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The Whitsundays: Australia’s Caribbean

By Mark Beale

Located on the same latitude as Tahiti and Rio de Janeiro, the islands of the Whitsundays are being touted as Australia’s answer to the cruising grounds of the Caribbean.

While the hype of some of the local tour operators may seem a little exaggerated, there are indeed many similarities that make the Whitsundays deserve the title of Australia’s answer to Caribbean cruising.

Sparkling cerulean seas, uninhabited islands, coral reefs teeming with marine life, secluded white sand beaches and pristine national parks, are just the start. Over the past few years, the popularity of this natural wonder has grown from around a dozen cruise ships visiting per year to nearly fifty.

A Cruise Ship Ambassador Program, the first of its kind in Australia, sees cruise passengers to Airlie Beach greeted by live music and smiling volunteers wearing colourful tropical shirts; creating a laid-back, friendly ambience that would not be out of place in the Caribbean. Special markets pop up on the foreshore when cruise ship are in port, featuring local arts and crafts, fresh produce and live entertainment.

Once a chilled-out backpacker town, following a recent $23 million upgrade, Airlie Beach has also grown up. With sophisticated new restaurants and cafes, upmarket accommodation, and a chic new shopping strip, it’s obvious the town has had more than a celebrity nip and tuck.

A selection of upscale al fresco restaurants take full advantage of the town’s superb location on the Coral Sea. Further complementing the Caribbean connection, the Fish D’Vine Restaurant and Rum Bar stocks more than 300 varieties of rum, including rare examples from Trinidad and Jamaica.

Of the 74 Whitsunday islands, only eight are inhabited. Some are little more than a strip of finely crushed coral sand held together by the roots of a few palm trees. Others are home to luxurious resorts.

Local tour operators have responded to cruise passengers’ needs by creating special day packages which allow visitors to experience the best of the Whitsundays in a short time, from above, below and in between.

You can explore the underwater world in a semi-submersible craft; go sea-kayaking; or join a jet-ski safari around the islands. Take a seaplane flight over islands such as romantic Heart Reef, a natural formation of coral in the shape of a heart. The glistening white silica sands of Whitehaven Beach recently took out the top gong for the Best Beach in Australia in the 2015 TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Awards for the third consecutive year, as well as topping the list for the Best Beaches in the South Pacific. You can even sleep on the reef on a purpose-built pontoon and watch it come alive at night from the comfort of an underwater observatory.

Along with large ship cruising, a more intimate way to experience the Whitsundays is on your own luxury yacht. While some sailing experience is required to charter a yacht, no formal qualifications are needed to become a skipper. If you don’t have the confidence to skipper it yourself you can hire a professional skipper and hostess and simply tell them where you want to go and when you want to eat.

August is the Whitsundays Season of Sailing, when visitors can enjoy and be part of a world famous race week, learn to sail, or join a range of crewed charters or tours from catamarans to racing yachts.

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