More than 70 islands
Offshore from Airlie Beach. This group contains more than 70 islands, and includes many of the finest resorts on the Queensland coast. The islands were discovered on Whit Saturday 1770 by Captain Cook as he sailed up the coast on his great journey of exploration. (He called them the Whitsundays, because he hadn’t realized that he had crossed what we now call the International Date Line, so he mistakenly thought it was Sunday.) The individual islands were named after various pals of his in the British admiralty.
Like the other inshore islands along the Queensland coast, these are the peaks of mountain ranges which became submerged in prehistoric times. The islands rise steeply from the sea, their slopes covered with verdant rainforest, and they have an abundance of wildlife.
The Whitsundays offer a bizarre contrast. Several of the islands have been colonized by developers. Parts are pure holidayland, complete with resorts, expensive restaurants and discos. Yet most of the islands remain undeveloped and without permanent inhabitants, and here you can experience some of the finest island scenery in the world.
The Whitsundays are justifiably a major tourist destination. Yet because they are scattered, the islands are capable of absorbing most of the yachts, cruisers, campers and tourist excesses – and still remain spectacular. If you only have time to visit one destination off the Queensland coast, this is probably the best place to come. There’s excellent diving and swimming here. Unlike much of Australia’s tropical coast, the Whitsundays don’t usually attract box jellyfish. The islands are connected by ferries from Shute Harbour. There are also all kinds of other trips on offer – between and around the various islands. Some even last a few days, putting in at different islands for overnight camping.
The largest of the islands is Whitsunday Island, which covers more than 100 square kilometres. It has no resort, and is in many ways the best of the entire group. Six-kilometre-long Whitehaven Beach at the south-eastern end is one of the finest you’ll see any-where in Australia (and that’s saying something). The southern end of the beach, opposite Hazelwood Island, is superb for snorkelling. There’s a campsite here, and at several other of the island beaches. There are also some pleasant walks through the tropical rainforest below the island peak, which rises to more than 400 m. There’s no regular ferry service to the island, but most of the cruises put in here.
Hook Island is the second largest of the islands, with daily ferries from Shute Harbour. A number of excellent beaches, some with campsites. There’s also a resort at the southern end. Nearby Tara Inlet cuts into the centre of the island like a fjord. On the roof of a cave above a tiny beach here, there are some interesting Aborigine drawings – several cruises put in at this spot.
Daydream Island has the closest resort to Shute Harbour, and is a favourite with honeymooners. The excellent swimming pool, together with those in and around it, are a daydream in themselves.
The northernmost of the islands, Hayman Island is the site of an exclusive A$300 million luxury resort Hayman Island Resort (www.oneandonlyresorts.com/one-and-only-hayman-island-australia)which made the headlines in 1995. Day trippers have long been an extinct species on this island.
There are other attractive resorts on Long Island and Hamilton Island (which has its own airstrip and high-rise blocks). Lineman Island has a Club Med.
For resort-free trips try North and South Molle Islands. Quietest of all is Planton, the little island just off South Molle. All of these islands have more or less hardy camping, but can also be visited on day trips.