The complete backpacker guide to the Whitsundays

Cram your backpack with everything you hold dear and make your way to Airlie Beach in The Whitsundays. Why? The average water temperature is 26 degrees, 70% of the area is national park, and holy moly do they have some sick (read: baller, bangin’, sweet, rad, sexy, really quite nice) beaches.

In fact, there is so much to do you’re going to need a complete backpacker guide to the area.

Here’s something we prepared earlier.

Where to stay

Where to stay in the Whitsundays | A complete backpacker guide

When it comes to booking Airlie Beach accommodation there are three things to consider:

  • If I need to get up early, is this DJ Booth with a bed behind it really going to work?
  • Do I really need to get up early?
  • Haha I’m on a boat! The ocean is my wake-up call!

Once you have looked deep inside yourself to find out who you really are, it’s time to check out some hostels, yachts and hammocks.

Base Airlie Beach Resort

Offering up options for every type of traveller is what Base Airlie Beach Resort does. They have dorm rooms, suites, camping sites and campervan parks within a six-acre (that’s huge) tropical resort-style setting, smack dab in the middle of Airlie.

If you’re driving a campervan but need somewhere to park while you’re cruising the Whitsundays for a couple of days, Base is a cheap and safe option.

There’s free WiFi in the lobby and you can dole out some extra dollars for high-speed WiFi in your room if you need Netflix and chill.

Rooms closer to the street are noisier, so if you want some quiet time, ask for a room at the back of the property.

Magnums Backpackers

Magnums Backpackers | The complete backpackers' guide to Airlie Beach

Magnums Backpackers is another MASSIVE backpackers. It’s pretty much a village inside Airlie Beach. The village has dorm rooms, twins, doubles and more party atmosphere than weekend at Miley Cyrus’s house (but much cleaner).

All that atmosphere can get pretty loud, so if you want to catch some ‘zzz’s’ ask for a quieter room and hope for the best.

Another win for Magnums is that it has two kitchens, so you won’t have to battle someone to boil up your instant noodles. Woo! There is also free WiFi in the centre of the resort. It can get pretty busy but that’s just another excuse to get to know people. Darn.

Airlie Waterfront Backpackers and Accommodation

As the name would suggest, Airlie Waterfront Backpackers and Accommodation is right across from the ocean. Trade in your goon sack and dance moves for a balcony and an ocean view.

And if you do some research online, you’ll notice one thing pops up all the time: It’s clean.

Seriously, this place couldn’t be any cleaner unless they changed the name to “Sweep, mop, scrub-a-dub-dub Waterfront Accommodation”, also… flat screen TV’s?! Well, the TV’s are only in the double rooms but still… this is a backpacker’s right?

They also offer 13, 10, 8 and 4-bed rooms but splurge a little and get the twin and double rooms, it’s worth it here.

It’s further out of town than the ‘doof doof’ hostels on the main strip but a 10-minute walk is nothing when you get to come home to the sparkling sun rising over the ocean in the morning.

Island Gateway Holiday Park

Island Gateway Holiday Park | The complete backpacker guide to The Whitsundays

Cruising in a camper van? Island Gateway Holiday Park is a no-brainer.

It’s about a 15-20 minutes walk down Shute Harbour Road to get into town from here but the advantages of staying at a campground more than make up for it.

There are powered sites, cabins and most importantly… campotels. Campotels are 21st century tee-pees. They sleep two and cost $45 per night. That means you get the feeling of camping without the need to set up your tent (which if you have ever camped is BY FAR the worst part). Say NO to bunk beds at hostels and YES to tee-pees. #teepeesetmefree

The shower facilities here are almost as cool as the tee-pees. They play Creedance Clearwater Revival, The Eagles and Led Zeppelin while you lather up AND are meticulously clean. Classic rock and being able to shower without thongs on is a luxury among the backpacker scene so indulge!


Cruise Whitsundays will let you wake up ON the reef!

The Reefsleep option is not just for excited kids. It’s for everyone who ever wondered what it’s like to be a sea turtle (they have to sleep sometime and we’re sure it’s on the reef).

If you plan ahead, you can sleep IN your flippers and mask so when you wake up it’s straight into the ocean for a wake up call from a wrasse.

This isn’t as cheap as a bunk bed shared with a snoring Scottish rugby player on holidays but seriously where else are you going to snooze 40 nautical miles offshore?

If you’re looking for that “OMG you’ll never guess what I did in Australia!” experience… this is it.

Take an overnight sailing trip

Sailing | The ultimate backpackers' guide to The Whitsundays

There are over 200 different sailing trips to choose from in the Whitsundays, so you don’t want to be stuck reading brochures for half a day just deciding. If you’ve ever thought about sailing the Whitsundays then check this video out and then get to booking your trip!

True Blue Sailing, Australian Tallship Cruises and Whitsundays Sailing Adventures are all top choices.

Especially Australian Tall Ships Cruises because who doesn’t secretly want to be a pirate? The Solway Lass is not only the most piratey named ship in Australia it also happens to be drop dead gorgeous. You literally have to buy a peg leg to just walk on this beauty. The offer three or six-day cruises.

True Blue Sailing offer you the choice of the Atlantic Clipper or New Horizons. Both are tall ships, so you get that feeling like you might be after Aztec gold. You can dive, snorkel, and the New Horizons even has a movie lounge and air con. Two-day and two-night packages are aimed at 18-30 year-olds… sounds like a good time to me.

If you want even more choices, Whitsundays Sailing has 11 different ships in its fleet and one is even called the Derwent Hunter. For $99 you can sail for a day on a boat that’s been roaming these Whitsundays waters for more than 66 years. It’s the granddaddy of sailing ships. They offer a Santa’s sack full of different overnight options as well.

Camp on the islands

There are lots and lots of islands (74 to be exact) in the Whitsundays. It’s kind of what it’s famous for, but did you know you can camp on some of them?!

Molle Islands National Park and Whitsunday Islands National Park both offer camping. However, this isn’t your “I’m going to take a shower after my nice flushing toilet experience”, this is bush camping at its wildest. Whatever you bring in goes with you on the way out.

There are a few companies that offer transfers – Scamper seems to be the most popular and they even provide the camping supplies (just in case you didn’t bring a camping stove in your suitcase). Just remember to stock up on water because this is a tropical paradise and it tends to be warm in the day.

Book your camp site on the Queensland Department of National Parks, Sport and Racing website.

Where to eat on the cheap (but still light up those taste buds)

We’ve got you covered here. Just take a look at 14 of the best Airlie Beach restaurants and cafes.

Best value of the bunch?

Little Vegas

Little Vegas Burger Bar | The complete backpackers' guide to The Whitsundays

Photo via Little Vegas Burger Bar via FB

Oh man, the burgers at Little Vegas are the Mike Tyson’s fists of food. They’re a knockout.

On top of the excellent burgerfication this places oozes swagger and style. The art on the walls makes you feel like you know something everyone else doesn’t and the food on the plate will make you feel wealthier than you are.

Burgers cost between $17-25 but if you’re feeling flush, order the ‘Steaktanic’ at $23: Sirloin Steak, triple cream brie, bacon, avocado, egg, rocket, caramelised onion, aioli and an onion ring topper. It’s everything you’ve ever wanted on a bun and more than enough calories for you to skip the next week of meals. Now that’s value.

Mr Bones

This happens all the time. You’re in Airlie Beach chillin’ and then someone says “Hey! I want a pizza so good it makes Italians yell “MAMA MIA!”, and I want a restaurant so cool it would make Gordon Ramsay say, “This is acceptable.” And I want it so reasonably priced that I won’t feel guilty for going there instead of eating instant noodles!.”

Just reply, “Cool, let’s go to Mr Bones.”

Prices range from $15-25 for pizzas depending on how many fancy things you want on them.

Fish D’Vine

Fish D'Vine | The complete backpackers' guide to The Whitsundays

Photo by Fish D’Vine via FB

Okay this Fish D’Vine is a bit pricey, seafood always is, but to make up for it the menu offers over 450 types of rum.

Yo-ho yo-ho a pirate’s life for meeeeeeeee!

When you’re planning a sailing trip on the Whitsundays (and you should be) nothing will get you in the seafaring, parlay inducing, pirate yo-ho-ho-ing mood than drinking rum.

Oh and the fish is pretty darn good, too. I mean if you like tender, flaky, perfectly cooked everything that is.

For a beer battered plate of delicious fish and chips it will cost about $20. Which is a bargain considering how much you will spend on rum.

Bah, too expensive!

You’re a backpacker, these extravagant meals should be twice weekly AT MOST! So where do you find some cheap food?

Woolies of course!

Woolies is Australian for Woolworths, which is Australian for ‘insert huge chain grocery store name here’.

If you are staying in Airlie Beach then you can walk to Woolies from just about anywhere and the prices are the same here as they are in any Woolies around Australia.

For a true blue Aussie experience…

Step 1: Buy some snags. (Sausages $7)

Step 2: Buy some bread. ($1)

Step 3: Buy some sauce. (Ketchup $2)

Step 4: Head to the free BBQs in front of the Airlie Beach Lagoon.

Step 5: Cook the snags.

Step 6: Call to your friends using this EXACT phrase: “Snags are ready mate! Come get ya tucka!”

Step 7: Clean the BBQ thoroughly.

The best part is that snags and bread are cheap as chips (not very much money), so if you are sick of instant noodles then this is the best ‘plan B’ ever.

That was cheap… but I don’t want to clean a BBQ

Go to Maccas (Australian for McDonalds).

Most of the hostels offer deals for backpackers as well. They change all the time but most of the meal deals come with a beer… so they’re pretty awesome.

What to do

When you’re in the Whitsundays you’ve got three options:

  • Go to the islands.
  • Go to the islands quickly.
  • Go to the islands and never come back ever, ever, ever, NO YOU CAN’T MAKE ME LEAVE!

Getting to the islands is easy. Go down to the reception of your hostel and say to them:

“I want islands and pristine beaches. Now!”

Bing, bam, boom, you’re on your way.

But in case you want to narrow it down… here are some recommendations.

Salty Dog Sea Kayaking

Salty Sea Dog Kayaking | The complete backpackers' guide to The Whitsundays

Photo via Salty Sea Dog Kayaking via FB

One of the tour guide’s names at Salty Dog Sea Kayaking is Lion.

If paddling around with the king of the jungle isn’t reason enough to go already (and it should be) then how about this…

They offer half-day tours, full-day tours and even six-day tours so that no matter what there is an option for you. No matter how much you love or hate physical exercise.

They’ll pick you up from your accommodation and you leave from Shute Harbour at 8:30am which is almost considered a sleep-in when you’re going offshore.

On the half-day tour Lion will take you snorkeling, sightseeing, feed you and give you more laughs than a comedy club and that’s all for just $80.

Ocean Rafting

Ocean Rafting | The ultimate backpackers' guide to The Whitsundays

Photo by Ocean Rafting via FB

Speed boats are awesome and Ocean Rafting has a bunch of them. If you’re tight for time and want to see a little bit of everything and still have to time chill out on Whitehaven Beach then this is your best bet.

Their Northern Exposure and Southern Lights tours give you two options. More beach time or more snorkeling. Grab the Northern Exposure if you want more snorkeling and if you want more beach time hit up the Southern Lights. Either way you cover a lot of ground (literally a guide national park walk) in a day which leaves more time to do even more stuff!

Awesome Whitsundays

Awesome Whitsundays has a catamaran that you can’t miss (seriously, it’s huge and purple). The Camira takes you to Whitehaven Beach quickly and quietly. Whitehaven Beach is in the world’s top 10 beaches and has sand so fine you might mistake it for powdered sugar.

If you only have one day to go sailing then a giant purple catamaran is just the ticket.

Whitsunday Jetski Tours

Jet-ski | The ultimate backpackers' guide to The Whitsundays

If you aren’t an early riser then why not book a trip with Whitsunday Jetski Tours. Afternoon trips start at 1:30 pm. Zzz…to BRAAAAAAAAAP! In no time flat!

Whitsunday Crocodile Safari

Tour through the Proserpine River with Whitsunday Crocodile Safari. You’ll notice that the huge Jurassic Park-looking lizards on the banks of the river are actually real. Good thing the tour guide knows more about crocodiles than the entire cast of Crocodile Dundee.

A BBQ lunch is included and then a tractor ride through the jungle to learn about the bush so that when you get back to Airlie Beach you’ll know exactly what scary animals are waiting for you on your next bush walk.

I’ve had enough reef and ocean…where the jungles and waterfalls at?!

Cedar Creek Falls

They be at Cedar Creek Falls. Head out of Airlie Beach towards Proserpine, along Shute Harbour Road and then take a left down Conway Beach Road and then drive about 7 km and you cant miss the turn.

Bring your towel and prepare to chill out in a natural rock amphitheatre with turtles. There are hikes here as well, which will take you to the top of the falls and some views of the hinterland.

If you’ve explored the waterfalls already and are nice and relaxed it’s time to get into gear and do the Whitsunday Great Walk – 30km of untouched jungle and views of the Whitsunday Islands that only National Geographic can beat. Conway National Park brings the ruckus!

Okay, maybe 30km is too much to ask… how about a 2km loop that gives you a view that can rival anything?

Cool! Honeyeater Lookout it is!

You can walk to it from Airlie Beach, just head up Lamond Street and continue to the top of Kara Crescent. It’s a steep walk but the lookout is Instagram heaven.

P.S. It’s where that huge 30km macho man trail ends anyway, so just pretend you did the whole thing.

Ain’t nobody got time fo dat! I need a job!

Working holidays are Queensland’s specialty. Check out the best towns for working holidays and you’ll find Airlie Beach on the list. Fruit farms, coffee plantations and if you have ever served drinks, worked on a boat or fried a fish there are plenty of options for you.

Check out the websites called Gumtree and Seek. They’re the best places to find someone advertising online… but word of mouth rules in Airlie Beach, so talk to the locals and let them know how awesome you can be!

Tip: Become a certified dive instructor (it’s easy right?) and then live the dream for the rest of your life. Seriously, just do it.

Hit the night hard and fast

The nightlife in Airlie Beach is hard to miss. There is one main street called Shute Harbor Road and well… let’s just say it isn’t quiet.

Mama Africa Bar and Niteclub is probably going to pop up in conversation at some point in your travels. It has a zebra striped dance floor for goodness sake. Remember when Mufasa told Simba to stay away from that shadowy place? Yeah this is that place. Mufasa was just being a responsible parent. Adult Simba would have loved it.

BOOM Nightclub is another winner. Electronic beats and super cheap drinks will keep you entertained until you realise you have to hop on a boat in two hours and you haven’t slept yet. Remember if you need to go on a boat a hangover is not your friend. Plan accordingly.

Most of the hostels give you deals at nighttime as well. Even if you just sit on the balcony and people watch.

Did we miss any hot tips? Let us know in the comments section below!