Hill Inlet at Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia
Coral Brunner/Shutterstock.com

Can you Drive to the Whitsundays?

By Dianne Titos | Published on 16 November 2022

The Whitsundays is a stunning coastal district on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef. Its pristine sandy beaches, thriving coral reefs and tropical temperatures make it an idyllic getaway.

You can drive to the Whitsundays Coast but as there's no bridge across to the Whitsunday Islands most people take a passenger ferry from Airlie. You can also charter a private boat or catch a flight to get to the Whitsunday Islands.

This amazing part of the Queensland coast, between Brisbane and Cairns, is just an hour's ferry ride from the mainland. With crystal clear water and plenty of luxury resorts, the islands themselves feel like the ultimate tropical island getaway.

Can you drive to the Whitsundays?

The Whitsunday Islands are located in the beautiful Coral Sea, around 50 km off the coast of Queensland.

You can drive to the Whitsundays district on the mainland, but there are no bridges between the mainland and the Whitsunday Islands. In fact, visitors aren't allowed to take cars with them to the islands, so be prepared to park up in Airlie Beach and hop onto a passenger ferry.

There are regular sailings throughout the day and ferries depart all year round, so once you've arrived at Airlie Beach it's easy to complete your journey across the water.

Beautiful sunset on the Whitsundays, Australia
Arriving to the Whitsundays by sailboat is the perfect way to start your escape to paradise.
Jodie Mason/Shutterstock.com

How to drive to the Whitsundays from mainland Australia

Table comparing routes from Port of Airlie to the Whitsundays
Departure PointArrival PortModeDistanceCrossing Time
Port of AirlieDaydream IslandPassenger ferry10 km30 minutes
Shute HarbourHamilton IslandPassenger ferry18 km20 minutes
Port of AirlieHamilton IslandPassenger ferry25 km1 hour
BrisbaneHamilton IslandAirplane1,110 km1 hour 30 minutes

Most people drive to the Whitsundays from Brisbane or Cairns. It's a pretty straightforward drive from either city - just hop on to the A1 Bruce Highway and follow it all the way to Proserpine, then follow the road to the ferry port at Airlie Beach.

If you're travelling from Cairns the journey is a road trip in itself. There are countless stunning beaches and rainforest hikes at Wooroonooran National Park. If you've got the time in Townsville, you can even drive your car onto a ferry to see the glistening bays of Magnetic Island.

Behana Falls, Wooroonooran National Park,Tropical North Queensland, Australia
From Cairns a hike en route at Behana Falls, Wooroonooran National Park, is a great way to kick off your vacation, before heading onto the Whitsundays for rest and relaxation.

From here you can take a passenger ferry or a private boat across the water to the Whitsunday Islands. The Cruise Whitsundays passenger ferry runs up to 9 crossings per day, all year round, to Hamilton Island, which is the main entry point for the islands.

There's also the option to take a ferry to Daydream Island, but this is reserved for overnight guests at the Daydream Island Resort.

The Cruise Whitsunday ferries are an affordable, comfortable option - sit back and get a quick drink in the air-conditioned bar as you make the crossing. Alternatively you can opt for a private charter which will take you direct to other islands if you'd prefer some flexibility.

If time is limited, you might prefer to take a flight from Brisbane or Sydney to Hamilton Island. These routes operate daily flights all year round, but as you might expect there are more departures during the popular summer months.

There are big differences in cost depending on how you travel, which you'll need to factor in when you're planning your trip.

Comparison of the ticket prices to reach the Whitsundays
Port of AirlieHamilton IslandPassenger FerryCruise Whitsundays$61.90
Port of AirlieDaydream IslandPassenger FerryCruise Whitsundays$40
Shute HarbourHamilton IslandPassenger FerryCruise Whitsundays$61.90
BrisbaneHamilton IslandAirplaneVirgin Australia$267
BrisbaneHamilton IslandAirplaneQantas$407

*Price calculated at the time of writing, for 1 adult, based on a round trip

How long does it take to drive to the Whitsundays?

To get to Airlie Beach on the Queensland mainland it takes 7 hours 40 minutes of driving to complete the 620 km journey from Cairns. Alternatively, if you're starting in Brisbane to the south you should allow up to 13 hours to make the 1,110 km trip.

Once you've reached Airlie Beach you'll also have to factor in time for onward transportation. The passenger ferry from Airlie Beach takes just over an hour.

You can't take your car on the ferry to the Whitsunday Islands, so you'll need to park up in Airlie Beach. If you're just going for a day trip, limited parking is available at Port of Airlie for $15 a day, but if you're staying for longer head to Airlie Beach Lagoon Car Park.

Travel times to the Whitsundays from major cities in Australia
Starting PointPortDistanceTravel Time
CairnsPort of Airlie620 km7 hours 20 minutes
BrisbaneShute Harbour1,230 km12 hours 40 minutes
SydneyShute Harbour1,920 km20 hours 50 minutes
MelbourneShute Harbour2,420 km26 hours
AdelaidePort of Airlie2,540 km27 hours

Of course, for the quickest journey you could take the plane from Brisbane and save the 13-hour drive, but then you'd miss out on seeing the stunning coastline along the way. This is a route where a road trip definitely pays off.

Which port should you arrive at on the Whitsundays?

The passenger ferry from Port of Airlie arrives at Hamilton Island, one of the most popular destinations in the Whitsundays for visitors. From here you can arrange onward transport if you want to visit more of the islands. Planes also land on Hamilton Island.

For the greatest flexibility to hop between islands and enjoy the many beautiful beaches on offer, a private charter boat will give you a tour around some of the different islands, and the great thing is that your itinerary can be tailored to your group's needs.

Cockatoos having a great vacation! at Hamilton Island
Take in the stunning view of Hamilton Island along with the local cockatoos. The landscapes really are mesmerizing.
PILSEUNG NAMGUNG/Shutterstock.com

Things you need to know about driving to the Whitsundays

Once you've decided how you're getting to the Whitsundays, it's a pretty simple trip, but seeing as most people head to the islands to relax, here are our top travel tips to help avoid any last-minute glitches that might get in the way of that vibe.

Here are our top tips when it comes to preparing for a drive to the Whitsundays

  • We'd recommend booking the ferry in advance as spaces fill up quickly during the peak summer season. This also gets you a reduced ticket price for the Cruise Whitsundays ferry.
  • The best parking options are Airlie Beach Lagoon, Abbell Point Marina and Port of Airlie.
  • You can't take luggage with you on board the Cruise Whitsundays ferry - you'll have to store any large bags at Port of Airlie. For transfers to Daydream Resorts, it's limited to one 27kg bag.
  • There are hotels on Hamilton Island but book early to avoid disappointment. There are no campgrounds on the island so a hotel stay is your best option if you're planning on staying overnight.
  • Bring swimwear, beach towels, sunscreen and comfy shoes for walking. The terrain on the islands can vary.
  • If travelling from October to May there's an increased risk of marine stingers so wear stinger suits.
  • The Whitsundays has a tropical climate, meaning scorching summers, mild winters, and beautiful spring and autumn days.
  • Even in winter temperatures are around 22C. December and January are peak summer months with temperatures reaching 30C.
  • The wet season is from January to March when tropical showers may hamper your day.

Things to see once you reach the Whitsundays

The pristine beaches are the main attraction at the Whitsunday Islands, but there are other ways to keep busy too.

  1. Catseye Beach - While you won't be short of beaches, Catseye Beach is a particularly idyllic spot to head to. Hire snorkel equipment to see reefs and turtles.
  2. Passage Peak - There are many hiking trails on the island, but as a start, hike up Passage Peak to get stunning views of the blue water and the Whitsunday Islands. You're best to make the walk in comfy shoes rather than beach wear.
  3. Hideaway Bay - Follow a scenic trail to this hidden beach where you can relax next to the serene waters facing Whitsunday Island.
  4. Great Barrier Reef - Hamilton Island is the epicentre of the world-famous reef. Join a guided boat tour to get all the key information or take a helicopter to see the reef from a different perspective.
  5. Reefsuites - Departing from Hamilton Island, Cruise Whitsundays offer overnight stays in Reefsuites. The underwater rooms have floor to ceiling windows so you can watch the reef as you sit back and relax.
Wonderful and beautiful underwater world with corals and tropical fish, Great Barrier Reef, Australia
The renowned underwater world of the Great Barrier Reef is a destination not to be missed.
The Len/Shutterstock.com

The Whitsundays are a stunning destination that's easy to get to even though you can't drive all the way there. Whether you make the ferry trip part of the adventure or upgrade to a fabulous private boat tour to travel from the mainland, you just have to sit back and enjoy the stunning island views to complete the journey.