We’re spoiled for rainbow reefs Down Under, but you know you’ve really hit the reef mother lode when you holiday in the Whitsundays.
From wonderland-esque underwater ecosystems and marine-rich bays to spectacular coral cays, prepare to be jaw-hits-the-floor amazed by what lies beneath the Whitsundays’ turquoise surface. We spoke with a Cruise Whitsundays staffer and got the lowdown on the best snorkelling and diving spots to hit up in the region. Here’s what they recommended.
Hardy Reef is a three-hour boat ride from the mainland (Port of Airlie) and two hours from Hamilton Island. It’s by far the most iconic spot in the region to take the plunge, owing to its proximity to Queensland’s dreamy heart-shaped reef – you know, the one splayed romantically all over tourism ads. This iconic sight is nestled just a short flight from the pontoon (the attraction itself is off limits to snorkellers and divers – it’s a case of look but don’t touch, sorry folks).
Although you can’t snorkel the Heart Reef, you’ll certainly get your fill of marine and coral life while floating around Hardy. From reef sharks and turtles to neon-tinged parrotfish, it’s a veritable underwater fashion parade down there. You may even spot Maggie, the giant Maori wrasse – similar in size and, erm, expression to a groper, but much prettier and adorably curious.
Cruise Whitsundays offers daily excursions out to the pontoon from $199 per adult for a half day and $259 for a full day. A buffet lunch and all snorkel gear – including those very important stinger suits – are provided.
Heck, while you’re at it be sure to splurge for a scenic reef helicopter flight, that flies right over – and does a double loop for good measure – the famous Heart Reef (check it out in the clip up). It quite simply is one of the most rewarding joy flights you’ll ever fork out money on ($150 for 10 minutes, or $280 for 20 minutes), and it’s the best way to truly take in the scale of this natural wonder that is the Great Barrier Reef.
This pristine pool of turquoise on the northern side of Hook Island is particularly popular with beginner divers – its beach entry option lets newbies ease their way into the environment. As scuba swims go, it’s a pretty one – ask instructors to take you through the “tunnel of love”, a beautiful underwater canyon.
There’re plenty of big fish down here, from wrasse to red emperor, as well as being a prime patch for spotting a manta ray or a turtle – just keep your eyes glued to the sand and watch for movement.
To get there you can book a charter boat to the island. Ocean Rafting’s Northern Exposure tour (from $179 pp) takes guests to two different snorkelling sites on Hook Island over a day (chosen based on weather conditions), and the price tag includes all meals and gear hire.
Just around the corner from Luncheon is this dreamy emerald oasis. The sheltered bay has a restriction on public moorings, so you won’t be bumping into other snorkellers, like on some other tours. And scuba novices are also able to enter via the stark white sandy shore.
The area, a designated protected ‘green zone’ within the Whitsunday Islands National Park (World Heritage Site), is teeming with marine life, big and small – so don’t take the plunge without that waterproof camera handy.
Most come for the snorkelling, but thanks to the extensive size of the reef it’s also a highly-rated spot for diving.
Ocean Rafting’s Northern Exposure tour (from $179 pp) takes guests to two different snorkelling sites on Hook Island over a day (chosen based on weather conditions), and the price tag includes all meals and gear hire.There are also yacht charter tours that run over multiple days which frequent the bay, for those after something more plush.
Nestled on Hayman Island, this idyllic bay has the usual glut of pretty marine life and an extensive range of coral.
It’s a stellar spot to take an introductory or certified scuba dive course, or simply relax with a serene snorkel, taking in the abundance of scaly creatures that swarm the waters in their thousands.
Illusions, a plush 12-metre catamaran, sails there daily from Abel Point Marina, also stopping off at Langford Reef. It’s 20 passenger minimum means you can practically have the bay to yourself. Day trips start at $165 pp (extra for dive add-ons), and lunch, snorkelling equipment and marine park fees are all included.
Oft overshadowed by its better-known neighbour, Whitehaven Beach, we have it on good authority that this likewise bone-white stretch of sand on nearby Hazelwood Island is a snorkelling paradise at low tide.
The beach’s sand is made of the same soft silica sand as on Whitehaven, hence the postcard-worthy hue. But the real attraction is what’s underneath the surface – the northern end of the beach is a snorkeller’s delight, with the reef dropping off sharply as you go inshore.
Explore Tours off one-day Sail and Snorkel Whitehaven and Chalkies Beach tours(from $185 pp) departing Hamilton Island Marina and stopping at Whitehaven Beach, before heading to Chalkies. The rate includes all meals and snorkelling gear.
For those on a tight budget, Airlie Beach is a great spot to set up home base. Mantra Boathouse Apartments are the perfect mid-range stay ($315 a night); light and spacious, and ideally positioned opposite the ferry marina (Port of Airlie) from which all your Whitsundays boat tours depart. The hotel complex also boasts the best damn craft beer bar in town, Denman Cellars.
Their sister hotel, Mantra Club Croc ($125 a night), is further away from the bustle of town but ideal for families, featuring an impressive lagoon pool and spa and nearby public transport.
However, for a night you’ll never forget the best way to experience the reef is by spending a day – and a night – out on the blue. Cruise Whitsundays runs ReefSleepexperiences ($525 pp) over two days and one night, in which guests experience an intimate night under the stars at Hardy Reef pontoon. Reef activities, a buffet lunch, and special ReefSleep dinner are all included, as is your personal waterproof swag tent, which you’ll bed down in.
If you’re sans kiddies and are happy splurge for one plush night on Hamilton Island, Beach Club is the bees knees. Stays start from $710 a night for a beachfront room with private terrace, and VIP service is guaranteed – from your own driver, on hand to chauffeur you around the island at your whim, to complimentary a la carte brekkie each morning and free use of all watersport gear, from stand up paddle boards to catamaran hire.