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Taking in the stunning reef, picturesque islands and luxurious hotels that make up the Whitsundays, you might find it hard to believe that the islands are the result of volcanoes that raged 110 million years ago.
Captain Cook, who first sailed through on June 4, 1770, named the collection of islands. Of the 74 islands, only eight are inhabited with resorts. The region offers more than enough diversions to occupy the curious traveler, though, with a bevy of wildlife on land and sea, high-end eateries, family-friendly lagoons and romantic sandy beaches.
Whitsundays sees an average of 274 sunny days a year, making it the perfect spot to soak up some rays and explore its naturally beautiful features by boat or on foot. As the closest point off the Queensland coast to the Great Barrier Reef, and with an average water temperature of 26 degrees Celsius (79 Fahrenheit), it's very much a diving and snorkeling paradise. Of course, it's just as possible to appreciate the ocean from the shoreline -- especially from the array of sumptuous seafood restaurants that line the coast.
Cruise ships visiting Whitsundays call on one of two ports. Airlie Beach, perched on Australia's northeast coast, is a mainland port acting as both a gateway to the islands and an attractive beach destination in its own right. It has a lively and social atmosphere -- with plenty of restaurants, clubs and bars for evening guests -- and the main street offers boutique shops, day spas and cafes. From Airlie, travelers can take day-trips to the reef, Daydream Island and Whitsunday Island, home to Whitehaven Beach.
Hamilton Island is in the heart of Whitsundays, and smaller ships utilize its port. As the largest of the Whitsunday Island resorts, Hamilton has a wealth of beaches, restaurants and coral reefs worth visiting, and it's also a jumping-off point for day-trips to the surrounding areas.
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Celebrate Whitsundays' nautical heritage with every sailor's favorite tipple -- rum. Fish D'vine's Rum Bar offers more than 280 rums and promises to find a cocktail for every taste.
Pick up a piece of local art at the market on Airlie Beach foreshore as a memory of your visit. Of course, a tastier way to reminisce about your time on the island is over a nice glass of red or white wine. Choose your bottle from the famous Oatley Wines collection, sold at a number of souvenir shops on Hamilton Island. The winery is owned by the Oatley family, who also own the island, and the wine -- which comes from vineyards in New South Wales and Western Australia -- is stocked in every licensed venue on the island.
The language is English, spoken with an Australian accent. Expect to hear the usual "g'day"s and "no worries." However, with the islands attracting so many travelers from across the globe, visitors might well find a fellow countryman to converse with in their native tongue in key areas like Airlie Beach.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is the Australian dollar. Visit xe.com for current exchange rates. There are extensive ATM facilities throughout Airlie Beach (within a five-minute walk of the marina) and on Hamilton Island. Most places generally accept mainstream credit cards, such as Visa and Mastercard, but ask first.
Where You're Docked
Whitsundays has two main ports: Abel Point Marina in Airlie Beach, catering to larger cruise ships, and Hamilton Island for smaller ships. Abel Point Marina is right near the center of Airlie Beach, about a 10-minute walk along a scenic boardwalk or a one- to two-minute drive. Hamilton Island's marina is the central hub of the island. Cruise ships don't come into port on the mainland or islands; they have moorings off Airlie Beach and Hamilton Island and need to tender passengers in for shore excursions.
Visitors to Abel Point Marina in Airlie Beach are greeted by the Cruise Ship Ambassadors, who can provide information on transfers, day-tours and regional information. At the terminal itself, you'll find a cafe, a boutique, kiosk and tour operator offices but no ATM's. Most people will want to take the short walk or shuttle bus to the main street of Airlie Beach, where there are many options for shopping, restaurants and bars, as well as several tourist information desks.
At Hamilton Island, the tenders drop you off at the marina, which has an abundance of facilities and shops. Within a few stops from the drop-off point, you'll find a grocery store, toilets, buggy rentals, an ice cream parlor and a range of restaurants. There are multiple information booths around the island.
Airlie Beach: The flat, scenic boardwalk around Airlie Beach makes it a pleasant walking area. To get farther afield, Whitsunday Transit's daily bus service connects Airlie Beach to Proserpine, Cannonvale and Shute Harbour from designated bus stops every 30 to 60 minutes.
Car rental options at Airlie Beach include Avis, Hertz and Thrifty car rentals, all of which have outlets there. Alternately, local rental companies include Fun Rentals. Whitsunday Taxis (book through Tourism Whitsundays, +61 7 4948 5900) are available 24 hours a day.
Hamilton Island: Golf buggies are the main form of transport on Hamilton Island. Covered two- or four-seaters are easy to drive and can be rented by the hour, for two or three hours, or for the day. Prebook with email@example.com.
Hamilton Island also offers a free shuttle covering three routes around the island, with several services per hour, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Pickup points include the Marina Village, Catseye Beach and One Tree Hill. The island is just 3.5 kilometers by 5 kilometers, so walking between attractions is also an option.
Watch Out For
In general, Whitsundays is safe and tourist-friendly. However, the North Queensland sun can be harsh, so cover up and wear sunscreen. Also, October to May is the high-risk stinger season, so it is best to wear a protective wetsuit when swimming in the ocean during this time.
With 74 islands and the Great Barrier Reef on its doorstep, natural attractions are very much the star of Whitsundays' show, and no trip is complete without a day exploring the waters. One of the seven natural wonders of the world -- and the only living structure that is visible from outer space -- the World Heritage-listed reef covers more than 2,000 km. As home to thousands of species of colorful fish, coral and other marine life, including whales, dolphins and turtles, it is also scuba-diving and snorkeling heaven. Alternately, you can view the ocean floor in comfort on a dry-bottom boat trip.
Airlie Beach is a shopping hub, so set aside time for souvenir-hunting. Shops along the main street stock the usual beachwear to supplement your holiday wardrobe, or pick up some Whitsundays-branded souvenirs. When cruise ships are in port, the locals put on markets on the Airlie Beach foreshore, selling arts and crafts and fresh produce; look out for artwork inspired by the stunning local landscapes. The market stalls are generally cash only, and entry is free. Proserpine, a 25-minute drive from Airlie Beach, has an array of attractive boutiques, such as Colour Me Crazy, Cherrie Baby Boutique, Sirene Sea Pearls and Epicure Homewares.
If pampering is the order of the day, try Airlie Day Spa for a treat or two. Located in the heart of Airlie Beach, on Shute Harbour Road, the personalized service has a wide range of treatments, including hot-stone massages and facials for sun-damaged skin. Over on Hamilton Island, Spa Wumurdaylin is open to day-visitors from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, and booking in advance is essential.
As well as several relaxing beach and spa options, Hamilton Island offers a raft of activities for visitors. Take a hike into the bushland to find panoramic hilltop viewpoints, try go-kart-racing at Palm Valley, visit one of its six tennis courts, or tee off at Hamilton Island Golf Club.
Been There, Done That
Explore Hamilton Island's bushland on the back of an automatic quad bike (Hamilton Island Tour Desk +61(0)7 4946 8305). After spending time on a "confidence course," a quad bike tour guide will lead you up through the scenic fire trails, and from there you can take in the 360-degree views of the islands from Resort Lookout.
Make like James Bond, and take a helitour of the islands. Helitours Whitsunday offers a range of options suitable for cruise visitors, including a two-hour trip to Whitehaven Beach for a picnic with pilot commentary or "rush" tours from 10 to 30 minutes. Meet at the Whitsunday Airport, 6 km from Airlie Beach. Whitsunday Transit provides bus transfer services to and from the airport, but it must be booked in advance. Alternately, take a taxi.
Check out alternative wildlife on the Proserpine River. Whitsunday Crocodile Safari provides return transfers from Airlie Beach, and the tour includes a relaxing river cruise to spot freshwater crocodiles, an open-air wagon train tour through the Goorganga wetlands, BBQ lunch and traditional billy tea and damper (skillet bread).
For the ultimate adrenalin rush, enjoy great views from a plane before freefalling for between 20 and 55 seconds with Skydive Airlie Beach. The company offers a courtesy pickup from Airlie Beach.
Best for couples: As one of the most naturally beautiful spots on the earth, Whitsundays is the place to go for gorgeous beaches. Most famous is the multiple-award-winning Whitehaven Beach, a renowned must-see for romantics and nature-lovers. Its 7 kilometers of pristine silica sand and crystal-clear waters are perfect for a few hours of blissful relaxation. Set on Whitsunday Island, the largest of the 74 islands in Whitsundays, it can easily be reached by ferry, powerboat or yacht. However, in peak times, it's advisable to pre-book to guarantee availability on the day you're planning to visit.
Best for families: The Airlie Beach Lagoon is in the center of Airlie Beach, with natural and manmade features for all types of visitors. However, with its central location, children's pool and stinger-free sandy beach area for little ones to play in the shallows, it's perfect for families. Parents can relax on the grassy knolls between the lagoon and landscaped gardens. There is no admission fee.
Best for water sports: Head for Hamilton Island's main beach, Catseye, for a more active day at the beach. Hamilton Island Beach Sports is on the beach, so renting catamarans, paddle skis, paddleboards, windsurfing gear and snorkeling equipment couldn't be easier.
Fresh, local produce is abundant in Whitsundays. Among the freshest is the seafood, caught from local waters -- perfect for a light lunch in the warm climate. If you're not so keen on fruits de mer, modern Australian fare combines many types of cuisines, so there really is something for everyone.
In Airlie Beach, try Fish D'vine Fish Cafe and Rum Bar. While the restaurant's unique offer of seafood and rum is the main draw, its owner is also reported to be quite a local character. The extensive menu does include some non-fish options, but fresh sea fare is the key attraction, with tempting highlights like local chili mud crab and barbequed tiger prawns. For a post-lunch tipple, the bar offers more than 280 rums. Or opt instead for spirit-themed desserts, such as banana fritters with spiced rum maple syrup. (303 Shute Harbour Road, Airlie Beach; 07 4948 0088; open all day Friday through Sunday)
Capers, at the Airlie Beach Hotel, is a chic option by the beachfront. Enjoy a signature cocktail, or indulge in some tasty tapas while scouting for celebrities -- Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey and Hugh Jackman are just a few of the restaurant's star guests. Tapas are available throughout the afternoon, while the lunch menu includes modern Australian cuisine like steak and seafood, all with great sea views. (16 The Esplanade, Airlie Beach; 07 4964 1777; lunch from 12 to 2:30 p.m.; tapas from 12 to 5 p.m.)
On Hamilton Island, feast on gourmet pizza at the laid-back Manta Ray Café, which overlooks the marina. Pasta and salad are also on the menu. (Marina Side, Front Street; 07 4946 8213; noon to 3 p.m.)
Sadly, the Hamilton Island Yacht Club's gourmet Bommie Restaurant is only open for dinner, but you can still rub shoulders with Whitsundays elite at its Bommie Deck, which offers a more relaxed-style menu with views overlooking Dent Passage, the marina and the islands. (07 4948 9433; noon to 7 p.m.)
Staying in Touch
Plenty of Internet cafes line Airlie Beach's main street. There is no Internet cafe on the marina side of Hamilton Island, but free Wi-Fi is available in the nearby Hamilton Island Resort Centre, a five-minute walk away. If you have your own device, you can also access free Wi-Fi in the lobby of the Reef View Hotel, a five-minute walk over the hill, or use its business center (AUD $5 per 30 minutes).
Best for first-timers: Explore the Great Barrier Reef via high-speed luxury catamaran. The 15-minute ride will take you to the pontoon at Hardy Reef, where you can explore the spectacular marine life. Expect to see Trevally, Coral Trout, Snapper and even a two-meter-long Giant Queensland Groper. Snorkel or dive off nearby drop-offs to spot turtles, reef sharks and barracudas. Enjoy morning tea at the pontoon before heading back to the ship.
Best for photographers: A popular excursion is a visit Whitehaven Beach by sea plane. Enjoy unbeatable views of the islands and reef below, including Hayman Island, Whitehaven Beach and Hill Inlet. Have your camera at the ready -- a snap of the naturally formed Heart Reef is a souvenir in itself -- before landing at the soft sand beach to enjoy sparkling wine, soft drinks and tropical fruits with about 90 minutes of free time.
Best for nature fans: For an interactive lesson in marine biology, visit Daydream Island Resort and Spa for a daylong excursion. Its unique outdoor lagoon contains a living reef of more than 50 varieties of fish, rays, baby sharks and coral species collected under special license from the Barrier Reef. Visitors can also relax on the island's sandy beaches, snorkel in the clear water or take a rainforest walk before enjoying a BBQ buffet lunch.
Best for thrill-seekers: Explore the islands at high speed on a half-day ocean rafting adventure. The semi-rigid inflatable vessel will cruise through the Whitsunday Passage to either Black Island or Hook Island, where you can snorkel, turtle-watch and listen to the reef's marine life over a hydrophone before a buffet-style lunch.
For More Information
On the Web: Tourism Whitsundays
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Australia & New Zealand
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: Australia Forum
--by Christy McGhee, Cruise Critic contributor