THE WHITSUNDAYS – THE AUSTRALIAN TRAVELLER GUIDE
Protected from the swells of the Coral Sea, set about by cooling trade winds and possessed of some of the most dazzlingly intricate reefs in the region, the Whitsundays represents the calm, splendid centrepiece of the Marine Park. Far from the crowds that frequent the island resorts, expect to find an unbroken horizon concealing delicate treasures beneath the sea. By Fiona Harper
Officially known as the Cumberland Group, it’s commonly accepted that the Whitsundays region encompasses the mainland between Mackay in the south and Bowen in the north, including the islands between Brampton Island in the southeast and Gloucester Island in the northwest, as well as the adjacent outer reef. Often touted as 74 islands, according to David Colfelt, author of The Whitsundays Book, and the cruisers Bible, 100 Magic Miles, there are actually 150 islands, islets and rocks. But no matter – whatever the true number, there’s no disputing the Whitsundays region is one of Australia’s most popular holiday destinations.
On a similar latitude to Fiji, the Whitsundays are just north of the Tropic of Capricorn and boast a subtropical climate. Cooling southeast trade winds dominate between April and October, the best time to visit, and ease off between November and March, when it can be steamy and wet. The outer reef provides a barrier from Coral Sea swells, so most beaches are calm with little wave action – which won’t interest surfers, but will delight boaters and divers.
Island and mainland accommodation options are broad, including a very special experience that involves sleeping right on the outer reef itself. Cruise options are extensive and, ranging from one to five nights, are an alternative to hotels that also lets you visit a different island or reef each day. But if you prefer to keep your feet on terra firma, options range from budget properties through to active family-style outfits, plus a few high-end luxury resorts catering to the well heeled.
The choices for exploring the islands are limited only by time and budget. You could paddle your way around Hamilton Island in a sea kayak, take a day trip to famous Whitehaven Beach or the fascinating outer reef. How about skippering a bareboat yacht down Whitsunday Passage, just as Captain James Cook did? For something a little less tactile, find a spot on the deck of a fully crewed yacht and sip champagne while the islands (and, between July and September, the Humpback Whales) slip past. Snorkelling, diving and swimming are the main reason for anchoring at one of the choice spots like Blue Pearl Bay, Butterfly Bay or Hardy Reef, but if coral and underwater wildlife don’t float your boat, there are plenty of walking trails that allow visitors to delve deep into the forests. There’s even a cave containing Aboriginal art on Whitsunday Island, and if you visit Nara Inlet between January and March you may be lucky enough to splash around in a waterfall.
If boating’s really not your thing, a charter flight to the islands or the outer reef might well be. Departing from Airlie Beach or Hamilton Island, there’s something decadently romantic about emerging barefoot from a helicopter or seaplane onto a dazzling white beach with a picnic basket full of gourmet treats and champagne. From the air, it’s possible to gain some perspective on the vast scope of the Great Barrier Reef. A sunny day will highlight the telltale turquoise colours of shallow water that contrast sharply against the midnight blue of the deep.
Molle Group, including South Molle & Daydream Islands
Dent & Hamilton Islands
Brampton, Keswick & Carlisle Islands
Whitsundays Outer Reef
You can slice a summer trip to northern Queensland any way you please, but road tripping from the Whitsunday coast to far north Queensland’s Cairns – as we did – is a very sweet option. Here, some of the most moreish stops along the way. Sunday long lunches at Deja vu Restaurant What started out as a chef cooking for his friends on Sunday, has become a local tradition. Now Déjà vu Restaurant in Airlie Beach serves an eight-course gastrotourism lunch every Sunday, with wine, beer and live entertainment. While the menu is contemporary, we’re happy to report the prices...
Alissa Jenkins finds five low-carbon alternatives to enjoying the hell out of your break in the Whitsundays. 1. Indulge in barefoot paradise Unlike most luxury stays, Paradise Bay Island Resort is a solar-powered eco resort on Long Island. Better still, there’s no phone reception, no internet, no kids and no more than 18 guests allowed at any time. But don’t be fooled by the rustic feel, the menu is five-star using local and seasonal ingredients. The waterfront bungalows are nothing to scoff at either, each with a king-sized bed, rainwater showers and Molton Brown amenities. And when you’re not making...
It’s done it again for the second year in a row – Big4’s Airlie Beach outpost has taken out the title for its prime location on the doorstep of the Whitsundays, as well as its array of facilities. Set amongst 26 acres of subtropical gardens, the holiday park has been operating for some 40 years, and is just a short drive from Pioneer Bay where much of Airlie’s action takes place. But it’s not just the surroundings that make it an award-winning campsite. As one reader commented, “there are just so many attractions to keep the whole family amused”. With a 32-metre lagoon pool,...
This is one yachting fantasy that’s much easier (and less expensive) than you’d think. All aboard... You’ve dreamt of sailing off into a sunset since Australia’s first America’s Cup but alas, there’s always been something in your way: a career, perhaps, or some kids; maybe a mortgage. How rude. But how fortunate, then, that you needn't commit to a new line of credit (or life) to live as a yachtie in the Whitsundays. Bareboating around these islands – not that there’s anything terribly bare about it – is the best-kept secret (well, semi-secret) you’ve been looking for. Here, we’ve answered...
With 74 islands to choose from in the Whitsundays, our guide tells you which one is the best fit for you. Airlie Beach Traditionally the party girl of the Whitsundays, this mainland centre is now mellowing out and leading a more sophisticated way of life. Who's it for: Backpackers, adventure seekers, families Hamilton Island ‘Hammo’ as locals call it, is the Hugh Jackman of islands – easy going (and easy to get to), with a smorgasbord of quality attributes. Unsurprisingly, this people pleaser is regarded as the go-to island. Who's it for: Families and luxury lovers Hayman Island She’s stylish,...
So you have had enough of lying on the beach and the pamperfest? Time to man (and woman) Whitsundays action stations. (By Alissa Jenkins) 1. Swim through an underwater wonderland No Whitsundays escape would be complete without a day trip out to the Great Barrier Reef for a snorkel or scuba dive. World renowned for its unparalleled coral and sea life, it’s home to over 1600 fish species, 200 birds, 30 whales and dolphins, six of the world’s seven marine turtles and one of the most significant dugong populations on the planet. Adding to the appeal is the region’s iconic...
Australian Traveller's Alissa Jenkins has unearthed the must-do lux-periences of these stunning Queensland islands. 1. Sleep amongst five-star design If ever there was a place to splurge for the night, this would have to be a hot contender. The DVF Penthouse on Hayman Island has been personally designed by world-acclaimed fashion designer, Diane Von Furstenberg. As well as harnessing Furstenberg’s bold style with striking fabrics and vibrant colours, the two-bedroom abode comes with a freestanding bath, four-poster bed and a wraparound balcony overlooking Hayman Beach. It sleeps up to four guests and includes butler service, of course. From $5000 a...
Whitsundays resort Paradise Bay Island has reopened for business after a year-long refurbishment by its new owners. Improvements to the resort include a new day spa, swimming pool and revamped beach bungalow accommodation. The resort pitches at the eco and luxury market, with a maximum of just 18 guests staying at one time and no children, with the option to arrive by helicopter. See paradisebay.com.au
Whitsundays bareboat Chartering a yacht and skippering it yourself through the Whitsundays has again won first place. As one reader explained, “there’s nothing like being on your own yacht, surrounded by natural beauty, able to pick your own anchorage and enjoy,” neatly summarising the thoughts of many. And when exploring the area’s clear luminescent water, magical reef life and pristine beaches, why would you want to do it any other way? “It is so great,” reflected another reader, “to be able to holiday on your own terms, go where you want and when you want.” Agreed a third, “it is...
Whitsundays Another newcomer to AT’s annual awards, the Whitsundays proved to be Australia’s most romantic location, earning an unrivalled lead. Made up of tropical islands in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef, with azure seas and world-class beaches – few places can compare. Boasting many private pockets with white sandy stretches for walks, beautiful Coral Sea sunsets and a kaleidoscope of coral and local wildlife, there are many experiences here to share with your other half, be it at sea or on land. Couples can also expect many high-end restaurants, as well as an array of luxury stays to...
Where is it? The reef is 60km out from Shute Harbour/Airlie Beach How to see it for yourself? Most of the Great Barrier Reef’s attractions lie under the surface, of course, and Hardy Reef in its southern section (further from shore and therefore less trafficked) is a great place to see them. Expect a stunning array of polychromatic hard and soft corals, a couple of hundred fish species – including tusk fish, trevally, snapper, cuttlefish, moray eels, barracuda, unicorn fish, surgeonfish, angelfish, wrasse, gropers – not to mention starfish, giant clams and even the occasional passing whale. But you’ll have to take...
Where is it? East coast of Whitsunday Island, the largest island in the group offshore from Airlie Beach, between Rockhampton and Mackay How to see it for yourself? Access to Whitsunday Island, one of the undeveloped islands in the group that forms the Whitsunday Islands National Park, is usually by boat from Airlie Beach/Shute Harbour or via one of the other island resorts, but there are helicopter/seaplane joy flights if you want to see it from the air like this. The Whitsundays offer a range of accommodation options from camping to qualia, Hamilton Island’s luxury resort, but the perfect way to experience the islands, reefs and the swirling turquoise water and pure white sands of Hill...
Where is it? Off the coast of Airlie Beach, Qld. Take a leisurely sail through clear turquoise waters, alongside pristine coral reefs and past 74 islands with magnificent white sand beaches. If you want a tranquil, beautiful holiday where you feel like you’re actually doing something, this is the way to go and the place to be. “I have done this several times and recommend it to everyone.” Bob Ansett You can charter a boat and skipper it yourself (known as “bareboating” in salty circles), hop on a tall ship or join a small group aboard a private vessel skippered...
Drive north of Airlie Beach towards Cape Gloucester and you’ll come to a little-known coastal area far off the regular tourist track, where the emphasis is eco-friendly. Dingo Beach and Hydeaway Bay are the small, very laidback beachfront communities here. Dingo Beach Boat Hire (www.dingobeach.com.au) has dinghies to rent off the beach, plus they’ll transfer campers to one of the two campsites on nearby Gloucester Island, and nearby Hydeaway Bay has a caravan park nestled behind the beach in a peaceful bush setting (www.hydeawaybaycaravanpark.com.au). A traditional yachties hangout, Montes Reef Resort is charmingly ramshackle. Leave the thongs behind so you don’t feel overdressed....
LATEST ON FACEBOOK
LATEST TWEETSTweets by @AustTraveller
WHERE ARE YOU TRAVELLING TO?
Select a state to view more
- The ‘ghost towns’ of outback NSW
- East coast country cottage chic
- 100 Greatest Holidays of Australia: #53 road trip the Legendary Pacific Coast, Sydney to Brisbane
- 100 Greatest Holidays of Australia: #63 take a beach break, Sapphire Coast, NSW
- 100 Greatest Holidays of Australia: #86 a beach break on The Shoalhaven Coast, NSW
- Dream road trips – Perth to the Pilbara (return)
- Ultimate Escapes: WA’s Great South West Edge – wine, white sand & wilderness
- 100 Greatest Holidays of Australia: #19 escape to the Rowley Shoals, WA
- 100 Greatest Holidays of Australia: #23 a beachy road trip in WA’s South West
- 100 Greatest Holidays of Australia: #42 stay at Berkeley River Lodge, WA
- Ultimate Escapes: Queensland’s Wet Tropics
- 100 Greatest Holidays of Australia: #11 stay at Lizard Island, Qld
- 100 Greatest Holidays of Australia: #54 holiday in Queensland’s triple threat
- 100 Greatest Holidays of Australia: #78 walk Thorsborne Trail, Hinchinbrook Island
- 100 Greatest Holidays of Australia: #85 swim with Manta Rays, Lady Elliot Island, Qld
- Thalia Haven – the greatest ocean-view bathtub in sight?
- Ultimate Escapes: Tasmania
- 100 Greatest Holidays of Australia: #2 road trip Tasmania’s east coast
- 100 Greatest Holidays of Australia: #5 book into Saffire Freycinet, Tas
- 100 Greatest Holidays of Australia: #13 (a tie) walk the Freycinet Experience, Tas
- Ultimate Escapes: Timeless North, NT
- Get lost in style in the Northern Territory
- 100 Greatest Holidays of Australia: #18 see the wet season in the Top End
- 100 Greatest Holidays of Australia: #27 make the Red Centre pilgrimage
- 100 Greatest Holidays of Australia: #56 (tie) follow Larapinta Trail (World Expeditions), NT