All the stresses of life vanish as Joanna Hunkin kicks off her shoes in the Whitsundays.
"This is nirvana," said Michael. "Mmm," we all sighed contentedly. Sitting on the back of the launch Horizons, glass of chilled bubbles in hand, the late afternoon sun hovered over the brilliant azure sea and we all agreed this could be heaven.
As small waves gently rocked us, we sat quietly soaking in the view, drunk with laziness from our day's excursion.
Ahead lay the postcard-perfect view of Whitehaven Beach, where minutes earlier we had frolicked in the powder-fine white sand. We had played in the sand - throwing it, rolling in it and amusing ourselves enormously by "squeaking'" our feet on it.
It's not surprising they chose this spot with its 7km of pure silica sand, and wider than a rugby field in places. It is picture-perfect. The island of Whitsunday Cairn, home to Whitehaven Beach, is a forested oasis surrounded by white sand shores.
Even the weather was faultless - clear skies, a pleasant 26 degrees topped with a breeze that kept us cool in the blazing sun, but didn't freeze us when we got out of the water.
I was surprised at how similar the journey to Whitehaven Beach was to cruising the Hauraki Gulf. As we passed rocky pockets of shorelines, tree-covered hilltops and windswept grass slopes, memories of family day-trips to Waiheke, Motuihe and Tiritiri Matangi surfaced.
The difference is the water. As my companions - all Aussies - stood shivering on the wooden aft-deck, garnering courage to take the plunge, I dived in. Compared to the cooler waters of Aotearoa, the balmy 24 degrees of the Coral Sea is wonderful.
Fortunately, it was still only October. A month later and stinger season would have begun, meaning the inelegant addition of stinger suits to our water wardrobe. Though box jellyfish are known to be fatal, it's the Irukandji you should worry about. Smaller than your thumbnail, it's impossible to see the blighters coming, and there's no anti-venom if you are stung.
The ocean has a surprising amount of salinity. As we sunned ourselves on the boat after an afternoon dip, a solid crystal crust formed on our skin, cracking and flaking every time we rolled over.
The Coral Sea's spectacular visibility makes it a favourite spot for snorkellers, divers and fishers. Well, that and the fact it's on top of that natural phenomenon known as the Great Barrier Reef. Minor detail, really.
Traditionally, cruising the Whitsundays has been a backpacker pilgrimage. The islands are also the retirement village of old racing yachts, where the once-great dames of the ocean come to live out their days cruising the calm, sheltered waters.
These elements mean there is an abundance of sailing tour companies, offering three- and seven-day tours of the islands and outer barrier reef. Bareboating is also a popular way to cruise the islands - hiring a launch or sailing boat and skippering yourself around designated waterways and anchorages.
While you don't need a licence to get the most out of the bareboat experience, at least one of your party should have sailing experience. The charter companies give a thorough briefing and trial run so your party can become confident handling the vessel, and they maintain daily radio contact for position and to answer any questions. The boats are well maintained and provide the essentials for a few days' sailing with everything from safety and navigational equipment to shower and toilet, galley, dinghy, outboard as well as fishing and snorkelling gear.
Crewed yachts provide an alternative to bareboating. Spend a few days aboard a square-rigger tallship or an America's Cup legend, a
classic yacht, a hi-tech catamaran or a per-formance racing yacht. There's great food, great company and comfortable accommodation. And you get hands' on experience, hoisting the sails and taking the helm.
Itineraries vary depending on the conditions and passengers' wishes but highlights include Whitehaven Beach and snorkelling on the reef. Diving is an option with several crewed charters, as is learning to sail.
A third option is cruising the 74 islands in style aboard Horizons - a Riviera 48, 14m launch, with leather interior, flat-screen televisions, ensuites and Captain Mick, aka Michael McDonald.
The majority of backpacker charters cruise within the same sailing path. Typically, they visit Whitehaven Beach and Hill Inlet on Whitsunday Cairn; Blue Pearl Bay, Manta Ray Bay and Butterfly Bay on Hook Island; and Daydream Island.
There are 74 islands to choose from. While Whitsunday Cairn is known for its spectacular white sand shores, others are fringed with giant boulders and shingled bays.
All the islands are protected by three, government authorities - Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area; Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority; and Whitsunday Planning and Management. Strict measures ensure the archipelago and surrounding sea retain their purity.
It is forbidden to take anything out of the area or to bring anything foreign in. Dropping so much as a prawn's head into the sea could get you in the pooh, we were told. Bugger, there went our plans to nick off with a jar of sand for home exfoliation purposes ...
Once you have sailed the islands and checked out the barrier reef's underwater, the sky's the next limit.
Flying above the Coral Sea you realise how varied the islands are. Some are little more than rock clusters, while others look like tropical jungle hideaways. This is the way to observe the full phenomenon of the barrier reef, including the small, perfectly formed Heart Reef in the middle of the Coral Sea, - the marriage proposal capital of Australia, says our host Paula at Aviation Adventures.
As we flew in the small bubble helicopter, again we were stunned by the bright water and the beautiful islands. Many holiday destinations bill themselves as paradise, yet few are. The Whitsundays is one of those rare gems. Nirvana indeed.
Few of the 74 Whitsunday Islands are inhabited, but those that are offer markedly different facilities and activities. From basic backpacking on Hook Island to the exclusive lagoon retreat on Hayman Island, the Whitsundays caters to all budgets and styles.
The most populated island in the Whitsundays chain, Hamilton Island is famous for its race week every August. The island has an airport and ferries sail regularly to the island from Daydream Island and Shute Harbour, near Airlie Beach. With shops, restaurants, cafes and bars, the island is the most commercial.
Also sitting in the upper echelons of the market is Hayman Island. The exclusive resort is a member of The Leading Hotels of the World organisation. The island is surrounded by coral outcrops and smaller desert islands, and a walking track leads to secluded beaches and bays, where you may spot one of Hayman's endangered proserpine rock wallabies.
Long Island has three resorts, including an eco retreat. The South Long Island Nature Lodge offers a technology-free and children-free retreat. Long Island Resort is a family facility with swimming pools and the island's only nightclub. Alternatively, Peppers Palm Bay offers a more exclusive option.
Geared towards the family market, Daydream Island is open to day-trippers as well as overnight guests. Close to the mainland, Daydream Island is just a short ferry trip from both Shute Harbour and Hamilton Island. The island has an aquarium, mini-golf, an open-air cinema, shark and stingray feeding.
The southern-most island in the Whitsunday archipelago, Brampton Island is almost entirely a national park and home to 12 sandy beaches and the Melaleuca Forest. The island offers several bush walking trails throughout the park. A 7km bush track circumnavigating the island is considered the best nature trail in the Whitsundays. The island is also home to Brampton Island Resort.
Lindeman Island/Club Med
What sets Lindeman Island apart from other Club Med resorts is its location - set among 690ha of World Heritage National Park.
Hook Island offers the best views of the island chain from Hook Peak - 459m above sea level. At 6m below sea level is the historic underwater observatory. Hook Island Resort is a low-key facility offering campsites, dormitories and cabin-style accommodation.
South Molle Island
The palm-fringed shores of South Molle Island make it the quintessential tropical island resort. There is also a nine-hole golf course.