Picture perfect ... Airlie Beach has become more upmarket.

Picture perfect ... Airlie Beach has become more upmarket. Photo: Getty Images

Magical waters and delicious tucker - the backpackers are learning to share, writes Lee Atkinson.

Why go?

Most people use Airlie Beach, between Mackay and Townsville, as a base to explore the Whitsundays, 74 islands in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef. It's picture-postcard stuff: think swaying palm trees and white sandy beaches, uninhabited islands, warm azure waters teeming with tropical fish and coral and you've got the idea.

What it's known for

The Whitsundays are a sailor's paradise, with a number of sailing tours, including bareboat charters (DIY skipper), based at Airlie Beach - most head out to Whitehaven Beach, a popular contender for having the world's whitest sands (the detail's in scientific analysis, but it is gorgeous). Until recently, Airlie Beach was backpacker central, known for its budget accommodation and an all-night party vibe. There are still plenty of cheap and cheerful options, but in the past couple of years Airlie Beach has smartened up and now has a range of more upmarket places to eat and stay.

What you didn't know

It can be difficult to tear yourself away from the magical water and beautiful islands, but the hinterland has some magnificent rainforest to explore. A highlight is swimming in the crystal-clear cool water below Cedar Creek Falls at the edge of Conway National Park, where a 12-metre-high waterfall cascades into a beautiful plunge pool and long-necked turtles poke their heads above the surface to check you out as they float by. In the heart of town, the newly-opened 850-metre Airlie Creek walking track takes you through the rainforest to a hilltop lookout. If you're lucky, you might get a glimpse of the endangered Proserpine rock wallaby along the way.

What's new

Traditional tall ship the Derwent Hunter has been sailing the Whitsundays for 20 years on three-day trips, but it's now offering day trips from Airlie Beach. Cruising the northern bays of the Whitsundays, it's an off-the-beaten-track trip, away from the crowds that head to Whitehaven Beach, to places you normally don't see on a day tour. The full-day trip includes lunch and has a bar on board, snorkelling off private reef moorings and a guided eco-walk on a sand cay. You can get involved in the heaving, hauling and hoisting that comes with tall-ship sailing, or just swan around as deck candy. $175 a person. tallshipadventures.com.au

Don't miss

One of the best things about Airlie Beach is that you don't have to go far, or spend any money, to get wet in style. Between the palm-fringed beach and the main street you'll find a massive man-made lagoon where you can swim stinger-free all year round. There are lifeguards on duty during daylight hours, a kids' pool and the surrounding parkland has lots of shade and free barbecues. It's just like having your own five-star resort pool, but it's free.

Where to eat

The hottest place to get a bite to eat and a beverage in Airlie Beach is the new Denman Cellars and Beer Cafe overlooking the marina. Stocking more than 500 Australian and imported beers, along with boutique wines and spirits, the cafe also offers a tapas and seafood menu for lunch and dinner daily. (07) 4948 1333. A perennial favourite is Capers, which you'll find at the Airlie Beach Hotel, where tables overlook the beach and the fish and steaks are good. It's open for lunch and dinner daily. (07) 4964 1777.

Where to stay

Peppers Coral Coast Resort has a range of one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments with great views of the Whitsunday Passage. One-bedroom apartments start at $285, including breakfast. (07) 4962 5100, peppers.com.au/coral-coast. Boathouse Apartments by Outrigger are in the middle of town near the marina, and are a good option for families, with a children's playground. Prices start around $320 for a two-bedroom apartment. (07) 4841 4100, outrigger.com. If you're looking for budget digs, the YHA Airlie Beach is in the centre of town on the main street, one block behind the beach and lagoon, and has double rooms with en suite from $79. (07) 4946 6312, yha.com.au.

How to get there

You can fly to Proserpine (also known as the Whitsunday Coast) with Jetstar and Virgin Australia and take a Whitsunday Transit bus to Airlie Beach, which is about 30 minutes away from the airport. By road it's around 12 hours' drive north of Brisbane.

For more information see tourismwhitsundays.com.au.