Sailing the Whitsundays

sailing around the whitsunday islandsLocated off Airlie Beach on Australia’s east coast, the Whitsunday Islands are a popular destination for travelers. Every backpacker who travels up the east coast takes a cruise through the Whitsunday islands. It’s one of those must-see activities. The tours typically last three days and two nights. However, since you leave midday the first day and return the morning of the third, it’s more like two days and two nights.

I went with a company called OzSail. Heading out on a cloudy Sunday, we boarded our boat, Freight Train. Freight Train’s an old boat. Built in the 1980s as a German racing boat, the boat is quite small. It fits 18 people in the berth plus three crew. If it was up to me, I would have picked a bigger boat. There’s nothing really wrong with the boat—if you want a typical “sailboat,” Freight Train is a fine good option. I just hate being on small boats. But you go where your friends are, and my friends were there. I took the boat because my friend Phil was on it. Turned out, my friend Caitlin and two Swedish girls I met in Noosa were also on it. Small world, huh?

sailing around the whitsunday islands

The Whitsunday Islands are beautiful, but I had the misfortune of visiting the islands during Queensland’s wet season. Except for a few hours of sun, the whole three days were filled with clouds and thunderstorms. Every time I was getting ready to get a tan, the rain came pouring down.

Because the boats leave midday on the first day, you only have enough time for one snorkel trip before you set anchor at night. Because of the weather and rain, the snorkeling wasn’t great. The water was murky, and there weren’t a lot of fish. But nothing could be done about that and we moved on, anchored up for the night, ate, and drank until…well, about 10 o’clock. A funny thing about being out on the water—your perception of time changes. After the sun goes down and you spend hours out on the deck, you begin to think it’s really late. “It must be like 1am!” someone would say. Nope, it’s 10pm and time for bed. It’s probably the only time backpackers go to bed that early.

sailing around the whitsunday islands

The second day was a lot better. We headed to the famous Whitehaven beach for a swim. Whitehaven is what you see on all the magazines and postcards of the Whitsundays. It’s a long, pure-white beach. It was beautiful until the rain came, spoiling the moment, and we headed back toward the boat. We sailed around for a bit to find a bay to stop and snorkel in. Because of the time of year, there were only a few places to go, and, according to our captain, the bay we stopped in might see only boats 10 days a year, making the fish and reef system a lot better. I opted to dive instead of snorkel. The coral was beautiful, we saw a lot of fish, and I found a turtle. That was really the highlight. We followed the turtle around for a while and then, realizing we needed to surface, waved it good bye and came to surface.

sailing around the whitsunday islands sunset

Sailing the Whitsundays is pretty straightforward. You can book direct with any of the big companies. However, the best way to save money is to book with a tourist office or hostel. You’ll end up saving a lot more money as they get better rates and deals. Everything on the boat is provided for you except snacks and alcohol. Make sure you stock up on them before you leave. Additionally, try to find a boat that leaves early on the first day or late on the third day so you get more time out on the islands.

I can only imagine how the islands would have looked if it’d been beautiful and sunny everyday. When the weather was nice, you could see the appeal of the place. Sailing on the water, stopping for a swim, exploring a few islands—it’s the perfect way to spend a few days. But I wouldn’t spend longer. While beautiful, there are more amazing places in Australia to visit. If you’re short on money and time, I would save both and head right up towards Cairns to do activities up there.

For more information on Australia, visit my guide to Australia travel.

Disclaimer: OzSail gave me the tour at the media rate of 50% off.

  1. Sofia

    wow, thanks for sharing this with us – that third picture is amazing.

    We never made it up that far last time we were in Australia – NEXT TIME we will make sure we do it!

    / Sofia

  2. what a great sunset shot! I visited (and loved) this area when i was living in Australia. I’ve always wanted to take my wife back there and explore it again with her.

  3. I LOVE the Whitsundays, not only did I spend a few days out on a boat trip (Apollo), I also spent some time as a Deck Hand (Coral Trekker) and had some amazing times. In fact my gravatar picture was actually taken at the Whitsundays!

    I highly recommend it to anybody that is travelling through Airlie Beach in Australia. If I didn’t have any other responsibilities or goals I could easily lose half my life sailing around that area.

  4. Brandy

    I loved the Whitsundays as well – I went for a three night/two day trip, and that extra night made all the difference. We got to go snorkeling/diving six times during the trip, which was great. I also lucked out because even though I went during the wet season (early February) we had gorgeous weather. It only rained once, and it was during the night.

  5. Pete

    Another excellent spot up in the Whitsundays is the Hook Island Wilderness Resort. I stayed there last summer for a week or so with my mom, dad, brother and sister. It is not a resort in the American sense, but it is a wonderful experience, and as a bonus is very inexpensive. There is excellent snorkeling right off the beach with a family of turtles living nearby. One of the top experiences of the visit was standing in ankle deep water as the tide came back in and seeing hundreds of small rays swimming around your ankle looking for fish. It is hard to describe how cool the place was, but I highly recommend anyone heading up that way should check it out.

  6. Sorry the weather was rubbish! What’s the full price of the trip?

    I’m headed off on a 22 hour cruise in the Bay of Islands next month, excited for some sun!

  7. Kathleen

    I can’t wait to go back to the Whitsundays.
    Sounds like you just managed to avoid the real bad weather up there.

  8. Yes, yes! The third pic from the top. I was just there about a week ago. The bush walk right? That view is priceless.

    We went down to Whitehaven beach just after that. We stayed on Hamilton Island. Highly recommended. Just watch out for all the buzzing golf carts!

    I will be doing an in-depth write up on our trip to the Whitsundays in the next week or two. I invite all of you over to read it and check out all the pictures.


  9. Neal

    Those pictures look fantastic and Excite us even more to go!

    The Girlfriend and I are going travelling along the east coast this September and are looking at stopping at Airlie Beach to do a 3 day cruise around the Whitsundays.

    A small question we both have is: Is there a place we can store luggage for over the 3 days before we board? Boats only seem to allow a standard sized bag with cruising essentials per person.

    Thank you kindly

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