Queensland’s Whitsunday Coast is a tropical destination with dozens of islands and access to the coral playgrounds of the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef. With warm winter weather, it’s a bucket-list destination for campers looking to escape colder climes.
But if you’re a traveller from the southern states, you need time. Even from Brisbane, it’s an 1100km drive, making it a weeklong adventure towing a camper from Melbourne. Luckily there is plenty to see along the way, and your choice of inland or the much longer coastal tracks adds variety to the return trip.
When James Cook named the opening through the island group the Whitsunday Passage on 9 June 1770, he did so in the mistaken belief it was on the Christian holiday of Whit Sunday. As it turned out, he had crossed the dateline and it was actually Whit Monday. Don’t be too hard on Cook though; if you put in enough island time, poor James won’t be the last one to not know or care what day it is.
As he passed through the islands, Cook encountered the Ngaro people, who had been living and hunting in the region for thousands of years. The Ngaro and Mia people from the mainland have a solid connection to the land and manage the area with the Whitsunday National Park. Much archaeological evidence still exists, and an interpretive site at Nara Inlet on Hook Island preserves rock art and middens in a cave where the occupation has been dated back 9000 years.
Better known as the Whitsundays, the archipelago was formed when 74 peaks of a mountain range were submerged after polar ice caps melted and sea levels rose more than 6000 years ago. European settlement was based on agriculture both on the mainland and on some of the larger islands. By 1920, the region’s beauty and climate lured tourists, and the first fledgling holiday destination was established on Lindeman Island.
Fine coral and silica sediment suspended in the water scatters in the sunlight for the memorable and picture-perfect blue and stands of eucalypts and hoop pine contrasting against the aquamarine ocean add to the natural beauty of the towering volcanic hills.
As far back as the 1930s, as agriculture on the islands declined, leases were converted to National Parks. These days, more than 96 per cent of the 30,000ha is protected in the park system.
By 1936 tourism had grown to the extent that the township of Airlie Beach was established as a jumping-off point to the islands and the Reef. In pre-COVID days the town was a thriving regional centre with half a million visitors each year from across the globe. However, it should be noted that 75 per cent of holidaymakers are Australian residents, showing how much we love a homegrown tropical escape.
Combined with neighbouring localities of Cannonvale, Jubilee Pocket and Shute Harbour, the permanent population numbers around 4500. Nearby Proserpine has some 3500 residents in its mainly rural economy.
When we visited in April 2021, things were much more laid back, but there was still plenty to see and do for anyone able to travel. Local shopping includes a well-stocked supermarket and a street full of chill clothes stores. Restaurants and cafes abound, with plenty of outdoor venues to judge the passing parade.
If you have driven from the south along the Bruce Highway, it’s a relief finally turning off at Proserpine to the coast. Shute Harbour Road takes you past cane fields between steep mountains and finally through the built-up areas of Cannonvale, where big box stores offer all the modern traveller’s needs. The first sight of the ocean highlights the sheltered waters of Pioneer Bay and the Coral Sea Marina, where hundreds of yachts wait in the sparkling blue water.
You have your choice of four holiday parks in town and a cheaper council bush camp at Lake Proserpine, about an hour’s drive away.
Numerous companies offer day tours to the Reef and islands. A wide variety of resorts welcome visitors and day-trippers. For a taste of a more solitary ocean life, hire fleets of sail and powerboats let you explore at your own pace.
Big4 Airlie Beach
While island hopping and diving on the Reef mean you need to park the camper for a while, there is plenty to do and see on the mainland.
Choose your pace
Options for getting on the water and over to the islands are numerous. Still, we liked the look of the varied offering from Red Cat Adventures. They have fast 32- or 38-seater catamarans with day tours to the islands for snorkelling and taking in the best sites. Popular tours include Whitehaven Beach with its whiter-than-white sand and one of the most photographed views in Australia from Hill Inlet.
Whitehaven Beach, Hill Inlet
The Whitsundays is Australia’s most popular cruising ground. Steady winds and safe anchorages allow even novice sailors to take the helm, and a week on the water will let you see much of what the area has to offer. Whitsunday Escape has sailing cats and monohulls and a selection of motor yachts. They will teach you the basics of sailing, but it’s best if someone on board has had some experience with boating. They will guide you on the best and safest places to anchor and swim and monitor your journey with regular radio contact.
The major tourist operator is Cruise Whitsunday, and their fleet of vessels covers all bases. Their ferry service runs every couple of hours during the day and links the Port of Airlie with Hamilton and Daydream Islands. In addition, they run day trips to Hamilton Island Resort and combination tours that take in Hamilton Island and Whitehaven Beach.
Accommodation on the Islands ranges from relatively budget to ultra-swanky. Scamper Charters can deliver you on their 18-seat barge to 13 National Park campsites at Hook, Whitsunday and South Molle, and they even have camping equipment for hire. You’ll need to book well in advance for both the boat and campsite.
Hamilton Island is the largest and most developed resort, so it’s busier than the smaller resorts and is more expensive. Expect a studio room from $350 a night plus transfers.
Like most places in the tropics, you need to be aware of seasonal stingers and other mighty creatures. But you will find a safe place to swim right in the middle of town at the Airlie Beach Lagoon, where there’s plenty of room and lots of shade to relax.
It’s an easy drive into the National Park area, and there is any number of walking and mountain biking tracks. In addition, Red Cat Charters runs bus tours to Cedar Falls with its freshwater pool and rainforest bushwalks.
Take a 40-minute drive on sealed roads north of Airlie to the laidback coastal village of Dingo Beach on Cape Gloucester. The pub has a yesteryear appeal, and the idyllic, casuarina-lined beach makes the trip worthwhile. But you can also hire boats for fishing or snorkelling on the nearby islands and reefs. Dingo Beach Escape has a selection of outboard dinghies and kayaks, giving you access to the fishing and diving spots at Blackcurrant and Manta Ray Islands.
Dingo Beach Hotel
When to visit
The tropical north comes alive in winter when endless blue skies greet holidaymakers for weeks on end. Summer is the wet season, so crowds are smaller, but the high humidity isn’t for everyone. Winter temperatures should see 22°C during the day, with water temperature around 25°C all year round. Peak sailing season is June to October, and the slight winds also make for smooth cruising to the Reef on charter boats.
The Whitsundays traditionally belong to the Ngaro and Mia Peoples. We would like to pay our respect to elders past, present and emerging.
12505 Bruce Hwy
Hamilton Plains Qld 4800
P: (07) 4945 3967
BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort
25–29 Shute Harbour Rd
Airlie Beach Qld 4802
P: (07) 49485400
Discovery G’Day Parks Airlie Beach
2634 Shute Harbour Rd
Jubilee Pocket Qld 4802
P: (07) 4946 6727
NRMA Airlie Beach Holiday Park
234 Shute Harbour Rd
Cannonvale Qld 4802
P: (07) 4946 6379
Tasman Holiday Parks
1 Jubilee Pocket Rd
Airlie Beach Qld 4802
P: (07) 4860 1700
Hydeaway Bay Caravan and Camping Park
414 Hydeaway Bay Dr
Hydeaway Bay Qld 4800
P: (07) 4945 7170
Proserpine Tourist Park
79–83 Anzac Rd
Proserpine Qld 4800
P: (07) 4945 0490
Lake Proserpine Bush Camp
66 Station Rd
Lake Proserpine Qld 4800
P: (07) 4945 0435
24 The Cove Rd
Airlie Beach Qld 4802
P: (07) 4846 7000
Red Cat Adventures
250 Shute Harbour Rd
Airlie Beach Qld 4802
P: (07) 4946 4444
Coral Sea Marina
Airlie Beach Qld 4802
P: (07) 4946 5222
Dingo Beach Escape
Dingo Beach Boat Ramp
P: (07) 4945 7215
Scamper Camping Connections
Shute Harbour Qld 4802
P: 0487 226 737
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