The Whitsundays: Sailing Tour or Boat Charter to Explore the Islands?

The Whitsundays are an archipelago near the Great Barrier Reef. Pristine beaches, and clear warm water would be my picks to summarise this paradisiacal tropical destination quickly.

A weekend may be just a bit short to have a relaxing trip to the Whitsundays, although it can be done with a day trip option from Airlie Beach or a direct flight to Hamilton Island. A long weekend or a week would be better to explore this destination.


Sailing the Whitsundays

Sailing the Whitsunday Islands
Sailing the Whitsunday Islands on Habibi

My 2010 trip: a budget sailing tour around the Whitsundays

I went to the Whitsunday Islands in January 2010. I chose to explore the islands for three days and two nights on Habibi, a 75ft Ketch sailboat.

From Airlie Beach, there were many tours available with different budget / atmosphere options: fun & social for backpackers, romantic & intimate for couples… Apart from this, they all seemed to offer the same types of activities and places to visit (except for diving). I was young and travelling by myself, so I went for the backpacker option in 2010. I would love to make this trip again in another style: the Regional Queensland Tourism Office has published many videos that make me dream and give me a lot of ideas

The scenery during the sail was stunning and very relaxing. Unfortunately, we did not have enough wind to sail quietly and had to use the motor often to get to the spots and follow the tour schedule.


My 2017 trip: hiring a sailing boat with friends in the Whitsundays

Whitsundays Islands - sailing charter boat
Dream On, our charter boat

I said earlier I wanted to go back. It took me seven years to go back to Airlie Beach and hire a sailing boat with friends to explore the area at our own pace. We had our own schedule and some wind: we sailed non-stop and only used the motor to charge the batteries. Our boat, Dream On, was a monohull with three cabins. The perfect size for six adults (we were seven small adults). I loved being in a smaller group.

It felt like a real adventure to be able to go wherever we wanted, just with the power of the wind. We snorkelled, we fished, we hiked, and we sailed a lot. It wasn’t as flat as I remembered. We love sailing so we had a lot of fun, but I realised many people may actually prefer the tour option.

A boat charter is harder to organise than a tour: you need to have at least one person who can sail in the group (it’s a bit easier with a catamaran if you’re a novice). It’s not always easy to make decisions on the best spots where to stop. For the food, the easiest option is to order on the online specialised supermarket. As we landed in Mackay and then drove to Airlie Beach, we stopped at the 24-hour IGA which had more choice and was a bit cheaper.

A boat charter is relatively not more expensive than a tour: we paid $100 per person per night (food not included) whereas Habibi is $175-$200 per person (food included). The big difference is that we had to hire the boat for five nights (the minimum during this season), which makes the overall trip more expensive in the end.


Snorkelling in the Whitsundays

Whitsundays - Snorkeling
Whitsundays – Snorkelling

We had plenty of opportunities to go snorkelling in the clear and calm water. Although the water is warm, it is advised to were long suits to swim as there can be jellyfish in this area.

The first time I went, the tour boat took me to a spot with beautiful corals. The fish were used to see tourists: they came close to us and did not mind our presence at all. I was expecting the area to be all the same and was very surprised to see that many different types of corals by going from one spot to another with the boat. We were on the Great Barrier Reef, indeed.

We weren’t as lucky when we chartered a sailing boat. We found one good spot with amazing clamps and nice corals, but both the coral quality and the visibility on the other spots were average.


Whitehaven Beach and the Best Lookout of the Whitsundays

Whitsunday Island - Whitehaven Beach
Whitsunday Island – Whitehaven Beach

We had one stop on land to explore Whitehaven Beach, on Whitsunday Island. This 98% pure white sand beach with crystal clear water is the beach featured on all the brochures for the Whitsundays. More than 7km long, it is often listed among the most beautiful beaches in the world.

It was a great stop for swimming, but also an opportunity to do a short hike to get superb views of the islands and its surroundings. We went there early which was great to avoid the heat and the crowd.


On my first visit to the Whitsundays, the tour did not take me to the lookout on Whitehaven Bay. It’s surprising as it might be the best view of the Whitsundays. It’s for sure the most iconic that we see on all the tourist brochure. The contrasts of the clear water with the sand banks and the inlet between the mounts is breathtaking.


Whitsundays - whitehaven bay lookout inlet


Where are the Whitsundays?


The Whitsundays are in Queensland, on the Great Barrier Reef. Closest airports are Hamilton Island and Proserpine.




WHITSUNDAY ISLANDS sailing tour or boat charter 



I am a part-time traveler: I combine a full-time job with a passion for traveling. I love to share my trips and tips to inspire others to explore what’s around them. Before moving to Australia, I lived in France, England and Turkey. I’ve finally found my balance in Brisbane.

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