The Whitsundays are the most beautiful archipelago near the Great Barrier Reef. Pristine beaches and clear warm water; these few words summarise this paradisiacal tropical destination. Sailing is the best way to explore the Whitsunday Islands. But you will have to make a few choices for your Whitsundays sailing holidays. What is the best way to visit the Whitsundays? Boat hire or a sailing tour?
I have tried both. And both the Whitsundays boat hire option and the sailing tours were great. Read about my experiences and find out tips to plan your Whitsundays sailing holidays.
Interested in other fantastic sailing destinations in Australia? Check out this guide to chartering a bareboat in Australia!
How many days do you need for your Whitsundays sailing holidays?
A weekend may be just a bit too short to enjoy relaxing Whitsundays sailing holidays, although it can be done with a day trip sailing tour from Airlie Beach. A long weekend or a week would be better to explore the Whitsundays.
If your time is limited, joining a tour will probably be your best option to maximise your time sailing the Whitsundays. You’ll arrive ready to board: no shopping and no long briefing required! For our Whitsundays boat hire holidays, we spent four nights on board. It felt like less would have been too short. Keep in mind that bareboat charters require a long briefing and loading time before you are ready to start your sailing adventure.
Whitsundays sailing holidays with a budget sailing tour: my first experience in the Whitsundays
My first trip to the Whitsundays was in January 2010. I chose to explore the islands for three days and two nights by joining a sailing tour on Habibi, a 75ft Ketch sailboat.
Interested in joining a sailing tour in the Whitsundays? Check out these few options*!
From Airlie Beach, there were many sailing 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.
The scenery during the sail was stunning and very relaxing. Unfortunately, we did not have enough wind to sail quietly. As we had to follow the tour schedule, we needed the motor often.
My second sailing holiday in the Whitsundays: boat hire with friends
Since my first Whitsundays sailing holidays, I wanted to go back to explore it at my own pace by hiring a sailing boat for a few days. I made it happen in 2017 with Charter Yachts Australia, an Ecotourism Australia certified operator.
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. We could not hire a catamaran to sail the Whitsundays as we booked too late. Although sailing a monohull is a lot of fun, a catamaran is a better option if you want more space. It’s even more true if some people in the group are not used to sailing and may feel seasick.
It felt like a real sailing 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 and it can be a good idea to have seasickness tablets with you, just in case!
We love sailing, so we had a lot of fun. However, I realised many people might prefer the sailing tour option rather than self-sailing the Whitsundays.
Which one is the best to sail the Whitsundays: boat hire or a tour?
A Whitsundays bareboat charter is harder to organise than a tour
If you want to go self-sailing in the Whitsundays with a bareboat charter, 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, but you still need to know what you’re doing. It is not always easy to make decisions on the best spots where to stop. If you have no experience, it can become a stressful trip.
Food can also be hard to organise if you have limited time and cannot reach the destination in advance. The most convenient option is to order from a specialised online 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 Whitsundays boat hire is relatively not more expensive than a tour
We paid $100 per person per night (food not included) for our Whitsundays boat hire 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.
But by hiring a boat, we had our own cabins, and we were in a small group. If you want to match this level of intimacy, a tour will cost you a lot more in Australia.
A Whitsundays boat hire is more work than a tour
From my point of view, it means it is more fun. But if you are not into sailing, you may not agree! I loved participating in all the tasks that involved sailing our own boat in the Whitsundays. It often means the itinerary is not optimised and there are some challenges. It is part of the fun of sailing! But if you want to relax and stick to a smooth adventure, a tour would probably suit you better.
What to do during your Whitsundays sailing holidays?
If you join a sailing tour, the itinerary will be decided in advance, and your skipper may use the motors the entire time to stick to the plan if there is no wind. With a Whitsundays boat hire option, you will be free to decide where you want to go, as long as you do not reach the open sea. Although we had a look at itineraries before leaving, we made plans on the way according to the wind. We found it more fun to avoid using the motor!
Snorkelling in the Whitsundays
We had plenty of opportunities to go snorkelling in the clear and calm water. Although the water is warm, it is advised to wear 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 seeing 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 hired a sailing boat for my second time there. There was one good spot with amazing clamps and beautiful corals, but both the coral quality and the visibility in the other places were average. It could have been due to the recent cyclone that hit the archipelago just before we arrived.
Whitehaven Beach and the best lookout of the Whitsundays
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 an excellent stop for swimming, but also an opportunity to do a short hike to get superb views of the islands and their 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, Hill Inlet lookout. It is surprising as it might be the best view of the Whitsundays. It’s for sure the most iconic image that we see on all the tourist brochures. The contrasts of the clear water with the sandbanks and the inlet between the mounts are breathtaking.
Where to stay in Airlie Beach before your Whitsundays sailing holidays?
One of the great things about planning sailing holidays is that there is no need to worry too much about accommodation. But it is likely that you will need to spend one night in Airlie Beach before boarding your vessel. Most activities in the Whitsundays leave from Airlie Beach so it is recommended to book in advance during the peak season if you want to have a good range of choices.
For my two trips, I spent one night at Nomads*, which had every time the cheapest deals for a dorm or a double room. But there are hundreds of accommodations available for all ranges of budgets in Airlie Beach (click here to see availabilities*).
Where are the Whitsundays?
Sometimes, it is less expensive to fly to Mackay and hire a car or catch a bus. It can be a good opportunity to explore the Mackay region for one or two days – I loved it!
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