The Whitsunday Islands are a group of 74 islands that lie off the coast of Queensland, Australia and form part of the Great Barrier Reef. The islands are one of the most popular Australian tourist destinations. The vast majority of islands are designated national parks and major attractions include access to coral reefs for snorkeling and diving, pristine beaches, especially Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island and clear aquamarine warm waters. They are well connected by two major airports on Hamilton Island and the mainland town of Proserpine. Over half a million visitors come to the Whitsundays each year.
The Islands are what you come to the Whitsundays for. The name comes from Captain James Cook, the first Englishman to come to Australia, when he sailed here on 4 June in 1770. He was struck by the area's beauty and named the island after the day he thought it was - "Whit Sunday", the seventh Sunday after Easter, in the Christian calendar. It later turned out his calendar was wrong, it was not Whit Sunday, but the name has stuck. From looking around you can see many expensive yachts sailing about, the playground for Sydney's rich and Queensland's property developers. For those who are still saving for their own yacht, many different ferry companies operate from Airlie to bring people on daytrips around the sights. A typical daytrip might include a visit to Whitehaven beach, a trip to a part of reef for some snorkeling and a prepared lunch. Most islands do not have places to stay, since they are protected national parks. But for the more adventurous an enormous choice of camping sites dot every island, where nobody else will come.
Before tourism could make money, the Whitsundays were used for logging. Aboriginal people had traditionally used the trees here for timber, which might account for references in Captain Cook's diary about grasslands when he first came here. White settlers did the same, after the Aboriginal population had dwindled away through European diseases and bloodshed. Nowadays, there is no visible trace of logging ever having happened in the Whitsundays, although on Hook there are two clues of previous industry. One is that at the Nara inlet there are Aboriginal cave paintings. This can be accessed by boat, either on private charter (bareboating) or on one of the backpacker sailing yachts who sometimes stop in. The second is that if you stay on Hook (and on some other islands) you may hear bleating in the forest. Goats were introduced by the colonialists, so that loggers could have something to hunt in the event that food ran out.
Hamilton Island and Proserpine are the airports that service the region. Boats depart from adjacent to the airport at Hamilton to many of the Whitsunday Island resorts. Alternatively you can get the bus from Proserpine to Shute Harbour, and out to the islands from there.
There are buses from Airlie Beach to Shute Harbour as well, and it is a popular stopping off point on the way to the island. Sometimes standby rates for the island resorts are available there.
Whitehaven Beach is by far the most recognized of all the Whitsundays landmarks. Stretching about 4.5km and consisting of fine, brilliant white sand, it presents the image that is used more often in tourism brochures and regularly on TV advertising in Australia. The view from the lookout across Hill inlet is remarkable and on a sunny day (Like most days are), it is nothing short of spectacular.
The sand at Whitehaven Beach is 98% pure silica. The water lapping along the beach which is usually sheltered during the south easterly trade winds (Most of the year) and so the water where the sea meets the beach is often crystal clear and makes for perfect swimming.
Hamilton Island is the most developed and populated Whitsunday island and has its own airport, post office and bank. It boasts some of the most valuable real estate in Australia, and has many options for accommodation, which range from standard hotel room to your own house! The most cost effective way of staying on the island is a house or apartment, especially for larger groups eg for weddings. There are many developments including unit complexes, the new Great Barrier Reef Yacht Club, the newest resort, the 6 star Qualia (on the island's northern tip) and the golf course and accommodations planned for Dent Island. High rise is on the island - the Reef View Hotel, Whitsunday Apartments and Yacht Harbour Towers are iconic. A bit 70's/80's in style from the outside, they are nevertheless testaments to the island founder Keith Williams' genius as the views from the upper rooms are stunning.
Hamilton Island and Dent Island are privately owned by the Oatley family, founders of Rosemount Wines in Australia. The island is owned on a perpetual lease from the Commonwealth Government. Bob Oately bought the island from previous owners Banker's Trust, a publicly listed company. The island was founded in 1984 by Keith Williams, who also started Sea World, on the Gold Coast. In the 90's Keith went bankrupt due to complications with a pilot's strike and banking problems and the island was briefly taken over by Holiday Inn.
Despite development, the island remains a haven for options in getting out to reef areas and Whitehaven Beach (about 1/2 hr by boat, Great Barrier Reef about 2 hours), fine accommodation, plenty of restaurant options, good walking around largely untouched island (Passage Peak hike is a tough effort but being the highest point on the island the views are very well worth it, it takes about an hour hard walking from the back of Reef View to the summit or allow 3 hours round trip if you want to stroll. Some brave souls run it or take their mountain bikes!), and nice beaches. There is certainly plenty to do on Hamilton (or Hammo to the locals) or you can definitely just relax by one of the pools.
Don't expect a deserted tropical island though - it can get very busy during peak times (September/October and Christmas period). The feel is more small town, down to the community atmosphere, stopping for chats along the street and friendly helpful locals. Quite a few locals have been on island for years but there is also a huge number of young "transients" who only stay a few months. Due to the developments there are also many who regularly holiday on the island, whether they rent an apartment or own their own.
The island's populated areas are loosely divided into three main areas - Marina Village (or Front Street) - this is where most of the shops and restaurants, the bank, the post office, the general store and the newsagency are located; Resort side - Catseye Beach, the main pools and the resort accommodations - Reef View Hotel, Whitsunday Apartments, Palm Terraces/Bungalows and the Beach Club are here; and the "northern end" where most of the apartments and houses are as well as the newest resort Qualia on the island's northern tip. None of these areas are more than 5-10 minutes by golf buggy (the main mode of transport) away from each other.
Dent Island is west of Hamilton Island and is owned by the same owner as Hamilton under the same lease from the Commonwealth Government. It has been known in the past as Hamilton Island West. Currently mostly uninhabited, Hamilton Island owner Bob Oatley is building a golf course on the island to include a golf club house and villa accommodation.
Whitsunday Island is the largest island in the archipelago, and home to the famous Whitehaven Beach. Most day boat trips come here and it is on most people's "must see" list of things while here. Whitehaven beach faces east towards the open sea, making some boat journeys there very choppy. The size of the island also means there are dozens and dozens of little coves and inlets where people with yachts or boats can pull in away from it all. Many boats also go to Tongue Point, which has a well trodden trail up to a built lookout over Whitehaven. Some of the boat packages on offer for first time visitors can have the feeling of a troop march for one camera shoot place to the next, so if doing daytripping, choose your boat company wisely.
Whitehaven beach's main attraction is the pure white silica sand, along a seven kilometre (four or five mile) stretch. Sun glasses are essential (seriously!). Different theories about the sand exist, one of the more interesting that Australia's tectonic plates rubbed together and the silica oozed up from the Earth's, before being washed up here. Because of the sand's purity, it was almost mined by the American government in the 1960s for military uses. The substance can be used for satellite dishes. Luckily that did not come to pass, and the beach is now protected under the national park. Well over a hundred people dock here daily on tours, and it is always being voted one of the best beaches in the world, by the people who vote for these things. But between about 4pm and 10am it is entirely deserted, for the intrepid few that camp overnight (or people who own yachts). There is a pit toilet behind the beach and no running water.
Hook island is the second largest in the archipelago. The first maps of the area were drawn incorrectly, and depicted Hook island in the shape of... yes you guessed correct! In fact, Hook is shaped something like the Peloponnese in Greece, looking like three downward pointing fingers. Hook is home to a sole small resort on the very tip of the third finger, as well as an underwater observatory, leaving 95% of the island as national park.
Hook Island Accommodation Offering by far the cheapest way to stay on an island is the Hook Island Wilderness Resort. Dorms cost $35 a night, which are simple but beautiful, since they face directly onto the little beach. Coral washes onto the shore and the sand is glints with specks of shelly colour. There are also very decent rooms for doubles and singles, with air conditioning for $100. There is a bar ($4 for a can of VB or a XXXX or glass of wine) and a swimming pool. There is snorkeling in the bay in front, and a couple of different boat companies use this place as one to let the tourists see some coral. It is not the best, but there is also coral at neighbouring "Pebble beach" (which isn't pebbles but boulders) that is more extensive. One must however get times correct, so as not to be stranded when the tide drops, with the prospect of a very painful walk across the coral bed back to shore. Stinger suits (for poisonous jellyfish) are charged at $5 a day, snorkel gear and flippers/fins provided for free. The actual risk of a sting, and what the worn out stinger suit boat companies and resorts provide would do to protect you, is questionable. So if you bring a rash top you can minimise your worries (and look like less of a goof). As a guest you also get free use of the kayaks, although unfortunately you cannot go outside the bay. The managers are relaxed, very relaxed. But they are also reasonably friendly and can help in organising boats for trips to the more impressive parts of the reef or other transfers. There is little bushwalking to do, except the trail to Pebble beach.
Getting to Hook Island The resort arranges for you to hop on board the ferry named Voyager (leaving from Airlie's Abel Point Marina, seats about a hundred, is medium size and gives you free lamingtons, scones and coffee) to take you there and back. Doing this alone costs $25 per person each way. Day trips on Voyager around the islands cost around $80, so if you asked you might be to do this as well on the way there and back.
The Coral Observatory Hook island's more recent foothold in Whitsundays history was that a local businessman built an underwater coral viewing station here for opening in 1969. Apparently, in order to build observatory's foundations, he exploded the coral bed and thousands of dead fish floated the top. Frustrated at what he had just done he exclaimed, "Struth, I wanted people to see the bloody coral, but I can't get to it without blowing the bastard up!" Today the observatory is distinctly unremarkable. The windows for your "observing" are 30 centimetres wide and fogged up. It does however serve as a pier to the island. Try not to be sold this as a reason to come, because snorkeling is a better option, and the rest of the island is lovely anyway.
Hayman Island is beautiful and by far the most exclusive resort, the whole island privately owned. People without pre booked accommodation may not dock. Some of the most beautiful coral reefs are just off shore from here on the north west side of Hook Island.
Daydream Island is a small single resort, with paths connecting the resort activity centers with the accommodation rooms. The Island is quite family friendly, and includes a range of activities for guests.
Long Island is mostly undeveloped save for three resorts. One is largish - the Club Croc Resort on Happy Bay. The other two are smaller, more intimate "eco" style resorts - Peppers Palm Bay and Whitsunday Wilderness Lodge on Paradise Bay.
South Molle Island
South Molle is a small resort island. The company also operates Koala Resort backpackers in Airlie Beach as well as three backpacker boats that are run out of Airlie.
Lindeman Island is a Club Med resort.
Outrigger Cup. During June or July each year is the Outrigger Cup. Outrigging is a Hawaian sport using canoes with one "outrigger ama" to balance the boat on the ocean. During this week the action is mostly centred on Catseye Beach (on the resort side of the island) with 1, 2 and 6 person canoes competing over days in various events including short sprints and longer marathons, the most difficult being the Hamilton Cup marathon where the paddlers go right around Hamilton Island. For the fitter crews (Hawaii mens are particularly strong) this takes about 3 hours - that's hard paddling! The atmosphere is festive, the competition fierce and well known Australian Iron Woman Lisa Curry-Kenny is a regular competitor. Her Noosa team is a very strong competitor in the women's divisions.
Hamilton Island Race Week. August sees the famous Race Week, started by Keith Williams in the 80's. This sees hundreds of yachts from 30 foot boats rented for the week to billion dollar super yachts finely tuned for serious racing. Famous yachts that regularly compete include Skandia, Alfa Romeo and one of the Wild Oats yachts - owned by the island's now owner Bob Oatley. Various classes of racing range from cruising division (despite the name some crews in this division are very competitive!) to IRC divisions for the yachting professionals. Race Week is when the island really comes alive with hundreds of sailors filling the marina and hotels, from the serious bustle of the mornings getting ready to race, the colourful spinnaker starts (on the last day various tourist boat operators take their vessels out with guests to watch the starts), to the sunburnt yachties straggling one and two boats at a time into the marina after a days racing to crack open a beer, put some music on and then head to the Marina Tavern for some hard "relaxing" after a day of hard racing. The night life is almost as important as the day's racing! Many Australian entertainers such as Jimmy Barnes have regularly perfomed at Race Weeks and there is live music every night from various performers. By far the most anticipated highlight is the Whitehaven Beach party - no-one wants to miss it! Only two divisions race over to Whitehaven but all the yachts go, along with the tour boats and ferries and barges. Bars and barbeques are set up on the beach and everyone plays beach cricket (during the 80's famous Australian cricketers would play on the beach. Famous Australians such as Elton Flatley and Lachlan Murdoch attend in recent times), throws a frisbee or a footy, plays volleyball and generally mucks around. Footwear not required, bikini or boardshorts, hat and sunnies essential.. Some island local girls plan their bikini outfit well in advance!
There is a superb variety of choices for campsites on the Whitsunday islands for people who want to get away from all the pre-packaged tourism. The first thing to check out is the basic brochure online from the Queensland Government. While it has not been updated since June 2002, it gives a good outline of the different campsites and a map of where everything is. To stay on a campsite you need to phone up Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service on (07) 4946 7022, or visit their office in Airlie. It costs $4 per person per night and offers a brilliant way to to see the scenery unhindered during the day, and stars when night falls when no one is left in sight. You just need a pack for some food, some water and a tent and you are away.
The national parks of the Whitsundays also fall under the regulatory oversight of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (or GBRMPA for "short"). As detailed in the online brochure, campers are required to have sufficient water. The recommendation is five litres per person per day, and three days more for emergencies. In practice three or four litres a day will last people who are careful. So as not to be overcharged purchase the water or big containers to carry some at a petrol station or supermarket in Airlie. Another regulation, from the collective wisdom of the two authorities, is that boat companies need special permits in order to drop campers off on an island (even though someone with their own boat would need no permission!). This means that there are only three boat companies who are allowed to take campers and the lack of competition means inflated prices and less people enjoying camping as a result.
Hayman Island is the most upmarket of the Whitsunday resorts. Lindeman Island has quite a few facilities, if you go for the "Club Med" resort feel.
There are many daytripper boats out to the Whitsunday Islands, but you can also take a day or two trip to Airlie Beach on the mainland if you like.