Whitsunday Wandering: Cairns to Airlie Beach travel guide

Take your time journeying between Queensland’s northern capital and the gateway to the Whitsundays to discover the best of the tropics. And it’s not all about the beaches.


A diver exploring an open cathedral-like structure in the ocean, MOUA, John Brewer Reef, North Queensland

You’ll definitely notice a change. Between Cairns and Townsville, the landscape is lush and green. This is the tropics as we all imagine it. (See our Cairns to Townsville Travel Guide to find out more excellent places to visit on the way.) But further south, it dries out a little. It might not be quite as scenic, but there’s plenty to do and see. This is the land of sugar cane and, when you get to Bowen, mangoes. If you were to attempt it in a single day, you could certainly do it, but you’d be robbing yourself. Not only are there so many places to stop and explore, but there’s often few people around, which means you could be the only ones duck diving in a remote swimming hole or walking along a pristine beach.


buildings on a country town streetscape, Yungaburra, North Queensland

Most people drive down the coastline. Instead, be a road-trip rebel and follow the Gillies Highway towards the Atherton Tableland and the town of Yungaburra, which has remained largely unchanged since 1910. Visit the huge fig tree with its curtain of roots and be sure to stop at the platypus viewing area, where the cute residents usually make appearances around dawn and dusk.


  1. Once you’ve seen it you’ll wonder no more about how Walshs Pyramid got its name. It erupts from the forest in the northern reaches of Wooroonooran National Park, and has the same shape as those ancient Egyptian burial structures. You can sit back and enjoy the epic views of the valley from the top, although it is a steep climb to get there (go early in the morning and take plenty of water). It’s close to Babinda Boulders, too, in case you need to cool off.

  2. From the coastal town of Lucinda, catch a charter vessel to Hinchinbrook Island, one of the country’s largest island national parks. Hikers love its multi-day Thorsborne Trail trek, but opt for the day-trip drop-off at Zoe Bay. There’s a long, mostly deserted beach, plus you can conquer the steep hike to take you to the top of Zoe Falls with its incredible natural infinity pools.

  3. Want to see sculptures used to create an artificial reef? The Museum of Underwater Art launched in the year 2000 at John Brewer Reef, about two hours off Townsville. You can explore Jason DeCaire Taylor’s work, Coral Greenhouse, which spreads a conservation message, either by snorkelling or diving with one of the local operators.

  4. Stop to have your photograph taken with the Big Mango, but stay in Bowen to enjoy its laidback lifestyle and beautiful beaches. Grab some lunch (locals recommend Jochheim’s Pies) then head to Horseshoe Bay for a picnic. When you’re done its protected waters are home to a small reef and underwater sculpture park.

  5. Airlie Beach is the gateway to the Whitsundays, so be sure to see some of its highlights in a day trip. Sailing Whitsundays has a variety of tours on catamarans, sailing vessels and ocean rafts that visit Whitehaven Beach and other small islands, and give guests time to snorkel and explore.


Chambers Wildlife Rainforest Lodges

In the Crater Lakes district near Yungaburra is Chambers Wildlife Rainforest Lodges. It has 10 one-bedroom villas and a five-bedroom lodge set in almost 500 hectares of rainforest. Enjoy the pool and the rainforest walking path that takes you to the platypus ponds. At night, until 11pm, a viewing platform is illuminated so you watch the possums, bandicoots, sugar gliders and other nocturnal wildlife.

Hinchinbrook Marine Cove Resort

If you’re planning a day trip to Hinchinbrook, you’ll need to get an early start and Lucinda’s Hinchinbrook Marine Cove Resort, with its bungalows and waterfront motel units, is on the harbour from where the charter leaves.


Lots of the accommodation options in Airlie Beach are set high on a hill, but Magnums is right in the heart of town, close to everything. Rooms range from well-priced cabins to budget-friendly doubles with shared bathrooms.


Women standing in front of a huge fig tree with strangler roots, Yungaburra, North Queensland

There’s nothing easier than booking your Apex car rental before you leave then picking it up at Cairns Airport once you have collected your bags. The distance between Cairns and Airlie Beach is 620 kilometres along the Bruce Highway. You could finish the trip in about 10 hours with just rest stops, but take five or six days and venture off the main road to explore some of the smaller towns as well as national parks.


Aerial view of boats in ocean waterways near a town on the shores, Agnes Water, Town of 1770, Queensland

OK, just how committed are you to this road trip? Another 700 kilometres south – you’ll pass through Mackay, Rockhampton and Gladstone – are the twin towns of Agnes Water and Town of 1770. They’re at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, yet Agnes Water is the northernmost surfing beach in Queensland. Perfect for nature lovers, this is a largely undiscovered patch of perfection.