With 74 islands to explore in the Great Barrier Reef, the best way to get amongst them is to hop aboard a boat for a daytrip or overnight and cruise around the Whitsunday Islands. Cruises depart daily from Hamilton Island, Airlie Beach or Shute Harbour.
Can’t decide which island, bay, beach or cove to visit first? Here’s a run down of some personal favourites, some of which feature on charter boat itineraries, some are accessible to bareboat charterers, others, well, you’ll need your own boat to get there.
Palm Bay is accessed via a man-made channel through the reef, which opens into a small, protected lagoon. The coconut palm shaded beach tumbles into the lagoon in front of Palm Bay Resort, a low-key resort with beachfront bungalows. Palm Bay is one of those classic lagoons you see in the brochures, where yachts run a bow line to the mooring buoy and a stern line ashore to a palm tree.
Swim and snorkel in the lagoon, or take one of the walking tracks meandering through forest, the length of Long Island.
Blue Pearl Bay is on the north western side of Hayman Island. Being somewhat exposed to wind and swell, it is only suitable as an overnight anchorage in mild conditions. However, it offers excellent diving and shallow water snorkeling directly from your boat. Anchoring over the coral bottom is not possible: pick up one of the free public moorings, which are positioned a leisurely swimming distance from the beach. Walkers can stretch their legs on the track from Castle Rock to Dolphin Point and Cooks Lookout. This west facing anchorage offers sensational sunsets over the distant mainland, making it a favoured overnight anchorage for cruise boats.
Manta Ray Bay is on the north east coast of Hook Island. It is one of the best snorkeling and diving locations in the Whitsundays for colourful fish, healthy coral and (usually) clear water.
Explore more local itineraries via the RELATED links below.
Hardy, Bait and Hook Reefs are one of the absolute delights of the outer Great Barrier Reef, approximately 17 nautical miles north east of Hook Island. Reef anchoring is an extraordinary experience. For those not used to venturing so far offshore the mainland almost disappears leaving you with an unbroken horizon of open ocean. Popular with daytrippers who flock to a permanent floating pontoon at Hardy Reef, by sea or air. Go here for snorkeling, intro and certified dives, waterslide, semi-submersible boat, scenic helicopter flights. Note: bareboaters are not permitted to venture this far offshore.
Public moorings used by private vessels and dive charters are available at the stunning dive location of Bait Reef, or otherwise dive charter boats anchor overnight at Hook or Line Reef.
Whitehaven Beach is probably the most photographed beach in Australia. In reality it lives up to the hype: the sand is dazzlingly white, the water is turquoise and the sun shines most of the year. Not for snorkeling or diving, Whitehaven is for relaxing or beach walking.
Hill Inlet is a beguiling maze of sandbars at the northern end of Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island. Accessible only on a rising tide, much of the inlet dries at low tide, leaving one or two pools large enough to accommodate a vessel each. Explore the mangrove-lined inlet that penetrates deep into Whitsunday Island by dinghy or kayak, or find your own private silica sand beach far from the Whitehaven crowds.Get here by boat, seaplane or helicopter from Airlie Beach or Hamilton Island.
Esk Island is a tiny, little visited island, eroded by waves into sandy coves and small cliffs and forested by hoop pines. While not blessed with the sweeping crescent shaped beach of nearby Whitehaven Beach, Esk has its own distinct charm. Best in calm conditions, this anchorage offers two free moorings, creating an intimate anchorage with no chance of being invaded by the party boat fleet. While the Whitehaven anchorage twinkles like a cityscape at night, at Esk Island it’s quiet enough to hear the turtles breathe as they break the surface. This is a great island to kayak around, plus it also offers excellent snorkeling and diving.
The anchorage at Plantation Bay on the south side of Lindeman Island is usually far enough away from the ‘ bareboat circuit’ of Hook, Whitsunday and Hamilton Island to discourage most bareboaters. Onshore there’s a creek for exploring, as well as a shaded picnic table beneath the sheoak trees just beyond the sandy beach. Shaw and Seaforth Island create an almost land locked waterway with plenty of calm water for dinghy or kayak exploration.
Cid Harbour at Whitsunday Island is often either the first or last port of call for bareboat charterers and therefore can be busy. Particularly if the trade winds have freshened when it’s not unusual to see more than 60 vessels anchored here. But it’s such a large expanse of protected water there’s enough swinging room for everyone. It’s also a very social anchorage with frequent impromptu sundowner gatherings on pretty Sawmill Beach. There’s a camping area with picnic tables beside a seasonal stream, plus there’s an easy walk over the ridge, through coastal rainforest to Dugong Beach.
There are an absolute plethora of cruise boat operators in the Whitsundays offering scores of cruising styles. From budget through to luxury, power or sail, it’s your call how you do the Whitsundays. To make your task a little easier, here’s some recommendations.
Cruise Whitsundays: Fast catamaran sailing cruises, Island Escape day cruises or resort connections between islands. They also do day trips to the permanent pontoon at Hardy Reef.
Cruise Indigo: 60ft sailing yacht for day trips to Whitehaven Beach and 107ft Denison. Star does evening dinner cruises. Both vessels depart from Hamilton Island.
Whitsundays Sailing Adventures: have a fleet of vessels to explore, dive and sail the Whitsundays, departing from Airlie Beach.
Ocean Rafting: for fast and furious water-borne fun
Salty Dog Sea Kayaking: Fully guided sea kayak tours take keen adventurers to the places regular boats can’t access.
Descarda Charters: The ultimate cruising experience onboard a 70ft luxury cruiser that accommodates 8 guests overnight.Descarada added another new luxury vessel to their fleet late in 2011.
Tall Ship Cruises: Graceful sails billowing in the breeze, tall ship sailing offers a relaxing cruising from budget through to deluxe ships.
Southern Cross Sailing Adventures & ProSail Sailing Whitsundays: both offer a range of maxi sailing yachts for adventure seekers who like to feel the wind in their hair. The style is most budget/backpacker so if you’re into frugal sailing adventures this is the trip for you.