Many travellers to Australia, especially those with a sailing pedigree, head straight for the Whitsunday Islands and barely leave. This white-fringed archipelago, a stunning feature of the Coral Sea coast, can be easily seen from shore. Opal-jade waters and pure-white beaches fringe the forested isles; around them, tropical fish swarm through the world’s largest coral garden in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The gateway to the islands, Airlie Beach, is a backpacker hub with a parade of tanned faces zinging between boats, beaches and nightclubs. This is as close to the islands as some budget travellers will get.
South of Airlie, Mackay is a typical coastal Queensland town with palm-lined streets framed by a jumble of art-deco buildings. It's a handy base for trips to Eungella National Park – a lush hinterland oasis where platypuses cavort in the wild. North of Airlie Beach is cute little Bowen, a low-key alternative for backpackers working through their holiday.