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How to explore the Whitsunday Islands | Insight Guides Blog

How to explore the Whitsunday Islands

Thinking of touring the Whitsunday Islands? Our experts have put together a route which gives you the opportunity to connect with the Whitsunday’s, exploring by Kayak and camping under the stars on lonely white sandy beaches.
Whitehaven beach and Whitsundays Islands from above.
Whitehaven beach and Whitsundays Islands from above. Photo: Shutterstock

Distance: Variable

Time: Five days

Start/End: Airlie Beach

Take your trip with Insight Guides: Our local experts can help you with planning, organising and booking your trip to Australia's Whitsunday Islands. Simply, get in touch and share your budget, interests and travel style. We'll create an itinerary exclusive to you and your requirements, which you can amend until it's just right.

Points to note: Airlie Beach is served by the long-distance buses that ply the East Coast. You can also fly straight into the islands via Hamilton Island Airport, which has regular flights to/from both Cairns and Brisbane. Tents and cooking utensils can be hired and drinking water and food bought at Airlie Beach. A reasonable level of fitness is required for this route, along with sturdy footwear, hat, sunscreen and insect repellent. The ideal months for camping are from May to December. 

The Whitsunday Islands form one of the world’s most scenic adventure playgrounds. Hundreds of secluded bays, coves and deserted beaches are dotted throughout this calm corner of the coral sea, which is sheltered by the Great Barrier Reef. For thousands of years, the ngaro people lived throughout this area, leaving behind rock art, fish traps, stone tools and middens. By following part of the Ngaro Sea Trail, you will paddle in their wake while experiencing the region’s natural splendour.
This is not the usual way to experience the Whitsundays; you will not be visiting lavish resorts or cruising in luxury vessels. You will be self-sufficient, but your rewards will be lonely white sand beaches, encounters with ancient rock art and deliciously uncrowded spots for snorkelling and swimming.

Airlie Beach

Airlie Beach is the hub of the Whitsunday coast and your base for exploring the islands. It is a tourist town through and through, with accommodation options for all budgets and a vibrant dining scene. Numerous travel agencies, posing as information centres, will vie for your patronage with sailing, diving, cruising options and more.
You can stock up on camping provisions here and enjoy a last restaurant meal.
Head to Shute Harbour, 10km (6 miles) from Airlie Beach, to catch the Whitsunday Islands Camping Connections barge to South Molle island. You will also need to buy a camping permit from Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service – their office is beside the water at Shute Harbour Drive. Barge departure times vary depending on the tide, there is usually only one per day.

South Molle Island

It takes just 15 minutes to transfer to the campsite at Sandy Bay, on the southwestern corner of South Molle Island. Picnic tables and toilet facilities are available here. Be sure to keep your food well sealed, as native animals such as goannas, birds and possums are part of the experience, and they like to help themselves.
With 420ha (1,000 acres) of National Park, the island offers superb bushwalking. The walking tracks from Sandy Bay campsite to Mount Jeffreys and Spion Kop may be moderately challenging because of their length – the 11km return trip takes five hours – but you are rewarded with spectacular views. South Molle has a fascinating history of indigenous occupation, European settlement, grazing and tourism. The walk to Spion Kop passes a Ngaro quarry where the hillside is scattered with broken pieces of rock that were used to sharpen stone tools.

Lonely catamaran in the Great Barrier Reef.Lonely catamaran in the Great Barrier Reef as seen on the outer reef away from the Whitsunday Islands and Airlie Beach. Photo: Shutterstock

Whitsunday Island

The barge will return next day (time dependent on tides) and take you on a 35-minute transfer to Dugong Beach, your first camp on Whitsunday Island. From the beach, take the walking track to Sawmill Beach that leads to Whitsunday Peak. This track may be one of the most challenging on the tour, reaching an elevation of 437m (1,400ft). It is a 5km (3-mile) return hike, and you should allow four hours total, to enjoy the views over the island, turquoise waters and mainland. Steep, rocky hillsides support vine forest and open eucalyptus forests, changing to grassland as you ascend. The unusual grass trees were once a source of food and tool material to the Ngaro, producing glue, fire sticks and spear handles and yielding starch, nectar and grubs. If you are lucky you will spot white-bellied sea eagles and brahminy kites soaring overhead. From May to September, watch for the blows and splashes of humpback whales that use these warm waters as a calving ground.

Whitehaven Beach

Be ready for your 45-minute barge transfer to Whitehaven beach on the opposite side of Whitsunday Island. Ask Whitsunday Island Camping Connections to drop off kayaks for you to explore the coastline further – this will cost extra. Brilliant white silica sand stretching for over 7km (4 miles) greets you on impossible perfect Whitehaven Beach. The beauty of camping over night here is that you get to experience this paradise without the crowds. While the day trippers are basking on the sand, take the opportunity to follow Solway Circuit, a 40-minute return walk, which is 7km (4 miles) there and back and takes about four hours. Durning this walk you will pass through beach scrub and grass-tree groves to cool cedar forests, and be rewarded with stunning views over Solway Passage to Haslewood Island and south to Hamilton and Pentecost islands.

Tongue Bay

On the afternoon of the fourth day, take to the water in your kayak and listen for the exhalations of turtles as you paddle 6km (4 miles) north to Tongue Bay. Here you can tackle the Tongue Point walk, 3km (2 miles), which takes two hours, return, to drink in breathtaking views of Whitehaven Beach from Hill Inlet Lookout. As you paddle back to Whitehaven Beach camp, explore the rich mangrove forests that flourish along the shoreline.

Return to Airlie Beach

On the morning of the fifth day, catch the one-hour barge back to Shute harbour.

How to take your own trip:

Now you know how to travel around the Whitsunday Islands, you need an easy way to book a trip yourself. Get in touch with our local experts Down Under today: they can assist with planning, organising and booking your entire trip for you, from where to stay to what to drive.