We faced a conundrum. How do we visit one of the most popular tourist destinations in Australia, while avoiding the crowds and on a tight budget? Last year 885,000 people chose to holiday in the Whitsundays, three-quarters of them from Australia. Tourism & Events Queensland report that The Whitsundays was the most affected region by Tropical Cyclone Debbie in March 2017, but 18 months later domestic overnight visitation has surpassed pre-cyclone levels and reached record highs.

Despite the Whitsundays comprising 74 islands, you’ll find most people on Hamilton, Daydream, Long and Hayman Island, and Airlie Beach on the mainland.

We headed to Airlie as it was cheaper than the islands and a good base for our planned activities. It certainly attracts the budget traveller; the main street is lined with backpacker hostels and bars, but there is accommodation for all requirements.

You can get to Airlie by either flying into Prosperpine and getting a transfer (the airport is about 45 mins out of Airlie) or flying into Hamilton Island and getting the ferry. We chose the latter because it also gave us the opportunity to see some of the other islands during the hour trip.

It is obvious Airlie Beach exists for tourists and is recovering well from the cyclone. The Airlie Beach lagoon, in the centre of town beside the bay, is a big drawcard. It’s enormous and includes a kids’ play area and lap lanes. Providing the resort pool experience for free, it offers plenty of places to lounge around and it’s only a few steps from the shops and restaurants.

Airlie Beach lagoon

We stayed in Airlie Guest House because we could walk to town and the lagoon, but be far enough away from the bustle. This purpose-built guesthouse offers rooms with private facilities, a shared, fully-equipped kitchen (continental breakfast included), and shared living space and deck with lovely views over the town and harbour. The owner, Mick, also offers a tour desk, and when we asked how to get out to the islands without the crowds, he recommended Salty Dog Sea Kayaking.

Just a note here: if you have your heart set on diving amid hundreds of brightly coloured fish and walls of coral, you will need to get on a big boat and head to the outer reef. The cyclone destroyed much of the coral closer to shore, and around the popular islands.

But if the idea of gliding quietly over incredibly clear, azure water to an isolated island with only a few other people appeals to you, then Salty Dog might have the trip for you. Their tours range from half a day to six days, and there really is something special about being in, rather than on, the water and going slow enough to appreciate wildlife such as turtles and sea eagles.

We were still on a quest to see some coral though, so the next day we hired a car and drove 40 minutes north to Bowen.

If you like taking photos with big things, Bowen has a big mango on the highway (10 metres high), and a mini mango in town (6 metres high). The Festival of Mangoes happens in November. You can also check out the pub famous for its role in the movie Australia (except they pretended it was in Darwin) and the 27 murals throughout the town.

But really you go to Bowen for the beaches. There are eight, so crowds are not really an issue, although parking at Horseshoe Bay can be a challenge; its popularity stems from the ability to swim among the fish and coral very close to the beach, plus a cafe.

All the beaches are extremely picturesque though, most are protected by granite outcrops, and many have picnic areas so you can’t really go wrong. It really depends on which way the wind is blowing. You’ll get a true tropical island experience without leaving the mainland.

There are also some great bushwalks between the beaches and up to headlands that offer beautiful views over The Whitsundays.

Expert opinion varies as to whether the reef will ever regain its former beauty, but The Whitsundays region still holds a lot of natural beauty, and is definitely worth a visit regardless of your tolerance for crowds and the depth of your pockets.

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