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Outside Guide
How to Explore the Whitsundays

Hamilton Island is just the start of this Australian paradise — and if you're up for an adventure, you can sail its clear waters, hike its rugged landscape and camp at secluded island beaches.

There’s a moment when you’re sailing into Whitehaven Beach — one of the best beaches in the world — when you understand what it’s all about. What everyone’s been talking about when they talk about paradise (well, the blue water, white sand, clear skies kind, anyway). Before that moment, even knowing that I was travelling there, the famous swirling white sands after which the secluded beach is named had seemed somehow not real, like they wouldn’t present in person. But they’re there — and they’re downright breathtaking. So it’s a privilege that this place is so accessible, just an on-sale flight away, not even further up the east coast than Cairns.

And in winter — which is the low season but still a pleasant 26 degrees — it’s not even that crowded. The fact that Whitsunday Island (which is where you’ll find Whitehaven Beach) is uninhabited certainly has something to do with that — the beach is only accessible by boat, and punters find their way here on private vessels, charters and kayaks. It’s secluded and it’s enough to spoil all other beaches for you forever. Sorry.

If you haven’t been to the Whitsundays before — a group of islands located just off the coast of Airlie Beach — you probably have a vague idea of what to expect: blue ocean, white sand. And you wouldn’t be wrong. But if you’re picturing a tropical paradise of low-lying South Pacific-style islands, you’re a little off the mark. The 74 islands on the Whitsundays are far more imposing than I had imagined — they’re rugged, large, mountainous and covered in bush. They’re undeniably Australian, and that’s exactly why you should visit.

But you’ve probably discounted it as a viable holiday option — thought that visiting the area was reserved for people who like resort holidays and and own expensive boats. Not true. Yes, it is great for people who have the budget to pay $1000+ a night to stay at Qualia and sail boats as a hobby, but it’s not a requisite. While travelling around islands requires a bit of planning, the Whitsundays are an explorer’s dream, and it can be done without forking out for total luxury — whether you get a group of mates together to hire a boat and explore the area on the water, ducking into coves and circumnavigating islands, or spend a few days camping on one of the uninhabited islands, hiking to lookouts, snorkelling and keeping watch for turtles.

We bang on about how you can hike up a mountain, visit a waterfall or get on the water near your city, but here’s where to do those things a little further afield. If you like to be outdoors, the Whitsundays is the holy grail of a holiday — you can sleep on (or virtually next to) the water, explore the reef and hike up to vantage points with some of the most insane views in Australia. Plus, a lot of areas don’t even have reception.

Here’s how to do it.

Sailing

Undoubtedly the best way to explore the Whitsundays is by boat — and if you have a group of mates to split the cost with (and who you can tolerate on close quarters), you should be able to make it happen. The beauty of sailing is that it gives you the unbridled freedom to whizz from island to island, visit secluded coves and drop anchor wherever takes your fancy. Of the 74 islands, only eight are inhabited, meaning that basically everywhere you visit is your own private beach. The Whitsundays is also one of the few places in the world where you don’t need a boat licence to hire one, as it’s protected by the reef and has heaps of sheltered inlets to drop anchor for the night. Go Bareboating, which is based out of Abell Point Marina at Airlie Beach, is the company that lets you actually do that, and they have a pretty comprehensive fleet of sweet water rides (motor and sailing) that you can rent out for a period of time — around a week is ideal to leisurely explore few islands.

Hiring one of these boats is by no means loose change, but if you’re doing this in place of an overseas holiday, it can be justified. A low-range boat like this one costs around $3500 for five nights and can fit four people (plus a skipper). Boats go all the way up to the Open 46 at around $2K a night for 10-12 people, which is insane luxury. Once you’re on the boat and have stocked up on beers and food and snacks for the week (Go Bareboating can provide you with food from Whitsundays Provisions), you won’t have any way to spend more money. Most boats will have a barbecue and what you need to cook breakfast, make sandwiches and brew coffee.

You’ll need to do an induction before they hand over the keys but, that said, if you have little experience and want to actually, y’know, relax, it would be best to hire a skipper to steer the ship for you. You can still help out with the cool stuff like dropping the anchor and lifting the sails without worrying that you’re going to run aground. However, this’ll cost you around $250 extra per night.

It’s worth it to wake up with the sun and the sounds of turtles gasping for air, then stargaze in serene silence after the sun goes down.

Camping and Hiking

If you can’t afford to fork out for a boat for the week, there is a cheaper option — and that option is camping. Most of the islands in the Whitsundays are national parks, and for a fee of $6.35 per person per night, they’ll let you set up a tent on one of the designated camping areas. You can camp right near the main attraction — that is, Whitehaven Beach — from which you can explore the southern end of Whitsunday Island, or various other campsites around the island, all of which afford their own views. Also worth exploring is Hook Island — Maureen’s Cove is great for snorkelling.

You can book a transfer to the campsites through Scamper, who can drop you off, pick you up and can also provide you with all the gear you need (from tents to a gas stove) too. Do note that this is hardcore camping and you’ll have to take everything, including your own water. As is the case with hardcore camping, the payoff is that you get a hardcore camping spot. Possibly some of the best beach camping in Australia.

There are a tonne of walking tracks across all the islands, which take you into bush, rainforest, tiny coves and top-of-the-mountain spots to look out across the islands. A must-do is the walk up to the Hill Inlet viewing platform at Tongue Point on Whitsunday Island — here’s where you get the killer view over Whitehaven Beach and, if you come at the right time, the swirling sands that appear when the tide changes. You can get here via Tongue Bay and walking up a short track. If you camp at Dugong Beach you can hike up to Whitsunday Peak, which has some of the best views over the islands.

An important part of visiting the Whitsundays is acknowledging the traditional owners of the land, the Ngaro people. Over on Hook Island, head to Nara Inlet and hike to see rock art and cultural sites. There’s a waterfall and rockpool as well.

Stand-Up Paddleboarding and Kayaking

Stand-up paddleboarding

If you hire a boat through Go Bareboating, you’ll most likely have a SUP on-board, so when you’re anchored, you can set off for a paddle from the boat or take it into shore. At Whitehaven the water is so clear you’re basically floating on air. Plus, the waters are extremely flat so it’s the best place to give it a go. If you’re camping, look to hire one to take with you to your camping spot.

Kayaking

Perhaps the most active, on-the-ground way to explore the islands is via a kayak. Salty Dog Sea Kayaking run six-day tours to explore Whitsunday, Haselwood and Hook Islands.

But if a six-day kayaking tour sounds like way, way too much arm-work — and your idea of a holiday is less laborious (we hear you) — you might like to try your hand at kayaking in shorter stints. Again, a Bareboat will probably have a kayak and you can rent one from Scamper from $50-100 a day — you can even arrange with them to drop you off at one spot and pick you up from another if you’re planning on travelling via kayak. It’s a great way to explore the coves around the islands that a boat may not be able to get to, in particular Hill Inlet (with the swirling sands). Boats can’t sail down there, and it’s an absolute must-do if you’ve got a kayak.

Snorkelling

Um, it’s the Great Barrier Reef, so snorkelling is a must. The great thing about the Whitsundays is that, apart from some damage from April’s Cyclone Debbie, much of the reef is still in pretty good nick. Finding a good spot to snorkel is really about finding good visibility in quiet coves. One cove south of Whitehaven Beach is a little inlet that has a great, clear view of the reef.

You can hire a snorkel mask from the Marina, or organise it when you’re booking a camping spot. Only thing to mention is that you might want to loan a stinger suit too. Stingers are teeny jellyfish (they can be as small as one centimetre and you can’t see them in the water) and are most present from October to May. You really don’t want to get stung by one. Nature, eh?

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Lauren Vadnjal travelled to the Whitsundays as a guest of Tourism and Events Queensland. 

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