The jewels of the crown – the Whitsunday Islands
In northern Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef is considered the jewel of the crown. But I beg to differ. With a few old friends aboard a 46- foot catamaran we found a cluster of diamonds, the Whitsundays.
Some of the islands in the Whitsundays may ring a bell such as Hamilton, Lindeman and Hayman Islands as they have well known resorts but there are many other beautiful islands, many of which are uninhabited. These clusters of tropical islands, seventy-four to be exact, are the remains of two mountain ranges, submerged hundreds of years ago from a monumental geological event.
But what I love most about this constellation of islands, is it is a great winter get-away and you can bareboat (sail yourself) providing complete freedom of when and where you go. However, if you don’t have sailing experience, you can hire a skipper.
Our first night, we motor out of the Hamilton Island marina into a balmy evening. As the light begins to fade we can see the islands silhouetted like pyramids across the horizon.
Pleased to be together, the six of us (three couples) toast the longevity of our friendship and start as we mean to carry on, with a few drinks and some deliciously good food. Tonight on the menu is an Aussie classic – not quite ‘prawns on the barbie” but the next best thing – fresh Morton Bay bugs and king prawns.
We are sailing for a week and plan to visit five islands. Up early the next morning with the wind in our sails, we head to Whitsunday Island and the famous Whitehaven Beach.
Sailing into the bay the white sand extends as far as the eye can see. Never before have I seen such a vast area of whiteness contrasted against the aqua waters.
We are keen to get off the catamaran and explore the beach so some of us swim ashore while the others come by tender so we can travel up the Hill Inlet after our picnic lunch.
The beach is infinite and the footprints are scarce.
At the northern end of the beach the inlet creates an incredible array of turquoise colours as the tide retreats from the pale sand. In the shallow waters we can see where the baby rays have been basking in the sun leaving tiny indents in the soft sand.
The turtles too are plentiful too and like the rays they come very close to the shore.
Before returning to the catamaran we meander up the inlet as far as the tide will let us and walk up to the Tongue Point lookout. Emerging from beautiful bush, we get a birds eye view and take in the vast beach and fusion of colours.
After a sun fuelled afternoon, we have seen enough for one day and are back on board, settling into another relaxed evening still mesmerized by the view. Our skipper, Murray calls Sunsail base. It is a safety requirement to give our anchorage location before sunset, each evening.
“Jaspe to Sunsail,” “Jaspe to Sunsail. ”“What’s your position?” “Tongue Bay.” “Are you moored for the night?” “Yes.” We get the latest weather update. “Roger” “Over.”While our conversation is brief we listen in as other Sunsail charters share the highlights of their day providing great entertainment for us all.
We leave Whitehaven Beach the following morning and the wind is ripe for some good sailing. Blasting along at 11 knots, we batten down the hatches, heading to Hook Island.
We have heard the snorkeling at Butterfly Bay is some of the best in the Whitsundays and it’s true.
The water clarity is good and the coral and marine life is plentiful. As we snorkel we see a Maori Wrasse not far from the back of the boat, all too familiar with people. I know we are not supposed to touch them but it is irresistible and their skin is like a mossy silk.
Other marine life is abundant too and very colourful fish the size of large dinner plates jump out of the water after our dinner scraps. Another no –no but they are hard to resist.
But this is by no means all we have seen in this wildlife marine park.
The mist clouds form the blowholes of the humpback whales and their calves are visible in the early morning calm before the sea warms up and the sea breezes roll in. The eerie stillness is accompanied by the songs of the whales echoed through the hull of the boat.
During our winter, July through November, the whales migrate from Antarctica to the warmer waters to calve. They stay until the young are robust enough to make the difficult and dangerous journey south.
The Whitsunday’s National Park is extremely protective of its wildlife and environment and although the whales are guests they are treated with the utmost respect. There is no swimming with the whales and there are restrictions on following them and how close you can get to them.
The water is carefully monitored too, with specific areas designated for the boats to empty their holding tanks (waste water and sewage) but as frustrating as it may be, these restrictions will ensure the islands and the marine national park remain pristine for generations to come.
Getting there-Air New Zealand fly to Brisbane daily. Qantas, Virgin Australia and Jetstar fly to Hamilton Island.
Yacht charter –Sunsail charters yachts, (both monohulls and catamarans) of varying sizes from Hamilton Island. Prices vary depending on the duration and type of the boat. Skippers are available at reasonable rates for those without sailing experience.
Boat provisioning –Sunsail has an excellent provisioning service for all food and beverages.