Guide | Airlie Beach
If you're starting in Cairns and working your way down, Airlie Beach is the first truly beautiful seaside town you'll likely hit. Known as a gateway to the famous Whitsunday Islands and Great Barrier Reef, Airlie is popular with Australians and backpackers alike. It caters to a diverse group of both the rich and famous who frequent the upscale restaurants and luxurious Abell Point Marina, as well as to backpackers who eat at the cheap pubs and also frequent the marina, albeit with a stern warning to keep it down and not make a mess with their bags of wine as they leave for the Whitsundays. I knew I was in a place I liked when a group of my (slightly...) inebriated friends and I came across a stand on the street offering free COLD water to partiers as they passed by and well-wishes for a safe night of fun. But whether you're the kind of person who's personally touched by cold water or you're just along for the ride, there are tons of things to do in Airlie Beach. Keep on reading for some of our favorite Airlie Beach activities.
Before you get to all the fun things to do in Airlie Beach, you'll need a place to sleep. We stayed at Nomads which shares a joint campus with Base. These are two massive chains of hostels throughout Australia, so you'll become quite familiar with them as you travel. The hostels have one huge complex with dorm rooms, camping facilities, and two pools. Overall it was decent. The location is good and it's right on Main Street. The rooms were clean, ours had two showers, and things weren't too noisy. The kitchen was pretty gross and you have to pay a deposit of $5-10 for a set of cutlery and plates, which is always annoying considering its usually dirty and you have to keep track of everything until you check out. There were two pools but only one was open while we were there. There's also a cute spot called the Shed Bar in the middle of the property that would be a nice place to meet people, but it was closed every night of the week but Sunday, of all times. Very strange.
The main competition in terms of hostels is Magnums, which is bungalow style. It's just down the street from Nomads and Base on Main Street. We heard good things from most of our friends who stayed there. Namely that the showers are good, which matters a lot!! The hostel has a decent bar downstairs which opens to the street so it has more than just backpackers. That's always good. The downside is they have a pretty annoying ID policy, so bring your passport and try not to lose it.
In Airlie Beach
Airlie Beach Lagoon
I've already written about Northern Queensland's love affair with man-made lagoons as a way to make up for the hordes of deadly jellyfish and saltwater crocodiles that make swimming in the ocean a seriously bad idea. In many of the northern stretches of Queensland you'll find jellies, or stingers as they're called Down Under, throughout the summer months when the waters are particularly warm. In Airlie the season lasts roughly from December to March, meaning its best to avoid the water altogether. Crocodiles are a bit more unpredictable, but one was spotted at Airlie Beach as recently as November 2016. Authorities largely rely on reporting from those who have seen them and then post signs warning those in the area. That means one can never be too sure. Now the scariness of all that for someone who isn't Australian and doesn't face uncertain death from deadly animals on a regular basis aside, there's a bright side. The town has built a lovely saltwater lagoon for everyone. This is great year-round because even when the ocean is safe, the beach in Airlie is relatively small. On a nice day, which is most days during summer on this part of the coast, you'll find everyone in town hanging out around the lagoon and swimming.
If you've got the cash to splash, Main Street is the place to be for shopping in Airlie Beach. Granted, these are mostly beach apparel shops but hey, you are at the beach. If you're in the market for new swimwear or want to buy your mom some new beach-related trinkets, this is the place for you. Don't expect anything too extensive, but it's good for what it is and a nice place to spend an afternoon browsing.
Food & Drink
Airlie is mostly shops and restaurants so if you're tired of the sun, or more accurately actually being poisoned by it, head to Main Street and browse some of the many food options. If you're coming down from Cairns you'll likely be deprived of any decent places to eat and tired of cooking for yourself already, so this is good news. Expect lots of seafood, but there's a decent assortment of really anything you'd like. We fell in love with a cute little place called The Deck with moderately priced food and great atmosphere close to the water. So in love, in fact, that we went there three times in the week we spent. If you stop by, try the vegetarian housemade linguini with roast pumpkin. Otherwise the waterfront, or rather lagoon front, has some decent places if you're looking for a romantic dinner in Airlie Beach. Or more likely for some place to eat and pretend you're fancy for an evening.
Nightlife in Airlie is pretty crazy. There are a decent amount of options for such a small town and at night Main Street comes alive with backpackers and tourists out for a drink, or twelve. It's easy to walk from place to place and there's a variety of music--mostly pop, house, and some R&B. Don't feel like you'll be pushed to drink too much though. We had one big night out but kept it low key most of the week. Be warned: the cheap drinks will make you reconsider. Maybe it's just being used to cities like Melbourne, Sydney, and New York, but Far North Queensland is a great place to drink on the cheap.
Outside Airlie Beach
While the town itself is nice for relaxing, most people pass through Airlie for more adventurous activities. Number one on this list is sailing the Whitsunday Islands. The group of 74 islands are protected as part of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, so they're more pristine than most other places you'll find on the globe. Most of the islands are uninhabited national parks and full of dense rainforest with hiking trails and beautiful sandy beaches. Four of the islands are home to world-class resorts. The vast majority of travelers visit the islands through sailing excursions which typically span from one to three days and leave from the marina daily.
There are countless boats to choose from, but we went with True Blue Sailing's infamous Atlantic Clipper. It's basically known as the largest, craziest boat sailing the Whitsundays. While our time on the boat was kind of a party, it was actually more respectable than I expected. The crew was fantastic and they made sure we all enjoyed the trip to the fullest. We spent three days at sea drinking and hanging out at night, sleeping on the boat in little cabins, and getting up at 6 to make the most of the days. I can't think of many experiences I've had that compare to being in the water snorkeling at 7am in the rain in the middle of the ocean. Regardless of which boat you choose to go with--and there are many that fit all styles--the Whitsundays are a must-see for anyone on the east coast. You only need to Google Whitehaven Beach to see what I mean. It's consistently ranked one of the best beaches in the world with 98% pure silica sand that's higher than anywhere else on Earth, and you can only get to it by boat.
You can also access the Great Barrier Reef from Airlie. We left from Cairns, which is more popular, but the Reef spans thousands of kilometers down the coast and is in close proximity to the Whitsunday Islands. Not to mention several outer reefs that also allow for great snorkeling and diving. Another popular activity is skydiving, although this can be found just about anywhere in Australia. It all depends on what you have planned elsewhere, but we found that the sailing cruise and some R&R were just what we needed while there.
If you're headed to Airlie Beach, expect a beautiful resort town where life is slow and there's not much to do but tan, eat, and shop. It's a haven for backpackers and high-budget tourists alike, so there's sure to be something for everyone's budget. If you find yourself in town, absolutely don't miss out on the Whitsunday Islands. Everything else is just a nice bonus.
Heading down the coast? Check out our complete itinerary!