Although the term paradise is without a doubt cliché, one must admit that there’s something that we all love about a tropical vacation. Those swaying palm trees, glistening cerulean seas, and soft sand beaches as well as a beachside resort are beyond tempting, especially when escaping the doldrums of a blistery cold winter. Australia is home to such a place that should be revered right alongside Cabo, Jamaica, the Maldives, and even its nearest rival, Bali. That place is the Whitsundays, and it is truly a destination worthy of being described as the cliché paradise in the heart of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
At the midpoint of the Great Barrier Reef chain are a string of 74 islands, and one of Australia’s most popular tourism destinations, the Whitsundays. This is Australia’s tropical playground with boats at every turn, azure waters, mountainous islands with remote coves and private beaches, and of course the Great Barrier Reef as its main attraction.
The majority of the islands remain undeveloped with only a few offering exclusive stays at one of their tony beach resorts. The rest of those islands remain blissfully pristine protected lands as part of the national park system. Equally as pleasing to know is that most of the waters have also been designated as a marine park so it is illegal for any type of commercial fishing and in a few areas restricted to fishing with one line and one hook. As a result, these waters are teeming with wildlife and on land as well where the islands are a refuge for birds, reptiles, and other animals. The flora and fauna are pristine just as it was when Captain James Cook sailed through these very same islands in 1770. The story goes that was so impressed by the beauty of the area that he named it for the day that he arrived which was Whit Sunday or the seventh Sunday after Easter.
The wildlife in this natural habitat is diverse, exotic, and nothing short of incredible with islands surrounded by fringing reefs of coral gardens creating a habitat for marine life. Six of the world’s seven marine turtles can be found in these waters as well as 130 types of sharks and rays. Humpback whales migrate to these protected waters to spawn their calves. While out boating you’re likely to see snubfin and bottlenose dolphin but also an odd, mysterious and rare creature, the dugong which is very similar to a manatee or the now extinct, sea cow.
Beyond the sailing, pristine nature, and diverse wildlife, the Whitsundays is also renowned for its beaches. Whitehaven Beach, in particular, has perennially been voted amongst the best in the world. And Whitehaven isn’t just any old beach – it’s special. It is brilliant white to the point of glowing due to its composition. This is a silica sand beach that differs from other sand as the sand is created from granulated quarts giving its illuminating brilliance. The four-mile stretch of beach is nothing less than gorgeous with glittering white sand, clear turquoise blue waters in a calm cove inlet.
The ideal base to explore the Whitsundays from the mainland is the seaside town of Airlie Beach. The coastal towns promise a Martha’s Vineyard-like vibe with a good offering of boutiques, sidewalk cafés and alfresco eateries. As the sun begins to set the area comes alive with plenty of lively watering holes and pubs playing live music into the wee hours of the night.
The Whitsundays is a playground in the sea with endless adventures above and under the waterline as well as ashore. From sailing to scuba diving, or just finding a sandy beach in a clandestine cove for time alone with a loved one. The area is known for sailing and boating with everything from mega yachts to classic tall ships and speedy catamarans so chartering a yacht is always a good option to explore the area.
Many excursions literally allow you to dive into the Whitsundays. Red Cat Adventures offers an action-packed day of activities that begin with their high-powered speed boat zipping across the sea to coveted locations in the marine park. Along the way, passengers take in the beautiful scenery of the tree-covered mountains of the islands that dot the sea while spotting dolphins, sea turtles, and even the aforementioned dugong. Although the journey is a treat itself, so is the destination which are two snorkeling sites that offer exploration of the colorful sea coral and exotic reef fish including a local celebrity of sorts, ‘George’ the massive Humphead Maori Wrasse.
Without a doubt, the highlight of the day is a visit to Whitsunday Island and the area’s most iconic landmark, Whitehaven Beach with its glowing white sand. The cove is surrounded by the unusual beach with clear waters making of the perfect sun, sand, and swim-filled afternoon. Additionally, around the park, there is an exquisite walking trail through the bush and across the top of the island giving unobstructed views of the surrounding sea and islands. The cruise wraps up with lunch on board and then an exhilarating ride back to shore.
To explore the farthest reaches of the Great Barrier Reef, guests travel 40 nautical miles for a day of undersea exploration at the Reef World pontoon with Cruise Whitsundays. The journey begins with a leisurely boat ride upon the passenger’s vessel, with a few stops to pick up and drop off passengers along the way at several islands.
The journey terminates at the Reefworld pontoon, a massive three-story seaside play station at Hardy Reef. Hardy Reef is a mile and a half stretch of the untouched reef where guests dive into a day of snorkeling, glass-bottom boat tours, and for the more serious divers, a world-class scuba diving adventure. Explorers will see underwater wildlife from extraordinary coral formations to the giant neon clams, green sea turtles and exotic fish.
The Whitsundays is known to most Australians as a place to stay and play with your yacht. If by chance you find yourself without your own yacht, you can still partake in a sailing adventure with Whitsundays Sailing aboard their classic 62-ft gaff-rigged tall ship schooner, Providence Whitsundays. Their sunset cruise sets out for a late afternoon tour around the bay and surrounding islands. Once in the open ocean, the crew hoists the massive sail up the three-story mast. As the wind billows in the sail, the vessel begins the zig and zag across the sea under the power of the wind. An included glass of bubbles is a nice touch as guests enjoy the afternoon, fresh air, and golden sun. As the sun begins to set, there’s no better place to enjoy the end of the day and to raise a toast to the good life found here in the Whitsundays.
The best place to explore the sea and the stunning island is from the Airlie Beach area that offers several options to return to after a long day of sun, sea, and sand.
The Coral Sea Resort Hotel is a hip and happening boutique hotel with 77 hotel rooms on the waterfront along the sea. Indoors is chic and contemporary with an impressive design, stylish décor, and edgy artwork at every turn. The outdoor pool scene is what you’d expect in Santorini or Miami complete with 20 and 30 somethings with toned and tanned bodies taking in the sun on chaise lounges in between dips in the 80-foot-long pool. As the sun begins to set, the scene turns to sultry with live music from their trendy watering hole and restaurant, The Rock. At the water’s edge on the manicured lawn around the pool, Instagrammers emerge dressed for a magazine photoshoot taking photos at the iconic adult swing. Nearby, couples head down to the long pier stretched over the sea for an aperitivo at dusk. The pool, bar, and restaurant scene are arguably the coolest place in town.
Indoors is something special as well and makes the ideal location to restore after a long day of adventure. Accommodations are light and airy with comfortable furnishing with modern amenities. The Spa Deluxe Rooms offer a decadent retreat with an expansive terrace overlooking the marina, seascape, and horizon. The outdoor jacuzzi is nothing short of sublime to enjoy a bottle of champagne with your loved one while taking in the night of stars.
Just on the edge of Arlie Beach, you’ll find the Mirage Whitsunday. The Mirage Whitsunday offers accommodations with multiple bedrooms as well as offers an Olympic-sized pool, spa and, workout center. Each opulent five-star self-contained and serviced apartment feels like a penthouse, complete with a spacious living room, ultra-modern kitchen, and dining area for six. This is the ideal place to stay for a long weekend or a month with a contemporary design and plenty of homely touches to assure a comfortable stay.
The apartments also come outfitted with all the doodads and amenities you’ll need from the fully equipped kitchen with top-notch appliances and as well as a washer and dryer. The bedroom is ideal as well with an uber-comfy bed, separate shower, and a bath with a privacy wall that opens onto the bedroom to create the mood for an intimate evening ahead.
In the living areas, there is a wall of sliding glass doors that lets in copious amounts of natural light and opens onto a roomy terrace to create an indoor-outdoor living space ideal for entertaining. The most exquisite feature is the uninterrupted panoramic views of the bay below as boats crisscross the horizon on the sea. Alfresco dinners are divine as are the moments of just staring out at the Coral Sea and the Whitsunday Islands and being mesmerized by the stunning views before you.
The Heart Hotel and Gallery Whitsundays is the quintessential boutique hotel in strolling distance from everywhere you want to go in town. The 40-room hotel is modern and new with elegant rooms, upscale furnishings, and smart TVs with complimentary movies, BOSE sound, Nespresso Coffee Machine, and plush comfortable bed. The Designer King Spa Room is an excellent option and includes a whirlpool bath as well as L’Occitane bathroom amenities. Each unit also has a balcony custom made for that morning cup of coffee from your Nespresso coffee machine. There is an art gallery on the second floor that features exceptional artwork and paintings by talented local artists. In addition to being in the heart of town, the Heart Hotel and Gallery Whitsundays is just a few steps from the popular Airlie Lagoon which is a huge saltwater swimming lagoon.
Arlie Beach offers many great dining options from juicy burger joints to fine dining. There are plenty of breezy outdoor café’s along with the town with a lively environment for a late breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
For extensive seafood and a top-notch international menu, The Rocks at the Coral Sea Resort Hotel is a tasty option. The vibe is chic and cosmopolitan with a bar scene and lounge area decked out in a jungle motif and neon lights. The live music and DJ’s create a chill vibe, while the bartenders are at the ready with one of their delicious craft cocktails.
The restaurant overlooks the pool scene and sea beyond and makes for a fun dinner with friends or for a romantic evening. The cuisine is exceptional as well offering a wide range of dishes from steaks and burgers to the star of the menu, fresh local seafood. You’ll want to dive in the seafood platter with the delicacies of the sea from beer-battered barramundi, coconut prawns, and mussels.
Overlooking the Coral Sea Marina is Sorrento Restaurant and Bar which as the name and location imply, is the town’s top-notch Italian seafood restaurant. The bar is on the first floor and offers a large deck perfect for bending the elbow with locals for a cold beer on a hot day. Upstairs is where the restaurant is located with indoor and outdoor seating a lovely interior décor. Outside the views of the marina and bay are idyllic especially in the evening as the sunset behind the marina. The feeling is more like San Remo than Australia.
The atmosphere is friendly with dining experience is as delicious as the setting. Meals feature delicacies fresh from the sea such as the house-made spaghetti with tiger prawn and spanner crab, cherry tomato. Other options include wood-fired pizzas, Italian pasta, and exceptional steaks. Buon aperitivo!
Australia is a destination with many gifts for the intrepid traveler. Melbourne is the cultural hub and Sydney for business but the beaches and adventures at sea, there’s no place like the Whitsundays. It’s is truly a cliché worthy paradise.
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