See the Great Barrier Reef from the air, snorkel in a coral lagoon and camp on your own private island - these are the best ways to experience the real beauty of Australia's Whitsunday Islands
“Budget, budget, budget,” was my mentality for my eight-month round-the-world trip. That is, until I discovered Australia’s Whitsunday coast and, quite simply, fell in love with it.
Five-star reef trip
If there is one trip that warrants splashing out on, it is flying over the Great Barrier Reef by seaplane for the most spectacular views imaginable. Air Whitsunday offer various trips; my boyfriend and I opted for the ‘Reef Adventure’ but were lucky enough to be upgraded to join a honeymoon couple on the ‘Panorama’, which included an extra stop on one of the islands.
Come Christmas Eve, I could hardly contain my excitement. We boarded the seaplane at Whitsunday Airport and flew over many of the islands before making a surprisingly smooth splash landing on the shores of Whitehaven Beach, often described as the most beautiful beach in the world. It did not disappoint – I have honestly never seen water so clear or sand so white. After a relaxing champagne picnic, we were back on the plane for unparalleled views of the Great Barrier Reef, taking in the swirls of Hill Inlet and the perfectly-formed little Heart Reef amongst the various shades of turquoise.
One major advantage of seeing the reefs by seaplane is when it comes to snorkelling. At Hardy Reef, low tide allowed the plane to actually land inside the reef wall, which meant that we then got to snorkel in a suspended coral lagoon! A small glass-bottomed semi-submersible met the plane to allow us to travel further in without damaging the coral, and we eagerly donned our snorkel masks, fins and stinger suits (it was jellyfish season, so, unattractive as looking like a giant Smurf was, it was pretty necessary) and dived in. It is an awesome location to snorkel: because you are actually inside the reef, the water is only about six to seven metres deep, allowing you to see right to the bottom. We swam alongside many varieties of fish, rays and even a reef shark, and, of course, saw plenty of interesting coral. Back on the boat, drinking the last of the champagne and bobbing about in the glistening waters of Hardy Reef made for an unforgettable moment.
After this complete luxury, we decided to get a totally different feel of the Whitsunday Islands. A day trip with the crowds wasn’t what we had in mind, so some research convinced us that independent camping was the way to go. Whitsunday Bookings can organise this for you on 14 different campsites of varying sizes and facilities across the islands; you just need to sort out your permits, which can be done online through the Queensland government website.
So, with our van left in secure parking at Shute Harbour, and armed with tent, camp stove, snorkels, plus enough food and water for five days (just in case…), we hopped aboard the inter-islander boat for our very own Robinson Crusoe experience. Planton Island sleeps a maximum of four people against a backdrop of lush rainforest, and is camping at its most basic. As we’d hoped, for that night it was just the two of us on our private island underneath the (amazingly bright) stars. It really was one of the most rustic, peaceful – not to mention romantic (yes, even in a tent) – evenings.
For night number two, we had chosen Joe’s Beach on the south of Whitsunday Island – practically a resort with its seven tent sites! We spent our time watching the fishing boats, spotting goannas, kayaking (the boat can drop kayaks off with you), snorkelling offshore and listening to the cicadas in the rainforest behind us. We also got to witness the most amazing storm – the whole of the ocean flashed with lightning and the thunder was deafening as it echoed around us, but all was calm by morn.
Back on the mainland
Back on Airlie Beach, after picking up our campervan, we headed to the fantastic Shipwrecked Bar and Grill (www.shipwreckedbarandgrill.com.au) by the artificial lagoon for local wine and fresh seafood (the seafood curry is recommended) before wandering back to Island Gateway Holiday Park, where we spent Christmas Day. As holiday parks go, it was ideal – a great pool, lots of barbecues and lovely large, shaded sites. Prices start at AUS $26 for a camp spot to $140 for a deluxe spa chalet. They also organise lorikeet-feeding at 4pm every day, which is not to be missed – even if the birds do land on your head and pee in your hair.
For accommodation a little more mid-range, head to Summit Apartments where self-catering rooms start at $175. According to a couple on our sea plane trip, these modern hillside apartments are large and spotless, with the top two floors providing stunning views across the Coral Sea and mountains.
We left Airlie Beach to head north, feeling happy in the knowledge that we had got exactly what we wanted from our days on the Whitsunday coast. So before you jump aboard one of the many ‘pack ‘em on’ overnight boat trips, be adventurous and see the Whitsundays from two very different points of view. It will be one of the best decisions you ever make.
Fly over the reefs and islands with Air Whitsunday (www.airwhitsunday.com.au; +61 (7) 4946 9111). Trips range from AUS $165 to $405 per person.
Organise camping on the islands through Tina at Whitsunday Bookings (www.whitsundaybookings.com.au/camping; +61 (7) 4948 2201). Book camping permits at www.epa.qld.gov.au/parks/iaparks/gds/.