Airlie Beach is the mainland gateway to the Whitsunday Islands. 10km to the east of Airlie is the hamlet of Shute Harbour, really just a natural harbour with a smattering of private homes. Boat cruises and ferries to the Whitsundays Islands depart from either Abel Pt Marina, Port of Airlie Marina or Shute Harbour.
Joy flights and helicopters to the islands and reef depart from Whitsunday Airport, located on the road midway between the two.Don’t confuse Whitsunday Airport though with the main Whitsunday Coast Airport at Proserpine. Inter and intra state flights (Jetstar, VirginBlue & Qantas) land at Whitsunday Coast Airport (otherwise known as Proserpine Airport), which is actually located at the town of Proserpine, some 25 minutes west of Airlie. Inter/intra state flights also land at Hamilton Island Airport, with regular ferry transfers between Hamilton Island and Airlie Beach and Shute Harbour.
Airlie thrives on its tourism credentials, having long been a meeting point for travellers seeking fun, sun and sand. It’s well geared to meet most travellers needs for accommodation, entertainment and shopping. Home to a thriving marine and charter boat industry, there are also good facilities for cruising yachtsmen requiring repair or re-provisioning.
The main street is often filled with campervans, caravans and coaches, as tourists flock to this coastal town on the move. It’s been a backpacker magnet since its mid 70’s tourism infancy, with accommodation and charter operators initially catering strongly to these travellers. It’s still mighty popular with the young party set. Nightclubs and bars can get a bit rowdy, particularly if its wet t-shirt or cane toad racing night. Yep, that’s Airlie Beach in all its glory.
But Airlie has evolved in recent years, grown up a bit you might say: the precocious teenager has blossomed into adulthood. Though still maintaining her adolescent hedonism, in recent years an element of sophistication emerged, with a vast choice of tours and accommodation catering to all tastes. From cane toad races through to uber luxe heli-dining on a deserted strip of beach, the options in Airlie are almost endless these days. It’s a town that knows how to have fun whether for singles, families and couples.
Recent upgrades to downtown streets and the addition of swanky new Port of Airlie and a new Cruise Whitsundays terminal at the eastern end of town have only enhanced Airlie’s charms. New restaurants, bars, hotels, even a new beach are all part of recent improvements.
There are plenty of options from budget backpacker hostels, caravan parks, small hotels and holiday apartments through to four star luxury apartments like Peppers Coral Coast high up on the hill overlooking Pioneer Bay or the Coral Sea Resort has absolute waterfront position downtown.
Though most people use Airlie Beach merely as a jumping off point to get to the islands, it’s well worth lingering a few days to soak up the atmosphere. Airlie Beach Lagoon is a mammoth man-made swimming pool overlooking Pioneer Bay. Open daily and lifeguard-patrolled, it’s a perfect spot to cool off, have a BBQ in the tropical landscaped gardens or relax with a book under a coconut palm. And it’s all free!
Walkers, hikers and mountain bikers will enjoy Conway National Park in the Conway Ranges for camping picnics, island views and the Conway Circuit Walk, a 28km point-to-point walk through the forest-clad hills behind the town. Casual walkers could tackle the first stage, turning around when ready, or if you’re a hard core hiker, take a tent and tackle the entire trail over two days. There are some steep ascents and descents and the trail gets a little tricky underfoot in places.
Check out Itineraries for Airlie Beach in one day!
Road – 1150km north of Brisbane, 650km south of Cairns
Rail – QLD Rail, Proserpine Staition
Air – Proserpine Airport or Hamilton Island Airport