By Andrew Weaver
Looking out from the prow of a sailboat at the majesty of the Whitsunday Islands, off the northeastern coast of Australia, one can’t help wondering what James Cook, the legendary naval explorer, must have thought when, in 1770, he did more or less the same thing—observed these islands from the water. Did the salty old captain feel an itch to paddle ashore and wiggle his toes in the white sand, to put off charting the world for an afternoon and swim in the crystal water? It’s hard to imagine he didn’t. The Whitsundays are irresistible, a paradise on earth.
When I traveled to the islands for a week last autumn, my journey began at Airlie Beach, a seaside hamlet that serves as the central hub of the Whitsundays. A favorite destination of the backpacker crowd, Airlie Beach is filled with travelers from all over the world, congregating in lively bars like Beaches and Magnums and mingling with the locals over pints of James Boag, one of Australia’s favorite beers, and plates of kangaroo and emu meat (really). I spent the first day of my trip getting acquainted with the town and its people, preparing for a busy week with a trip to Woolworths, the local grocery store, chatting with fellow travelers, and relaxing on the town’s beaches.
Of course, one doesn’t come to the Whitsundays to sit around. The next day, I was off to start my adventuring, beginning with a sail on the 74-foot heritage yacht Lady Enid—a gorgeous timber vessel built in 1961, famous in yacht clubs around Australia. The daylong cruise, which included lunch, champagne, and an afternoon snorkeling stop, deposited us at Whitehaven Beach, regularly ranked one of the best shorelines in the world, where powdery white sand and lush hills hiding electric-blue inlets make it feel like the end of the inhabited earth.
Next on the list were a pair of equal but opposite excursions: one high above the Great Barrier Reef— which runs directly past the Whitsundays—and one deep below it. The first was a flight with Air Whitsunday Seaplanes, a breathtaking ride in an eight-seat propeller aircraft piloted by a jovial Whitsundays native. The little tin can of a plane carried us over miles of teeming coral formations to the famous and oft-photographed Heart Reef—shaped, miraculously, like a perfect Valentine heart—where we landed softly in the water for an afternoon of snorkeling.
To balance the height with depth, Explore Group Australia treated me to a different view of the reef: a day of SCUBA diving that brought me face-to-face with epaulette sharks, rainbows of coral, giant clams, and clownfish hiding in swaying anemones—a vast underwater world of life and color.
As I quickly learned, there’s more to this Elysian corner of the country than the water, and so on the fourth day of my trip I made time for an inland excursion to the dense rainforests of Conway National Park, just south of Airlie Beach. At first, I considered hiking the park—bushwhacking through hoop pines and giant strangler figs (and dodging the gympie gympie, one of the most toxic stinging plants in the world)— but instead I opted for a more high-tech approach: a half-day journey with Whitsunday Segway Tours. With a group of fellow travelers, I learned basic off-road Segway operation and followed a former logging road called the Whitsunday Great Walk deep into the rainforest to learn about the park’s flora and fauna from a local expert.
The next day it was back to the water. I hadn’t quite gotten my fill of the Whitsunday Passage, the broad swath of ocean separating the area’s 74 islands from the continental mainland, so I did a paddling excursion with Salty Dog Sea Kayaking. It was a choppy day with high winds when we departed, and in my single kayak the waves almost bowled me over, but this only added to the sense of adventure as we fought through the surf to explore the beaches of some of the Whitsundays’ smaller, less-visited spits of land.
Between all these adventures, greeting me every evening like an old friend, was the comfort of Airlie Beach, with its rows of boutiques (including the well-known gift shop Grotty Yachty), cafés, art galleries, two-mile coastal boardwalk, and—maybe best of all—central public swimming area called the Lagoon, immaculately clean and ringed by a grassy knoll, perfect for lounging and watching ships cruise into the nearby Port of Airlie. With no shortage of restaurants to choose from, I ended each day with a bite from various local favorites like The Deck, specializing in pizza and fresh seafood; Walter’s Lounge, serving creative five- and six-course chef ’s tasting menus; and Northerlies Bar & Grill, a secluded resort and restaurant a few minutes’ drive from the center of Airlie Beach, with seafood, steak, craft beer, and views of the town across a small bay.
The fact is, there’s so much to see in the Whitsundays, even a weeklong stay like mine wasn’t enough to cover it all. There were more islands to explore, more of the Whitsunday Passage to sail. If I had had another week, I might have rented a bareboat (no skipper, no crew, just you and the open ocean) from a place like Cumberland Charter Yachts. Or spent an afternoon soaking up the resort-style luxury of Hamilton Island. Or spent a night sleeping on a sailboat far out on the reef. When I packed up my things and bid Airlie Beach goodbye—suntanned, salt-soaked, and thoroughly happy—these incomplete adventures were all I could think about, and each one made me a little happier. Before the ferry had left the harbor to carry me to the airport, I had my next itinerary all planned out. I would be back.
Plan Your Adventure
Lady Enid Sailing
Air Whitsunday Seaplanes
Explore Group Australia
Whitsunday Segway Tours
Salty Dog Sea Kayaking
Grotty Yachty Clothing & Nautical Gifts of Airlie
The Deck Airlie Beach
Northerlies Beach Bar & Grill
Cumberland Charter Yachts