Cuddle the koalas, outsmart the jellyfish, waltz with Matilda, spot the Heart Reef from the helicopter. It's all in a day's work in the gorgeous Whitsunday Islands in the Great Barrier Reef.
THE WHITSUNDAY ISLANDS, Australia – First things first: If you're flying to the Whitsundays, get a window seat. The view is spectacular. The seemingly small airstrip makes for an impressive landing. You're surrounded by turquoise waters and leafy green mountaintops.
The archipelago is comprised of 74 islands strung along the coast of Queensland and the periphery of the Great Barrier Reef. Many islands are protected, but the few that have hotels do a good job of covering all price points: There literally is something for everyone. Visitors travel from across the globe to experience white beaches and dive amongst the world's most beautiful coral reefs. Sailing is also hugely popular, drawing a large crowd, especially in August for Hamilton Island Race Week.
The largest inhabited island is home to the only major airport off the mainland. The marina functions as a small downtown with shops and restaurants, while surrounding land has private homes and several hotels. Adding to the small-town feel is the lack of cars. Everyone cruises around on golf buggies.
The lobby at Beach Club
WHERE TO STAY
Beach Club The island's only boutique hotel is on Catseye Beach surrounded by meticulously landscaped gardens. A boho-chic vibe permeates throughout but is most present in the lobby with its natural wood and woven elements. Rooms come with a terrace or balcony, so you're guaranteed a good seat for watching the sunset.
Qualia The newest and most luxurious hotel sits on the island's secluded northern tip. Guests enter through a giant Jurassic Park-like gate surrounded by tropical flowers and fragrant eucalyptus trees. The individual guest pavilions and attentive staff working seamlessly behind the scenes make it easy to forget you're not on a private island. All of this comes with a high price tag, but everything from check-in, where you're greeted with a glass of Champagne and set of keys to your own golf buggy, to departure is done with the utmost care and attention to detail. Book a Winward pavillion for the plunge pool overlooking the turquoise sea. Aesop products in the bathroom and beach towels by Australian designer Collette Dinigan are a bonus. Children below the age of sixteen are not welcome. This is the place to sneak off to for romance and privacy.
Yacht Club Villas This is the spot group and families. The stand-alone villas are in a gated community overlooking Dent Passage, a quick walk from the marina. Australian architect Walter Barda stayed true to his signature aesthetic, using organic materials like timber and natural stone throughout. Each nautically themed home has four bedrooms and bathrooms, an electric golf buggy, private laundry, and a gourmet kitchen. Guests have access to a private concierge and the Hamilton Island Yacht Club.
WHERE TO EAT
Beach Club Restaurant Alfresco dining with an emphasis on locally sourced seafood. For an extra special evening, try the Water's Edge degustation menu, which is served at a secluded beachside table for two.
Bommie The deck at Hamilton Island Yacht Club is perfect for sunset drinks and excellent people watching. Dinner has a more formal dress code (collared shirts for men, no flip-flops) and what many consider the island's best food.
Club House at Hamilton Island Golf Club Even non-players should make the trek to Hamilton's new golf club, and the ten-minute ferry from the marina to Dent Island couldn't be easier. Typical country club fare is served at tables overlooking jaw-dropping views of the surrounding islands.
Long Pavilion Restaurant Qualia's fine dining restaurant is exclusive to guests or by invitation only. Try to get a reservation if you can — the mod Oz cuisine and sunset views are worth the effort.
Romano's Italian Restaurant Head down to the marina for waterfront Italian and fresh seafood that changes daily. Grab a seat close to the water so you can look at fancy yachts docked in the harbor.
The view from Hamilton Island Golf Club
WHAT TO DO
Qualia Boutique If you're lucky enough to be staying at Qualia then you'll have access to the islands best boutique. Popular Australian designers like Collette Dinnigan and Camilla Franks are rounded out with resort favorites like Melissa Odabash and Miskin Martinez. If you're too busy (or too famous), you can book a private after-hour appointment.
Wildlife Hamilton Island Everyone needs a good koala cuddle. Or clawing if we're being honest: Those nails are sharp. Make time for the wildlife sanctuary where you can hold Australia's cute and fuzzy mascot (like Oprah did on her recent visit).
Hamilton Island Golf Club The 18-hole course designed by five-time British Open winner Peter Thomson covers Dent Island. Stunning views of the water and neighboring islands can be seen from every angle.
The island closest to the Great Barrier Reef was originally used as a biological research laboratory in the 1930s, then became one of the the first vacation spots in the Whitsundays. Today, it's home to one of the region's nicest resorts.
WHERE TO STAY
One&Only Hayman Island The resort covers the entire island and has undergone several restorations over the years, most recently in 2014. Updates include a newly designed pool wing, an impressive botanical garden designed by Australian landscape artist Jamie Durie, and eight Kerry Hill-designed luxury beach bungalows. Each comes with butler service, an interior courtyard with a private pool, day bed, outdoor shower, and up-to-date gadgets (iPad, Apple TV, Bose SoundDock). Poolside rooms are a better option for families and some have direct access to the enormous saltwater pool by way of ladder. (How cool is that?) Aside from its proximity to the Great Barrier Reef, Hayman's greatest strength is the friendly staff who act more like a tight-knit family than colleagues.
Wild harvest scallops, silken tofu, eggplant, sago crackling, and XO mayonnaise
WHERE TO EAT
The Chef's Table Hayman has several restaurants to choose from, but The Chef's Table is one you shouldn't miss. Step behind the scenes of one of the largest kitchens in the Southern Hemisphere, where over 50 chefs prepare food around the clock for the resort's five restaurants. A long table is set up in the main kitchen, and diners are served a six-course dinner beneath glistening (and unexpected) chandeliers. Sitting alongside other hotel guests makes the whole scene feel like a fabulous international dinner party. The sweet and soft-spoken chef, Glenn Bacon, prepares the evening's menu and gives a detailed commentary as dishes are served. After dinner, you can visit the kitchens, the wine cellar, and the famous chocolate room. If you're lucky, the friendly kitchen staff will sneak you a freshly baked cupcake.
Lounging on Whitehaven Beach
WHAT TO DO
Speedboat Island Escapade The hotel will arrange for you to be dropped off by boat or plane at one of the island's secluded beaches for a picnic lunch and afternoon of snorkeling.
Tennis Extensive tennis offerings include three grass courts and one Plexicushion court with night lighting. Weekly clinics are tailored to fit a range of levels and are taught by a rotating international staff.
THE GREAT BARRIER REEF
The world's largest coral reef stretches across the northeastern side of Australia. Travelers come from near and far to scuba dive with candy-colored fish and sail the tropical islands. Day trips to the Great Barrier are plentiful and cover a range of activities.
Polishing jewelry at Whitehaven Beach
Whitsunday Sailing Adventures Cruising on the Waltzing Matilda is one of the best and most affordable ways to see the area. The knowledgeable captain and crew will steer you to little-known snorkeling spots and serve as informal guides to island history.
Whitehaven Beach is touristy but worth a visit. The shallow water is perfect for spotting baby sharks, and the silica sand grains, said to be the smallest in the world, work wonders on tarnished jewelry.
Knuckle Reef The surrounding fringe reefs are wonderful to look at, but, if we're being honest, the real draw is the Great Barrier Reef. Families and less confident swimmers will appreciate Knuckle Reef, a pontoon anchored on the reef's periphery. Scuba and snorkel gear are provided, along with underwater viewing facilities for those less inclined to get wet. It's crowded and can be a little off-putting at times, but the lounge deck gives you the option of refueling and making several trips into the water. More traditional diving and snorkeling trips are run by H2O Sportz Australia.
Whitehaven Beach from the sky
HeliReef Make a point to see the Whitsundays and the Great Barrier Reef from the sky. While you're aware of the ocean's varying shades of blue at sea level, it's absolutely incredible to see them from above. The ride can be a little scary at times, but the pilots are reassuring and keep you busy with a never-ending stream of facts. Besides, you're seeing sites that can only be viewed from the sky, like Heart Reef.
AIRPORTS & GETTING AROUND
Flights run regularly between the Whitsundays and Brisbane, Cairns, Sydney, and Melbourne. Inter-island connections should be pre-booked and are available by ferry, seaplane, and helicopter. Most hotels will help organize trips.
The Whitsundays experience sub-tropical weather, so there are only two seasons, dry and wet.
Dry Season: April - December Certain times of year are better for specific activies.
June - August The best time to dive, when milder weather and smaller tides create better visibility underwater. This also coincides with the trade winds, which bring better sailing conditions.
October - May This is stinger season — the time of year that jellyfish are most present. Beware: Some jellies, like Box and Irukandji, are extremely poisonous. But don't let this deter you from visiting. Most hotels and diving outlets provide full-body lycra stinger suits. While you might look and feel silly, this will allow you to enjoy yourself without worrying about being stung. There's also the added bonus of protecting your skin from the strong Australian sun.
Wet Season: January - March Best not to plan your trip at this time. The islands see frequent rain and occasionally cyclones.