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Whitsunday Islands

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Far North Queensland : Great Barrier Reef : Whitsunday Islands
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Whitehaven beach on Whitsunday Island

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 snorkelling 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.

Mainland

There are several small towns from which the Whitsunday islands can be accessed.

Airlie Beach

Airlie Beach (or "Airlie) is the closest port from which to access the Whitsunday islands. With around 25,000 residents it is developed to cater for almost every kind of tourist and backpacker, and is the major hub for trips out to the Whitsunday islands. Abel point marina is the location for taking boats out to islands, and is a brisk fifteen minute walk from Shute Harbour Road, Airlie's High Street, around a recently renovated sea side board walk.

There is a wide choice of accomodation from budget backpackers, to self contained units, to luxury resorts right next to the Marina. Airlie has a great (or chaotic, depending on your view) nightlife with bars concentrated on the main road. Despite its name, Airlie Beach is not the best place for the beach itself. The few near the Shute Harbour Rd are small and pretty, but the presence of jellyfish (the Irukandji are the most common form, but there are signs up detailing different species near the beaches) means people do not swim in the water. "Stinger season" lasts from around October to around May. However more than making up for this, Airlie has a fantastic man made lagoon. This is around two hundred metres long and fifty wide, landscaped with a bridge and grass to lie on surrounding. It is watched by life guards during the day and security at night, and because it is open to swim in at all times the lagoon makes relaxing in Airlie pure delight. On Saturday morning there is a charming market along the waterfront, with a range of locally produced foods and souvenirs.

Accomodation

  • Beaches Backpackers right in the centre of town has many dorm beds and is connected to one of the liveliest bar in town. A normal dorm sleeps eight, has its own shower and toilet, fridge and tv. These are fairly clean, depending on your co-habitees. The cost is $24 per night, with a $10 deposit for the doorkey (don't lose it!). The bar (open to everyone) has live music every Friday and Saturday singing teeny songs to cater for the large young British and Irish contingent of visitors.
  • Magnum's hostel is also on the main road and is connected to a food court, bar, club and unfortunately seedy looking joints for the pokies (slot machines for gambling). In the bar the crowd looks older the live music more alternative and rock style.
  • Backpackers by the bay is an excellent choice for something smaller, and is the 2004 Whitsunday Tourism award winner. There is a very good kitchen for cooking, a small pool, bar, tables and sofas on a relaxed terrace looking into the harbour (unfortunately undergoing construction at the moment for a new marina!). The staff are friendly and offer helpful advice, the dorms sleep four, are kept clean and artistically decorated. The dorms cost is $26 a night (although there may be reductions for YHA card holders). The location is not on the High street, but a five minute walk along the main road and up some steps (although the actual address is 12 Hermitage Drive). There is a bus stop just outside for the motionally challenged, or for trips back to the Proserpine airport.

Prosperpine

A plane just having landed at Whitsunday Coast airport

Proserpine is a town on the mainland, who is host to Proserpine Airport, also known as Whitsunday Coast Airport. It also has a train station for those travelling up the East coast. The two main airlines flying to here are Virgin Blue and Jetstar. After arriving at the airport, luggage is driven around the side of the building be collected from a trailer. A number of buses serve the terminal, and drive to Airlie beach or other locations but all but one must be prebooked, for instance with Cruise Whitsundays. The tickets cost a flat $15 per person one way and can be purchased in a queue at a clearly marked booth just inside the arrival gate. The bus driver mans the booth, and when everyone has got a ticket (about 30-40 minutes wait from arrival) the bus gets going. Another option is to take a taxi, for which there is also a booth inside the arrivals gate. However taxi rides seem to match the bus price, and cost $15 per person. Also, there may not be any taxis waiting. The ride to Airlie beach is smooth and takes about 40 minutes. The driver will ask where you are staying and take you to the door of the hostel or hotel in Airlie Beach.

The airport is currently the focus of some controversy, since the Queensland government drew up plans to close it down in favour of a new airport that can be an international terminal, but a further hour 's journey away. Mainland residents fear that this move will hit local business hard, since with the longer to ports like Airlie, tourists may choose to fly straight to the Hamilton Island airport. Apparently, the new airport proposals would not offer any faster or better connections to the towns. The website www.saveourairport.org/ has been set up as part of the campaign, and travellers keeping an eye out can see the campaigns in shops all around the local towns.

Cannonvale

Cannonvale is a small town on the mainland.


Islands

Whitehaven beach on Whitsunday Island

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 snorkelling 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.

Hamilton

Hamilton Island is the most developed and populated Whitsunday island and has its own airport. It boasts some of the most valuable real estate in Australia, and has many options for hotel stays, which range from pricey to very expensive. The developments are large, and the only sky scrapers (albeit small ones) in the Whitsunday area are located here. Despite development, the island remains a haven for options in getting out to reef areas, fine accomodation, good walking around largely untouched island, and nice beaches.

In March 2007 a tragic accident took place when an intoxicated man attempted to dive from the fourteenth storey of a hotel into a swimming pool below. He missed, landed on a restaurant table and was taken to intensive care, but passed away two weeks later.

Whitsunday

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

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.

History

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, so if you are taking a ferry around the islands, ask if they stop here. 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. 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 snorkelling is a better option, and the rest of the island is lovely anyway.

Accomodation

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 snorkelling 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.

Transfers

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.

Hayman

Hayman island is the most beautiful and by far the most exclusive resort, the whole island privately owned. People without pre booked accomodation 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

Daydream island has some resorts on it in the more expensive range.

Others

There is a long list of islands, most national park but some with small resorts. Long island and South Molle islands have places to stay. So do Lindeman and Dent islands

Camping

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.

Boat companies

  • By far the best option for the adventurous is to go with Ocean Rafting, a newer company with high speed boats that can brave all conditions. This company actually caters for the island hopping day trippers, but can comfortably fit a few campers packs and water on board. The current price that they attempt to charge is $164, according to their brochure available in Airlie beach (note that the website quotes $180, possibly to get more money from an unknowing distance booker). This is technically their two day package for touring all around the islands, and should mean taking you to several different locations for snorkelling. If this does not interest you, there is no reason that they should not charge the normal day rate of $94, if you plan on going to one of the locations that they visit on their typical route (e.g. Whitehaven beach). The staff are super friendly, professional and efficient. They lend you stinger suits (should you feel the need for one) and snorkelling equipment for free, but do not give you water, so you just need to sort it out in Airlie. The company has won adventure tourism awards in 2003 and 2004.
  • According to the Lonely Planet, a company named Camping Island Whitsundays can take people around to various locations. An orange brochure found in Airlie's shops and hostels show competitive sounding prices, ranging from $40 to $150 depending on the distance from Airlie to your campsite. However, this company if you call up the Queensland Parks Authority also seems to operate under the name of Harbourside Boat Cruises. What this licensed operator does not tell you at the time of booking is that its boat is not big enough to go when the seas are a little bit choppy, possibly leaving you high and dry the day you are meant to be picked up. You will get offered a trip to you some place (e.g. Joe's beach) that you did not plan on going to or a refund. This profoundly unprofessional approach is well known to locals, who use the third name of this dodgy outfit: Barry's Boat Hire. Barry and Tracey, who run the company, should be used if there is nothing else possible, and be careful that you do not get caught with another alias. Their phone number is (07) 4946 9330.
  • A third option is the expensively priced Camping Whitsundays who are a company that also do sailing boat hire. They provide you with tents and meals so that you do not need to do anything yourself.

Getting around

  • Bus from Proserpine to Airlie beach
  • Boat companies servicing the islands: Voyager (medium size), Fantasea (big and packaged, like a white Sydney ferry), Ocean rafting (fast and fun), Cruise Whitsundays (biggest boat you've seen, takes you lots of places, also a catamaran and a pontoon on the reef available) and many more.

Getting there and away

  • Airports at Proserpine and Hamilton Island
  • Train station in Proserpine

See

  • Great Barrier Reef Marine Park



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