Australia’s Whitsunday Islands are an unimaginable destination. As many screensavers or wanderlust-worthy documentaries as you may come across of the 74 continental islands off the central coast of Queensland, located within the Great Barrier Reef
Marine Park, none of them quite do this site justice. That may seem unlikely given the location’s perfectly azure waters punctuated by 1,430 miles of reefs, but as someone who’s visited firsthand, I can vouch none of my carefully snapped photos of Heart Reef from a helicopter tour above the chain of coral systems can compare to the image imprinted in my mind when I put down the camera and simply absorbed the panorama through my own eyes.
Perhaps this is the reason for the Great Barrier Reef ’s listing as one of the seven natural wonders of the world; the destination cannot be oversold, and it’s one of my few trips that exceeded expectations.
The ocean inarguably boosts the beauty of this region — after all, 2,900 coral systems surround it — but it’s not simply a beach destination. The Whitsundays showcase the locale with a plethora of ocean activities, discoverable both above and below the surface, including not only the obvious beach lounging or afternoon yacht excursion but also floating dive centers and tours way above the surface in helicopters and seaplanes. Of course, you can scuba dive and snorkel to experience the vast marine life here — UNESCO records 400 types of coral; 1,500 species of fish; and 4,000 types of mollusks — and hike on the individual islands to witness soaring views in case flying high above the reefs seems unnerving. (I promise, it’s worth it, though.)
Due to a unique topography, there are no bad views, even at sea level. In fact, you can view the swirls of powdery sand stirred up in the aqua waters like a detailed watercolor from the snow-colored beaches. This is why picnics and day excursions to Whitehaven Island, consistently recognized as Australia’s most beautiful beach year after year, remain so popular, with the possibility to make the day leisurely or adventurous.
As revered as the destination is, during my time in the Whitsundays it never felt overcrowded, perhaps because most resorts inhabit their own island, which adds an extra step to an already lengthy travel day (if you’re coming from the United States) but also adds to the luxury castaway feel: your own secluded slice of heaven. When I wasn’t out adventuring, I tucked into a beachfront suite at Hayman Island, toying between a dip in the plunge pool and a long soak in the salty ocean. Luckily, being on island time, I had hours for both.
The Whitsundays’ isolation means you’ll likely eat on property most of the time, but with the marine bounty in its backyard, ingredients are fresh, innovative and representative of the regions’ flavors (think wild-caught fish like coral trout or snapper and Moreton Bay bugs, a species of slipper lobsters commonly found in northern Australian waters).
All this is to say if you’re planning a trip to Australia, the Whitsunday Islands undoubtedly merit a necessary extension. However, as someone who traveled exclusively there from the U.S. East Coast, I can certainly say it’s a destination worthy of its own trip.
Expect to be spoiled at this all-inclusive, adults-only, nine-room resort with included activities like daily yoga, use of non- motorized watercraft and a three-course chef’s choice menu nightly. The eco-retreat operates on 100 percent solar power.
Long Island, Whitsundays, Queensland $$$$$
Larger groups seeking privacy will want to settle into this secluded three-bedroom, three-story residence that debuted in June 2022. Tucked between the inner and outer reefs, The House offers an ideal jumping-off point for scuba excursions to the GBR or snorkeling off its private beach.
PMB 40, Cairns, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland $$$$$
This private-island resort’s newest offering caters to couples with its 12 freestanding beach-front pavilions reserved for adults only. Families are welcome at the main resort, and all guests have access to its five restaurants, white-sand beach and one of Australia’s largest swimming pools.
Hayman Island, Queensland $$$$$
This waterfront venue serves a modern Australian tasting menu yet pays homage to the country’s Aboriginal roots, shortening the word bombora, referring to the colorful reef patches found in the surrounding waters, for its name. Dishes rely on seasonal ingredients and locally caught seafood.
Hamilton Island Yacht Club, Front Street, Hamilton Island, Queensland $$$$
The all-inclusive Elysian treats guests to a rotating menu decided by its on-site private chef. Dishes are seafood-centric but tailored to guests’ preferences and dietary needs, personally discussed with the culinary team upon arrival.
Elysian Retreat, Long Island, Whitsundays, Queensland
Located at Qualia resort, this restaurant has become renowned for its six-course degustation menu paired with wines. Though reserved for guests, it’s the spot on the main island and worthy of the splurge.
Qualia, 20 Whitsunday Blvd., Hamilton Island, Queensland $$$$$
INFO TO GO
Hamilton Island Airport is the destination’s most convenient airport, primarily serviced by Virgin Australia and private aircraft via one-hour direct flights from Cairns (CNS) or Brisbane (BNE). Though a number of resorts and restaurants call Hamilton Island home, many travelers hop on additional transport, either private yacht or helicopter, to check in at their private island resort.
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