Queensland's Best Beaches: Port Douglas and the Whitsundays

Australian reef from above

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If you're traveling to Queensland, Australia, you’ll likely want to explore the gorgeous coastline. With its sparkling blue water, magical white sand, and access to the Great Barrier Reef, the ocean is definitely one of the region's biggest attractions.

Two of the best beaches in Queensland are Port Douglas and the Whitsundays, which are eight hours apart by car. Unfortunately, this means that unless you're planning a long road trip, you'll have to pick one or the other for your trip to Australia.

When it comes down to it, the Whitsundays is more convenient when coming from big cities like Brisbane and is definitely more scenic, but Port Douglas has the most direct access to the Great Barrier Reef and has more options for dining and accommodations.

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Aerial of sweet water river at Whitsunday Island
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The Whitsundays isn’t actually one destination—it’s a cluster of 74 islands of different shapes and sizes off the Queensland coast. From budget backpackers to ritzy resorts and cozy campgrounds, you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to accommodation. It’s about deciding what kind of holiday you want: romance, adventure, relaxation, fun, cheap, once-in-a-lifetime. It’s all here.

Airlie Beach is the launching pad to the Whitsundays and is a 185-mile drive south of Townsville. You can fly here directly to the local airport, Proserpine, from Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, or via connecting flights from other parts of Australia; airlines like Virgin Blue and Jetstar have regular routes. Alternatively, if you’re really keen on a road trip during your Australia adventure, Whitsundays is about 680 miles north of Brisbane by car.

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Whitsundays: What to Do

Hamilton Island Harbor, Hamilton Island, Whitsunday Coast, Queensland, Australia
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Although most of the activities in the Whitsundays involve getting wet or at least being out on the water, there are adventurous options that’ll keep you mostly dry as well.

The Whitsunday Crocodile Safari will get you up-close and personal with the snappy reptiles along with native and migratory birds and a host of freshwater marine animals that call the Proserpine River home. Also, you can show off your driving skills behind the wheel of a mini four-wheel drive at the Wings Adventure Park, but this activity could end up with you covered in mud.

Additionally, you can spend the day at Bredl’s Wild Farm, which is terrific for the kids and gives guests an opportunity to get up close and personal with koalas. However, Bredl's Wild Farm only allows 20 people to handle the koalas per day, which gives you close contact with both the animals and staff but also makes it harder to book a visit during your trip.

Book an Island Getaway

To really emerge yourself in the Whitsundays and leave your stress at home, take a look at stunning Hamilton Island, which has a domestic airport with direct flights from major cities along the east coast and accommodations that will astound you including palm bungalows, holiday homes, villas, and private hideaways.

Hamilton Island is a perfect getaway for those wanting some time out from their busy schedules. This is likely why the busiest woman in show business, Taylor Swift, opted for Hamilton Island as her location of choice to celebrate her birthday—and give her band and crew some recharge time—during her tour of Australia.

If an island getaway is on your bucket list, you can also look at hotels on nearby Daydream Island, Hayman Island, and Palm Bay Long Island. While you can’t stay there, we would be remiss not to mention the spectacular Heart Island, the brilliant little heart-shaped dot in the Great Barrier Reef that you see all over the world on postcards and tourism ads.

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Whitsundays: Best Activity

Whitehaven Beach on the east coast, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia
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To put yourself in the picture of Australia’s most photographed beach, the Whitsundays will need to be top of the list—more specifically, Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island.

The idyllic combination of the turquoise water and the purest white sand you’ve ever squished between your toes will assure you that you’re on holiday. The sand is super fine, with a high amount of silica so it doesn’t get hot and isn’t as prone to sticking in places you’d rather it didn’t.

Then, if you want to escape into nature, book a campsite for a night of starry wonder at one of the nearby parks. Just remember: photos are all you can take away with you. Whitehaven Beach has a World Heritage Listing, which means it’s illegal to take any sand. So, snap away and print a picture when you get home to remember your magical day.

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Port Douglas

sunset at port douglas
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When it comes to North Queensland, Port Douglas is about as far north as tourists will venture. Situated around 45 miles north of Cairns (or about a two-hour flight north of Brisbane), this beach resort town is nestled between the famous Great Barrier Reef and Daintree National Park. You’ll really feel like you’ve landed on another, visually spectacular planet when you arrive here.

You’ll need to fly to Cairns from one of the major cities on the east coast (there are also semi-regular services from Darwin and remote areas), and from Cairns, Port Douglas is just a 40-minute drive, and if you feel like taking the scenic route, it’s a 1,050-mile journey from Brisbane overall.

Although Port Douglas is known for its luxury beachside resorts, you’ll also find a range of budget stays, along with holiday rentals that are ideal for families or group getaways. 

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Port Douglas: What to Do

beach in port douglas
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When it comes to the best the great outdoors has to offer, you’re spoiled for choice in Port Douglas. You can start the day watching the sun rise over the Coral Sea and then carry on exploring the coastline, which stretches on for more than 125 miles.

If you don’t feel like heading to the beach just yet, head west for a rainforest tour. The World Heritage Listed Daintree National Park is close enough for a day trip, but it’s also worth spending a night or two here if you can afford the time. The best way to see all ​its glory—complete with 800 different rainforest trees, flowering plants, animals, waterfalls, and rugged mountains—is by hopping on board the Kuranda Scenic Railway.

Of course, if you don’t want to do much exploring at all, that’s perfectly fine as well. Port Douglas is world renowned for its beautiful beach resorts, which are so luxurious and well appointed, you really don’t have to leave after checking in (and checking out from day-to-day life!). Port Douglas is also a popular jumping-off point for tours to the Great Barrier Reef, which depart from the iconic Reef Marina.

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06 of 08

Port Douglas: Best Activity

Aerial of Low Isles, Great Barrier Reef.

You should definitely spend a day exploring the Great Barrier Reef while you’re so close to this incredible natural wonder. It may seem to be stating the obvious, but you could leave kicking yourself if you don’t dedicate at least one day to knocking this beauty off your bucket list.

You won’t believe how, just meters from your comfy bed, an ocean is teeming with thousands of different types of marine life and the most breathtaking coral and plant life on the planet. You can choose from scuba diving or snorkeling, day trips or extended luxury cruises, with activities and adventures to suit all fitness and skill levels.

For tangible memories you can reflect on when you return home, it may be worth investing in an underwater camera, as this World Heritage Site needs to be left untouched—so there will be no opportunities to pop a piece of coral in your beach bag to take home with you!

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Which Is Best: Whitsundays or Port Douglas

Australian beach
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After singing the praises of both of these beautiful locations, it’s difficult to decide which one reigns supreme. Both destinations have so much going for them, but when it comes to selecting the all-around great North Queensland holiday that will generate memories to last a lifetime, Port Douglas really does have it all. 

Port Douglas is not just a resort town; it’s also the gateway to the incredible Great Barrier Reef, and it's also sandwiched between two World Heritage sites. Make sure you plan to spend at least five days in this sensational part of Australia, so you have the opportunity to properly see the reef and explore the local villages. Whether you’re planning a romantic holiday, a family vacation, a solo adventure or a trip with friends, you’re sure to enjoy Port Douglas!

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Stinger Season: November to May

When traveling to tropical North Queensland, be sure to consider stinger season. From November to May every year, jellyfish are prevalent in water off the mainland and around the islands. The irukandji jellyfish in particular can be quite deadly, so you'll need to read up on ways to protect yourself if you are planning a vacation during these months.

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