Dates: Mar 10-13, 2017
Route: Flight from Sydney to Hamilton Island and ferry to Airlie Beach.
The Whitsundays are a collection of 74 islands that are located near the Great Barrier Reef on the Queensland coast. While most of the islands are uninhabited, four primary ones offer hotels ranging from backpacker hostels to ultra-luxury resorts. We decided to base ourselves in Airlie Beach as it is really the only town and on the mainland. There are ferries from there to many of the islands and lots of activities like diving, airplane rides, private cruises, tours, skydiving, etc. It also has a very lively night party scene since many students come here for breaks. We stayed in the excellent Seastar Apartments which are literally apartments with separate living room, kitchen, and bedroom and a beautiful view of the water.
We landed in Hamilton Island which is a fun experience as the runway is short and runs into the Coral Sea. From the moment you step onto the tarmac (it’s a small airport) you feel like you’re on a tropical holiday. Lush vegetation meets the emerald waters and everybody is in a good mood and smiling. We explored the main harbor and had lunch as we had 2 hrs before our ferry to Airlie Beach. There is a small boardwalk with a few cafes and shops. The island itself is privately owned and has some very nice luxury resorts but not much else. The ferry time to Airlie Beach is around 45 minutes with a few stops on some of the other islands along the way.
Based on our research, we knew we wanted to do a scenic flight over the Whitsundays and also spend half a day on Whitehaven Beach, the latter being the star of the island attractions. We booked this together as a package at one of the many travel shops in Airlie Beach and it included transfers from our hotel to the airport and then to the boat terminal. We started the next day with an early morning airplane tour of the islands. This is done in a small, single engine plane with only 6 of us on board. It was a clear, sunny morning and the views, as expected, were spectacular. Seeing the famed Hill Inlet, Whitehaven Beach and of course, parts of the Great Barrier Reef from the air is an experience onto itself. We got some amazing pictures and got to see many of the smaller islands from the air.
After the flight, we were dropped off at the pier to board the boat that would take us to Whitehaven Beach and Hill Inlet. These are the two ‘must see’ places, with the former being on many ‘Top 10 Beaches’ lists and the most photographed beach in Australia. What makes both unique is that the sand here is made of 98% pure silica which gives it a bright, white color. Unlike regular sand, this sand does not hold heat and is soft which makes walking barefoot a pleasure. The combination of this sand and the crystal clear waters blend together to create a swirling fusion of turquoise colors. It is a marvel to behold and looks almost fake as the colors are so vivid and ever changing. As with most of the Whitsundays, both are protected and hence have zero buildings of any kind and there are strict laws about not leaving behind anything. Hill Inlet, located at the northern end of Whitehaven Beach is where the tide works it’s magic to present the ever-changing kaleidoscope of colors.
We chose to go in an ocean raft after reading about it on Tripadvisor and the fun factor due to their use of fast, custom built, semi-rigid inflatable vessels. We went with Ocean Rafting as they were highly rated. We knew it was going to be a fun experience right away as the main pilot was this fun-filled Aussie named Jim. Besides endless jokes and humor, he put on hard rock music as he cranked up the boat to maximum speed and made us all hold on as the raft bounced and slid all the way to the beach. Do not do this unless you are ok with speed, getting wet, and being bounced around like in a rodeo. The first part was to an isolated island where we were allowed to jump into the water and go snorkeling for about 30 minutes. After this, we went to the Hill Inlet and dropped off on the fine white sandbar to access the beginning of the trail to hike up to Tongue Point Lookout to soak up the view of the Inlet. For photography, this was the highlight of the day as you can see from the photos in the gallery. Finally, we were taken to Whitehaven Beach for 2 hours and spent the afternoon swimming and relaxing.
The plan for the next day was to go diving on the Great Barrier Reef. We chose to use Cruise Whitsundays who have a massive pontoon permanently anchored off the reef. We left on a big ferry that took about 2 hours to get to the pontoon. This is a very commercial experience as the journey is all about selling add-on packages for things you can do. We signed up for the ‘Introductory Dive’ which promised to teach us the basics of diving and also get time on the reef. While both of us had dove before, these were all ones where we were accompanied with certified instructors. After arriving at the pontoon, our dive time was a few hours away so we decided to explore the other experiences on offer. First was getting into a small submersible and being piloted along the edge of the reef while observing from large windows. This gave us a taste of what was to come on our dive. Next, we spent some time snorkeling and swimming before it was time for our dive. The entire experience was rather impersonal and hurried and we did not enjoy it all that much. Perhaps it’s because most of the reef is dead or dying and it was not a vibrant as what we had seen elsewhere like the Andaman Islands or Thailand. Other than checking off ‘dive the Great Barrier Reef’ on our list, it was not a memorable experience. Maybe other parts of the Reef are better than what is on offer here in the Whitsundays.
If you are in Sydney, a visit to the Whitsundays is well worth the time. We plan to come back to spend more time on some of the less inhabited islands and also try skydiving as that is a popular option given the views.
(Click on gallery images below for details)