Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays

After having been grounded by a range of lockdowns and border closures for 18 months, we finally got our wings back. It is the end of winter, and we were overdue to head north for some warmer weather.

Airlie Beach is a small coastal town in Northern Queensland. It was named after Airlie in Scotland in the 1930’s and has about 1200 permanent inhabitants. It’s income is mainly derived from tourism.

Airlie Beach main strip

The wider area was settled in the late 19th century with sugar cane plantations and sugar mills amongst the crocodile infested rivers. Yes, we are in the area where you need to be aware of crocs, sharks and jellyfish before you decide to go for a swim! We heard some interesting stories about “out of towners” from the locals who know where and where not to go!

Stinger (jellyfish) season is during the warmer months, from (late) October to May. Going here around winter time means that there is at least one less deadly risk.

Whale watching season is from June to early September, when humpback whales migrate to this area from Antarctica to give birth.

So all in all June to September is an excellent time to visit this area.

Airlie Beach

There are some older houses remaining in the backpacker part of town, just behind the main strip. They remind us of those we stayed in in PNG and Borneo. Thanks to regular visits from cyclones this area has been devastated at regular intervals. It is nice to see some older buildings still preserved.

In January 1970 cyclone Ada destroyed 90% of the buildings and 14 lives were lost. There is a poignant tribute to this event on the beach, naming all casualties including three young children.

Old town Airlie

How to get to Airlie Beach

We flew to Proserpine airport, half an hour away from Airlie Beach. There are direct flights from a number of Australian capital cities. You can get a transfer bus, a taxi or rent a car to get from the airport to Airlie.

We chose the Heart of Reef shuttle service, which is excellent value at $34 return per person, and can be easily booked online. Their small buses mean that you don’t spend too much time dropping off people in various places.

Airlie Beach accomodation

There are some nice small hotels in the centre of town, which offer excellent value rooms.

Do your research very carefully if you do plan to head for an AirBnB here, and read ALL the reviews! After staying at twenty AirBnBs over the last two years, we finally had a disappointing experience in Airlie Beach.

The wide angle photos made it look a lot larger than it really was. There was no real space to unpack our bags. The promised balcony with views was very uninviting to relax on. And the “cereals and selection of teas and coffee” turned out to be rice crispies, black tea and instant coffee….

That face you make when you realise it is instant coffee

I noted that booking directly with the Searene resort would have saved us significantly, which would have made this small studio at least better value.

So we opted to stay on our return to Airlie in the Heart Hotel in the centre of town. Rooms were clean, modern and well equipped, with great service.

Heart hotel

We noticed that a number of the back packer places in town have closed down. Covid has hurt the tourism industry here at the lower end of the market. Although it has been doing very well from the grey nomads who have been forced to hang around much longer than planned with the borders to NT and WA closed this winter.

Whitsunday sailing

A number of tourists skip Airlie Beach altogether, and head straight to Hamilton Island or the Daydream resort island. Mike doesn’t like being confined to an island, and Airlie is definitely worth a day or two.

Airlie is the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, so there are a large number of boat tours taking you to one or more of these Islands. These tours range from day trips to several nights.

We went for a four day and three night trip on a sailing yacht called the Blizzard. The boat had a maximum of 10 guests, in two double, one twin and one bunkbed cabin.

On the Blizzard

When I booked this trip, the only cabin left available was the one with the bunk beds. So Mike had to wedge himself sideways in his dark, coffin like, bottom bunk every night, while I had to levitate myself in a horizontal position to get into the top bunk. In itself a unique experience for me! For Mike this was business as usual, a throwback to his naval days.

Note to self, next time book early and get the double cabin with ensuite!

Bunk beds

Somehow we found ourselves as the oldest couple on the trip, when did that happen?! We did have a great time though. The trip was long enough to unwind and relax, to really enjoy the sailing, the sunsets and the views.

We snorkeled at five different locations, hiked to three different view points and lounged on famous Whitehaven beach. We saw whales, turtles, sting rays snd manta rays. lots of other fish, both big and small, and lots of soft corals.

Whitsunday Island

The food was great, with a hot item served at breakfast, lunch and dinner each day. All made by Tris, the boat owner and skipper. We didn’t have to do anything!

And we did as much sailing as possible. The variable weather, sunny, rainy, cloudy, with winds gusting up to 35 knots, provided plenty of variety!

Airlie Beach Activities for the over 40’s

We had two full days before sailing, and one full day after sailing in Airlie Beach. Just about enough afterwards to lose our sealegs!

We enjoyed some of the short walks in the area, and browsing the Saturday market. The “before lunch gin tasting” at the market was a nice surprise, and we went home with two nice bottles of Monsoon gin.

Saturday market

And while sitting on Whitehaven Beach we noticed the many short helicopter rides you can take over that beach and the famous heart shaped coral reef. Very popular with the older visitors.

The famous heart shaped reef

Airlie Beach for the under 30’s

The majority of the activities in Airlie Beach focus on the many groups of young people hitting the town over the weekends. This place is very popular for bucks and hen weekends, as well as schoolies (traditional end of high school celebration).

There is a buzzing nightlife (apparently), jetski rides (mainly about the experience of bouncing around on a jetski at full speed), sky diving, e-scooter and segway tours.

Dining options

We tried a range of places, guided by google, yelp and personal recommendations.

  • Anchor Bar – great spot for drinks, cocktails and tapas. We tried out the “I can’t decide platter“ platter, which was way too much for two people! This place is located at a resort, next to their pool and with a great view over Airlie Beach.
  • Fish D’Vine at the Airlie Beach hotel – excellent seafood, their signature seafood platter is a mix of cold and hot seafood that deserved a group of four, rather than Mike and me. We did our best…. These guys also serve the best mohito in the world and have a very impressive range of rums.
  • La Tabella trattoria – forget the diet, some of the best Italian food I have head for some time. Their mushroom linguine is amazing, and do not skip dessert… I am very happy we saved some space for the tiramisu!
  • Paradiso – a great spot for lunch, overlooking the foreshore park and beach, they serve a range of smaller and larger dishes. Mike and I loved their fish tacos.
  • Garuma – best place in town for coffee and breakfast. We really enjoyed sitting on the bench overlooking the street.
  • The Breeze Bar – provides a great range of amazing cocktails, some classics and some with a wicked twist. I had to try the gentleman’s garden (gin based) and apple pie (vodka based). Mike stuck to the more manly beers. As the seating is on the pavement you get to do a nice spot of people watching here.

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