More on Whitsundays (Airlie Beach, Hamilton Island)
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.
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.