Cairns vs the Whitsundays: Which is better?

There is so much to do in Australia that you could easily spend a year just touring the country and never get bored. However, most of us don’t. Whether it’s time or money, you can never tick all the boxes on the Australian to do list. The East Coast definitely has the most famous options, two of which are sailing the Whitsundays and snorkelling or diving the Great Barrier Reef. Hopefully, you don’t have to choose between the two magnificent, unforgettable experiences. Most East Coast itineraries include a stop in Airlie Beach and a stop in Cairns. However, if you had to choose between these two backpacker bucket list items, Cairns definitely has the edge. Naturally, we’re biased, so let’s talk about what the big draw is for each locale, and then you can go off and have a think about it.

East Coast
Too many choices! And there’s plenty more not on this map…

Why visit the Whitsundays?

whitehaven beach

Every backpacker in Australia, from Perth to Sydney and all parts in between, when they talk about visiting the Whitsundays, they talk about going on a sailing trip. There are heaps of different boats. You can book different packages depending on whether you want to make a day trip or spend a few nights living on board the boat. There are different price points for if you’re leading a lavish life of luxury (doubtful if you’re reading our blog!) or trying to have a big experience on a little budget. The different boats have reputations for different atmospheres, whether you’re after a chilled out vibe or thirsting for a booze cruise.

boat party

Whichever boat you pick you can expect to go sailing, swimming, walk around some of the islands, and of course visit the world famous Whitehaven Beach. You’ll also do a bit of snorkelling, which is technically a part of the Great Barrier Reef. However, with poor visibility, shallow depths and not much coral, don’t expect your snorkel session in the Whitsundays to be anything close to what you’ll experience up in the Far North.

Airlie Beach is a fun little town with a number of hostels. You can definitely spend a few days here before or after your cruise either chilling out by their lagoon or partying at the bars with your newly-made boat friends.

Why visit Cairns?

Part one: the Great Barrier Reef

great barrier reef

Let’s get straight to the point. Hands down, without a doubt, the most special thing about Cairns is that it’s the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. The Great Barrier Reef is “the largest living thing on Earth.” That’s right: fun science fact, the reef is an organism, not some underwater rock. It’s so big it’s even visible from outer space. More than 2,000 kilometres long and more than 600 different types of coral, simply put, there’s nothing else in the world like it.

Just as the Whitsundays have different options for every different type of traveller, there is a multitude of ways to experience the Great Barrier Reef. There are activities for all levels, whether you want to stay dry on a boat and check out the reef through the glass or live aboard a scuba diving boat for a multi-day tour. It all depends on your interests and your budget. Our friendly, knowledgeable staff can help you decide what’s right for you. Click here to get in touch with them

Besides the fact that visiting the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most unique experiences in the world, the scary thing is that the reef likely won’t be the same the next time you visit Australia. A shocking new study released this month found an 89% reduction in the number of new corals settling. This is the result of coral bleaching, which is caused by the oceans’ rising temperatures. It’s frightening but quite plausible to think that one of the most special activities in Australia is in many ways, a limited time offer.

Part two: The Daintree Rainforest

daintree rainforest

Besides visiting the Reef, a stop in Cairns give you a chance to experience the rainforest with a side trip up to Cape Tribulation. The Daintree Rainforest is comprised of 1,200 square metres of tropical rainforest. This is one of the most biologically diverse places on earth with 430 species of birds alone, plus all sorts of marsupials, frogs, reptiles, and everyone’s favourite dinosaur-wannabe, the cassowary.

They’re strange, they’re beautiful, and they’re deadly

Visiting the Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation is unique because of how wild and unspoiled the area is. There is a hostel and a few small shops but you certainly won’t find a Coles when you visit. While you’re visiting this special UNESCO world heritage area you can go hiking (the view from the top of Mount Sorrow is worth the effort!), take a river cruise to spot Crocodiles, or even get your Great Barrier Reef trip in with Ocean Safari!

ocean safari

Why Cairns is better

Cairns City

Again, let’s reiterate that both the Whitsundays and Cairns have so much to offer backpackers and they are definitely worth your time and hard-earned money, but when it comes to providing a memorable experience you won’t get elsewhere, Cairns definitely wins. You can go on a sailing trip almost anywhere in the world. You can visit beautiful beaches almost anywhere in the world. The Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest are like nothing else on earth!

There is one exception, though. If you’re only travelling Australia to post it on your Instagram, skip Cairns 😉