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Window on the Whitsundays

It is strange to realise that Captain James Cook made mistakes. Not too many, for sure, but when he sailed through this area in 1770 he was obviously a day out in his calculations when he named it. He though it was Whitsunday, an ecclesiastical holy day, and so the area became on his logs, Whitsunday Passage.

There was a reason for this. While he had been traveling on many expeditions around the globe, back home in Europe people were developing the theory of longitude. Once they did that they discovered that if you traveled around the world clockwise, you would be an entire day ahead of yourself when you reached your starting point.

So, blissfully unaware of this, and voyaging anti-clockwise, Captain Cook thought that the day he sailed through this stunning chain of islands, set in iridescent turquoise water, was Whitsunday, an important date on the religious calendar.

What he did not realize was that it was actually Whit-Monday. In fact it was not until 1884 that the International Meridian Conference adopted the Greenwich meridian as the universal zero point of longitude.

Located 1120km north of Brisbane, Queensland, and 630km south of Cairns (2/3 of the way to Cairns), the Whitsunday archipelago comprises at least 74 islands (although some say up to 150) including eight with resorts. Some are uninhabited, some are privately owned, and 70 of them are National Parks. Many have their own protective reefs, which are havens for fish and other marine and bird life.

The coastal centre is the small town of Airlie Beach which welcomes around 700,000 visitors annually. 

The Airlie Beach foreshore markets are on every Sunday, boosted often by an influx of passengers from the many cruise ships which anchor offshore and tender people across.

Airlie Beach is ideal for relaxing. Many like to stroll along the Esplanade which overlooks Pioneer Bay to Hayman Island, a pale blue shadow on the horizon. The palm tree-lined beach is the perfect spot to sun bake by day, then later to enjoy the sunset.

Others hire bikes and cycle the three-kilometre Bicentennial Walkway, or even Segway along the boardwalk. Pick up a local tourism map for other walking paths in the area.

You could say that the town is brought to you by the letter S: sun, sand, sea, sarongs, swimwear, sunglasses and sandals. It is blessed with late afternoon sun in the winter and cool, refreshing breezes in the summer. While it is the ideal launch-pad to explore the adjacent Great Barrier Reef islands, inland there are vast areas of untouched natural forests.

Of course for water-lovers it has everything - sailing among the islands, diving or snorkeling, ocean rafting, water skiing, tube riding and much more. Boathaven Beach a new beach opened in 2011 at the Port of Airlie development at the Eastern end of town. Boathaven Beach has been engineered to be all tidal, so it remains sandy in all tides, has a stinger net for swimming in the high risk stinger season and is open to the public every day.


It’s little wonder that visitors flock here. With water the colour of jewels: turquoise, aquamarine, sapphire, kilometres of creamy sand, and a clutch of islands so beautiful that any one would satisfy most people.

The town of Airlie Beach, often referred to as the Gateway to the Whitsundays with its ferry terminal for boats heading to the islands, or, if you want to arrive quicker, there is Whitsunday Airport for island day trips, scenic flights by plane, floatplane or helicopter, and transfers if you are lucky enough to be staying at one of the resorts.

The waterfront has a wide selection of places to relax and enjoy a good coffee (we like Sidewalk) but if you are a scone-lover, this trattoria is a good option. The town is not large, basically one long street and it only takes thirty minutes to wander along and consider your choices.

In today’s Australia, it is easy to forget that Captain Cook did not ‘discover’ Australia at all. For at least 40,000 years (maybe 70,000, but who can tell?) this area was populated by local indigenous tribes, most recently the Ngaro people, whose rich traditions, language and songs have sadly been largely lost or forgotten. Wall paintings in caves at Nara Inlet on Hook Island indicate rich sea harvests of fish, turtle and local rock oysters.

Fortunately in the main street of Airlie Beach it is possible to buy aboriginal artwork and craft and even a didgeridoo if you are musical. 

Like any tourist area, the reef shops sell a wide range of tourist-abilia. T-shirts, mugs, caps, and postcards are branded to advertise the region.

This T-shirt tells a story which is easy to understand.  Just in case you don’t know, Whitehaven Beach is said to be the most beautiful beach anywhere, and tiny Heart Reef can not be visited, and only be seen from a low-flying plane or helicopter.

The crocodiles? Yes, they are here in rivers on the mainland, and to be avoided at all costs as they can (and do) attack people silly enough to swim in their vicinity. Very few live to tell the tale.

Colourful sarongs catch the sea breezes. You’ll find well-priced arts and crafts from talented craftspeople, and expect to find beautiful jewellery, clothing, unique souvenirs, glass blowing and lots of entertainment.

Pretty as a picture. This seems to have been the response too of one of the first white people known to sight this jumbled group of wooded islands in 1770. There were no digital cameras in those days, so Sydney Parkinson, an artist on Cook’s HMS Endeavour, sketched it as part of his official record of the voyage.

This fire-breathing dragon is just one of the entertainments available on the beachfront. Drop a few coins in the bucket and the man who sculpted this from the sand will be happy for you to photograph it.

The Whitsundays have only recently become tourist magnets. A sublieutenant on a much later voyage in 1868 - George Sidney Lindeman - lent his name to the 600-plus hectare Lindeman island. He was a nephew of Dr Henry John Lindeman, who founded the Lindeman Wine Company by establishing a vineyard in the Hunter Valley in the mid-1800s close to where Gresford now stands.

In 1990 the Paris-based Club Mediterranee purchased an existing resort on Lindeman Island. Eighty-five million dollars later, in late-1992, it re-opened as the first Australian Club Med.

The distances here are not great, but if someone wants to ‘chauffeur’ you in a tuk tuk and keep the tropical sun of  your head, why not?

From Airlie Beach it is possible to reach many other islands, quickly and easily.


Hamilton Islandis the largest inhabited island of the Whitsunday Islands and is the only Great Barrier Reef island with its own commercial airport. Visitors can fly direct from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Cairns. 

Hamilton Island is really the top of a ‘drowned mountain’ which, like most of the other islands in the Whitsunday group formed as sea levels rose. The local population is around 1200.

It is interesting to realize that tourism in the Great Barrier Reef is relatively recent. Hamilton Island was purchased in 1975 by Keith Williams and Bryan Bryt, and construction of Hamilton Island Harbour and the resort complex shortly after began in 1978. The resort opened in phases between 1982 and 1984.

Qualia, Hamilton Island’s world class luxury resort, has been named the Best in the World and Best Resort in the Oceania region in the 2012 Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards.One of only four properties to ever receive a flawless score in the survey’s 25-year history, qualia has also become the first Australian property to ever top the prestigious survey. 

Unlike most islands off the east coast of Australia, Hamilton Island is used almost exclusively for tourism. However the island caters for a growing number of residents, both employees of the various businesses on the island and also those people choosing to retire and enjoy the lifestyle.


The town area has all the basics and of course the general store caters to tourists and locals alike.

For those who prefer not to walk, motorized electric buggies can be hired. Or, you may take a half-hour bus tour with commentary from a local to see more and learn about the island.

Watch out also for statues of various wildlife in the area. The Great Barrier Reef is home to a stunning array of animals, from microscopic plankton to whales weighing more than 100 tonnes. More than just fish and coral, the Great Barrier Reef supports:

• 1625 species of fish, including 1400 coral reef species • More than 3000 species of molluscs (shells)

• 630 species of echinoderm (starfish, sea urchins)
• 14 breeding species of sea snakes
• 215 species of birds including 22 species of seabirds and 32 species of shorebirds • Six of the world's seven species of marine turtle
• 30 species of whales and dolphins
• One of the world's most important dugong populations
• 133 species of sharks and rays
                    ....and much more 

Humpback and southern right whales annually migrate to these warmer northern during the southern winter before returning south in summer.

All sorts of water sports are catered for, of course. Swimming, kayaking, riding a jet ski, standup paddle boarding and more.

You may enjoy deep-sea fishing, diving and snorkeling to explore the vast coral reefs,  or simply enjoy cruising through these magical islands. Marvel at the colours which seem almost impossible in their clarity.

Looking back towards the hinterland, somewhere over the hills is Bowen, the town that grows perhaps the best mangoes in the world! Mangoes were brought from India, as a result of a thriving horse trading business (empty horse ships came back laden with mangoes.And yes, there is a ten-metre Big Mango here too!

In 2008, this tiny town of just 14,000 residents was the backdrop for the epic movie, Australia, and the local bakery Jochheims  was rumoured to be a preferred fuel stop for the world’s sexiest man, Hugh Jackman. So much so, that the owner renamed the bakery’s signature chunky beef pie after the star.

Captain Cook may have got his days muddled when he named this magnificent chain of islands, but he got one thing right......

In his ship's log he noted on the morning of Sunday, 3 June, 1770: 'Indeed the whole passage is one continued safe harbour'.  The many thousands who visit here annually would have to agree with him.

More information....


Text and Airlie Beach images: Sally Hammond

Video and Hamiliton Island images: Gordon Hammond




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