The Whitsundays: Coastal safari

By Rosamund Knill, Dennis Knill

Dennis and Rosamund Knill discover a distant shore and a whole new world of adventure around Queensland's coast.

Sailing past Perseverance and Dungurra islands.
Sailing past Perseverance and Dungurra islands.

We must be in heaven. We're sitting on a glorious white sandy beach admiring the turquoise hues of the Coral Sea.

Of all the island beaches that make up the Whitsundays, Whitehaven is a must do and it's not difficult to see why. It's not only the most photographed beach in Australia but it's also one of Queensland's most beautiful.

Easily accessible by boat, Whitehaven Beach stretches over seven glorious kilometres along Whitsunday Island. It defines nature at its very best and provides the greatest sense of peace and tranquillity.

Sails lowered, anchor dropped, we jump into our inflatable and row ashore. Wading through the crystal clear water onto the pure white sand we feel the stress levels drop immediately like coconuts off a tree.

SO WHAT ARE THE REAL WHITSUNDAYS ANYWAY?

Alongside one of the world's great wonders - the Great Barrier Reef - between Townsville in the north and Mackay in the south, lie the Whitsundays.

It was Captain James Cook in 1770 who was to name this unparalleled group of beautiful islands scattered along each side of the Whitsunday Passage. Curiously however, Cook misnamed them as he didn't really sail through them on Whit Sunday at all, in fact, he was a day late because he overlooked the international dateline completely.

Hamilton Island is the gateway and as you fly in, the Whitsundays start to unfold below. Seventy-four volcanic islands dot the Great Barrier Reef, rising from an ocean of turquoise and emerald green - some of them towering like pyramids above the sea, densely covered with pines and tropical rain forest.

These islands are special, with something for everyone. For those wanting to spend their time peacefully sunbathing, snorkelling, swimming or just wanting to walk well-trodden tracks, there is no better pastime.

The accommodation throughout the Whitsundays is vast, catering for the budget-orientated or those able to afford the ultimate in luxury.

Sailing the Whitsundays and the Great Barrier is a yachties' paradise. Being avid sailors we wanted the ultimate sailing experience so chartering a yacht seemed like a good idea.

In anticipation of sailing into as many of the islands' small coves and bays as possible, we also wanted to explore the unspoilt and secluded anchorages seldom an hour apart. And with unlimited sailing time ahead, the opportunity to explore as much of the Great Barrier Reef as we could was compelling. We were not disappointed.

A visit to the Whitsundays is not complete without exploring the Great Barrier Reef. Not a solid structure but rather a maze of 2900 reefs and 950 islands spread languidly over 2600 kilometres, this vast coral spectacle and the world's largest living structure occupies 350,000 square kilometres of marine territory.

It's the world's largest marine park, larger than the Great Wall of China and the only living thing on earth visible from outer-space.

Navigating the passages through the reef is more than a test - even for the accomplished yachtie. The slightest inattention to charts could mean an unscheduled landing or running aground.

And if sailing these waters is not an option there's a variety of cruises that operate daily out of Shute Harbour and Hamilton Island. Pontoons are moored right on the edge of the reef where you can dive and snorkel for hours, feed the fish or view the coral and the amazing fish life from partly submerged mini-submarines. The adventurous can stay overnight, an experience not to be missed.

So loaded up with enough provisions to sink the Titanic, we hoisted the main and headed for Hardy Reef. On arrival we were met with two large catamarans on a day trip from Shute Harbour full of happy souls.

The reef itself is a low-tide suspended coral lagoon teeming with fish life and "George" a live-in three metre grouper.

Our anchorage some distance from the pontoon turned out to be an experience even for two budding sailors as the wind competed with the outgoing tide, whipping up the sea surface. It was with some relief that we finally made it to the pontoon.

The shallow lagoon is cut off at low tide exposing the coral and in the mysterious underwater universe we were surrounded by gem-bright treasures of the sea: an aquatic show for snorkellers wanting to view the amazing marine life.

Of all the islands, Hayman deserves the title of being the most famous and the 'stay of your dreams' for those who appreciate and have an appetite for the finer things in life.

Stunningly beautiful in every way, Hayman has all the ingredients of an island paradise.

Hayman Island Resort is one of Australia's most-awarded and most-celebrated five-star luxury resorts and has recently undergone a multi-million dollar facelift.

In need of a shower, a hot meal and a comfy bed we jumped ship and treated ourselves to a night of bliss in the luxury accommodation - most of which overlooks the Coral Sea.

It's an elegant and tranquil enclave of courtyards, terraces, gentle fountains, spectacular pools and lush tropical gardens.

And if physical activity appeals to your senses, there's the freedom to pursue your own adventure pleasures, with options including parasailing, water-skiing, fishing, snorkelling, scuba diving, windsurfing, whale watching, tennis, squash, golf putting, bush walks and an impressive gym and health club.

Not to be outdone, another dimension to the Whitsundays is Hamilton Island. Of all the islands, Hamilton is certainly the most developed with a number of recently-built developments. It's rather like a small town in another world that comes complete with its own international airport.

Hamilton Island is a high-end tourist destination that has evolved from a small hideaway to a much sought-after playground for the rich and famous who jet in and sail out.

Step ashore and the very first thing you see are golf buggies buzzing around madly in all directions.

The 400-boat marina with its state of the art yacht club and its adjacent stylish villas bustles with activity and is swarming with locals and tourists alike. Even the parakeets seem content stealing food from bags left unattended by unfamiliar tourists.

The clusters of waterfront restaurants, cafes, boutiques and shops crowd the marina and are constructed in such a way they resemble a set from Universal Studios.

The marina is the main hub of the island and after a short stroll up to the ridge you descend to the beach and its diverse range of accommodation. There's plenty of choice ranging from Polynesian-style bures to low- and high-rise apartments, with one tower rising twenty storeys.

Set apart on its own secluded estate on the northern-most tip with a relaxing and mesmerising calmness is the adults-only Qualia Resort.

This multimillion-dollar hotspot comes complete with private villas for those in the mood for love and with every facility imaginable.

Included are two infinity swimming pools, two gourmet restaurants, a gym and that quintessential Australian spa for mind, body and soul.

Relaxing at Qualia on Hamilton Island in Queensland.
Relaxing at Qualia on Hamilton Island in Queensland.

Rising early the next morning we set sail for Percy Island, a pretty speck in the ocean over-run by day trippers and severely desolated at night.

Our inflatable ferried us calmly through the turquoise water to a deserted white sandy beach. In the middle was a large, almost derelict, rusty corrugated iron A-frame shed. A comfort stop for yachties to help themselves to a bit of water if the tank runs dry, leave a memento, or read the sign: "please leave some paper so we can light the boiler."

The three permanent residents obviously live a meagre existence, but who wouldn't want to swap the frenetic city pace and winter cold for seven square miles of tropical paradise?

Our time at sea was an experience larger than life. No need to go out of your way to find a deserted beach or a forest walking track, each of the islands is a good place for losing yourself.

This is a place not to be forgotten, a place to unwind like no other and a place where you will find plenty of inspiration.

Back in Auckland, we relished the memories of sailing the Great Barrier Reef and the Whitsundays. We knew that what we had experienced was something rather special.

Charters to check out...

Sunsail is the only yacht charter company based on Hamilton Island, making it the ideal place from which to commence an Australian sailing holiday and giving sailors the opportunity to explore this wonderful island before they depart on their yacht charter. Sunsail has a modern fleet of yachts and catamarans to choose from. They offer bareboat and skippered charters and are a qualified RYA Sailing School.

Queensland Yacht Charters is a multi-award-winning company, established more than 25 years ago. They have a fleet of 27 well-maintained vessels, including sailing monohulls, catamarans and power boats.

WHITSUNDAYS TOP 10

1. Add a tick to that bucket list and warm up on the world's whitest sand on Whitehaven Beach, listed as the No. 1 Beach in Australia and the No. 3 Beach in the world on TripAdvisor's Travellers' Choice Beaches list.

2. Crew a million-dollar yacht with some of the nation's best each Wednesday for free. The yachties taking part in the Whitsunday Sailing Club's twilight yacht racing are often short of crew, so turn up at 3pm for a spot of tacking.

3. Walk through the botanical amusement parlour: the Jamie Durie-created gardens on Hayman Island.

4. Splash out on a night at the world's best resort - Qualia on Hamilton Island has been rated the number one resort by Conde Naste. Admire the 14 kilometres of immaculately trimmed hedges and the divine views.

5. Walk to the top of Mount Whitsunday - it'll test your fitness (and your legs) and the views over Airlie Beach to the Coral Sea are worth the effort.

6. Perk up with coffee in the cane fields at Whitsunday Gold Coffee, a quaint little plantation half-way between Airlie Beach and Proserpine.

7. Feel the solitude of the reef without the tourists and camp out on the Reef Sleep pontoon - comfy swags and a million stars at night.

8. Take a 60-minute Heart to Heart and chopper over Heart Reef, perfectly shaped and surrounded by turquoise waters.

9. Grab a hand line and land a prized barramundi, the prince of freshwater catches, just 30 minutes from Proserpine at the Peter Faust Dam.

10. Grab a coldie, pick the perfect palm tree and then sit back and watch the sunset at Montes Reef Resort at Hideaway Bay... Shhh, keep it quiet. This is truly a local secret.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Fly Air New Zealand non-stop to Brisbane from Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington, Queenstown and Dunedin with connections available from all other Air New Zealand domestic airports, connecting with Virgin Australia onward to Townsville or Hamilton Island.

Best time to travel: Between April and early October, avoiding the
'The Wet' summer months.

Find out more at: Australia.com.

Dennis and Rosamond Knill were assisted by Air New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

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