How to See the Whitsundays & Great Barrier Reef (even on a budget!)

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Great Barrier Reef Australia Whitsundays

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Inside: The Whitsundays are the perfect home base for exploring the Great Barrier Reef, whether at a luxury resort or a more budget-friendly option. Here’s how to visit no matter what your budget.

And so we come to the final continent on this 7-continent trip around the world…Australia! More specifically, the Whitsundays and the Great Barrier Reef.

I started out with a very loose plan for this stop on the itinerary.

In fact, in a rare display of spontaneity, I didn’t firm up a hotel until just a few days before I arrived – unusual for an obsessive planner like myself.

The first thing I learned about the Great Barrier Reef area is that there are a lot of options for where to stay. There’s a reason it’s not called the “small barrier reef” or the “medium-sized barrier reef .”

Stretching more than 1,600 miles along the coast of Queensland, Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system. Composed of more than 2,600 individual reefs and more than 900 islands, the reef is the only world wonder that can be seen from outer space. And in 1981 UNESCO designated it as a World Heritage Site.

The Great Barrier Reef region is served by several airports ranging from Cairns in the north to Hamilton Island in the south. The two most popular destinations for visiting the reef are Cairns or the Whitsunday Islands.

The Whitsundays Beaches

Where to stay to visit the Great Barrier Reef?

The first step was deciding which area I wanted to visit so that I could book flights from Sydney to the best possible airport.

Ultimately, I couldn’t resist the draw of the Whitsunday Islands near the southern end of the reef.

I was first introduced to the Whitsundays by alert RTWin30days reader and friend, Suzan, who has traveled there twice. She had pictures of swirling white sand blending lazily with clear blue waters surrounded by lush green peaks. They were firmly imprinted in my mind from the first time I saw them.

You don’t forget photos like that.

The Whitsundays flights Australia
The swirls of Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays

So, I booked my flights into Hamilton Island and figured I’d sort out exactly where to stay when it got a little closer.

Unfortunately, I excel in the procrastination department. As a result, I didn’t seriously begin looking for a hotel until I arrived in Phuket last week.

Read More: Packed in Phuket: A Lesson in What Not to Do for Chinese New Year

Where to Stay – Whitsundays Resorts

The Whitsundays are well known for lavish, expensive resorts.

However, I wanted something more low-key and less expensive. I wanted to spend my budget focusing on the many amazing excursions and day trips available around the reef.

Hamilton Island Whitsundays Australia
Hamilton Island, Whitsundays

How to See the Great Barrier Reef

The Whitsundays are about two hours by boat from the actual reef and there are two primary ways to see it:

  1. Full-day cruises with Cruise Whitsundays for snorkeling and diving on the reef.
  2. Scenic flights with Air Whitsundays or one of many helicopter companies to fly over it.

I hoped to do both so finding reasonable accommodation was key.

An affordable Whitsundays Resort

After diligent research, I chose the Palm Bay Resort. Located on its own postcard-perfect tropical island (Long Island), the Palm Bay Resort seemed like the perfect place to base for a few days of sun and fun. 

The resort offers all of the modern conveniences on a gorgeous island. But it’s a more casual and budget-friendly option than the other (mostly 5-star) resorts in the area. 

But then, a luxurious surprise…

Just after I decided to spend all 5 of my nights at Palm Bay, fate intervened.

In the form of an offer I simply couldn’t refuse.

I was invited to experience the ultra-luxurious Hayman Island Resort (since re-opened as the InterContinental Hayman Island Resort) for my last two nights in the islands.

It was the perfect opportunity to get a taste of both sides of the accommodation coin in the Whitsundays, so I gratefully accepted.

The Rainy Season in the Whitsundays

The thing about traveling around the world in a month (give or take) is that you’ll invariably hit some destinations during their less desirable seasons.

Alas, I have arrived here in the Whitsundays in February, the heart of the rainy season. In fact, just a few weeks ago, a fairly serious cyclone blew through causing quite a bit of damage to local beaches.

True to seasonal form it is raining steadily when my flight touches down on Hamilton Island. The Palm Bay Resort had arranged my transfer from Hamilton to Long Island and after a short walk to the ferry, I’m on my way.

Cruise Whitsundays Ferry
The primary mode of transportation around the Whitsundays, the Cruise Whitsundays Ferry

How to Get Around the Whitsundays

Transportation around the Whitsunday Islands is largely provided by ferries operated by Cruise Whitsundays. Each inter-island trip runs $45 so if you plan to island-hop a lot it can add up quickly.

However, if you book day trips with Cruise Whitsundays, the transfers to and from your island of choice are included in the price of the ticket.

After a short ferry ride to cheerful but wet Long Island, I check into my lovely beachfront room at the Palm Island Resort. Then I set about making plans for tomorrow.

Beachfront Room Palm Bay Resort Whitsundays
My beachfront room at the Palm Bay Resort

I mean, who cares if it’s raining?

I’m here to see the Great Barrier Reef which is, conveniently, underwater.

Do fish care that it’s raining? Certainly not. And neither do I.

Take that, cyclone season.

I arrange to join the full-day Great Barrier Reef tour with Cruise Whitsundays for tomorrow. The ferry back to Hamilton Island to join the tour leaves bright and early at 7:20am.

Diving the Great Barrier Reef

The next morning, I’m up early to grab breakfast before boarding the ferry.

It’s a 40-minute trip back to Hamilton Island to pick up more passengers. Then we change to a larger boat for the 2-hour ride out to the reef.

For obvious reasons, there are no structures built on or near the Great Barrier Reef. So tourism to the area relies on a system of large pontoons anchored just off the reef in a variety of spots.

Exploring Hardy Reef

Today, we’re visiting the pontoon on Hardy Reef known as Reef World. The pontoon is outfitted with a complete dive and snorkel operation, lounge chairs, and an underwater viewing observatory.

There’s even a submarine to give guests who don’t want to get wet a chance to see the reef up close.

Hardy Reef Pontoon Great Barrier Reef
The Hardy Reef Pontoon, Great Barrier Reef

Almost everything is included with the price of my ticket (morning/afternoon tea, lunch, snorkel gear, etc.).

I also have the option to purchase extras like a dive or a helicopter flight over the reef. On the 2-hour ride to the pontoon, the crew makes good use of the time to sign people up for these popular extras.

I’m not a certified diver, but I did a “resort dive” last summer in Honduras and really enjoyed it. So, a dive on the Great Barrier Reef is definitely something on my Bucket List.

Read More: Roatan, Honduras: Dolphins, Diving & Underwater Dating Dilemmas

It’s only an extra $100 so I can’t pass it up. I mean, how often do you get the chance to dive the Great Barrier Reef?

We arrive at the pontoon a little before 11:00am after a fairly rough ride from Hamilton. I’m scheduled in the first group of divers, so as soon as we arrive I head straight to the dive area to gear up and get instructions.

Diving the Great Barrier Reef

Since I’m not a certified diver, this is still considered a “resort dive” and I will have an instructor with me the whole time. Thank goodness, rumor has it there are sharks.

Diving the Great Barrier Reef
Diving the Great Barrier Reef

The dive is incredible and I have to pinch myself to believe that little ole rookie diver, me, is actually diving the Great Barrier Reef.

How awesome is that?

We see tons of fish but no sharks (which is just how I like my dives). And before I know it, it’s time to head back to the surface.

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef

After the dive, I switch over to snorkeling for the rest of the afternoon which is equally fabulous. It’s incredible how much there is to see just inches from the water’s surface. And unlike my last snorkeling adventure in the Galapagos, I get through the day with no shark sightings.

Read More: How to See the Galapagos Islands on a Budget

There are fish in every color of the rainbow, brilliant coral and giant clams the size of a suitcase. It’s spectacular.

great barrier reef snorkeling
A giant clam – The Great Barrier Reef

When I finally came in from the water, I strip off my wetsuit. Though the water’s warm, you have to wear a wetsuit this time of year because it’s box jellyfish season,

Next, I visit the pontoon’s underwater observatory and take a spin around in the submarine. Both are equally enjoyable ways to view the reef but not quite as much fun as actually being in the water.

A rough ride

By 3:00pm, we begin the journey back across the open sea to the Whitsundays. This time, it’s a pretty rough ride. The crew makes the rounds handing out seasick bags and they get quite a lot of use.

Thankfully, I feel fine because as previously discussed I am now seasick-bulletproof thanks to the Drake Passage on the way to Antarctica. And today I learn that I’m still good even when someone else is hurling 3-feet away from me.

Read More: Expedition Antarctica: Why it’s Worth Every Penny

After a quick stop in Hamilton to drop off passengers and change boats I’m on my way back to lovely Long Island. It was a terrific day out on the reef and a perfect start to my stay in the Whitsundays.

The Rainy Season – Part 2

The next day turns out to be mostly a washout. The rain continues most of the day and I take advantage of the downtime to rest and relax. After all, I have been time-zone-hopping for nearly two months now.

Wallaby Long Island Resort Whitsundays
Wallaby, Long Island, Whitsundays

That afternoon the weather clears long enough for some pool time and a walk along the beach. I also get to meet a few of the island’s resident wallabies during my walk.

Despite the weather, I really enjoyed my time on Long Island. Palm Bay is not a fancy resort. But the rates are extraordinarily reasonable, the staff is friendly and my room was clean, stylish and comfortable.

I would absolutely recommend it for those looking to visit the Whitsundays without spending a fortune. There aren’t many budget options in the area but the Palm Bay Resort on Long Island is a solid choice.

Heavenly Hayman Island Resort

Today, it’s time to make the transfer out to the InterContinental Hayman Island Resort.

I again board the 7:20am ferry from Long Island to the Hamilton Island airport. There, one of Hayman’s three yachts is waiting to transport me to the resort.

I quickly discover that the Hayman experience begins the minute you step onto their boat at the airport. As I’m ushered onto the luxury yacht, my luggage is whisked away and instantly replaced with a glass of champagne (a good trade any way you look at it).

Hayman Island Whitsundays Australia
Sipping champagne on the Hayman yacht

I then meet Captain Bill, a Hayman veteran who’s been living on the island for more than 40 years. After chatting with the charming Bill for a few minutes, I doubt there is a better island ambassador anywhere in the world.

In fact, I briefly wonder if he pulls double-duty as the mayor.

Hayman Island is the farthest north of the Whitsundays and it takes just under an hour to reach by boat. Of course, once you get a look at that boat and have a glass of champagne in your hand you’ll wish it took longer.

We arrive at the Hayman jetty and are welcomed by smiling staff members. I completed the check-in process on the boat, so I board a waiting golf cart and am taken straight to my “Retreat.” Yes, it’s just as divine as it sounds.

Pool Hayman Island Whitsundays
The gorgeous pool at Hayman

Tucked into a lush garden area just steps from the beach, my room features hardwood floors, plush furnishings, and a bathroom with an indoor/outdoor shower. I just love an outdoor shower, so naturally decadent.

The resort also has a number of other room types including Beach Villas and even Swim-Up rooms! So many wonderful options to choose from.

Intercontinental Hayman Island Australia
Hayman Island Swim-Up Rooms

A private island escape in the Whitsundays

My plan for the afternoon is what Hayman calls an “Island Escapade.”

In a nutshell, they drop you off with a chair, umbrella, and snorkel gear on either nearby Langford Island or Blue Pearl Bay. Both are quiet, private stretches of sand where you can snorkel, relax, and enjoy the scenic beauty of the Whitsundays – all by your little self.

Langford Island Whitsundays Australia
Langford Island – all mine for the afternoon!

I choose Langford Island and the watersports staff quickly outfits me with everything I’ll need for my afternoon. This includes vinegar in case of an unlikely jellyfish sting and a cell phone for emergencies.

Then, I’m dropped off on the perfectly uninhabited sandy shore known as Langford Island. Aside from one other family who arrived by private sailboat, I have the island all to myself.

Is this for real?

We arrange for a pick-up two hours later. And I set up my lounge chair and umbrella and settle in on my island. My private beach gets even more exclusive when the sailboat family leaves a bit later.

Now I truly am on my own private island for the rest of the afternoon.

Langford Island Whitsundays Australia
View of Hayman Island from my own private island

I snorkel, read a good book, and bask in the glorious sunshine which now commands a blue sky for the first time since I arrived three days ago.

This just might be heaven.

Booking a flight over the Great Barrier Reef

I arrive back on Hayman Island later this afternoon completely relaxed. I’m really starting to get into the Whitsundays’ spirit and I’m determined to firm up a scenic flight for my last full day here.

Unfortunately, I discover that if there is one drawback to the remoteness of Hayman it’s the lack of flight options servicing the island.

Unlike the other islands – Hamilton, Daydream, and Long Island – which are serviced by regular ferries, Hayman is only accessible by their own private boats. This limits my flight options a bit because only Air Whitsundays and one helicopter company service the island.

Since I waited so late to book something due to the weather, all of the Air Whitsundays seaplane flights are fully booked. That leaves the more expensive, yet definitely more exciting helicopter option.

For once in my life, I’m fully prepared to throw some money at the problem. Unfortunately, the helicopter flights require a minimum of two passengers and I’m just one.

Hayman Island Whitsundays Australia
Hayman Island’s Beach

Luckily, there is one other guest interested in doing a flight and looking to pair up with someone. I coordinate with him and get the flight over the Great Barrier Reef and Whitehaven Beach booked for tomorrow.

Satisfied that I have a good plan in place for my final day, I retire to the pool to become one with a lounge chair for the rest of the afternoon.

A tour of the Hayman Island Resort

The next morning I sleep in and awake completely rested for the first time in weeks.

My flight is scheduled for 1:30pm, so I have lots of time left to explore the island. First, I grab breakfast at the resort’s waterfront restaurant. Then, I walk the seaside trails down to the marina to check out the giant grouper fish named “Jacko” who makes his home there.

Later, I tour of the resort with Sales Manager, Fiona, to see some of the other types of rooms. These include the fabulous Beach Villas with private pools and the striking two-bedroom Diane von Furstenberg suite.

Beach villa Hayman Island Whitsundays Australia
Now THIS is a hotel room! A Beach villa at Hayman.

I also get to meet Hayman’s resident lovebirds, swans Barry and Elizabeth and their adorable baby swan “Boom.”

The Whitsundays from the Air

After my tour, it’s time to head over to the helicopter pad for my flight over the reef. Miraculously, the helicopter company managed to find yet another solo passenger to fill the third seat.

Our pilot Mitchell gives a brief safety presentation. Then we strap in and lift off Hayman Island into a brilliant cloudless sky. I simply cannot believe my luck after so much rain earlier this week.

The flight takes an hour and we start by heading out across the open ocean toward the reef. Fifteen minutes later the coral outline of the Great Barrier Reef begins to come into view. I instantly realize that seeing the reef from above is truly the only way to properly appreciate its grandeur.

Great Barrier Reef Australia
Views over the Great Barrier Reef

We start over Hardy Reef and it’s incredible to see the tiny pontoon below that I dived from just a few days ago. We work our way along the reef hovering close to the water and spotting sharks, rays, and turtles from the air.

Hardy Reef Great Barrier Reef
Flying over the Hardy Pontoon

Heart Reef

Within minutes we reach the Great Barrier Reef’s most photographed spot, Heart Reef.

A perfectly heart-shaped coral formation, Heart Reef seems almost impossible to believe.

Heart Reef Great Barrier Reef Australia
Heart Reef, Great Barrier Reef

I’m in awe of the size of the reef yet I know I’m just seeing a tiny portion of it.

Hill Inlet & Whitehaven Beach

From there we cross back over the open ocean on our way to the Whitsundays’ most famous swirl of sand and sea, Hill Inlet and Whitehaven Beach.

As we approach Whitsunday Island, I get my first glimpse of Hill Inlet. My first thought is that it is even more beautiful than all the glossy professional photos I’ve seen. How often does that happen?

Whitehaven Beach Hill Inlet Whitsundays Australia

We take several passes over the silica shores of Whitehaven beach and the windswept cove of Hill Inlet. It is absolutely spectacular.

There are also several companies offering boat trips to Whitehaven Beach. If only I had enough time for that!

Yes, the flight was expensive, but at that moment it is worth every last dollar.

As beautiful as the Great Barrier Reef and the Whitsundays are, they are immeasurably more impressive from the air.

I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. This is travel heaven. Without a doubt, it’s one of my top 30 most extraordinary travel experiences around the world.

Here are 29 more if you’re curious: Around the World in 30 Extraordinary Travel Experiences

On the way back we fly over the nooks and crannies of Hook Island and circle all the way around Hayman to appreciate its beauty from every angle.

I land back on Hayman feeling like I’ve finally seen the Whitsundays and I couldn’t be happier. All the fuss to arrange the helicopter flight was totally worth it.

I spend the rest of the day relaxing by Hayman’s gorgeous pool. Later, I walk the beach with a glass of wine as the sun sets thinking just how lucky I am to be here. It’s been a flawless two days in paradise.

There’s something very unique and special about Hayman Island. The rooms are luxurious and the service is attentive, yet unobtrusive. It’s the kind of place you dream of as a honeymoon destination or a quiet place to write a novel.

Leaving the Whitsundays

Sadly, the next morning it’s time to leave. But I feel completely renewed by my few days on the island.

I thoroughly enjoyed my week in the Whitsundays and I honestly can’t believe I didn’t visit sooner. I sincerely doubt there is any better way to experience the Great Barrier Reef than with a stay in the Whitsunday Islands.

Now it’s time to throw on a few more layers for my next and final stop on this year’s Round the World trip – Aspen, Colorado!

Read More: Aspen Colorado: Confessions of an Aspiring Ski Bunny

Disclosure: Discounted accommodation provided by the Palm Bay Resort, two nights’ accommodation provided by Hayman Island Resort and complimentary Great Barrier Reef day trip provided by Cruise Whitsundays.