The Whitsundays Versus Cairns

Updated Tue 12 Jul 2022

Two girls walking through a row of palm trees

Dreaming of that tropical getaway? Trying to figure out where to go? If you’re torn between two of Australia’s favourite holiday destinations, the Whitsundays or Cairns, look no further. We’re here to help you choose the best one for you! Both are swarming with golden beaches, adventurous activities, stunning sights, bustling nightlife, and warm weather. Plus they are both the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef which is one of the seven natural wonders of the world AND a World Heritage Sight. 

We’ve compared the Whitsundays and Cairns and compiled a small list of positive reasons for why you should visit each destination. Hopefully this can help you decide on which place suits you best - or it might even persuade you to visit both!


The Whitsundays

A long white sandy beach with blue skies

The Whitsunday region is world famous for its picturesque islands, tropical reefs, blue skies and of course, its white sandy beaches! Scattered throughout the Whitsunday islands are hidden sandy gems - perfect for a day of sunshine, snorkelling and switching off. Whitehaven Beach a is the most popular beach amongst the islands and I’m sure you’ve heard of it. With its majestic white silica sands and turquoise waters, the beach is a must-see if you visit the area. Other beautiful beaches within the islands include Betty’s Beach around the corner from Whitehaven, Catseye on Hamilton Island and Sunlover on Daydream Island. 

The islands aren’t the only place in the Whitsundays where you can relax on soft sand by the sea. Boathaven Beach in Airlie’s town centre, Horseshoe Bay in Bowen, Dingo Beach and Hideaway Bay (30 minutes north of Airlie Beach) are all pristine locations along the coast that are worth checking out.


A blonde girl wearing a white hat leaning on a palm tree with blue ocean and sky in the background

Cairns itself isn’t riddled with beaches. However, a short drive north will take you to stunning coastal wonders. The most popular beach outside of Cairns would be Palm Cove. Like the name, this little gem is a palm tree haven - it’s actually filled with tropical palms that truly hit the vacation 'feels'. It’s incredibly photogenic and perfect if you’re a keen ‘instagrammer’  or just want to make your friends back home jealous. 

Fitzroy Island and Green Island are two spots that are only a boat ride away from Cairns. Fitzroy is full of unspoilt coral shores with calm, sheltered waters while Green is dense with ancient rainforests and white sandy beaches. Each are ideal for snorkelling amongst tropical kaleidoscopes of fish and lazing in the sun. Other beaches worth going to near Cairns include Trinity Beach, Clifton Beach and Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas (an hour north).

Great Barrier Reef 

The Whitsundays

A group of people looking through glass at a coral reef

The Whitsundays is filled with over 70 tropical islands, the most famous ones being Hamilton, Daydream and Hayman. In between the islands are coral reefs… aka parts of the Great Barrier Reef. The best spots for diving and snorkelling are located in the ‘outer reef’ which is 105km from the mainland of Airlie Beach. The supreme reef spots include Hardy, Bait, and Heart Reef where you can swim up close and personal with over 150 species of fish, sea turtles and even reef sharks. 

Another added bonus about visiting the Great Barrier Reef via the Whitsundays is that you can even sleep on the reef. Check out the options that allow you to have one of the most unique sleeping experiences of your life! 


A girl in a wetsuit swimming upside down underwater

Cairns’ outer reef is just 50km from the mainland so it is a little quicker to get to in comparison to the Whitsundays. The fringing reef is ideal for snorkelling and diving amongst the tropical underwater universe. The parts of the outer reefs that are worth noting include Hastings, Flynn, Norman and Saxon. Each location offers a diverse range of life beneath the surface and usually great visibility (it can change depending on the weather).  

To find a reef tour that suits you, visit Cairns Tours and scroll through the options. We recommend Passions of Paradise, Evolutions or Ocean Freedom for a day of fun on the reef. Each tour will see you snorkelling, diving (or learning how to) and relaxing on a spacious vessel with an awesome crew and delicious lunch! 


The Whitsundays

A burger and chips on a plate in front of a swimming pool

The Whitsundays is full of variety when it comes to restaurants and bars. Between Airlie Beach on the mainland and the Whitsunday Islands, there's a wide range of world-class restaurants! From Italian to Vietnamese, kebabs to fish and chips, ice-cream parlours to rum bars, the options are limitless.

Visit Paradiso on the foreshore in Airlie Beach to enjoy breakfast with a view, Sails on Hamilton Island for that tropical paradise atmosphere or visit Northerlies (just north of Airlie) to sit back, eat and drink on the beach. The restaurants alone will become the reason you’ll want to keep coming back to the Whitsundays.


Tacos and salads on a table

One of the perks about Cairns is that it has a limitless range of restaurants. Not to say the restaurants are better than the Whitsundays, it’s just a bigger region that has to cater towards a larger population. In fact, the population of Cairns is 150,000 compared to 36,000 in the Whitsundays.

From health food cafes to greasy burger joints, Cairns has a wide variety of restaurants. The city even has Uber Eats (something the Whitsundays doesn’t have the luxury of). Vitalia’s Italian, Tamarind, Bluewater Bar and Grill, and Howlin’ Moon are a few restaurants to name that we recommend.

Night life 

The Whitsundays

A group of girls in a nightclubPhoto: Mama Africa Bar and Nightclub

If you’re a bit of a party animal and love dancing until 3am on a random Thursday, then the Whitsundays has your name all over it. The region is well-known for its vibrant nightlife scene, no matter whether it’s a Tuesday or a Saturday night. Live music can be heard from 3pm onwards on any afternoon if you’re staying in Airlie Beach or on Hamilton Island. 

If you are staying on the mainland, Mama Africa's Bar and Nightclub, Magnums Hotel or The Airlie Beach Hotel are some of the busiest places to go on a night out. Start at the pubs and work your way towards the nightclubs as your night progresses. There are also party boats that are a must if you’re coming to the Whitsundays to get your party on and meet like-minded strangers! Exploring the islands plus drinking with new friends - what’s not to love?!


Blue fluorescent lights

Cairns is a travellers hotspot which means that there are plenty of bars, pubs and nightclubs aimed towards those wanting to mingle and boogie. Cairns has options for any type of ‘night out’. If you’re after a quieter night out where you can kick back with a beer or cocktail without getting too rowdy, try Three Wolves, Flamingos Tiki Bar, or PJ O’Briens Irish Pub. If you’re on the other end of the spectrum and want to stay out and dance into the early hours of the morning, visit The Cotton Club, Gilligans, or Woolshed.

Lucky for you, because Cairns is bigger than the Whitsundays, there are far more late night food options. So you and your friends can stumble out of the clubs and land right at the foot of a kebab or pizza shop! An added bonus about Cairns is that it also has a Casino if you’re one to sit around and play some poker or blackjack!

So there's just a few comparisons between the two tropical holiday destinations that might help you make up your mind on where you want to go!

If you need further assistance or have any questions, call our friendly team of travel experts who are well-versed in all things travel related! Live chat or call +61 74914 2425 for more information!

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