In this article, we aim to help you make an educated choice for your next holiday.
Let’s start with the basics for each location.
Airlie Beach is more or less a one-street town with everything you could want to be located right on that one street. Cairns is more like a city that can take 45 minutes to drive from one end to the other.
If you stay in a hotel in the middle of Cairns City then you will have everything you need within walking distance, except a beach.
- Airlie Beach = 1208
- Cairns = 150 041
Airlie Beach is famous for everyone being friendly and helpful. Cairns is not. Unfortunately, Cairns has a rather large amount of homelessness and youth crime. On average 3 cars are stolen in Cairns every single night.
Tour boat staff will be quite different between Airlie Beach and Cairns based on the fact that the crew in Airlie Beach absolutely love the area and Cairns guides are generally just backpackers passing through. The large group sizes also remove the personal touch from Cairns tours.
At night Airlie Beach is extremely safe to walk around but that is not recommended in Cairns.
Restaurants in both Airlie Beach and Cairns are truly world-class. You can have just about any cuisine you desire in both locals. As Cairns is much bigger, you will have more options.
Cairns also has Uber Eats if you are feeling lazy.
Great Barrier Reef
Both locations have access to the Great Barrier Reef in its many forms. Most tours from Airlie Beach will snorkel fringing island reefs in The Whitsundays which provide calm and easy snorkelling conditions.
Cairns tours all go to the outer reef which more often than not will be choppy or rough in the snorkelling area.
The coral and fish life depends on the location you visit on the day. The Cairns tours that go to fixed pontoons should be avoided as the coral there has more or less been destroyed by tourists over the years.
One exception to that is Quicksilver which operates out of Port Douglas, the coral at their locations is on par with the best that The Whitsundays has to offer.
Airlie Beach itself has three beaches within easy walking distance of the main street while Cairns has none. In order to get to a beach in Cairns, you will need to head north up the highway to what is known as the Northern Beaches.
Machans Beach, Yorkey’s Knob, Clifton Beach and Palm Cove are all accessible by car and will take around half an hour to drive there.
Whitehaven Beach is located just off the coast of Airlie Beach and is accessible by helicopter, seaplane or boat tours like Thundercat and Tongarra.
Fitzroy Island is located just off the coast from Cairns and is accessible by boat only. You will need to wear your shoes on this beach though as it is made of broken coral which can be quite sharp.
Cairns tours mostly cater to the Asian market and hold large quantities of people. Up to 400 passengers on a boat are common in Cairns. The tours run to specific locations despite the weather often not being favourable.
The sea state between Cairns and the outer reef is normally quite rough and you will definitely see people suffering from seasickness.
Airlie Beach-based Whitsunday tours are provided with lots of protection from the Whitsunday Island which means that it will never be as rough as Cairns.
Tour group sizes in The Whitsundays average about 30 passengers, which makes it much more personal and uncrowded.
Sailing is Airlie Beaches most famous hobby and you are welcome to join in the fun. There are lots of sailboat tours available for day trips, one night trips, 2-night trips and even longer. Passions Of Paradise is your best option if you specifically want a sailing boat tour in Cairns.
Airlie Beach has no traffic to mention really. We have a couple of roundabouts and two sets of traffic lights just out of town in Cannonvale.
Cairns is a traffic nightmare with a set of poorly timed lights on every corner. It’s expected in Cairns that you will be stopped by a red light at every intersection. There is lots of traffic and roadworks all day, every day.
In both locations, there is no free parking. Parking in Cairns is usually available in the big parking lots like Cairns Central and the marina. Airlie Beach is much the same with parking available in good locations, but at a price.
Most places will cost $10 per day to park.
Airlie Beach is 1000 kilometres south of Cairns which means it’s cooler. Generally speaking, Airlie Beach will be 5 degrees cooler than Cairns which makes a huge difference in summer.
Cairns also experiences much more rain than Airlie Beach as it’s closer to the equator. Cyclones are much more likely to affect Cairns than Airlie Beach too.
Both locations have bus networks which will get you where you want to go. Airlie Beach has one bus route and a bus is available every half hour. Cairns has numerous routes and times vary.
If you read this far then you have probably worked out that we like Airlie Beach more than Cairns. The opinions expressed in this article are those of Glenn, who lived and worked in Cairns from 2015-2020.
While everybody will have a different opinion, we hope this article has hopefully answered a few of your questions and helped you choose the right location, which of course is Airlie Beach and The Whitsundays.