Flying Over The Whitsundays & Great Barrier Reef

After a few glorious, sun-soaked days on Hamilton Island, we headed back to the mainland of Australia and the little beach side town of Airlie Beach for a very exciting adventure. We were booked to take a scenic flight over the Whitsundays and the Great Barrier Reef before beginning our road trip up north. An absolute bucket list experience in coastal Queensland that takes you for a ride over most of the 74 islands in the Whitsundays, before heading out to the Greater Barrier Reef. We couldn’t be more excited.

We jumped on a ferry bright and early from Hamilton Island to give ourselves some time to explore Airlie Beach before our flight. Cruise Whitsundays takes passengers between Airlie Beach and Hamilton Island up to 10 times a day with the ferry ride taking about 45 minutes. We grabbed ourselves a booth on the ferry with a table, so we were able to get some things done during the ferry ride which was very productive! There’s also a little kiosk on board where you can buy drinks and snacks, and a few power points around the place so you can charge if you have a dead/dying phone (like Thom did).

Ferry transfer tickets from Hamilton Island to Airlie Beach (or travelling in the other direction) cost $61 per person for a one way trip. You can find out more about their transfer routes, timetables and destinations here.

Airlie Beach is the Whitsundays mainland base and the launching pad for all kinds of activities and experiences in the Whitsundays and Great Barrier Reef. It is much more of a backpackers town than Hamilton Island, with hostels and bars a plenty, as well as cafes, boutiques, grocery stores and souvenir shops and young travellers everywhere. You will often find international travellers working in the bars and cafes, and on more than one occasion we felt like we were the only people there with Australian accents haha! There’s still a little bit of damage visible from Tropical Cyclone Debbie earlier this year, but the town of Airlie Beach is resilient and have bounced back quickly!

We grabbed some lunch and spent a couple of hours checking out Airlie Beach before heading to the local airstrip for our scenic flight. We had booked the Reef & Island Scenic Flight with GSL Aviation via  Experience Oz which went for about 60 minutes. The main reason we chose this flight is because we wanted to fly over the infamous Heart Reef, which is only possible on a longer trip – as opposed to the 30 minute flights which do not go out to the reef. We checked in and before we knew it, we were boarding another tiny plane (maybe our 4th this year?) and launching into the air.

Within a couple of minutes we were soaring over the Whitsundays, with the ultimate views of the densely forested islands below. I was actually amazed at how green and completely covered in trees the islands were! I’m not sure why, but for some reason I was expecting more deserted beaches rather than forests covering all of the islands. What I was picturing though definitely wasn’t as beautiful as what we witnessed from the plane though, it was incredible.

One thing I loved about our scenic flight was that everyone was guaranteed a window seat – so there was no stretching to see over someone’s camera (or iPad – don’t even get me started) or fighting to get on the plane first, everyone had a perfect unobstructed view of the islands and ocean below. The sightseeing began as we flew over Hamilton Island, where you were close enough to spot landmarks like Catseye Beach and the private golf course island from the sky. Even though we had flown into Hamilton Island airport, we were able to get an even better view from the scenic flight and a completely different angle!

We then headed out towards the largest island in the Whitsundays – Whitsunday Island and of course the iconic Hill Inlet. I mean, just look at it from the sky – it’s epic! Far and away more stunning than the views from the drone or the lookout when you are able to see the whole island and inlet in perspective. We flew up and down the length of Whitehaven Beach, where we had spent the day relaxing and swimming the day before, and then we were off to the Great Barrier Reef.

Whitehaven Beach

 The Great Barrier Reef is about a 10-15 minute flight from the islands of the Whitsundays, but soon enough we were looking down at some of the most popular reefs in the world! We flew over Hook Reef and Hardy Reef – two of the most colourful reefs in the Whitsundays, with our pilot pointing out different highlights and sharing information and stories about this part of the reef with us.

 Just like all good pilots – ours knew that most of us were the most excited about Heart Reef. A tiny little piece of the reef that is shaped like a perfect heart in the middle of the ocean. We did a couple of laps of Heart Reef, swapping sides to make sure everyone had the opportunity for the ultimate photo. Heart Reef is part of the much larger Hardy Reef, and is a super popular place for snorkelling, scuba diving and getting your first glimpse of the Great Barrier Reef.

Before heading back to the Whitsundays we also flew over Reef World, which is kind of like a theme park in the water. I hadn’t heard of it before, but looking it up after our flight it’s kind of like the perfect base to explore more of the reef right from the water. Offering everything from scuba and snorkelling equipment to an underwater observatory and even massages and a comfy sundeck to soak in the summer rays, Reef World has a way for everyone to enjoy their reef experience. If an hour long scenic flight isn’t your thing, you can even do a short helicopter ride from Reef World right over Heart Reef. It’s definitely on our list for the next time we visit this part of Queensland!

As we made our way back to Airlie Beach we also flew over some of the other iconic and infamous islands of the Whitsundays, including the resort islands Daydream Island and the exclusive Hayman Island (above). Unfortunately, they were both damaged so badly in the the cyclone earlier this year that they are closed to guests until December 2018. I’m sure they will be better than ever when they open up at the end of next year, but they still look pretty stunning from the sky!

For anyone looking for the ultimate views over the Whitsundays and an introduction to The Great Barrier Reef you can’t go past a scenic flight! Our flight actually flew alongside two other planes, which was awesome when we looked out of the window and saw two other little planes flying right next to us!

A one hour flight with GSL Aviation only cost us $219AUD per person – which was by far the cheapest flight I could find that included flying over Heart Reef! They have flights all day, so you can fly any time between 8am and 4pm, and work it around all of your other activities. The price also includes complimentary bus transfers to and from your accommodation or the town centre (no extra taxi fare required!), and there is only a maximum of 7 people on each flight, making it a very personal experience.

No matter what company or type of flight you choose (seaplane and helicopter flights over the reef are also available), a scenic flight is a phenomenal way to see some of Australia’s most beautiful and well-known icons. We can’t recommend it highly enough!

Read more about our adventures through Queensland here. For more travel tips and to keep up to date with our adventures make sure you subscribe to our newsletter today

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Emma Shaw

Emma is a travel photographer and blogger, living in Melbourne, Australia with her husband Thom in between adventures. She started A Make Believe World to share her experiences, travel tips and destination advice with others, and to show that you can still explore the world while holding down a 9-5 job and paying off a mortgage!

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