fudge.
After you’ve indulged, take the short drive up to Flagstaff Hill lookout to take in the views. You’ll see Rose Bay, Kings Beach and the lighthouse perched on rocky North Head Island.
Make an afternoon of enjoying Bowen’s peaceful and picturesque beaches. Head to Grays Bay for standup paddle boarding on the calm waters or try Horseshoe Bay for a spot of snorkelling. You can also take the 15 minute return walk up the Cape Edgecomb trail for incredible views over the bay. The more adventurous may want to complete the circuit (1-1.5 hours) which will bring you to Murray Bay, Mother Beddock lookout, Rose Bay and Melaleuca woodlands.
Reward yourself with a coffee or cold drink at Merkai Whitsundays before heading to your accommodation to freshen up before dinner.
For dinner tonight you simply can’t go past Bird’s Fish Bar. This unique little spot forms part of the Bowen Fisherman’s Seafood Company, which takes its share of the catch from local boats moored right behind the restaurant. Grab your food to go or sit out the back and enjoy the fresh breeze as you watch the sun go down.
Spend tonight in one of the waterfront cabins at Bowen’s BIG4 Holiday Park for unbeatable sunrise views before you head off to Airlie Beach.
Day 2: Airlie Beach
Drive one hour from Bowen south to Airlie Beach. If it’s Saturday, head to the Esplanade along the foreshore to the Airlie Beach Markets where you can peruse handmade items ranging from candles through to fresh bread and produce.
Airlie Beach has a lovely man-made lagoon where you can spend the day lounging and swimming within easy reach of the cafes and shops that line the main street. Alternatively, book a morning Segway tour of the rainforest or an afternoon tour along the beautifully maintained boardwalk that spans from Airlie Beach town to Cannonvale Beach. If you find yourself at Cannonvale Beach, don’t go past Fat Frog Café for a great cup of coffee and a delicious meal with stunning views on the water.
If you’re looking to gain a few new skills while in town, consider stopping into Fish D’vine for a masterclass with the fun and energetic chef Bec Clarke. The restaurant is also a great spot for dinner, featuring local produce and, of course, the freshest seafood.
If you'd rather indulge in an afternoon of adrenaline, take a tour with Whitsunday Jetski Tours, where you'll get to operate a jetski across the turquoise water of the Whitsundays. Choose between several adventures, including tours to stunning islands, white sand beaches and luxurious resorts. You might even spot a sea turtle or dugong. No previous riding experience is needed, and some tours even include a delicious meal.
At night, make sure you get out on the water for a relaxing cruise that showcases the gorgeous sunsets of Airlie Beach. Sundowner Cruises offer several options and at the end of your jaunt will leave you at the Port of Airlie, just a few hundred metres from Walter’s Lounge, the perfect choice for dinner. This award-winning restaurant serves inventive fare that focuses on the best produce the region has to offer. Stay at the newly renovated Mantra Club Croc for easy access (about a ten minute walk) to Abell Point Marina and tomorrow’s snorkelling tour.
Day 3: Whitehaven Beach
Depart Abell Point Marina at 9am on board Red Cat Adventures’ Thundercat Tour for an exhilarating day exploring Whitsunday Island and the Great Barrier Reef. After a short cruise out to the island, your guides will take you the easy walk up to the infamous Hill Inlet lookout to see the signature swirling sandbars of Whitehaven Beach from above. Grab the perfect selfie at this picturesque spot before jumping back in the boat. You’ll have a quick lunch before disembarking on Whitehaven Beach for a few hours of exploring, sun soaking and swimming. Marvel at the bright white sand of this unique spot, which is 98% pure silica. It has a texture similar to flour and is so fine you can polish your jewellery with it.
Finally, jump on board your boat once more for a short trip out to Mantaray Bay to snorkel the clear waters and come face to face with colourful fish, including giant Maori wrasse. After you’ve met all the local underwater residents, you’ll be back at Abell Point Marina by about 5pm.
If you’re up for it, visit some of the area’s favourite watering holes, which are very popular with backpackers in the summer. Magnums regularly has live music or, if you prefer an older crowd, enjoy artfully prepared cocktails and a delicious meal with unrivalled views at Hemingways near Abell Point Marina. After dinner, take a relaxing stroll along the boardwalk back to your accommodation for tonight at Heart Hotel in the centre of Airlie Beach’s main street.
Head back to Whitsunday Coast Airport in the morning to catch your flight out.
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