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How to visit the Great Barrier Reef and Whitsunday Islands in 2 days.

This week we’re at Airlie beach – gateway to the southern part of the Great Barrier reef and to the millionaire’s island paradise of the Whitsunday Islands! Australia is not quite as budget friendly as other countries, but there are always workarounds, you’ve just gotta get smart! Being on the one year work and travel visa means I am entitled to get a job… and that’s why I’m here, I’ve picked up 2 weeks work with free accommodation – score!

whitehaven beach - things to do in whitsundays

In this Blog, we head out snorkelling on the Barrier Reef, get sober on a sailing adventure to the Whitsunday islands, and enjoy the nightlife and surrounds of Airlie!

Now look, I’m lucky, being a musician I often get the opportunity to work places where others may not find it as easy to get work. Saying that your other work options are reception etc. at one of the many hostels, taking a look on the “helpX” website to see if anyone in the local area is offering up a room, and of course Couch Surfing! If you have a little more money in your account and want the freedom of not being tied to working hours, then there are dorm rooms that are affordable, but you won’t be getting by on $5 a night – sorry $5 Travellers!

So why are we here?? Reef, of course! Don’t worry that being this far south means you aren’t seeing the real Barrier Reef – you are! With the added benefit that the jellyfish population is normally a little less of a problem compared to far north like Cairns.

If you want to get out and see the reef on a budget the best thing to do is go in low season, which is actually the majority of the year, and book last minute! Booking in advance is the best way to pay full price… we don’t want that. You can find deals for under half price if you go for standby tickets.

things to do in whitsundays


In the end, we opted for a 2-for-1 deal which bought us 2 full day cruises for $250 pp, organised by our hotel manager (Full price is $385pp). You could probably shop around even more if you were flexible, but we had only specific days that we could go out on the boat.

Day 1 was a 3 hour (each way) trip out to knuckle reef – which is way off the coast, the REAL reef. including buffet lunch and all our snorkel gear. Scuba dives were available at an additional cost and could be booked on your way out to the reef.

Day 2 was a more casual catamaran cruise around the Whitsundays, with a stop off at Whitehaven beach (Possibly the most pristine Beach in the world!) followed by BBQ lunch and free booze. OK, let’s get down to the details.

Cruise 1 – Knuckle Reef – Coral and fishies on the Barrier Reef.

things to do in whitsundays

It’s Early, I was working super late last night, and I am coming down with the flu… Not the best start. Still, I’ve been looking forward to seeing the Great Barrier Reef for years, so I’m going to make the most of the opportunity! $125 for a full day out to the reef, not bad for Australian prices.

The cruise is under-sold, its low season, what this means is plenty of seats for everyone, and we won’t be queueing to get equipment etc. when we get to the reef. The Ship (its a big Yacht really, I guess??) pulls out of Airlie harbour to Blue skies and wonderful views of the surrounding islands. It takes almost an hour to sail past all the pinnacles of tree and sand poking majestically from the turquoise water, and my camera is on constant watch for marine life and landscape shots. Once we clear the Islands we have about two hours of open sea to cross until we reach our destination, might as well get comfy and have a biscuit!

things to do in whitsundays

It’s at this point we get all the “talks”, the usual safety crap and all of the “upsetting” that has become an essential part of the profit making of the companies. Eventually, after 3 hours the pontoon is in site. A man made oasis surrounded for miles in every direction by water and reef, not somewhere you’d want to be caught in a storm. Fortunately, today is perfect weather, although it gets a little colder as you move away from land… but that’s what the wetsuits are for!

things to do in whitsundays

We get suited up and straight into the water. With my make-shift waterproof camera I got to work surveying the sea bed. It’s spectacular! If you have ever snorkelled at a beach you would be used to opaque water filled with silt and sand. Here the coral rises so far off the sea bed that the water is very clear, and the underwater world is a delight! The reef is so high in the water in fact that in the later part of the afternoon, at low tide, you can see it poking out into the daylight!

The snorkelling is of course the highlight, I’m sure the scuba diving may have been even better, but as beginners, we figured we would spend a large portion of our day learning to dive rather than experiencing the reef and getting photos.

things to do in whitsundays
Additionally, there are some other fun experiences to be had on the pontoon such as the mini submarine and glass bottom boat, you can also witness the feeding frenzy!! We were lucky enough to see a Reef Shark during this part of the trip, which was cool! After a go on the waterside and a bit of lunch we were pretty much out of time and so began the 3 hour trip back…

things to do in whitsundays

Still, compared to diving close to land, this is the real reef, its a much better experience and it’s worth the boat ride, plus some of the sunset photos we got on the way back were awesome!!

things to do in whitsundays

Cruise 2 – The Camira Sailing “Adventure”

Cruise 2! this is the booze cruise… apparently. That’s how it was pitched to us by the rep. But we discovered afterwards that there are REAL booze cruises, and cruises where alcohol is included but fun is strictly prohibited… we were on the latter, unfortunately. That said, we are cruising the Whitsundays in beautiful weather, things could be worse.

things to do in whitsundays

The Camira is a giant purple catamaran, they largely rely on wind power and as such progress through the islands is slow, but that’s ok, running silent means you have a greater chance of seeing the wildlife, sadly we don’t see much, someone spotted a turtle, we didn’t :-(

We stop at a rather uninteresting beach. Tens of tourists pile into the water and we all clamber amongst each other attempting to see the very limited selection of coral in the murky water. After yesterdays experience at knuckle reef, it felt rather an insult that this was described as snorkelling at the great barrier reef.

things to do in whitsundays

Whitehaven Beach… hard to get it all in shot, even with panorama!

Shortly before lunch, we arrive at Whitehaven Beach. This IS the highlight of the Whitsunday islands. Our
disappointment with the pretend booze cruise is turned to awe by this marvel of nature. 7KM of pristine white sand totally justifies the name Whitehaven… Development here is banned, so it’s just white sand, turquoise water and trees. This is a MUST SEE, and it’s impossible to describe in words, even the pictures barely do it justice. You have to visit if you are at Airlie!

things to do in whitsundays

After less than an hour at Whitehaven we are called back to the Catamaran for Lunch, and finally, we are allowed to get the cooler open and grab a brew, which had not been allowed until now… Oh dear! Our “Unlimited Beer & Wine” is White wine (only) and Carlton Mid (3.5% piss beer). Welcome to the land of health and safety gone mad, shocker!

The BBQ food is pretty decent, the selection is ok, so that’s something, but after about 8 cans of Carlton mid I’ve drunk myself sober and I have a headache, so we give up on the unlimited beer and focus on some sunset photography, which turns out pretty well!

what to do in airlie beach

Ultimately the Camira experience is not for the funsters, most of the trip is spent just pottering about on the boat, the scenery is lovely, but the highlight of the trip – Whitehaven – is all too brief. We got it as a package deal along with the knuckle reef cruise, which was, of course, great, So overall it sort of balanced out but there is no way I would pay full price for the Camira in retrospect. Get yourself to Whitehaven beach, but try and find a trip that spends a lot longer there.

Planning a longer trip to Australia – why not team up with Intrepid travel along the way. They have some fantastic tours to this region

What else is going on in Airlie? What to do in Airlie beach

Airlie has a fun travel vibe going on. The majority of the population seems to be temporary and very international! Food and drink are deals all over the place (The $10 Steak at KCs Chargrill, is amazing for the price, I’ve had worse steaks for $40… so do it!) especially during the low season. The legendary Magnums bar/backpackers are always popular, as is Paddy’s Pub.
During the day the local hangout is the lagoon right in the centre of town (the town is tiny btw), if you like ladies in bikinis then you won’t be disappointed, and if you like fellas then you’ll probably be happy too. Swimming in the ocean isn’t a good option here, its a bit muddy, heading out to the islands is a better option for swimming, but that involves opening your wallet pretty wide.

If you are lucky enough to have transport, you could head out to the Shute Harbour lookout, Conway national park, or south to Cedar Creek Falls. Be careful not to go too far or you’ll end up in Proserpine… unless you are heading to the airport this is not a destination you should gravitate towards.

cedar creek falls - what to do in airlie beach

During the summer when it rains the falls are supposed to be pretty good but in the dry season its not much more than a trickle, but it’s still pretty nice… Until a team of bogans (That’s “White-Trash” for those of you not familiar with Australian terminology) also arrive to enjoy the trickle, one of them we recognise from the gig the night before, so we do our best to hide our faces, fortunately they were so shitfaced the night before that they probably wouldn’t have recognised their arse from their elbow, let alone our faces.

We decide to leave, and drive a little further to the coastline, discovering a very quiet spot at Conway beach. The tide is right out and its mudflats as far as we can see… Still, something peaceful about this place leaves me with a slight sadness that our time at Airlie is coming to an end…

conway beach - what to do in airlie beach


Where to stay Airlie Beach:

where to stay airlie beach - Nomads Airlie Beach Backpackers where to stay airlie beach - coral sea resort
Boutique on a Budget 

Nomads Airlie Beach Backpackers:

The relaxed rooms at Airlie Beach Nomads

include a kitchenette, a spa bath and a private bathroom.

Cable/satellite channels and a shower are also provided

Treat Yourself 

Coral Sea Resort:

This modern resort in Airlie Beach

provides free wireless internet, as well

as an outdoor pool and a swimming pool.

It has a spa, as well as a kids pool, and a beauty centre


Book Now! Book Now!


Looking for more hotel options at the Whitsundays? We recommend HotelsCombined. They have a great selection and help you get the best possible price!

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