"The Whitsundays? Never heard of it," says a friend, after I mention I'm writing an article about how surprising it is that so few Kiwis visit the stunning Queensland island group.
To be fair, plenty of Kiwis have discovered the Whitsundays, but seemingly more as residents than tourists. When I visit to do some research for a novel, there are expat Kiwis at every stop, starting with the shuttle driver from the airport, Cameron from Hawke's Bay.
On an uncharacteristically cool morning, while pedalling me through Airlie Beach on her tuk-tuk tour, golden-tanned Ōamaru transplant Tania Jones says she's always surprised how little attention the Whitsundays receives from its transtasman neighbour.
"No one back home ever knows what it is," she says, as she points out a ferry setting out for Hamilton Island, the most developed of the 74 islands off the coast.
Sure, the region is more laidback and far less developed than its counterparts to the south – the Gold and Sunshine Coasts – but in a good way. In a great way.
Like many Kiwis, Jones initially emigrated to those magnetic destinations, but 16 years ago she was sent to the Whitsundays on a work trip. "I drove over the hill, saw the colour of the water and said, 'I'm going to live here one day'. It's Australia's Mediterranean."
Let the record show that the colour of that water is a luminous turquoise when the sun's shining. In other weathers, its moods and shades vary from bottle-green to concrete grey. But I'd describe the region as less Australia's Mediterranean and more Australia's Bay of Islands or Abel Tasman National Park, albeit in the tropics (at the same latitude as Tahiti and Rio de Janeiro) and on the fringes of the spectacular Great Barrier Reef.
This mixture of similarities and differences is evident right from the approach to Proserpine Airport on the mainland, over scrubby kānuka-like trees, a dam, crops, reservoirs, sheep, river courses marked by trees, patches of telltale Aussie red earth, circling birds of prey. Until the last second, when the tarmac appears, it feels like you're about to land in a field.
Along the coast, the mainland is carpeted in national parks, and the laidback Airlie Beach township pumps to a backpacker beat, but the real attraction is out there where that ferry is headed: the islands and the ocean and the sealife within it.
Here are five reasons you should look a little further north for your next holiday in the sun:
With all those islands, the Whitsundays are paradise for intrepid boaties or those who prefer to sit back with a gin and tonic while someone else does the mysterious stuff with ropes and cleats. Bareboat hires are popular – fill the mini-fridge, get a briefing or a lesson, set a course and away you float – or you can book a berth on a crewed boat, from the backpacker party-cruise tall ships to smaller catamarans.
The tradewinds can make for some invigorating moments, but otherwise it's a case of island hopping and stopping off to meet the locals, such as famous George the massive Maori wrasse and his harem of ladyfish, who hang out in Mantaray Bay off Hook Island.
From five-star Qualia on Hamilton Island, where everybody's favourite Chris (Hemsworth, of course) has been known to hang out, to recently rebuilt resorts on Hayman, Daydream and Long islands, to basic campsites on uninhabited shores (you can hire gear from the company that runs the boat transfers), there really is something for all budgets, whether you want to be in the human action or the natural.
3. Whitehaven Beach
Thanks to its swirling white silica sand and turquoise water, this beach, on Whitsunday Island, is said to be the most Instagrammed in the world, which is incredible considering its relative remoteness. It does get a little busy – although there's plenty of beach for everyone – so plan to get there early in the day, or stay at the campsite and have it (almost) to yourself.
4. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
As picturesque as it is above water (best appreciated on a scenic flight, if you can swing it), it's under the surface that you'll find the real jawdropping stuff. There are 630 species of starfish and sea urchins alone, plus six of the world's seven species of marine turtle, and one of the world's most important populations of the kooky-looking dugong. The best way to meet them is by snorkelling or diving – there are loads of operators taking trips out to the islands and reef. You can even overnight in a tent on a pontoon over the Great Barrier Reef, 39 nautical miles from shore – and if you're not keen on getting wet, there's an underwater observatory there.
5. Airlie Beach Lagoon
On my last trip to the Whitsundays, I left the kids at home – and had a serious case of parental guilt when I came across this glorious free public pool along the town's waterfront. It's huge and inviting, with a wading pool for toddlers, a 1.5m kids' pool and a larger pool split into swimming lanes and areas to laze while you soak up the views out over the Coral Sea to the islands. And there are some nice cafes overlooking it. When you're coming and going from the islands, plan to spend at least an afternoon here – and bring the kids.
Bronwyn Sell's romantic comedy novel Lovestruck, set in the Whitsundays, releases in paperback on February 24 (HarperCollins RRP $32.99).
To be in to win a copy of Lovestruck, to go nzherald.co.nz/win and fill out the competition entry form. competition closes at 5pm Monday, March 9. Standard T&Cs apply.