The 74 Whitsunday Islands (only eight of which are inhabited) lie just off the north-eastern coast of Australia's Queensland state, in the Coral Sea between the mainland and the Great Barrier Reef. The main town on the mainland used as an entry point to the Whitsundays is Airlie Beach, while Cairns is the nearest city, 390 miles (630 kms) to the north.
By Ferry from Airlie Beach
The Whitsundays aren't connected to the mainland by bridge, so unless you fly to Hamilton Island (see further details below), you'll need to take a ferry to the islands regardless of which form of transport you take to the coast of the mainland.
Most ferries travel between Airlie Beach and Hamilton Island, the most populous of the Whitsundays. Some ferries also run from Shute Harbour, about 6 miles (10 km) east of Airlie Beach. The crossing takes roughly one hour. These are passenger-only ferries, so if you arrive by car you'll need to leave it at the long-stay parking lot in Airlie Beach. However, many travelers stay in Airlie Beach and visit the Whitsundays on day trips.
Flights from Cairns, Brisbane, Sydney, or Melbourne
There is one airport on a Whitsunday island: Great Barrier Reef Airport on Hamilton Island. This receives daily flights from Cairns, Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne.
Another airport servicing the Whitsundays is Whitsunday Coast Airport at Proserpine, a little way inland on the mainland, about 15 miles (25 kms) from Airlie Beach. There are daily flights from Brisbane, and several a week from Sydney. From Airlie Beach, a half-hour drive from Proserpine, travelers can get a ferry over to the islands.
Out of Australia's major cities, Brisbane has the most air connections to the Whitsundays. If flying from other Australian cities, there's a high chance you'll need to transit through Brisbane anyway.
Given Australia's vast size, many travelers opt to fly between destinations, including the Whitsundays.
Overland from Brisbane or Cairns
Despite Australia's size, many travelers do opt to rent a car, usually touring smaller sections of the country. The Whitsundays are a good place to include on a north-to-south (or vice versa) road trip along Queensland's coast. They are 390 miles (630 km) south of Cairns, and 695 miles (1120 km) north of Brisbane. But, if you have a couple of weeks (at least) to travel around Australia, a Queensland road trip is manageable.
Rent a car in either Cairns or Brisbane, and head south/north (respectively) along the Bruce Highway to Airlie Beach. From Cairns, the direct journey would take around seven hours. The road is mostly coastal, so there are many potential places to stop along the way. Townsville is en route.
The drive from Brisbane takes 13 hours, directly. The fastest road follows the coast and passes through the Sunshine Coast, Rockhampton, and Mackay. There are longer inland routes, too, although these may be less attractive to travelers.
Although these highways are reasonably good and not especially remote (by Australian standards!) it's still important to make sure that you have some emergency supplies like water and snacks before embarking. And, make sure your car is in good condition for a long drive in potentially hot conditions.
The above road routes can also be taken by bus, if you don't want to drive yourself. Direct buses from Brisbane take about 19 hours, and from Cairns about 11 hours. This is significantly longer than driving, but as with a self-driving you can choose to do the journey in several shorter stretches.
The scenic Spirit of Queensland train runs between Brisbane and Cairns (and vice versa) several times a week. The full journey between the two cities takes 25 hours, but it's possible to get off at Proserpine and then take a connection to Airlie Beach to access the Whitsundays. Brisbane to Proserpine takes about 15 hours, while Cairns to Proserpine takes about 10 hours. Trains are spacious and comfortable, and have dining carts. Some lie-flat berths are available.
Guided Sailing Trips
Sailing trips around the Whitsundays are popular. Unless you're an experienced sailor, the best way to arrange a sailing tour of the Whitsundays is with a tour operator specializing in this. Ask your local specialist for details.