Must-see Australia: Don’t skip the Whitsundays

People keep telling me they had to skip the Whitsunday Islands when they toured Australia, I know they missed out.

As soon as backpackers stray north of Brisbane there seems to be some kind of choice that they have to make between a trip to Fraser Island or a trip to the Whitsunday Islands. Either they get to prowl around the sand dunes of Fraser Island in 4×4 buggies or they get to sail out to one of the most beautiful beaches on the planet. A few nights on Fraser Island is usually a lot cheaper so they decide to miss out on the Whitsundays entirely.

Fraser Island or the Whitsunday Islands?

When I hit Australia’s east coast I decided that Fraser Island didn’t hold that much of interest to me, mainly because I couldn’t drive, but also for budgetary reasons. For me too it was ‘either/or’ rather than ‘both’. Martyn and Kristina, my two companions on our tour of this continent, both lacked any specific urge to go there so we opted to only hit the Whitsundays. Ultimately I can’t comment on Fraser Island but I can wholeheartedly scream praise in support of visiting the the Whitsundays if you do have to make that decision.

Queensland’s Airlie Beach is the town and harbour most often used to access the Whitsundays. While we were in Brisbane we booked our tour on Boomerang, which used to be a very successful racing yacht called Ondine VII. All we would have to do is turn up at the time of departure and everything would be taken care of for a couple of days at sea.

On this occasion Boomerang was departing from a harbour outside of Airlie. Food was all-inclusive on our 3-day tour, but booze was not, so we swung by a bottle shop and collected some rum for our seagoing exploits.

You have to decant glass bottles into plastic for many boat tours and this was no exception, so bear that in mind.

Close encounters

There were about 20 other people on our tour but we never felt crowded, Boomerang is a large vessel. We pulled away from the jetty and dolphins rode our bow wave as if to guide us out to sea. It was incredible to see them like this. It was a real honour to experience something like that so soon after getting on board, and my first keeper for the memory bank.

Raising the main sail on Boomerang, Whitsunday Islands

Martyn helping crank on board Boomerang, Whitsunday Islands

The main sail on BoomerangThe next three days were one jaw-dropping sight after another. As Boomerang sped between the islands we took every opportunity to sample the snorkeling. Until this point I had never even tried it but my first taste made it something I will always love, and never forget. I plopped into the chilly sea and slowly paddled away from the main group of snorkelers, as I spluttered my way through the basics of the equipment I looked up from the seabed directly into the eyes of a turtle.

Coral on the beach at Tongue Point, Whitsunday Islands, AustraliaIt was the first time I had ever seen a turtle in its natural habitat and I had been in the water for less than five minutes. I wanted to yelp out to everyone and drag them over to share in my experience but at the same time I knew Mr. Turtle wouldn’t hang around for long. He hung in the water with a knowing eye turned towards me. No more than four metres away. I didn’t approach him, I maintained a static distance and we slowly paddled along together, regarding each other. He came to within ten feet of me and rotated to have a look with both eyes. When he had finished he dropped a few feet into the crystal-clear water and then powered off with a gentle and graceful flick of his limbs. What a treat!

Nothing could really compare to this close encounter, I was spoilt from the outset. At each of the next snorkels I saw some stunning reef fish, and had an equally close encounter with the behemoth that was Willy the Wrasse, but fish just don’t have that same curious look in their eyes. They don’t appreciate the encounter and if there is any genuine curiosity it’s hard to detect.

Different ways of seeing deep space

Boomerang at anchorage, Whitsunday Islands, Australia

All the other wonders therefore came above the surface. My first view of the famous Whitehaven Beach was from a hillside outlook on Tongue Point, reached after a short jungle stroll. It’s one of Australia’s most beautiful views and I’m pretty sure it trumps anything that Fraser Island could even dream of. See for yourself:

Beautiful sand banks and blue waters off Tongue Point, Whitsunday Islands, Australia

A view from Tongue Point outlook, Whitsunday Islands, Australia

After we had stood and absorbed this perfect postcard vista we re-boarded Boomerang and swung into the bay we had just been gawping at. Our motor launch powered us over to the searingly white silicon sand of Whitehaven Beach. Apparently NASA used this very pure source of silicon sand to create the giant lenses in the Hubble Space Telescope, though whether that’s true or not I can’t say.

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Islands, Australia

Looking north towards Tongue Point along Whitehaven Beach, Australia

Fading sunlight off the Whitsunday Islands, AustraliaIt was early in the morning and we were amongst the first tour groups to arrive. Nonetheless we only had an hour or so before plenty of other tourists began to descend upon us. More boats began to dot the horizon and even the odd seaplane touched down to decant richer travelers. Whitehaven Beach is a few miles long so even with this small influx we didn’t have to compete for space or try hard to get a photographed view without sun seekers. Talking of photography here – be VERY CAREFUL of the sand. The grains are so tiny that even the breeze carries enough to disable the mechanisms of a digital compact. Both mine and Kristina’s cameras never sounded the same after our visit here, and hers refused to open for a few days.

Another sailing boat anchored off the Whitsunday Islands

Strange Australian bird, Whitsunday Islands

Sunset during anchorage off the WhitsundaysWe played a little cricket on Whitehaven Beach as the sun rose higher, before reluctantly motoring back ‘home’ for a massive lunch on the deck of Boomerang. That was generally the routine each day. Snorkel first thing, explore, lunch, explore, snorkel, sunset with our safety rum, and then at night the spectacle of the Milky Way was enough to entrance me for hours. I have never seen so many stars as I did bobbing off-shore at Whitsunday Island. You can even see the dark shadow of the unimaginably gargantuan cosmic dust clouds that blot stars from large stretches of the heavens. It’s a completely magical place.

I can’t tell you that Fraser Island is missable, but I can tell you that our tour of the Whitsunday Islands was the absolute highlight of my time in Australia, and that makes them unmissable.

A sketch of our route around the Whitsundays

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