In the dazzling Whitsundays, it’s Airlie Beach that gets all the attention as the gateway to the islands.
With a large range of accommodation and plenty of tour options, there are lots of things to do in Airlie Beach, so it often makes sense to base yourself there.
But look just a bit further north and you’ll find Bowen, a delightfully relaxed coastal town full of character that still gives you easy access to the Whitsundays.
It doesn’t need to be just a base, though. There are plenty of things to do in Bowen – in fact, more than enough to fill a couple of days. And the delightful beaches and friendly community attract some visitors for much longer.
And, although the main town of Bowen is full of heritage and an attraction in itself, it’s Bowen’s beaches along the coast that tend to steal the show.
The story of Bowen
When you arrive in town, you’ll immediately get a sense from the grand streets and old buildings that there’s something special about Bowen – and indeed there is.
Bowen was officially founded in 1861 as a port city for the new colony of Queensland, which had separated from New South Wales only two years earlier.
At that time, Bowen was the northernmost settlement in Queensland – and the original plan was for the city to be the capital of a new colony of North Queensland. That’s why the roads were built so wide… although obviously the plan never eventuated.
Over the decades, Bowen continued to be a busy enough town, though, with the port keeping enough people coming through, and the businesses in town serving the agricultural and mining industries around the region.
Bowen might have continued on like this, relatively unnoticed by most people in the country, if it wasn’t for the beaches. But they really are beautiful and so tourism became another important part of Bowen. Which brings us to today.
What is Bowen famous for?
Historically, Bowen is famous for being considered as the capital of North Queensland, and for the port that was founded here. These days, though, Bowen is famous for its beautiful beaches and for the Big Mango at its entrance.
Is Bowen worth visiting?
Yes, Bowen is definitely worth visiting. It’s easy to spend a few days here, relaxing at the beaches and exploring the reef and the hikes. There are also quite a few things to do in Bowen to keep you entertained.
How do you get from Airlie Beach to Bowen?
If you’re driving to Bowen from Airlie Beach, it will take about an hour. Just make sure you don’t miss the turnoff, because Bowen isn’t directly on the Bruce Highway.
By bus, Greyhound has a morning service from Airlie Beach to Bowen, while Premier has a service in the afternoon.
The Spirit of Queensland train also stops at Bowen five times a week in each direction. It doesn’t go through Airlie Beach, but does stop at nearby Proserpine.
What is the best accommodation in Bowen?
There are quite a few good places to stay in Bowen – some are in the town itself, but most are around the beaches. At the end of the story, I’ll have a few suggestions for where to stay in Bowen, but my top tip for the best accommodation in Bowen is the Coral Cove Apartments, which has amazing views.
There are two distinct parts to Bowen, and each has its own individual characteristics. It almost feels like two towns in one.
In the main town, you’ll see why they chose to shoot much of the movie Australia here, putting dirt down the main street of Bowen so it looked authentic.
And by the water, you’ll be amazed by how close you are to the Great Barrier Reef, with easy access to this natural World Heritage Site.
This really is a bit of a hidden gem on the Queensland coast so, to make the most of it, here are my tips for the best things to do in Bowen.
While you don’t come here for tourist attractions, there are still a couple of key things to do in Bowen that every visitor should make time for… not that they take too long!
The Big Mango
One of the main agricultural industries in Bowen is mangoes and that’s why one of the first things you’ll see as you arrive in town is the Big Mango.
This 10-metre-high sculpture was erected in 2002 and is right next to the Bowen Visitor Centre on the southern stretch of the Bruce Highway. It certainly looks like a mango – but, then again, it’s a pretty easy shape to recreate.
You can also find a slightly smaller version of the Big Mango (this one 6 metres high) along the water in town. Oh, and don’t forget to eat one of the real mangos from the area, which the locals call Bowen Mangos, but are more commonly known as Kensington Pride.
Flagstaff Hill Lookout
To get a fantastic view of Bowen, head to the top of Flagstaff Hill at the southeastern point of town. Not only do you look across Bowen itself, but there’s a panoramic vista across some of the islands of the Whitsundays.
You can walk up to the Flagstaff Hill Lookout, or you can drive right to the top. It’s a nice place to relax for a while and get your bearings.
It’s the Queensland coast, so of course the beaches are good, but the ones here in Bowen are some of the best in the Whitsundays region.
There are eight beaches in Bowen in total, and each has its own characteristics, so it’s worth visiting a few of them while you’re here.
If there’s one beach that is the most famous in Bowen, it’s Horseshoe Bay. The small stretch of sand is protected by granite outcrops on either side, so it can often be quite calm to swim here.
On one side is a short but steep walking trail that leads up to the Rotary Lookout – beautiful at any time of the day, but I particularly recommend heading up at sunrise for some stunning colours.
And just behind the beach is the Horseshoe Bay Cafe, which does excellent meals and coffee. Stop for breakfast after the climb to the lookout, or grab lunch later in the day.
Heading west from Horseshoe Bay, the next beach along the coast is the small and secluded Coral Bay. Most people don’t even realise it exists and there’s no obvious access – and this is intentional.
Coral Bay is Bowen’s nudist beach, so it’s a little off the main path so the sunbakers and swimmers can have some privacy, and no families accidentally stumble across it.
The next beach along to the west is Grays Bay, a lovely little stretch of sand that you’ll see by the side of the road as you drive towards Horseshoe Bay.
With white sand, palm trees, and rolling rock formations, it’s a beautiful little beach that gets even better at sunset when the colours light up the sky, and people often settle in to watch it over a few drinks.
There’s also a boat ramp at Grays Bay, so it’s a convenient spot to launch a boat or jet ski, with lots of car parking.
The longest beach in Bowen in Queens Beach, spanning five kilometres along the shore, past the holiday homes and caravan parks in the coastal part of Bowen.
Of course you can swim here, but it can get quite windy and rough. It’s more popular as a walking beach and also has a bicycle path along the side of it. There are free barbecues along the way, as well as a playground.
Heading back over to the east, and coming down the other side of the rocky coast from Horseshoe Bay, the first beach you would reach is Murrays Bay.
Murrays Bay is also somewhat protected by the rocky buffs on either side, and it’s an excellent spot for snorkelling. In fact, many of the beaches are worth taking a snorkel to because there’s some vibrant fringing reef just off the shore.
There’s a little bit of a walk from the car parking to the beach, and this helps keep down the crowds slightly.
There are fantastic views at Rose Bay, which looks across the Whitsundays towards the peaks of Gloucester Island, plus it has dramatic rocky outcrops on either side, making it another picturesque spot at any point of the day.
Rose Bay is easy to reach by car, and it has barbecues and picnic tables, so it’s popular with families and groups looking for somewhere to set up camp for the day. There are rock pools to explore at low tide, and calm waters for kayaking or stand up paddle boarding.
Although Kings Beach is just a bit further down the coast from Rose Bay, a river in between means that it’s reached by a road from the main part of town, making it one of two beaches that aren’t technically part of the beach section of Bowen.
It’s a relatively long beach and doesn’t have same secluded swimming vibe as the other ones. It’s popular with dog walkers and fishermen, and many tourists tend to avoid it. But the upside is that you’ll often have stretches of the sand all to yourself.
The other city beach in Bowen is the Foreshore, also known as Front Beach. It’s located at the end of the main street and is used more for water sports like paddle boarding and water skiing than it is for swimming.
There’s a small water park for the kids, and some parklands with tables and barbecues.
The dramatic granite headland of Bowen doesn’t just carve out bays for beautiful beaches, it also offers some impressive views. Going for a walk up to some viewpoints is one of the best things to do in Bowen – and there are a few options I would suggest.
Hansen Park to Horseshoe Bay
The first of the walks in Bowen that I would recommend is a relatively easy one suitable for any level of fitness. It’s called the Hansen Park to Horseshoe Bay walk because it… well, because it goes between those two spots.
Starting at Hansen Park on Queens Beach, the trail goes along the side of the sand, before reaching beautiful Grays Bay surrounded by boulders, before continuing on to finish at Horseshoe Bay (with a bonus extension up to the Rotary Lookout).
The flat sealed walking path is 2.6 kilometres (one way) and is an easy stroll. It’s a popular exercise route, particularly at sunrise – although the views are even better at sunset!
Cape Edgecumbe Walking Trail
For a more challenging option, another great walk in Bowen is the Cape Edgecumbe Walking Trail.
It continues on from the end of the first walk at Horseshoe Bay (so they can easily be combined) and climbs up amongst the rocks on narrow dirt trails. Looking down into the bays, the patchwork of boulders forms a wonderful landscape.
You’ll get great views of the water from the top of the hill, and there are paths leading down to the beaches, if you fancy a swim. The 2.5 kilometre walk (one way) finishes at Rose Bay.
Walk to the Lighthouse
There’s also a special walk that isn’t available all the time, and that’s the Walk to the Lighthouse.
During low tides in the winter months, a sand bar is revealed that allows people to walk from Dalrymple Point to the North Head Lighthouse, about one kilometre offshore. (A note, though: your feet are still going to be in the water.)
Not only does it offer a close up view of one of Queensland’s oldest lighthouses, but walkers get right amongst the sealife in the shallows, including giant red starfish, squirting sea cucumbers, and maybe even turtles or dugongs!
The main town
Many people who visit Bowen focus on the beaches – and you can certainly see why they draw a crowd. But the main town of Bowen is also a fascinating place, as I explained earlier.
It’s worth spending a bit of time having a look around the centre of Bowen and seeing a few of the landmarks.
To learn more about the formation of the town and some of the key events, head to the Bowen Museum, run by the local historical society. There are hundreds of items on display, covering the early pioneer years of the town, and other significant events over the past century or so.
The museum also includes a slab cottage built in 1872, next to the main building. It’s been furnished with period pieces and other authentic items that decorate the rooms, providing a recreation of the early settler days.
Murals in town
If you take a stroll down the main street of Bowen, it won’t take long until you notice some of the murals on the walls. These are, in fact, one of the best things to see in Bowen – so don’t just walk by.
Throughout the town, there are 27 of these large murals, the first painted in 1988 to coincide with Australia’s Bicentennial. They tell the story of Bowen’s history through the images – starting at early settlement, through the industries that built the town, and more recent events.
Unfortunately the murals don’t really include the pre-settler Indigenous history of the region, which is an issue that permeates through much of the heritage in Bowen.
Even beyond the official tourist landmarks, there are plenty of things in Bowen that add to the discovery of the town’s history. Along the main street, you can see the old Queensland balconies around the pubs, the wooden columns supporting the awnings, the grand faded facades.
It’s easy to see why they decided to film much of the Australia movie here.
In particular, have a look at the Bowen Harbour Board Building at 6 Herbert St, as well as the Post Office, Jetty, Court House, and Council Offices. Another cute site to spot is the Summergarden Theatre on Murroona Rd, built in 1948.
Tours of the Whitsundays
Bowen is technically part of the Whitsundays and you can definitely use it as a base to explore the islands and the coastline. There’s easy access to the Great Barrier Reef and across to the national parks.
However, not many tour operators leave directly from Bowen. In most cases, you’ll need to drive (or get a transfer) down to Airlie Beach to join the Whitsundays tours that head out to explore Whitehaven Beach and some of the other highlights.
You can read more in my story about things to do at Airlie Beach, if you’re going to spend a bit of time there too.
To discover the Whitsundays, I would recommend one of these tours:
- There are a few different options you can choose with Cruise Whitsundays, one of the biggest tourism companies in town. For example, there’s a catamaran for a whole day, a relaxed trip to Whitehaven Beach, a half-day cruise, and more. You can see all their options here.
- For a bit more adrenaline, head out with Ocean Rafting for this speedboat tour that includes a hike on Whitsunday Island, some time on Whitehaven Beach, snorkelling, and lunch.
- The Indigenous heritage of the Whitsundays is fascinating (with some pretty horrific periods) and it’s certainly worth learning more about it. You can do that with the small-group hands-on Ngaro Indigenous Cultural Tour around the islands.
- Seeing the Whitsundays from the water is one thing – but seeing the islands from the air gives you a whole different perspective. If you have time, this scenic flight will take you above the islands and to the outer reef to see the famous Heart Reef.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN BOWEN
There are a couple of options in town, but if you’re here for the beaches, you’ll find more of Bowen’s accommodation in that area.