Whitsundays beach holidays
Sparkling beaches, exotic marine life and awe-inspiring reefs define the Whitsunday Islands, a collection of 74 islands bordered by the Great Barrier Reef that glisten like gems in the crystalline waters of the Coral Sea. Located off Queensland’s central coast, 1,120km north of Brisbane, this idyllic archipelago was discovered by Captain James Cook; he sailed past them in 1770 on what he mistakenly believed was Whit Sunday. Despite his mistake with timekeeping – they were actually discovered on Whit Monday – this cluster of tropical islands remains one of the world’s most desirable sailing destinations. We discover the very best of this Australian hotspot.
Getting to the Whitsundays
What: There are two air routes into the Whitsundays: Great Barrier Reef Airport on Hamilton Island (serviced by Virgin Blue, Jetstar and Qantas Link) and Whitsunday Coast Airport at Proserpine on the mainland (serviced by Virgin Blue and Jetstar). The islands and resorts are all easily accessible by boat, plane or water taxi from Shute Harbour on the mainland or from Hamilton Island. Domestic flights depart daily from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Cairns. However, Brisbane, Queensland’s state capital, offers the best range of connecting flights into the region; from here the journey takes just 90-minutes.
Highlights: For those who fancy chartering a yacht and cruising through the sparkling turquoise waters around the Whitsunday Islands at their own pace visit Barefoot Cruises or Southern Cross Adventures – both companies offer bespoke sailing packages and can provide a skipper, sail guide, a cook and provisions at your request.
What: Positioned on a peninsula, Queensland’s Airlie Beach is the bustling gateway to the Whitsundays and the perfect mainland base for exploring the Great Barrier Reef and watching pleasure boaters heading to neighbouring islands. Filled with backpackers and partygoers, this tiny laid-back town located at the edge of the Coral Sea offers fabulous accommodation; from campsites, caravan parks and hostels to high-end apartments. By day life revolves around the palm-fringed beach, marina and beer gardens; by night Shute Harbour Road, the main drag, buzzes with DJ-centric clubs, bars and restaurants.
Highlights: Opened in 2001, the whopping 4,300 metres-square Airlie Beach Lagoon is a glorious artificial lagoon set right on the foreshore. The size of six full-size Olympic swimming pools, it holds 4.5 million litres of fresh self-chlorinated water and is set in four hectares of shaded botanic gardens. Facilities include a dedicated kids’ pool, play areas and plenty of barbecue and picnic spots.
Great Barrier Reef
What: The staggering beautiful World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef is the largest and most bio-diverse coral reef ecosystem on the planet – it is even visible from outer space. The undisputed star of the Whitsundays, the reef system stretches over 2,000km and awes with mesmerising marine life including 400 types of coral, 1500 species of glittering fish, 500 types of seaweed and an abundance of dolphins, loggerhead turtles, sharks, giant manta rays and killer and pilot whales. Emerging out of this natural wonder is the Heart Reef, an iconic coral formation measuring 17 metres in diameter.
Highlights: One of the best diving spots is the wreck of luxury vessel SS Yongala, located in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. She famously sank in 1911 and lay undiscovered for over half a century; now giant Queensland gropers, barracuda and eagle rays are just some of the sealife inhabiting this coral-encrusted structure. Book a dive with Yongala Dive; prices from £176 for a one-day session.
Further reading: Scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef.
What: The sumptuous 5-star One&Only Hayman Island Resort exudes glamour and gorgeousness in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef. Surrounded by the picturesque waterways of the Whitsunday Passage, this slice of tropical paradise is the only facility on the island, impressing with 30 acres of exquisite themed gardens. Get pampered in the sublime Spa Chakra Hayman, experience tasty treats in the Hayman Chocolate Room and sample the six-course banquet complimented with fine wines from La Fontaine, the famous 20,000 bottle wine cellar. Guests are whisked to this picture-perfect resort by a luxury private sleek white cruiser after their arrival at Great Barrier Reef Airport.
Highlights: Part of the prestigious Leading Hotels of the World, each of the 210 guestrooms, suites, penthouses is chic and contemporary in its décor and design. All rooms boast a private balcony or terrace; some accommodation offers outdoor decks and infinity plunge pools. For ultimate privacy, book a Beach Villa featuring a beach butler service and private pool.
What: Nicknamed ‘Hamo’ by locals, this get-up-and-go island offers the perfect mix of laid-back luxury and high-octane activity surrounded by all the splendour of the Great Barrier Reef. Activities include beach sports at Catseye Beach, hiring a dinghy to explore the various coves and experiencing a beach barbecue safari in an army truck. The less adventurous can picnic under a star-filled Whitsunday sky or cuddle a koala at an Aussie wildlife sanctuary. For striking views of the bustling Hamilton Island Harbour and the turquoise Whitsunday waterways, head to Hamilton Island Yacht Club, an iconic see-and-be-seen spot that opened in 2009 for ‘those who appreciate international boating excellence’.
Highlights: For shameless luxury, Qualia (pronounced kwah-lee-ah; meaning ‘a collection of deeper sensory experiences’ in Latin) is a five-star resort located on the island’s secluded northern-most tip. Each of the 60 light-filled designer-led guest pavilions faces the water; all are surrounded by tropical bushland with uninterrupted sea views.
What: The closest of the 74 Whitsundays to the mainland shore at Airlie Beach, this tiny island – just one kilometre long and half as wide – is only inhabited by the award-winning Daydream Island Resort and Spa. Set in an exotic landscape, there are 296 rooms and suites with uninterrupted ocean or rainforest views. Guests and daytrippers can snorkel off the beach to the fringing reef at Lovers’ Cove, watch a movie at the outdoor cinema, relax on sparkling beaches or take a rainforest walk to spot wallabies and parrots. Unique to the island is the Living Reef, a man-made outdoor aquarium filled with coral, jewel-coloured fish, baby sharks and stingrays. Free educational feeding sessions are held twice daily at 10am and 2pm.
Highlights: The resort’s state-of-the-art Rejuvenation Day Spa is a 16-room pampering extravaganza offers a comprehensive menu of signature treatments. The Daydream Delight is a 90-minute sensory delight including an exfoliating salt treatment, therapeutic facial, hydrating protein hair treatment, rejuvenating hydro-steam shower and body massage for £140.
What: Located at the foot of the Whitsunday Island Passage off the coast of Mackay and 50km south of Hamilton Island, Brampton is the Holy Grail for outdoor-lovers. This dedicated ‘National Park Island’ is surrounded by reefs boasting fascinating aquatic life and also features 17 km of rainforest tracks and 12 white sandy beaches. Nature lovers can embark on invigorating hikes up Brampton Peak or enjoy power-packed activities such as jet skiing, kayaking, wakeboarding, knee boarding and scuba diving.
Highlights: Accommodating up to 220 guests in 106 rooms overlooking either the tropical gardens or the beach and ocean, Brampton Island Resort offers plenty of diversions; from rejuvenating treatments in the Sea Spa to romantic private dinner cruises at sunset. There is plenty here to occupy; from golf, beach volleyball and tennis to croquet, cocktail creation classes and beer tasting.
What: Located in the heart of the Whitsundays, South Molle Island offers 420 hectares of National Park and plenty of graded walking tracks, palm-fringed beaches, secluded coves and pockets of rainforest. Named in 1815 after Colonel George James Molle, the then Lieutenant Governor of New South Wales, the island is famed for its prominent hills including Mount Jeffreys (194m), The Horn (176m), Spion Kop (154m) and Lamond Hill (133m). Accommodation is geared towards backpackers and independent travellers; stay at the no-frills all-inclusive Adventure Island Resort or get back to basics at the island’s two campsites; Paddle Bay in the north and Sandy Bay in the south.
Highlights: There are a variety of awe-inspiring nature walks, all of which guarantee incredible views; the Spion Kop track leads through eucalypt forest, rainforest and open grasslands and is a must for bushwalkers. The island’s resort offers a splendid range of watersports and land-based activities including tennis, archery, catamaran sailing and a 9-hole golf course.
What: A true backpacker’s paradise, this rough and rugged island is the second largest in the Whitsunday archipelago and offers outstanding opportunities for snorkelling and scuba diving. As around 95 per cent of the island is designated as National Park, there are plenty of walking trails; most fascinating is the track leading to Butterfly Bay – named so because of its unique shape and the butterflies which swarm around its shores. There are also two magnificent, five kilometre fjord-like inlets – Nara and Macona – that provide a spectacular anchorage for yachts and cruise boats. Divers will find excellent coral reefs located around Manta Ray Bay, Langford Reef and Butterfly Bay.
Highlights: Hook Island Wilderness Resort offers a range of basic camping or cabin accommodation set on the gleaming white sands and plenty of fun-filled daily pursuits such as volleyball and fishing. For those who don’t fancy getting wet to see coral, tropical fish and other marine life, hop onboard the resort’s Reef Explorer, a semi-submersible boat which seats 52 passengers.
What: Boasting take-your-breath-away gorgeousness, award-winning Whitehaven Beach is a pristine expanse of pristine pure-white silica sand fringed by brilliantly blue crystal-clear waters. Stretching seven kilometres along Whitsunday Island – the largest of the 74 islands in the Whitsundays archipelago – it is the most photographed beach in Australia. At the northern end of is Hill Inlet, a stunning cove where the tide shifts the sand and water to form fusion of swirling rainbow colours. The view of this overwhelming landscape is best experienced from the lookout at Tongue Point, a 20-minute walk from the beach.
Highlights: This iconic beach is famed for its ultra-fine white sand which is composed from 99 per cent quartz; it does not retain heat unlike regular sand making it comfortable to walk barefoot in the sizzling sunshine. In the Sixties, this sand was mined and exported to make high-quality glass; nowadays it is perfect for polishing jewellery but it can damage electronic equipment such as telephones and cameras. There is little to do here other than swim in the waters, join in the beach volleyball and cricket or just simply take a refreshing dip in the clear waters.
Further reading: Top 10 beaches in Australia.