The stunning Whitsunday Islands off-shore from Airlie Beach in Queensland, mid-way on the iconic Great Barrier Reef, are more numerous than just the four world famous resort islands of Hayman, Hamilton, Daydream and Long Islands.
The largest island after which the group is named, is uninhabited Whitsunday Island (275 sq km). Captain Cook named it in 1770 thinking the day was Whit Sunday the 7th Sunday after Easter. In fact it was Whit Monday, so it’s a misnomer of sorts. To muddy the waters even further, the islands also lie within the Cumberland Islands group.
Whatever the name, exploring these islands is the stuff of romance and adventure. Covered in dense green forest, fringed by one of the whitest beaches in the world, and rising out of a stunning aquamarine ocean, we couldn’t wait to refresh our island memories.
We were not disappointed.
What You Will Find in This Post
- The Best Way to See the Whitsundays on a budget
- Why is Whitehaven Beach special?
- Where is Whitehaven Beach?
- How to get to Whitehaven Beach?
- Click Now to Purchase your Ocean Rafting Whitehaven Beach Tour
- Why Ocean Rafting tours are the best way to see the Whitsundays:
- Whitehaven Beach Camping
- Where to Stay in Airlie Beach
The Best Way to See the Whitsundays on a budget
One day we hope to stay on one of the resort islands again, but meanwhile a Whitsundays day tour offers a snapshot of the islands without the added expense of island accommodation.
There are a variety of boats, tour companies, activity levels and destinations to choose from.
With more than 70 Whitsunday Islands ranging from uninhabited to glamorous, the question on the lips of travellers still remains “How to Get to Whitehaven Beach”.
Photo of Jan and Marty at Hill Inlet Lookout at high tide, looking south to Whitehaven Beach.
Why is Whitehaven Beach special?
Whitehaven is the most well-known White Beach (Silica Sand) in Australia.
The staggering white colour is due to the beach being 98% pure silica sand.
What is Silica Sand?
- Grains of Silica Sand are so fine they never heat up in the sun. Even on the hottest summer day you can walk barefoot on Whitehaven’s sand.
- The sand grains are the smallest size of any in the world and were used on the Hubble space telescope for the 1970’s Space Program.
- Of less importance but of more use to most people – Silica sand is a great jewellery polisher – so bust out your gold and silver jewellery (not the fake stuff) for a free clean.
- My feet went deep into the wet silica sand with each step, yet it didn’t trap or suck me down. It was like walking on air or the moon perhaps. Freaky fun.
Where is Whitehaven Beach?
Whitehaven Beach stretches 7km from Hill Inlet on Whitsunday Island, to the camping area at the southern end of the island.
At high tide the swirling sand patterns in Hill Inlet are covered with water resulting in different shades of blue or aquamarine.
How to get to Whitehaven Beach?
By Air to Whitsunday Coast Airport
Flying to Whitehaven Beach from the south you will disembark at Whitsunday Coast Airport south of Proserpine and Airlie Beach. Jetstar and Virgin fly service Airlie Beach. You can use Kayak to source your flight.
By Car to Airlie Beach
If driving from the south turn right at the signs after Proserpine, if driving from the North turn left at the signs before reaching Proserpine. Choose a Rental Car here.
And Finally from Airlie Beach via Ocean Rafting
Now that you have arrived at Airlie Beach and settled in, it’s time to board your boat to Whitehaven Beach.
We recommend a Whitehaven day trip by boat from Airlie Beach. We love a fast boat so we chose Ocean Rafting. They leave from Abell Point Marina in Airlie Beach.
This photo taken in Ocean Rafting Office at Abel Point Marina, shows the same inlet at low tide.
Why Ocean Rafting tours are the best way to see the Whitsundays:
- Their boats are the ONLY BOATS ALLOWED inside Hill Inlet on Whitehaven Beach – HUGE PLUS.
- They won gold at the Australian Tourism Awards in both 2017 and 2018 – the top award.
- The tour includes a guided bush walk to the multiple Hill Inlet Lookouts looking down over the iconic swirling sand and water that changes colour with the tide.
- It is an active Snorkelling Whitsundays experience.
- Maximum boat capacity of 32 passengers – love those smaller groups.
- The semi-rigid inflatable boats are powered by twin V8 outboard motors and offer a fun, fast and exciting ride plus the shortest travel time of all the options.
- One of the cheapest Whitsunday day trips and Whitehaven beach tours.
- Delicious on-board budget buffet lunch for a mere $16.
- Or reduce costs by bringing your own.
- Choose between two different Ocean Rafting tours depending on preferences.
- Free mini bus pick-up from your accommodation and drop-off in the afternoon.
The photo below was taken by Ocean Rafting on our Tour. It was part of the package I chose (3 for $9). We are down the back of the boat where the ride is the least bumpy. You can sit on the sides of the boat if you’re game. Usually guests are more spread out. Everyone moved toward the back of the boat to get in the photo.
The two Ocean Rafting Tours
While Ocean Rafting vessels are fast boats and they give a thrilling ride, the ride is tailored to suit passengers.
You can see there were kids on our boat and they enjoyed the day as much as the adults. They were very tired on the way home and cuddled for a nap on their parents’ laps. Make sure to bring several towels and warm clothes for the trip home.
The Ocean Rafting Northern Experience tour allowed us more snorkelling time at two locations on Hook Island, meaning we experienced two islands for the price of one.
Photo: Boat collecting passengers and guide at Tongue Bay Whitsunday Island after completing the bush walk to Hill Inlet Lookout.
The Ocean Rafting Southern Lights tour allows more beach time on Whitsunday Island and snorkels at Whitsunday Island.
For the record, we happily paid in full for our trip, taking our own photos as well as purchasing some taken by crew.
Customer Service and Organisation
This is an important area and one that can lead to dissatisfaction. But not with Ocean Rafting. I kept on thinking “Wow these people have nailed it”.
From the minute the chirpy bus driver collected us (on time), to when we were taken home again, the whole day ran like clockwork.
The driver explained the checking in procedure on the way to Abel Point Marina. We checked ourselves in at the row of iPads outside the office and collected our plastic boat cards from within.
The buffet lunch or hire wetsuits and stinger suits are paid for here at the office.
Then with boat card and receipt in hand it’s outside to collect a wetsuit from the attendant. Racks of wetsuits stand waiting and the experienced attendant knows which will fit without the need to try them on.
You can be like Marty and bring your own wetsuit or go without but I don’t suggest it.
Even in North Queensland the water is chilly in winter, especially when snorkelling for 45 minutes at a time. I suggest a wetsuit during winter and a stinger suit in summer.
The boat guide collected everyone with the same boat card (ours was Betty) and on boarding we handed the cards over to the Skipper.
Snorkel, mask and fins are distributed as required on the boat. The equipment is good quality and my mask didn’t let in any water – a rarity for me. Nailed it.
The first snorkel was for fish viewing only as that particular reef was decimated during cyclone Debbie. Fins weren’t handed out at this stop because we weren’t snorkelling far from the boat. As soon as we anchored, the fish come to the boat. Huge blue Maori Wrasse with humps on their brows circled royally, while equally giant Trevally cut a path through schools of blue and yellow Fuselier fish.
It was simply beautiful.
The second snorkel was at Butterfly Bay. It was low tide and the reef top was exposed. We snorkelled from the boat to the reef and then along the drop-off. Coral cover was good with several bommies and a mix of soft and hard corals. Nemo like fish flittered in the soft coral, Coral Trout prowled the depths while pretty parrot fish munched on coral algae. It was so good to be snorkelling on the fringing reefs again.
Then it was back to the boat to dry off, get into some warm clothes and debrief with a drink and a chocolate.
The day unfolded exactly as described. We were collected on time, left the port on time and returned on time. We ate (deliciously) and each phase of the trip unfolded as described.
Female Skipper Sam and Male Guide Tommo were professional, friendly and funny. They set the scene for a relaxed happy day.
The boat was well maintained and we felt confident with the way it was handled and the ride we had.
I have nothing but praise for the smooth operation.
Get your Guide (GYG) Booking Agent
We booked our trip through Get Your Guide. It was very easy and we weren’t charged any extra for the service. The links above will book through GYG.
I like GYG because when you type in the search term, in our case “Airlie Beach”, all the tours for the region appear. That’s very handy for comparing and deciding.
There is also free cancellation up to 24 hours before the activity begins.
After payment we received an email from Get Your Guide with voucher, Booking Number and pin and notification that the local partner (Ocean Rafting) would contact us the day before the trip.
We were contacted by email from Ocean Rafting within 10 minutes. They confirmed our booking and gave detailed instructions for the day, including what to wear, what to bring and what to expect from the day.
The whole process worked perfectly.
Whitehaven Beach Photos
- The Crew takes photos during the day both on the boat and at Hill Inlet Lookouts. We wandered away from our group at the lookouts (there are three to view from) and missed that photo op.
- Passengers can purchase photos on-line post trip.
- Prices are very affordable so don’t be shy when asked to pose. Definitely no pressure to buy.
- We chose the cheapest 3 for $9 deal – had I known they were so affordable I would have made an effort to be in more photos!
- No underwater photos are taken, so bring your GoPro if you have one.
What was the buffet lunch like?
After some discussion we chose the $16 buffet lunch offer. Usually sceptical of such lunches, it seemed too easy to pass up. Our focus on the day would be snorkelling, bush walking and white beaches, not food preparation.
In case you are wondering (like we did) how many people would bring their own lunch, on our boat of 32 passengers, 5 (four of which were in the one family) brought their own lunch.
The Crew asked us to leave the boat for 5 minutes while they set the buffet lunch out on the rear deck of the boat. It only took 5 minutes! The meat and salads were already prepared, stored in foil trays and served cold.
Everything including the cold meats, salads, fruit and bread rolls, was deliciously fresh. We were impressed with the food as were all the other passengers.
It’s amazing how the boat ride and bush walk stimulated appetites. Even so there was enough food for repeat visits to top up. Even the kids loved it.
Later Lamington fingers (included in the cost of lunch) – an iconic Aussie cake – were served.
Softdrinks, Cider, Beer and chocolate bars are available for purchase onboard. After our second snorkel those chocolate bars were quickly snapped up. Families with a budget in mind might like to bring their own supply.
Whitehaven Beach Camping
Another idea on how to get to Whitehaven Beach is an option used by campers.
Although Whitsunday Island has no houses or residents, it does have National Park campgrounds. Scamper provides a barge service at $155 per person return to the southern end of Whitehaven Beach.
It is certainly no glamping option. Campers need to take every single thing required apart from a toilet and possibly a table. No fires allowed and there are no shops for last minute purchases.
Although inundated with day trippers there would be serenity before and after.
If you are considering this as a way of seeing the northern end of Whitehaven Beach and Hill Inlet I feel obliged to point out that this would entail a 14km return beach walk!
Where to Stay in Airlie Beach
It is not possible to stay on Whitsunday Island, where Whitehaven Beach is, unless you camp (see above). Most visitors stay at Airlie Beach and so did we.
Tip: Once on the STAYZ site change the price range to that you desire. This will save looking at a lot of places outside your price range. I changed mine to only show places in the $0 to $200/night range and got 21 great results. I then looked at the cancellation policies shown above each listing. The best I found (and there were quite a few) was free cancellation within 14 days of arrival.
Read about another famous white sand beach in Australia here.
Other Queensland Island Day Trips you might be interested in: