Let me guess… the time you have to visit Australia is short. Maybe two or three weeks tops. There is so much to see in Australia. So how do you prioritize which places to visit?
Visiting the Great Barrier Reef and Whitsundays is undoubtedly one of the must-visit places on most people’s bucket list. But given it is so far away from the big cities, like Sydney and Melbourne, makes it a little trickier to get there.
Well, good news. It is entirely possible to see this beautiful part of Australia in less than 24 hours. Yup, that’s right. With a little strategic planning, you can tick the Great Barrier Reef off your bucket list in less than 24 hours!
Earlier this year, I made this exact same trip with a friend who was visiting from London. She had a pretty packed itinerary during her three-week visit to Australia. Having seen amazing photos of Whitehaven Beach on Instagram, she naturally could not come to Australia without visiting the Whitsundays and Great Barrier Reef. So, she turned to me, a local Aussie, to help her plan the perfect 24 hour trip to the Whitsundays!
HOW TO GET THERE
First things first, if you only have a short amount of time in the Whitsundays, you need to plan your trip well! We decided to base ourselves on Hamilton Island as it is the closest inhabited island to Whitehaven Beach that has an operating resort
Note: Whitehaven Beach itself is located on Whitsunday Island which makes up part of the Whitsundays National Park and is completely uninhabited. It’s possible to camp on Whitsunday Island, but it is illegal to camp on Whitehaven Beach itself.
There is an airport located on Hamilton Island with daily flights operating from Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne. We booked flights with Virgin Australia which arrived around 2:30 pm and departed at 3:00 pm the next day. Perfect for a 24-hour getaway. Be sure to book your flights to Hamilton Island and not to Whitsunday Coast Airport (Airlie Beach), as it’s located on the mainland and getting a bus to Airlie Beach and then boat transfer from here will add an extra 3-4 hours onto your trip.
SPEND THE AFTERNOON EXPLORING HAMILTON ISLAND
Hamilton Island itself is an idyllic Australian island paradise. It’s been a favorite holiday spot for Aussie families for years, and there are even many residents that live on the island year-round. The island was ravaged by a fierce cyclone in 2017, leaving much of the island in ruins. But nearly two years on, Hamilton Island has been restored to its former glory and is a beautiful place to visit once again.
The airport is located very close to the resorts. After checking into your hotel, get out an explore the island. Or alternatively, lie by the pool or relax on the beach. The island is small enough to walk around, and free shuttle buses are available to get you from A to B. A fun way to explore the island on your own, however, is to hire a golf buggy for 24 hours. Hamilton Island has over 20 restaurants, cafes, and bars, and offers free non-motorized water sports for all guests.
ENJOY SUNSET AT ONE TREE HILL
One Tree Hill is a well-known and popular sunset spot in the Whitsundays. The spectacular sunsets also draw a crowd. I recommend getting there early if you want a prime viewing spot.
There is a bar at One Tree Hill with a fantastic view serving cocktails, Frośe, and craft beers. It’s really lovely to have a drink here, but we found many people buy their own drinks from the local Bottle-O (Aussie slang for Bottle Shop) and found a picnic spot on the grassy hill.
GET UP EARLY FOR A SUNRISE HIKE
We had good intentions of getting up early to hike up to the highest peak on the island for sunrise. But unfortunately, we were so tired it didn’t happen. I have actually done this hike on a previous trip, however, and I can assure you it is not for the faint-hearted. But if you’re up for the challenge, the reward of seeing the sunrise over the Whitsundays is well worth it. It takes approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes each way so you will have to set off early to catch the sunrise.
TAKE A HELICOPTER TOUR TO THE GREAT BARRIER REEF AND WHITEHAVEN BEACH
One of the highlights of our trip and the real reason we made an effort to visit Hamilton Island and the Whitsundays, was to see the Great Barrier Reef from the air. While it is possible to do a boat cruise to the Great Barrier Reef, there are many reasons why I would recommend a helicopter tour instead:
1) Firstly, the boat tour takes much longer so if you do opt for the boat, you will probably have to spend an extra night on the island.
2) The boat is rather large and transports masses of tourists to the reef pontoon daily. Once you get there, you are not going to have your own little patch of reef paradise to snorkel around, and you’ll have to battle with hundreds of other tourists, all the while taking blows to the face, as many people on these tours don’t seem to know how to use flippers.
3) The boat ride to the Outer Reef is also long and can get very rough. If you’re prone to seasickness at all, this is not the trip for you.
4) Despite how beautiful the reef may look from the air, the Great Barrier Reef has been subjected to a lot of damage over the years due to climate change and human interference. Unfortunately, it is not as spectacular from under the water as most of the coral has turned white from sun bleaching.
On the contrary, seeing the Great Barrier Reef from the air was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. We booked our helicopter experience through Hamilton Island Air and opted for the Heart Reef and Whitehaven Beach Stopover tour. Making the same journey in a seaplane is possible. You can also add on a snorkeling experience at ReefWorld if you have your heart set on snorkeling on the reef.
Our tour was booked for 11:30 am, so after checking out of our hotel, we drove our golf buggy over to the airport. After a quick safety briefing and some photos, we boarded the helicopter and took off to the south, looping around over Hamilton Island before heading north towards the Great Barrier Reef. Fortunately, we managed to pick the most epic day for the weather with clear skies and excellent visibility.
The helicopter took us out over some of the most fantastic reef formations I’ve ever seen. I’ve previously visited the Great Barrier Reef from a dive boat but seeing it from the air is a whole other level of epicness.
Our pilot was very professional and knowledgeable in all the different reef formations, and we even managed to see some reef sharks and turtles from the air. We then headed south following the reef along to the iconic Heart Reef formation. This is the photo that you see in all the Great Barrier Reef advertising campaigns and given its popularity we had to circle and wait for another chopper to finish their flight before we could move on it. Our pilot descended quite low and circled a few times to make sure we got some decent photos. I was quite surprised at how small the reef formation was. It would have been no larger than a few meters wide.
After the Heart Reef, the helicopter then climbed and turned back towards Whitehaven Beach. We circled Hill Inlet to get more photos and then descended down towards the beach and landed on a stretch of white sand without another person to be seen! Our pilot set up an umbrella and a picnic of fruit, cheese, crackers, and sparkling wine while we took photos in the stunning white sand and turquoise blue water.
After an hour, we hopped back in the helicopter for the short ten-minute flight back to Hamilton Island. In all, the tour took around one hour and a half.
We arrived back at Hamilton Island with just over an hour to spare before our departing flight and given we were already at the airport, this was plenty of time to check-in and return our golf buggy before we had to board. Hamilton Island Airport is tiny and quick to get through security, so we had no problems at all. Check-in usually closes 30 minutes before the flight departs.
IF YOU HAVE MORE TIME TO SPEND ON HAMILTON ISLAND
If you have more time, I would highly recommend spending at least three nights on Hamilton Island, to explore what the island has to offer.
Some of the things we missed that we would have loved to experience if we had more time where; sailing, stand-up paddle boarding, yoga, snorkeling, jet skiing, spending more time at the beach or pool and trying more of the creations on the cocktail menu. I think I’ll definitely have to go back someday soon!
We hope that this article has inspired you to visit the Whitsundays. If you have any questions about the destination please leave these in the comments below.
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Our Top Places To Stay In Whitsundays, Australia
- Beach Club
- Reef View Hotel
- Palm Bungalows
- Find the best price on hotels in Hamilton Island, Australia
- Sign up to AirBnB with this link and receive a US $35 off your first booking
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