Five affordable days in the Whitsundays
It might be best known as the home of luxury resorts, but the beautiful Whitsundays can be done on the cheap - if you're smart about it.
Australia has been gaining quite a reputation for its spiralling costs, especially for those coming from overseas to holiday.
But it's still possible to enjoy an inexpensive holiday in Australia, even in an area such as the Whitsundays, most famous for luxury resorts like Qualia (where one-bedroom pavilions start at A$1550 or NZD$1765 per night).
Keep your credit card limit where it is by following these tips for a five-day budget holiday for A$550 ($626).
DAY ONE: Arrive mid-week on the Whitsunday Coast to take advantage of cheaper airfares.
Arrive on a Wednesday and you'll also have the best opportunity to meet real locals (handy folk to know for the rest of your holiday) and see Airlie Beach from the sea in a weekly sailing race organised by the Whitsunday Sailing Club (Airlie Point, Airlie Beach).
It costs nothing. Just turn up with a six-pack of cold beer at 3pm and ask who needs crew; there's always a yacht to take you. The race goes for about an hour and is very relaxed, so complete novices are welcome.
Stick around for dinner and drinks with competitors on the deck of the Sailing Club - the true locals' spot in Airlie Beach. It's the best real estate in town, offering stunning views over the Coral Sea.
Cost: Six-pack of beer - A$15 ($17).
Dinner: Mains cost between A$16 ($18) and A$35 ($39.8) at the Whitsunday Sailing Club, Airlie Point, Airlie Beach. See whitsundaysailingclub.com.au (cost - approximately A$20/$22.7 each).
Accommodation: Look out across the Whitsunday Islands from the balcony of your high-rise apartment at Whitsunday Vista, 1 Hermitage Road, Airlie Beach. It's just 10 minutes walk from Airlie's main street. Prices start at A$99 ($112) per night, see whitsundayvista.com.au
Day cost = A$154 ($175) for two.
DAY TWO: Enjoy breakfast with the best view in town on your own balcony with the cockatoos. The best way to see Airlie Beach and its stunning surrounds is by hiring a 4WD and hitting the road.
Take a leisurely drive seven kilometres east of town through national park with barely another car on the road to Shute Harbour. Enjoy a coffee by the water, or just drive around this eclectic private suburb with its gigantic, hillside houses looking over the Whitsundays.
Then drive west of Airlie Beach through sugar cane farming communities to Cedar Creek Falls - if there's been rain you'll have to drive through knee-deep water on the bridge in. You can swim at the base of the waterfall.
Then head north through Airlie Beach's green hinterland to one of North Queensland's most charming fishing villages, Dingo Beach.
Stop for a drink or a coffee under the trees in the beer garden of the Dingo Beach Hotel (see dingobeachhotel.com.au), which looks out across the Whitsundays.
Drive another five kilometres north to a locals' favourite, Montes Reef Resort at Hydeaway Bay, for fish and chips by an empty beach looking across to uninhabited Gloucester Island. Then drive back to Airlie Beach for a cheap meal at Beaches Bar & Grill.
Cost: $94 for a 4WD Jeep Wrangler at Fun Rentals, 344 Shute Harbour Road, Airlie Beach. See funrentals.com.au. A$15 ($17) for petrol.
Lunch: The region's best fish and chips costs A$20 ($22.8) at Montes Reef Resort, Hydeaway Bay. See montesreefresort.com.au.
Dinner: Get a steak and a glass of beer or wine for A$13 ($14.8) in the beergarden at Beaches Bar & Grill, 356 Shute Harbour Road, Airlie Beach. See beaches.com.au.
Accommodation: Whitsunday Vista
Day cost = A$274 ($312) for two.
DAY THREE: Coming to Airlie Beach without visiting the Whitsunday Islands is like going to Egypt and bypassing the pyramids. DON'T DO IT! There's 74 of the country's most beautiful islands here.
Get among them for a fraction of the price of staying at a high-end resort by keeping it simple: go camping. Shop for food supplies at nearby Cannonvale and ride the bus to Shute Harbour.
Feel like an intrepid explorer by hitching a ride on a 10 metre-long aluminum barge to a national park camping site on uninhabited Whitsunday Island with Whitsunday Camping.
It's the cheapest way to sleep on the islands - and at Dugong Beach, you'll have easy access to some of the Whitsundays' best rainforest, beaches and mountain walks. Hire a two-person dome tent, a camping kit (which includes a portable gas stove, pots, pans and sleeping mats) and a sleeping bag each.
The barge will drop you off at the campsite.
After you pitch your tent, walk to nearby Sawmill Beach for a swim and prepare yourself with a cold beer for the best sunset in the Whitsundays from the beach here.
Costs: Whitsunday Camping charges A$105 ($119.6) per person to take you to Dugong Beach and pick you up; plus A$40 ($45.6) for your camping kit and A$10 ($11.3) for two sleeping bags. An additional A$5.45 ($6.2) per person camp permit charge applies. Food supplies should cost about A$20 ($22.8).
Day cost = A$289.90 ($330) for two.
DAY FOUR: Enjoy a sunrise swim at Dugong Beach before breakfast at your campsite. Climb the 980 steps to the tallest peak in the area - Whitsunday Peak (437 metres) for a stunning view of the northern area of the Whitsunday Island group.
The views to Hook Island are well worth the sweat.
Spend the rest of the morning sampling the carefully maintained walking tracks through dry rainforest (watch out for the lace monitors!) and cooling off at Dugong Bay or Sawmill Beach.
Take a transfer back (times depend on the tide), stopping at Long Island Resort (an additional A$30 per person), allowing you to experience more creature comforts on another Whitsunday Island.
Long Island Resort is a no-frills, laid-back establishment built beside a wide, sandy beach - the perfect place to spend your afternoon swimming before enjoying sunset drinks at the beach bar.
Accommodation: Double rooms start at A$119 ($135.5) per night and are built just a few metres from the resort's main beach. See longislandresort.com.au
Dinner: Main meals in the resort's Palms Restaurant start at A$20 ($22.8).
Day cost = A$209 ($238) for two.
DAY FIVE: There's more than 20 kilometres of bushwalking paths to discover in the national park that surrounds Long Island Resort.
Wake early to catch the island's interesting fauna - including lace monitors, sulphur-crested cockatoos, rainbow bee-eaters and brahminy kites - and to escape the heat of the day.
There's also a wide range of watersports to try at the resort.
Take a 20 minute ferry back (a one-way transfer from Long Island Resort costs A$32 each) with Cruise Whitsundays (see cruisewhitsundays.com) to Airlie Beach and spend your final afternoon checking out the parts of town you've missed, including Airlie's gigantic man-made lagoon built right beside the Coral Sea.
If you flew up on a Wednesday, being here on Day Five of your holiday means you'll enjoy any number of "Sunday sessions" at the bars in town, where live music comes for free.
To mix with the locals and the cruising yachtsmen who live nearby in Abel Point Marina, try some cheap drinks and pizza at Sorrento Restaurant & Bar (it's off the tourist radar) at Abel Point Marina.
The sea views are the best you'll get outside the sailing club. Spend your last night nearby at Club Crocodile, where you can stroll along Airlie Beach's walking paths beside the Coral Sea foreshore to your hotel.
Lunch and dinner: Sorrento Restaurant & Bar offer two for one pizzas every day from 3 to 5pm from A$18. See sorrentowhitsunday.com
Accommodation: Club Crocodile was definitely built with budget travellers in mind, but with two pools, a man-made waterfall, rock gardens and a heated spa you still get to enjoy great amenities. Specials start at A$93 ($106) per night. See clubcroc.com.au, Shute Harbour Road, Airlie Beach.
Day cost = A$173 ($197) for two.
TOTAL COST = A$1099.90 or NZD$1252.8 ($549.95 each, that's NZD$626.4 each ) (Note: Costs exclude alcohol)
The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Queensland.
Sydney Morning Herald