Captain Cook’s famous islands are home to some of Australia’s whitest beaches, unspoilt coral reefs and peaceful sailing spots
by Yvonne Gordon
There are few opportunities in life to get to sail around tropical islands, snorkel coral reefs and walk the white sands of one of the world’s most beautiful beaches and I feel lucky to have experienced all three on a trip to Australia.
After a few days of shopping and partying in Sydney, we flew north to the beautiful Whitsunday Islands, just off the coast of Queensland, for a few days of relaxation and soaking up rays.
The Whitsunday Islands were named by Captain Cook, who sailed between the islands in 1770 on the date he thought was Whitsunday. Just a few miles from the Great Barrier Reef, the mountainous islands are fringed with coral and surrounded by sandy beaches. A few of the 74 islands are resorts but most are uninhabited and part of the protected Great Barrier ReefMarine Park.
We flew into Hamilton Island and the views over the reefs and islands were stunning – azure blue sea with patches of coral visible under the water, white sandy beaches and lush green pine forests. Hamilton Island felt like tropical paradise, with clear blue skies, a warm breeze and tall palm trees full of exotic birds. We had breakfast outside the local bakery beside the marina, surrounded by noisy but amusing cockatoos that sat on the back of our chairs. We then spent a fun afternoon driving a rented golf buggy around the island and up to the spectacular hilltop viewing point.
Airlie Beach is the main hub on Queensland’s mainland for exploring the islands and most day trips and cruises go from there. So on our second day on the Whitsundays, we took a ferry from Hamilton Island over to Airlee’s Shute Harbour and from there were brought by launch to the 81 foot sailing yacht Condor, which would be our home for the next three days. There was no fixed itinerary for the sailing trip – the plan was simply to sail around the islands, stopping off and dropping anchor at various picturesque beaches and coves, for meals, swimming and snorkelling, with the main emphasis on relaxation and fun. What bliss!
Our only request was to visit the famous Whitehaven Beach, voted one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, during the trip. Whitehaven is about 30km sail from the mainland and the skipper agreed that if weather and wind conditions were favourable, we’d make our way around Whitsunday Island to the famous stretch of white sand. Knowing that it’s not always possible to visit the famous beach, we could hardly contain our excitement.
During our first morning on the boat, we motored out to Langford Reef, relaxing on the boat’s long decks, soaking up the relaxing sun and just enjoying being on the water. Later, after a delicious lunch of pasta and salads on board, we climbed down the ladder and went snorkelling on the reef. Here we glided and flew over shoals of coloured, luminous parrot fish, coralfish and butterfly fish.
We saw multicoloured coral on the seabed; oddly shaped urchins and sponges, and softer plant-like coral, rippling and waving in the gentle current. The colours and variety of fish and coral were amazing and to see them close up without having to learn to scuba dive, was a magical experience.
We also saw a shark – though it was a tiny reef shark. Langford Reef has a beautiful spit of white sand beside it, so we were able to relax and sunbathe on this unique beach, surrounded by water, in between snorkelling.
In the evening we motored around to a secluded inlet and dropped anchor for the night before tucking into an amazing barbecue of marinated steak, potatoes and salads, cooked on deck by the boat’s chef. This we washed down with some cool beers which we had stored earlier in the hatch. We sat on deck late into the night, swapping stories of sailing, travels and adventures with the crew. After a day of activity and fresh air and an evening of delicious food, the boat’s small but comfortable bunk provided a perfect night’s sleep.
The following morning after breakfast, we sailed around to Oyster Bay for a few hours of snorkelling and lunch. The anticipation of visiting Whitehaven had been building all day and in the early afternoon, right on cue, a beautiful moderate breeze built up and it was all hands on deck. We hoisted Condor’s huge sails and set a course for Whitsunday Island. Condor used to be a racing yacht – in fact, she is one of the most famous maxi yachts in history, having won many of the world’s major ocean races more than once – and she really takes off when her huge sails are up, gracefully gliding over the water and carving through the waves. After an exhilarating afternoon sail, we arrived.
From the sea, Whitehaven looks like a long white line, contrasting against the turquoise water. There were only three or four other boats there and a few walkers on the beach, but apart from that, nothing. The beach is over 7km long and stretches along the back of Whitsunday Island, the largest island. The pure silica sand is dazzling white, and the feeling of walking on it is amazing. Another striking thing about Whitehaven is how quiet it is. There are no resorts or distractions on the island, just unspoiled sand and lush tropical forest. It’s a great place to get away from it all and you can even camp overnight.
The next day, we discovered more of the Whitsundays and the crew took us ashore by dinghy to an empty island where the beach was full of turtles and trees filled with screeching birds. We went for a long walk through the forest – it’s nice to stretch your legs when you’ve been on a boat for a few days. Closer inspection of what looked like a thoughtfully provided wooden toilet on stilts just behind the beach revealed that a large snake at taken up residence just inside the door – so we gave that particular convenience a miss.
Most of the beaches on the Whitsundays are accessible by boat and you can camp on many islands and their pristine beaches (providing you have a camping permit). You can also go on day trips by high-speed ferry from Shute Harbour to the resort islands – a great way to discover more beaches. After leaving Condor, we spent a relaxing day on South Molle Island, soaking up the rays on the palm-lined beach all morning and then enjoying a sumptuous buffet lunch and some cooling drinks beside the resort pool.
There are lots of activities on South Molle – from the main beach you can go swimming, sailing and windsurfing, and on land there’s golf and tennis, or if you’re feeling lazy, you can just relax in the sun with cocktails. In the afternoon, we decided to take a healthy walk through the forest and explore some of the island. South Molle Island is a national park and it has a series of graded tracks that are easy to walk.
We walked up the gentle slope to Mount Jeffreys, taking in a great 360-degree view from the top of the island’s bays, beaches and neighbouring islands. South Molle has different types of forest, from eucalyptus trees to rainforest, and during the walk we saw a colony of flying foxes hanging upside down from branches in the trees which was amazing. When we returned to the resort there was a band playing, so we enjoyed the music until it was time to return to Airlee beach by ferry in the early evening.
Long Island is another resort island, though it’s a bit livelier as the Club Crocodile resort has lots of activities for children. When you arrive, you are brought by buggy along the jetty to the resort. From the beach, adults can go parasailing, water skiing, jetskiing or snorkelling on the island’s coral reef. On land, you can play tennis, volleyball or mini golf. The kids’ club starts at 8.30am and there’s a full beauty spa for adults so there’s no shortage of things to do.
We wanted a leisurely morning, so we took the resort’s small catamaran dinghies for a sail around the small bay. There was a warm breeze and we were able to dip in and out of the water to cool down. There’s also variety of walking tracks on the island, so at lunchtime, we took a picnic and hiked through the national park’s rainforest to the secluded Sandy Bay. This is about 6km from the resort and it’s a beautiful, secluded sandy beach with a picnic table – it was a great escape and well worth the walk.
Hamilton Island is one of the Whitsunday’s most developed resort islands and if you haven’t flown into here, you can take a day trip over to the island from Airlee beach. There’s also plenty of hotel accommodation should you decide to stay longer. Hamilton is about 16km south of Shute Harbour and once you’re there, you can relax and enjoy tropical cocktails in the marina village’s yacht club, hire a buggy for the day, or go parasailing, go-karting, windsurfing or sailing. There are also some lovely shops at the marina village.
Other great resorts include the award-winning, luxurious Hayman Island, where there are stunning reflection pools, tropical gardens, secluded beaches and a seawater lagoon. The resort is fronted by a sweeping sandy beach and surrounded by tropical gardens. Prices are at the very high end of the scale (the resort cost $300m to build) and you have to be a guest staying on the island to even visit – day-trippers aren’t allowed.
Australia has about 50,000km of coastline and more than 10,000 beaches, and the Whitsunday Islands have some of the country’s whitest sands and most beautiful reefs. If you visit here, you might want to discover some of Australia’s thousands of fish species, snorkel and dive among coral reefs and wrecks, or go spotting whales, dolphins, turtles, manta rays and sharks.
You might decide to learn to windsurf or water-ski, cruise around coves, sail around archipelagos, hike in rainforests, camp on deserted beaches or luxuriate in a spa. Or you might just soak up the sun. But whatever you do, you’ll certainly want to experience as much of the islands’ natural beauty and sense of paradise as possible.
© Yvonne Gordon. This feature was first published in The Irish Mail on Sunday