It may be the islands that are the real attraction of the Whitsundays, the beautiful patches of lush green in the turquoise water. But, for many people, it will be Airlie Beach that will be their base for a trip to the Whitsundays.
Of the 74 islands of the Whitsundays, only eight are inhabited and the resorts and hotels on them are generally quite expensive and can get booked up in peak seasons.
Airlie Beach, the closest town on the mainland to the islands, has a much wider range of accommodation and is a very convenient place to stay. For this reason, it’s the launchpad for many of the tours and experiences across the region.
In other words, you don’t need to be staying on the islands to visit the islands.
There are plenty of things to do at Airlie Beach itself and the mainland around it but, when you’re planning your trip, I would suggest you also think about all the activities on the water as Airlie Beach attractions as well.
There are some famous parts of the Whitsundays that you’ll hear people talk about – Whitehaven Beach, for instance – and lots of tours will take you there. But remember that there are 74 islands in total and lots of areas that are really beautiful but won’t have the crowds.
Before I go into some more details about the best things to do at Airlie Beach, I would suggest that you have a think about what kind of trip you want to the Whitsundays. Do you want to just visit the famous parts or do you want to explore a bit more? Is it about relaxing or discovering fun experiences.
There are lots of options to explore this Queensland gem and some of the most interesting things to do at Airlie Beach are not necessarily the most obvious.
Let me run you through some of my favourites:
On the mainland
Airlie Beach Lagoon
When you get to town, it’s hard to miss the Airlie Beach Lagoon, the large pool complex right on the waterfront. It has a large pool for swimming laps and smaller areas for playing around and for kids to stay in the shallows.
The best thing of all is that it’s completely free. And, even more than that, there are lifeguards and other staff there to make sure everyone stays safe and happy.
With grassy knolls to sunbake and other areas to sit in the shade, it’s a wonderful way to relax at Airlie Beach and enjoy the views across the water.
Conway National Park
Conway National Park takes up most of Cape Conway and many parts of it are easily accessible from Airlie Beach.
There are steep rock cliffs, hoop pines along the coast, and even dense tropical rainforest. The hikes in Conway National Park take you to all of these – as well as mangroves and woodlands.
From Airlie Beach, you can walk to the start of the Conway Circuit Track, which is a 30 kilometre trail that’s not actually a circuit. This is a multi-day hike with camping areas along the way.
An easier way to see the park is to drive for about 10 minutes towards Shute Harbour, where you’ll find a couple of walks near the coast and the popular hike up to the top of Mount Rooper for great views across the water.
Bicentennial Walking Track
Another option for a walk is the easy Bicentennial Walking Track, which goes along the coastline from Airlie Beach to Cannonvale Beach.
It’s only four kilometres long and is pretty much flat the whole way, so it’s hardly a hike. But it has beautiful views the whole way along and passes cafes and restaurants where you can stop for a drink or a meal.
Restaurants and nightlife
Speaking of eating and drinking, Airlie Beach has a vibrant dining scene and a busy nightlife with a great range of options. The town attracts a diverse group of tourists and the restaurants reflect that – from cheap takeaway to fine dining.
For a healthy (and delicious) brunch, I would recommend Cafe One 3, which is very popular with the locals.
With fresh seafood and a rum bar, Fish D’vine is an Airlie Beach institution.
For sophisticated casual where woodfired pizzas are the specialty, there’s Sorrento Restaurant and Bar.
And one of the top restaurants in Airlie Beach is The Rocks at the recently redeveloped Coral Sea Resort hotel.
There are also quite a few pubs and clubs along the main strip. Most of the nightclubs are aimed at the backpacker market, but the pub at the Airlie Beach Hotel is a fun gathering place for everyone.