I was one of nine fortunate people chosen to visit the Whitsundays in June, for a four-day familiarisation tour (famil) organised by Tourism Whitsundays and Jetstar. Despite notoriety in the media earlier this year, while Tropical Cyclone Debbie lashed the Whitsundays with all her fury, the area is now very far from being a scene of destruction. The Whitsundays is very much an area “open for business” … it’s beautiful, vibrant, colourful … and warm!
When visiting the 74 beautiful islands collectively known as The Whitsundays, which float peacefully in the tropical waters of the Coral Sea off the coast of North Queensland, it’s quite easy to see the area through explorer Lieutenant James Cook’s eyes. As Cook sailed north aboard the Endeavour in 1770, on the Feast of Pentecost during the Festival of Whitsun, he encountered the aquamarine waters and brilliant white sandy beaches we can still see today …
Although Cook’s encounter with the islands may be the first recorded European history of the site, it’s believed the area has been inhabited for more than 8,000 years by Aboriginal people. The islands are rich with beauty and cultural heritage, and teem with an abundance of marine and land based wildlife.
Arriving at Whitsunday Coast Airport in Prosperine one stunningly sunny morning in June, it was difficult to believe that back home in Port Macquarie, residents were experiencing the constant tattoo of rain and temperatures in the high teens. This was my first experience of The Whitsundays’ warmth … 24 degrees Celsius … a glorious winter’s day!
This warmth was echoed by everyone I met during my four day visit in North Queensland – not a cranky cabbie to be found, and even the airport security smiled as you passed!
Whitsunday Transport collected me and my companions from the airport, and our first stop was to set the tone for the rest of our stay.
The “Big Mango” is exactly that – a 10 metre high mango built in 2002 at a cost of $90,000. Located just 4 km south of Bowen on the Bruce Highway, the mango sits outside the Bowen Information Centre, which is a fantastic place to start your Whitsunday journey.
Bowen is the birthplace of the popular “Kensington Pride” mango (also affectionately known as the “Bowen Special”).
Bowen has another claim to fame, with the 2008 film, Australia, (starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman) taking place in town. Drive down the main street, cover the bitumen road with dirt, remove the accoutrements of modern day life – and there’s an early 1940s scene come to life.
Interestingly, Bowen is also the oldest town in north Queensland, established in 1861.
Where to Eat
While in Bowen, lunch at Le Sorelle Coffee House is a must. Le Sorelle means “the sisters” in Italian, and this cozy café, florist and gourmet fudge outlet is the brainchild of three very charming siblings. Food, flowers and fudge – an interesting combo that works!
Bowen is fondly known by some as the “Salad Bowl of the North”, although not everyone is aware of just how much fresh produce is grown here. Locally grown Bowen tomatoes feature regularly on menus of cafés and restaurants in the area – and for good reason!
Breakfast at the stunning Horseshoe Bay Café was a highlight of my trip. From luscious tropical fruits, to homemade baked beans, bacon and scrambled egg wraps and avo on sourdough toast, this was truly breakfast nirvana!
You can’t possibly visit Bowen without sampling the seafood the area is famous for. Bird’s Fish Bar provides the opportunity to view live Coral Trout caught on the Great Barrier Reef – and with views overlooking the harbour and a multitude of fishing boats, you can indulge in an array of fresh and hot succulent seafood.
Where to Stay
Whether travelling solo, or with a spouse and children in tow, the Big4 Coral Coast provides self-contained, air conditioned cabins with all the creature comforts. Slide open your screen door, and the beach is there – literally right there – complete with swaying palm trees and a strategically placed Adirondack chair or two. Bliss!
Things to See and Do:
Bowen has eight beautiful beaches to explore, complete with opportunities to snorkel, stand up paddle board, swim and fish.
There are plenty of trails and walks that offer scenic views and an array of wildlife to observe.Head to Flagstaff Hill Lookout and enjoy views over Bowen – both ocean and farmland.
Visit Grey’s Bay and indulge in a sunset cruise with Whitsunday Paradise Explorer, who’ll also take you for day trips to the islands for diving and exploring. The sunsets experienced while afloat are sublime.
Walk along the jetty at Bowen’s Front Beach, and spot turtles playing in the water.
Our first stop in Airlie Beach was at the one-of-a-kind Fish D’vine. Not only did we have lunch here, we watched it being prepared by Bec Clark – aka “The Food Junkie”. Bec runs cooking master classes on selected Sunday mornings, and her Moroccan chicken, prepared in a tagine, was simply … well … divine!
Under the same roof, Fish D’Vine also houses a Rum Bar. With over 450 rums on his shelves, Dr Rum and his team design fabulous alcoholic creations. Their mojitos (which we were able to indulge in while being entertained by Bec’s cooking skills) were pure magic.
Alluring Airlie Beach
Airlie Beach is a vibrant town that instantly makes you feel like you’re on holidays. Smiling faces and tanned legs are everywhere! The cafés in the main street host hordes of locals and tourists … Having sampled quite a few of them while I was in the area, I’m very surprised to report that I didn’t experience a single bad coffee while I was away. It may be warm in the Whitsundays, causing you to think long, chilled, frosty glasses would be the norm, but it seems hot, aromatic coffee is one of the town’s strengths.
Where to Eat
Mantra Club Croc not only offers superb accommodation, with 160 freshly decorated, luxurious rooms, but dinner or lunch in the relaxed Club Croc Bistro provides delicious modern Australian cuisine at its finest. The bistro is open for lunch and dinner for both Club Croc guests and the general public. Tip: the house made gnocchi with pan fried wild mushrooms, pesto and roast pumpkin, cream reduction, finished with rocket and grana padano is amazing!
Fine dining at its best, the refined and classy Walter’s Lounge won an Australian Good Food and Travel Guide Chef’s Hat in December 2016. Beautifully, freshly prepared food, exceptional cocktails and a boutique wine list can all be overjoyed overlooking the Port of Airlie Marina. Tip: Try the peanut butter ice cream, banana textures, salted peanut brittle, roast white chocolate and maple sap. Simply decadent!
Where to Stay
Heart Hotel and Gallery Whitsundays provides luxurious, boutique hotel accommodation, located right in the centre of Airlie Beach. The location affords the opportunity to walk to shops, cafés and beaches. My elegant suite, complete with private balcony, offered views over the sparkling Airlie Beach. Tip: The Deck restaurant, which you’ll find underneath the hotel, was the venue of choice for breakfast – couldn’t go past the eggs benny!
Pinnacles Resort provides those looking for self-contained accommodation the ultimate holiday experience. Jacuzzi, anyone? I shared a stylish three bedroom apartment with two of my fellow travellers, but the resort also offers one and two bedroom units. Girls’ weekend, family holiday, business trip – anyone will enjoy their stay here. The 180 degree views of the glistening Coral Sea and the 20 metre ozone wet edge pool are unbelievably glorious. Free Wifi, a gym and sauna are also available on site.
Things to See and Do
Explore Whitehaven Beach and Hill Inlet – book a boating experience with Red Cat Adventures and explore the islands, with plenty of opportunities for swimming, sunbaking and snorkelling. The Thundercat one day tour took us to the famous Whitehaven Beach, located on Whitsunday Island – 7 km of the whitest sand (composed of 98 per cent silica) you’ll probably ever see. This is possibly the most photographed beach in the world!
A short bushwalk uphill to the scenic outlook at Hill Inlet also provides amazing photo opportunities. The layers of swirling sand in the turquoise water resemble an artist’s painting, although it would be impossible to recreate the glorious colours in 2D.
The Thundercat also stops off at Manta Ray Bay, where you can feed the fish, snorkel and meet the huge resident Maori Wrasse, George, who will swim right up to you.
Segway Tours – the perfect opportunity to explore the Whitsunday Bicentennial Boardwalk, departing from Abell Point Marina, you’ll take in sights including Shingley Beach and the Whitsunday Botanic Gardens. An almost effortless – and totally fun – way to travel, Zak, resident Segway expert, provides tuition and guides the tour. Tip: stop in at Hemingway’s Restaurant at Abell Point Marina afterwards for a coffee and a bite to eat.
For those who prefer to travel in a seated position, Just Tuk’n Around offers rides in a tuk tuk. These quaint pedicabs afford the chance to sit back and relax, take in the scenery and snap photos, while your driver does all the hard pedalling work!
Enjoy a Sunset Cruise – Sundowner Cruises operates from Port of Airlie, providing a splendid opportunity to enjoy a drink from their well-equipped on board bar, while you watch the sun slowly sink behind the horizon.
Sundowner’s catamaran circumnavigates Pioneer Bay from Mandalay point to Cannonvale Beach.
The biggest surprise is being able to approach the shipwreck at Cannonvale Beach quite closely; an almost spectral sight silhouetted against the setting sun, with its once proud masts now sadly awry.
Airlie Beach/Whitsunday Markets – local artisans showcase their creations, the wonderful scent of cooking food and coffee waft through the air, as you stroll along the foreshore and indulge in some Airlie Beach flavour. The markets are on every Saturday from 8am – 12pm.
Getting to The Whitsundays
Jetstar operates a direct flight from Sydney to the Whitsunday Coast (Prosperine) three times a week, and also offers direct flights from Brisbane 10 times a week. Visit www.jetstar.com for info.
To Wrap Up
It’s quite difficult to imagine the destruction Tropical Cyclone Debbie unleashed on The Whitsundays in late March this year. The friendly, hardworking communities in Airlie Beach and surrounds have done a phenomenal job clearing away debris, banding together to help one another through the most difficult of times. Life moves on, and The Whitsundays rank as one of the most delightful places I’ve visited.
The people, the scenery, the weather, the food are all warmly welcoming – but perhaps the best way to sum up the “feel good” vibe of the whole area is to quote a lovely local lady (name unknown) I passed on one of my treks to the top of a headland: “We are truly blessed here. It is simply the most amazing place to live”.
Well … you may not be able to live there, but you can certainly visit! Many thanks to Tourism Whitsundays and Jetstar for organising this tour, and to all the hosts who made us feel welcome.
Travel Editor Susie Boswell & Travel Writer Jo Robinson.
Hero photo courtesy of WASP NQ Productions.