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A family holiday in Airlie Beach, Whitsundays

Underwater scene at Daydream Island

Airlie Beach is the perfect holiday destination for backpackers, couples wanting a honeymoon location and families wanting a relaxed getaway. As the “heart of the Whitsundays”, Airlie Beach the best place to go to get to the Whitsunday Islands and the Great Barrier Reef.  

It had been one of those long days when I saw a flight sale to the Whitsundays. “Who wants to visit Uncle Nick?” I asked the two kids under two-years-old who should have been in bed at the time. My brother had been working there for a few months and visiting him seemed like a great family holiday idea. Daniel didn’t take much convincing. I think we both needed more travel back in our lives. And, a break from DIY house projects that seemed to fill our weekends.  

We’d done budget travel before, and I thought we could do it with kids. Especially when a five month old is free to feed/transport, and a two year old is still cheap-ish to maintain. This family holiday was an experiment to see if we could maintain our budget travel lifestyle. So, we squeezed clothes for four people in one check-in suitcase and a borrowed pram bag, and off we went. 

Where is the Whitsundays?

If you want paradise, you need to visit the Whitsundays region in central Queensland, about 1,000 km north of Brisbane. There are 74 beautiful Whitsunday Islands off the aquamarine coast of Queensland that stretch from Bowen in the north to Proserpine in the south.

How to get to the Whitsundays, Great Barrier Reef and Airlie Beach

How to get to the Whitsundays

  • fly to The Great Barrier Reef Airport on Hamilton Island.
  • fly to the Whitsunday Coast Airport on the mainland at Proserpine (then coach transfer to Airlie Beach).
  • catch a Queensland Rail train to Proserpine.
  • catch a bus/coach to Airlie Beach.
  • sail. Some large cruise boats will stop by for a day, but you can also book a berth at a marina if you sail up on your private yacht.
  • drive via the Bruce Highway.

Getting around Airlie Beach

A week after we booked flights to the Whitsundays with the kids, Nick was no longer working there and we no longer had a car to borrow. And, because of my guilt over our carbon footprint, I decided we didn’t need a hire car.

You can hire a car at several different providers at Whitsunday Coast Airport on the mainland or in Airlie Beach. But, after a little research, we discovered that it’s quite easy to get around without a car.  

You can book a Whitsunday Transitbus transfer from Whitsunday Coast Airport to your accommodation at Airlie Beach or to the Port of Airlie (if you’re staying on an island nearby). We easily booked the shuttle bus online paid $18 per adult, each way.  

Whitsunday Transit also operate the public bus service which operates from Proserpine to Shute Harbour. The bus runs along Shute Harbour Road via Cannonvale and Airlie Beach. It’s $6 per adult for a zone one daily fare. A daily will get you from Cannonvale to the main street of Airlie Beach or the Port of Airlie, and back again.  

Walking from one end of Airlie to the other on the main street or on the footpaths along the water is quite easy. We found Airlie Beach to be very pram friendly.  

You can hail or book a taxi to get you around Airlie Beach and surrounding suburbs. The taxi drivers are lovely locals who know where the best restaurants and places to go are. When we visited in November 2019, Uber is no available in Airlie Beach or Whitsundays.  

Most hotels and tourist attractions, and some restaurants, will offer a free shuttle bus. Just remember to book them in advance, if needed!

Swimming in Airlie Beach Lagoon - dad and two kids

Getting to the Whitsunday Islands and Great Barrier Reef from Airlie Beach

Getting around the Whitsundays by boat is the best way to see the beautiful Whitsunday Islands and it is a great activity at the same time. Many providers offer a variety of high speed boats, catamarans, glass-bottomed boats and sailing yachts that will take you on a variety of tours to parts of Great Barrier Reef and/or Whitsunday Islands. There are overnight options, day trip options and island hopper options.

From the Port of Airlie, Cruise Whitsundays ferries take you to Daydream Island and Hamilton Island and back. You don’t need to pre-book these ferries. They operate every day and they let you explore the islands in your own time without having to follow a set tour.

Getting around the Whitsundays by plane or helicopter is a unique way to see the best of the Whitsunday Islands and Great Barrier Reef. It’s much more expensive, but an experience I highly recommend if you can do it. In addition to airports at Proserpine and Hamilton Island, there are two light plane airports at Shute Harbour and Lindeman Island. They are used by seaplanes, light planes and helicopters to transport people to and from the islands.

Inside a small plane over the Great Barrier Reef

Where to stay in the Whitsundays

The Whitsunday Islands and surrounding region is one of Australia’s top tourist destinations. So, you’ll find hundreds of hostels, Airbnbs, bungalows, home stays, caravan parks, hotels and luxury resorts in the area to suit almost every budget and holiday style.

Stay on an island

Who can say no to the island life? You can wake up overlooking the beach from your private bungalow or balcony, camp or book a home stay.  

You can stay on many of the Whitsunday Islands. Search for accommodation on Hamilton Island, Hayman Island, Long Island, Whitsunday Island and South Molle Island.

Underwater scene at Daydream Island

Stay on the mainland

There are many places to stay on the mainland that have quick and easy access to the Whitsunday Islands and Great Barrier Reef. Search for accommodation Airlie Beach, Cannonvale and Shute Harbour. They are the three beautiful small coastal towns.

I booked a family friendly Airbnb in Cannonvale called Sandy Toes. It was easy to get from there to Airlie Beach via the public bus. It was very comfortable, very family friendly and also as budget-friendly as we could get in one of Queensland’s best tourist destinations.

Stinger season in the Whitsundays

When I started to do some research on what to do with kids in the Whitsundays and Airlie Beach I found out that swimming could get us killed. And, in this instance, I’m not being dramatic or over-exaggerating; October to April is stinger season in Airlie Beach and all of the surrounding waters.

Stinger season in Central Queensland means that you should never enter the water without wearing an appropriate stinger suit. The “stingers” that are in the water during the summer season can kill you. Let me be clear: you might die if you get stung by the tiny Irukandji jellyfish or the box jellyfish that live in these waters during October-April. And, if they don’t get you, the salties might. Saltwater crocodiles are often seen on the local beaches and hundreds reside in the nearby Proserpine River.  

Boy on at Airlie Beach

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