With its spellbinding natural beauty and year-round warm weather, Australia’s favourite aquatic playground – The Whitsundays – continues to lure thousands of tourists every year. Sheree Mutton looks at the best places to visit.
Secluded beaches surrounded by turquoise water and fringed by palms trees, The Whitsundays is synonymous with relaxation. It’s in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef, between just north of Bowen and to the north of Mackay, and is perfect for those seeking a sun-soaked escape.
Off the main coastline sits 74 picturesque islands ready to be explored. Unspoilt national park lands and impressive luxury resorts, this region is home to some of Australia’s most magnificent settings that will guarantee a getaway like no other.
Our odyssey begins at Daydream Island Resort and Spa – a family-friendly holiday destination at its best. Surrounded by lush, tropical gardens, Daydream is one of the closest of the Whitsunday Island resorts to the coast. It features 296 comfortable rooms and suites, carefully tailored to suit your individual needs.
The resort captures the adventurous spirit of The Whitsundays, offering a range of water activities, including snorkelling, scuba diving and jet skiing. There’s also a 19-hole mini golf course and an open-air cinema in front of the azure sea. Perhaps the most popular attraction though – is the Living Reef – a lagoon with more than 80 marine species on show, including Bruce, the sicklefin lemon shark. But if you’re keen to relax, pick a deckchair around one of the many lagoon pools and treat yourself to a cocktail or a massage at the award-winning Rejuvenation Spa overlooking the Coral Sea. A place of tranquillity, the spa has 16 individual treatment rooms and qualified therapists that offer a range of health and beauty treatments to indulge in. The one-hour massage is popular among guests and will leave you feeling rejuvenated, refreshed and relaxed.
At sunset we take the opportunity to soak up the spectacular views at Lovers Cove and enjoy a leisurely rainforest walk from the north to the south end of the island. The entire length of Daydream measures only one kilometre, so everything is in close proximity.
When it comes to dining, Daydream Island Resort and Spa has several restaurants and bars each with their own distinctive tastes and styles. Before dinner, many guests head to the main atrium to indulge in a beverage and some live music. Families are well-catered for with a buffet-style dining at Waterfalls Restaurant or a casual a la carte at the Fishbowl Tavern. But for a memorable evening, look no further than Daydream’s signature a la carte restaurant, Mermaids. After spending almost a decade working on cruise ships around the world, Daydream Island Resort and Spa’s new Executive Chef Ashley Duff delivers an exquisite menu. The ambient atmosphere, coupled with live music, is perfect for a romantic meal. Just footsteps from the shores of the Whitsunday Passage, Mermaids restaurant, which is illuminated by flaming torches, offers a unique culinary experience with quality produce. The barramundi is delicious and the seafood platter, which showcases a selection of fresh seafood from the local pristine waters, is highly recommended by both staff and guests of the island.
Airlie Beach has always been the gateway to The Whitsundays, but now the go-to backpacker spot is a popular holiday destination for families and couples too. Just a 35-minute drive from the Whitsunday Coast Airport in Prosperine or an hour ferry ride from Hamilton Island, this idyllic coastal town has plenty to offer. The beautiful stretch of coast is famous for its laid-back lifestyle and after undergoing a $17 million revamp last year, Airlie Beach’s main strip is flanked with world-class restaurants, five-star resorts and boutique stores.
Similarly, Abell Point Marina has been given a fresh makeover. If you’re looking for a place to enjoy breakfast, lunch or dinner, Barcelona tapas bar at Abell Point Marina, which opened earlier this year, should be at the top of your list.
It has quickly developed a reputation for its mouth-watering Spanish menu, which allows you to sample a bit of everything. The authentic flavours, fused together with local seafood and complemented by the gorgeous views overlooking impressive superyachts, makes for an enjoyable dining experience. We’re told that even some of the yacht’s owners (despite having private chefs onboard), disembark occasionally to indulge in the impressive cuisine. Barcelona owner David Paddon and his staff are knowledgeable about the extensive range of Spanish and Australian wines and beers to balance each dish. The seafood paella and succulent pork ribs, dipped in a secret sauce, are a must.
On the other side of town, Denman Cellars and Beer Cafe is another great place to grab a bite to eat. With more than 700 Australian and imported beers, along with boutique wines and spirits, the cafe is a popular place among tourists and locals. The cleverly crafted menu, which offers tapas and seafood, means there are plenty of delicious and affordable dishes that will delight your tastebuds. The restuarant is located at the Port of Airlie – a new, vibrant community, featuring a first-class marina, fashion stores, restaurants and luxury apartments.
Another favourite is Capers, which you’ll find at the Airlie Beach Hotel. Its oceanfront setting is perfect for meal and cocktail overlooking the main beach.
Tourists are spoilt for choice when it comes to accommodation in Airlie Beach. There are a range of options for families and couples depending on your budget. One of the best is the five-star Pinnacles Resort and Spa. Situated on the top of Golden Orchid Drive, this stylish resort is nestled on the hillside and features some of the best views in Airlie Beach. The award-winning resort consists of 29 one, two and three bedroom self-contained apartments. Perhaps the most impressive feature is the large balconies, many of which have a private jacuzzi and stunning views of the Coral Sea. The infinity pool, gymnasium, sauna and Endota Spa all make this majestic resort difficult to part with.
If you’re using Airlie Beach as a base, there are plenty of daily boat trips to other islands and Whitehaven Beach. But if boating is not really your thing, opt for a scenic flight instead. Air Whitsunday Seaplanes operates from Airlie Beach and has a range of flights to suit your needs and budget. The reef and Whitehaven scenic flight is a popular choice as it allows you to take in all of the sights of the Whitsunday Islands, Whitehaven Beach, Hill Inlet and over the Coral Sea to overpass Bait Reef, Hook Reef, Hardy Lagoon and The River and of course scenic views directly over Heart Reef. Operating since 1973, Air Whitsundays offers an intimate air experience over the reef – and the tours have plenty of opportunities to get those ‘postcard shots’.
After a quick safety check, we head out over open water. Although cruising in The Whitsundays is magnificient, it’s only from the air, that you gain some perspective on the sheer beauty and size of the Great Barrier Reef. Our pilot shares with us the history of region and how it became known as The Whitsundays. He tells us it was 1770 – on the morning of Sunday, June 3 – Whitsun – the seventh Sunday after Easter and the feast of Pentecost, that Captain Cook sailed through the stretch of water dotted with islands.
After capturing a shot of the spectacular Heart Reef, we emerge barefoot from the seaplane and onto the shores of the breathtaking Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island, the largest of the 74 islands in the Whitsundays. The soft, silica sand between your toes, has a soothing feeling. It may have been voted the fourth best beach in the world, but Whitehaven Beach is unrivalled when it comes to natural beauty. Be sure to head up to Hill Inlet – a stunning cove located at the northern end of Whitehaven Beach.
HOW: The Air Whitsunday Reef and Whitehaven scenic flight is $290 for adults and $260 for children. Barcelona tapas bar, bookings: (07) 4946 4277. Pinnacles Resort & Spa, bookings: (07) 4948 4800. Denman Cellars Beer Cafe, bookings: (07) 4948 1333. Capers, bookings: (07) 4964 1777.
Following a short ferry ride aboard Cruise Whitsundays, we arrive at the largest inhabited island of the Whitsundays and the most popular – Hamilton Island. Every year in August, Hamilton Island plays host to the Audi Hamilton Island Race Week. It’s one of the biggest events on the Australian sailing calendar, attracting more than 150 yachts. Arriving just a week after the event and it’s obvious that the place is still buzzing with plenty of tourists.
Hamilton Island was purchased by Australian winemaker, Bob Oatley, in 2003, and since then it has become one of the world’s leading holiday destinations. The main centre is a yacht harbour filled with boutiques and top restaurants, and although holiday-makers tend to travel around the island by golf buggy, everything you need is in short walking distance. It’s very simple to navigate and the absence of traffic, makes it all the more appealing to this traveller.
The gorgeous sunset in The Whitsundays is best viewed on the water and aboard Explore Group’s On The Edge Sunset Sailing cruise, it’s easy to relax and unwind with a glass of bubbles or wine and some light nibbles. The custom designed, spacious catamaran, is great for those wanting to experience a 90-minute sailing tour with gorgeous views and great company.
Finding a place to stay on Hamilton Island is a difficult decision because there are so many great options. Notably, the island is home to Qualia – voted the best accommodation in the world by travellers. But the adults-only, Beach Club resort is popular too, particularly among honeymooners because of its beachfront location, luxurious rooms, amazing facilities and exceptional dining reviews. It’s a resort that truly sets a world standard for hospitality and service.
With 57 rooms, each with its own en-suite bathroom and private terrace or balcony, you literally have the stunning Catseye Beach at your feet. The infinity pool provides a glorious backdrop to the resort and the Beach Club Restaurant is a gourmet experience you don’t want to miss – and if the extensive cocktail list isn’t enough to impress you, perhaps the tantalising fine steak and fresh seafood are. The ravioli beef cheeks and seafood hot plate featuring Moreton Bay bugs, fresh prawns and barramundi with a delicious sauce were as good as any meal served in a top restaurant in Sydney and Melbourne.