Local knowledge is the key to enjoying this north Queensland paradise without hordes of other holidaymakers.
It's barely two hours away by plane and you've probably already visited once ... but chances are you barely scratched the surface of what there is to see and do in Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands.
There's much more to the region than Hamilton and Hayman islands and Airlie Beach's backpacker-friendly man-made lagoon. You can be sunning yourself on the region's beaches before you'd have cleared cross-town traffic on your way to the office. But the beaches on which you lose yourself don't have to be ones in the tourist brochures: how about trying Airlie Beach's secret sandy bays where only locals know to go? When you make it out to the islands, why not choose one of the most spectacular of the 74 Whitsunday Islands, staying at a five-star resort that costs the price of a two-star resort? And don't just bring your swimmers; throw in your hiking boots, too. Airlie Beach has some of the best walking (and mountain bike) tracks in north Queensland. There are many ways to lose the crowds on a quick getaway to the Airlie Beach and Whitsundays only seen by locals.
You've arrived at Proserpine airport; now's the time to see the real Airlie beaches. Take the turn-off from the Bruce Highway, but turn left before you get to Airlie Beach, following the signs to Dingo Beach and Hydeaway Bay (40 kilometres north of Airlie). The biggest misconception about Airlie Beach is in its name – visitors arrive expecting to find an idyllic beach, only to discover Airlie's main town beach is muddy at low tide and has none of the silky white sand you'll find in the Whitsunday Islands.
But some of far north Queensland's prettiest beaches can be found just north of Airlie, along with rustic seaside bars and restaurants. Drive beside rugged coastal ranges until you reach the turn to Hydeaway Bay, then follow the signs to Montes Reef Resort. Here you'll find the best beach in the area – it's an all-tide sandy beach that looks north along the Queensland coast to Bowen and across to uninhabited Gloucester Island. In winter and spring, whales breach just off the shore. Once a secret haven for yachties, Montes Reef Resort is Airlie Beach locals' favourite lunch spot. The seafood is fresh and there's live music on weekends – all metres from the Coral Sea, a perfect introduction to the region.
After lunch, spend some time soaking up the sun and swimming before walking a few hundred metres up the beach to little-known Cape Gloucester Beach Resort. It has a rustic open-air dining area and bar that faces north to the township of Bowen. Get back in your car and drive a few minutes to Dingo Beach. Stop at the town's iconic watering hole, Dingo Beach Hotel, where you can listen to live music out under the palm trees with the locals. There's fringing reef just offshore here perfect for snorkelling, while you can also hire a boat or kayak (the fishing here is legendary). Drive to Airlie Beach and spend two nights with the best views of the Whitsunday Islands – One Oceanview has five luxury suites set in secluded coastal bushland overlooking the ocean.
Enjoy a cooked breakfast among kookaburras at One Oceanview, before putting on your hiking boots to discover Airlie Beach's best-kept secret. Few know Airlie Beach offers some of north Queensland's best bush walks and mountain biking – all just a few kilometres from town.
Fringed by Conway State Forest, it is possible to find your own bush seclusion just a few blocks from Airlie Beach's main street. The Airlie Creek track winds up a hill behind Airlie Beach – it is only 850 metres long but it leads hikers past huge fig trees and rare local trees such as the Whitsunday Bottle Tree to natural rock pools, with stunning views over the Whitsundays along the way. You can also access the eight-kilometre-return Honeyeater walk, which takes hikers uphill to the heart of the rainforest.
But it's at Brandy Creek that you'll find the best forest trails. Hire a taxi and take the turn-off 10 kilometres west of Airlie Beach (at Brandy Creek Road) and drive along a deserted dirt track where trees form a cathedral above your car as you climb high into the Conway Range. At the end of the road, you'll find three walk options, the most stunning of which is the 30-kilometre Whitsunday Great Walk, which winds through lowland tropical rainforest, lush palm valleys and open woodland. You will have sweeping views of the Coral Sea and the islands of the Whitsundays and will finish your walk just above Airlie Beach, where you can walk easily to town and your accommodation.
If you would prefer to drive (and walk a shorter distance), there is also the two-kilometre-return Kingfisher Circuit and the seven-kilometre-return Wompoo Walk, which follows old logging roads to rocky creeks among a valley of Alexandra palms. The track is also open to mountain bikes, offering some of the state's best mountain bike terrain, with everything here to suit every level of rider.
Going to Airlie Beach without heading out to the Whitsunday Islands is like visiting Egypt without seeing the pyramids - but here's how you can avoid any crowds. It is also a unique way to stay on one of the most picturesque Whitsunday Islands in five-star surroundings for two-star prices. Peppers Palm Bay Resort was once one of the Whitsundays' best luxury resorts – with deluxe rooms costing $860 a night – then the resort closed its doors in January 2011 after a tourism downturn caused by the global financial crisis and a cyclone.
These days, Palm Bay Resort operates with few of the five-star frills, but still looks like a high-end island retreat. Take a water taxi from Shute Harbour to Long Island Resort located in a secluded private bay. It's strictly BYO at Palm Bay Resort, so be sure to organise a takeaway box of seafood treats from Fish D'vine in Airlie Beach to take with you:, or you can take your own provisions and cook in the resort's well-equipped kitchen (there are basic provisions available on the island, and alcohol).
Palm Bay Resort offers visitors a "glamping" experience in a five-star environment – it's the only place in Australia you can have this type of experience. There are more than 13 kilometres of walking tracks that take you through national park on Long Island and on to secluded beaches. At night, there are few distractions but the stars against the palm trees.
Sleep late, then take a kayak (they're free of charge) from your resort for a paddle around the bay - you're guaranteed to see turtles. Spend your morning with a book enjoying your surroundings. The Balinese-inspired deluxe rooms face out across a perfect blue-water bay fringed by white sand and coconut trees. I see humpback whales breach from my queen-sized bed and again from the hammock that stretches across my private balcony.
Book a therapist to come to the resort for an indulgent massage or facial before a swim in the resort's swimming pool, set within the tropical gardens of the resort. There are many secluded bays on Long Island to discover, all accessible by walking track. Take a picnic with you and spend the rest of your day finding the most isolated bay.
Take a water taxi back to Shute Harbour, then spend your final day discovering more of Airlie Beach's secrets. Another of its best beaches is right under the noses of unsuspecting visitors. Turn right as you drive through Cannonvale from Airlie Beach at Beach Road. Cannonvale is where most of Airlie Beach's locals reside (visitors generally drive straight on through in their rush to Airlie Beach) and Cannonvale Beach is their secret retreat away from the hustle and bustle of town.
This long sandy beach faces north and looks out across the northernmost Whitsunday Islands. The wreck of majestic tall-ship Whitsunday Magic sits just offshore and at low tide you can walk across to tiny uninhabited islands. There's also a botanical garden beside the beach and one of the area's best new cafes, Fat Frog Beach Cafe. It serves locally sourced breakfast dishes and lunch overlooking the beach and is such a favourite with locals that it offers a separate menu for locals' dogs.
Then take a slow walk to town along the Bicentennial Walkway, which takes you on a boardwalk just beside the ocean past secluded bays such as Shingley Beach, which are ideal for swimming, and through Abell Point Marina. The marina now has two of Airlie Beach's best entertainment and dining options. Great new restaurant Barcelona Tapas Bar & Cafe looks out across yachts and motorboats in the marina. However, for the best water views in Airlie Beach, with the best sundowner vibe, nothing beats Sorrento Restaurant & Bar at the end of the marina, which looks directly out to the Whitsundays. Reopened last July, this is where locals salute the sunset.
Take a water taxi to Palm Bay Resort from Shute Harbour, see islandtransfers.com.
Stay in a luxury suite with full breakfast overlooking the Whitsundays from $355 a night at One Oceanview, see oneoceanview.com.au.
Stay in a beachfront villa from $190 a night or a suite from $300 a night on Long Island at Palm Bay Resort, see palmbayresort.com.au.
Eat where the locals do lunch at the best Airlie beaches at Montes Reef Resort, see montesreefresort.com.au, Cape Gloucester Resort, see capeg.com.au and Dingo Beach Hotel, see dingobeachhotel.com.au.
Order a seafood takeaway pack from Fish D'vine to take to Palm Bay Resort, see fishdvine.com.au.
Try breakfast or lunch with the locals at the Fat Frog Cafe, see facebook.com/fatfrogcafe, or Barcelona Tapas Bar & Cafe, see barcelonatapas.com.au, or Sorrento Restaurant & Bar, see sorrentowhitsunday.com.
The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Whitsundays.