When planning our two-week trip to Australia, I struggled to find a way to fit in a short trip to the Great Barrier Reef between our week in Sydney and week in Melbourne. When I learned about visiting Hamilton Island, at first glance, it looked like the Bahamas or another stereotypical tropical resort. Because we wanted to avoid the usual tourist traps, we were hesitant at first.
But, after doing some research, Hamilton Island turned out to be one of the most classically Australian places to visit. Also, it was the perfect way to see the Great Barrier Reef (and experience the gorgeous Whitsunday Islands) in a 3-day trip from Sydney.
Why was it so great? First, I think we were the only Americans there. It really felt like we were doing a local Australian trip. Second, it’s drop-dead gorgeous. And third, my favorite reason, tiny kangaroos roam free all over the island!
How to get to Hamilton Island
Located smack-dab in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef, Hamilton Island was the best way for us to satisfy our desire of snorkeling in the reef in just a few days. Since we were coming from Sydney, and continuing on to Melbourne a couple days later, we wanted to get to the Great Barrier Reef as easily as possible, avoiding connecting flights or ferries.
Easy access was the first reason why we chose Hamilton Island over some other spots in the Whitsundays. However, if you have more time, there are plenty of other beautiful islands near the Reef to consider.
We flew non-stop from Sydney on Virgin Australia (we earned Delta Skymiles on the flight), and the flight was less than two hours. Non-stops are also available on Jetstar and Qantas from Sydney, and several flights are available from Brisbane or Melbourne too. We flew in on a Tuesday and departed on Thursday.
On the island, golf carts/”buggies” are the primary mode of transportation. But, we found that nearly everything was within walking distance. We didn’t feel it was necessary, but anyone not wanting to walk would certainly benefit from a buggy rental.
Where to stay when visiting Hamilton Island
One ownership group operates most of Hamilton Island, including many restaurants and several hotels. These include Palm Bungalows, Reef View Hotel, Beach Club, and the super-luxe, adults-only Qualia, where Taylor Swift stayed last year.
Also check out Airbnb, since there are lots of privately-owned residences on the island. Haven’t used Airbnb yet? Get $40 off your first stay.
We opted for an accommodation that wasn’t part of the Hamilton Island resort group since it was significantly less expensive and had a full kitchen and bigger floorplan – Whitsunday Apartments. The property is beachfront and within walking distance to the restaurants and other island amenities. Plus there was a free shuttle to and from the airport! It was a great place to stay for two night; I highly recommend it.
Things to do on Hamilton Island
There are so many fun things to do while staying in Hamilton Island. Most activities revolve around the beautiful water, but there are some great options for indoor or land-based things to do as well.
Since we had Tuesday afternoon, a full day on Wednesday, and a morning on Thursday, we narrowed down a couple things we really wanted to do. We booked a jet-ski tour for Tuesday afternoon. Then for the full day on Wednesday, we booked a snorkel tour. Thursday morning was spent at the beach.
Experience the Great Barrier Reef
Visiting Hamilton Island is the ultimate watersport vacation! Since the island sits in the Great Barrier Reef, it’s a snorkeling and scuba paradise. Here are a couple ways to see the reef:
- Book a full or half-day snorkel tour. We had an awesome time on ours! We got to snorkel at three different spots and enjoyed the included lunch. The operator, Explore, provided all the equipment we needed – including wetsuits. The staff were super friendly too!
- Explore also offers Scuba tours if you’re already certified
- Regular snorkeling or scuba too ordinary for you? Visit Reefworld, a floating hotel of sorts in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef. Here, you can snorkel, eat, enjoy the sun, and even spend the night under the stars.
- See the reef by air. Warning – this is not a budget-friendly option. Hamilton Island offers seaplane and helicopter tours which allow you to admire the reef from above.
Enjoy the Ocean
Once you’ve seen the Reef, what else is there to do? Activities abound on Hamilton Island, in and out of the water. Here are some of my suggestions:
- Watersports! Take advantage of Hamilton Island’s gorgeous waters by renting a jet-ski, dinghy, or kayak. We took a jet-ski tour, and it was incredible!! Our guide led us around some smaller, uninhabited islands and we got to see some wildlife too. We took the latest tour (around 3pm) and toward the end, the sun started to set, which was beautiful.
- Relax at the beach – Hamilton Island’s Catseye Beach is stunning. In the morning, the tide is low, and you can see small stingrays in the shallow water. For a more private experience, hike up to Escape Beach on the South side of the island.
- Typical resort activities are also available, like golfing and relaxing at a spa. But unlike most resorts, Hamilton Island has a koala sanctuary.
Relax and Recharge
What about food and drink? Dig in before or after a day on the water at my top Hamilton Island restaurant picks:
- Marina Cafe – this was our go-to spot for breakfast while visiting Hamilton Island. It’s open daily from 6:30am to 3:30pm. They serve coffee, pastries, eggs, sandwiches, salads, etc. and the prices are reasonable.
- Sails – solid, affordable lunch option. Sails serves burgers, sandwiches, and salads, what I would consider American fare. I recommend sitting on the patio outside for a great view of Catseye Beach!
- Coca Chu – great dinner option with delicious Thai food. The restaurant is on Catseye Beach so if you’re dining at sunset, you’re in for a killer view. They have a solid wine list and authentic Thai dishes. Yum!
- Bommie – this was our splurge dinner. It’s expensive, but the service, food, and atmosphere are exceptional. The restaurant itself is shaped like a boat, and it even looks like a multi-million dollar yacht inside. Enjoy drinks at the bar (while watching the sunset) or sit down for dinner. Also, it’s a great spot for a special night out or a celebration. 🙂
Overall, visiting Hamilton Island was one of the best decisions we made on our Australia trip. Hope you get to experience it someday too!