This article was originally published in March 2015 and updated in October 2018
As the nose of the tiny plane began to point away from the narrow runway, we swayed from side to side like a tram when it’s nearing a stop. The roar of the engines was subdued by the large headphones wrapped around our ears, and we soon found ourselves peering straight down at the Whitsundays Airport as we peeled away toward the ocean luring us with its turquoise hue. Our destination? The incredible Great Barrier Reef.
The spectacular Whitsundays off the east coast of Australia are famous for their bright-white silica sand beaches, snorkeling spots teeming with underwater life and luxury resorts, and its 74 islands also happen to be the gateway for Great Barrier Reef tours. While many people explore it by boat, we were in for a treat: my mother and I were going to take a scenic flight, on GSL Aviation’s eight-seat plane.
After being picked up at our hotel in Airlie Beach, we were whisked away to the tiny airport to check in for the hour-long Whitsundays tour. That’s where we met Pat the pilot, who gave us the chance to check out the GippsAero GA8 Airvan we’d be hopping into, then strapped us in. Wouldn’t you know it, I was riding shotgun…how many people can say they’ve gotten to do that on a plane?
Whitsunday Islands tour
After settling in it was time to start up the engines, and I was enthralled with watching Pat’s every move as he expertly set up for takeoff, then maneuvered along the runway as we took off soaring into the sky. In between updates to the control tower, he pointed out spots of interest for us, sharing details about some of the smaller islands we passed during our flight to Hamilton Island where we picked up the rest of our group. Four others piled onto the plane, and just like that we were off again, this time heading to mesmerizing Whitehaven Beach.
Regularly rated one of the world’s top beaches, sparkling Whitehaven is a must-see and one of the most popular Whitsunday day trips. Many tour operators offer day trips to Hill Inlet to see the famous sand swirls, but that breathtaking lookout point still pales in comparison to the view from above.
READ MORE: A wild Whitsundays tours with Ocean Rafting
The lush green hillside of Whitehaven Island was a stark contrast to the dazzling blonde sand that weaved through the water, which seemed to incorporate every shade of brilliant blue on the colour spectrum. While the silica sand is normally blindingly white, on this day there was also a tinge of beige due to weather conditions in the area. We circled around and around, getting a look at the incredible site from all angles. Even after seeing Whitehaven Beach from so many different vantage points, it was still hard to tear our eyes away.
Flights to Great Barrier Reef
While some of the scenic flights to Whitsundays turn back after reaching Whitehaven, we continued on toward the real treasure: the Great Barrier Reef. Our journey would take us over Hook, Hardy and Bait reefs, which all boast aquamarine water lapping up against the colourful coral, creating what looks like teal ponds.
Pat encouraged us to keep our eyes peeled for the sharks, whales, turtles and stingrays known to frequent the area, as we slowly circled overhead. While I wasn’t eagle-eyed enough to spot any of the sea creatures, I found myself captivated by the reef view that seemed like something other-worldly, similar to what Earth looks like from outer space. It was completely surreal, and no one said a word as we were all spellbound by the sight.
Heart Reef tours
One of the most famous spots in the area is Heart Reef, which is exactly what the name implies. At only about 17 metres wide it could be tough for some to see, so Pat was sure to give us clear directions and a countdown to ensure we didn’t miss it. The view ended up being spectacular, and as we were only about 500 feet above we were also able to capture some great photos. Heart Reef also happens to be a popular spot for marriage proposals, and it was easy to see why.
Our last landmark was just a bit farther out, and we soon found ourselves looking down at Reef World. The floating platoons serve as a base for those exploring the Great Barrier Reef, and have facilities such as showers and lounge areas. While they usually host day-trippers, there’s also an option called Reef Sleep where a lucky few can spend the night onboard, sleeping under the stars. While they may seem gargantuan up close, our aerial view made us realize how small they are in relation to the vast ocean surrounding them.
After one last look at the spectacular reef, Pat turned the plane around and we sped back across the Whitsundays, getting a birds-eye view of the ultra-exclusive celebrity-hangout Hayman Island, and tourist favourite Hamilton Island. The blue water dazzled below us, the bright green islands stretched out ahead, and the hum of the engines was the only sound. The flight may have only lasted an hour, but it’s safe to say the memories of that incredible afternoon are truly something all of us will treasure forever.
How to book: There are numerous companies offering scenic flights in the Whitsundays, with varying routes, times and price ranges. Some use helicopters, others will land on a beach for a picnic, or even serve up champagne. GSL Aviation partners with Ocean Rafting which is a fantastic company to tour the Whitsundays with by boat, so it may be worth booking a package deal if you have two days. Click here to book
Cost: Prices for scenic flights range anywhere from $99 to over $1,000 depending on the package. The hour-long flight out to the Great Barrier Reef with GSL Aviation costs $200 per person. Island transfers combining the sightseeing are also available, which is a fantastic option for those who would otherwise need to pay for a ferry.
Top tips: Try to get a seat on the right side of the plane. While pilots maneuver so passengers on both sides get a glimpse of the popular spots, those sitting on the right during our flight were able to take in the views longer. Those who suffer from motion sickness may want to take an anti-nausea pill before boarding, as the ride can be a bit bumpy and there isn’t a lot of air circulation.
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Globe Guide travelled to the Whitsundays in partnership with Tourism Whitsundays and GSL Aviation. As always, hosts have no editorial influence on articles.
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