But as my beach body, sculpted by a strict coffee and chocolate diet, stepped onto Whitehaven Beach (which my pasty white skin matched almost perfectly) I realised I didn’t really care about what others thought. Besides, there’s not much room for introspection or self-doubt when captivated by the beautiful vistas of the Whitsundays.
Sunning yourself on the beach isn’t the only thing to do though, and while boarding a boat and heading out to explore the Coral Sea, the islands off Airlie Beach and the Great Barrier Reef makes for a great day out, landlubbers have plenty to see and do too.
The first thing I noticed as I stepped on the tarmac at Proserpine’s Whitsunday Airport on a sunny October day was the heat and humidity. Forget spring, for someone from Southeast Queensland, it felt like summer already.
My offsider and I picked up our luggage and caught a shuttle bus in to Airlie Beach, about half an hour away, where we picked up a car. First stop: BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort, on the Cannonvale side of town, which is like a holiday destination in itself. In fact, if I had kids, I’d be tempted to stay put at the resort for the whole holiday. Pools, slides, an animal farm, go-karts, jumping pillows, mini-golf, an outdoor cinema … it’s quite the place. The resort even has a sensory room for families with kids on the autism spectrum, which I imagine would be a godsend for those travellers at times.
The park has camping and caravan spaces as well as cabins, which we called home for two nights, surrounded by tropical gardens. The deck is a good spot to relax while people watching and enjoying the views of the Conway Ranges.
It’s only a five-minute drive into the town of Airlie and my favourite part is getting to the top of a hill on Shute Harbour Rd, being greeted by the marina on the left at the top of the rise, and that incredible Whitsunday water. I grew up in Hervey Bay and now live on the Sunshine Coast, yet the colour of the Coral Sea is unlike anything I’ve seen before – a shimmering turquoise. I’m told it’s due to the fine sediment in the water and how it reflects the sunlight, as well as its purity. That’s a bit too much science for me, but whatever the cause, it’s stunning.
The main street of Airlie looks a little tired. Times have been tough during the pandemic for a town so reliant on tourism, and international travellers in particular. But those I talk to during my trip who work in the tourism and hospitality sectors tell me a rise in Queensland travellers has been a lifesaver, and they hope the trend continues. I, for one, am happy to oblige.
The last time I was in Airlie Beach, the mermaids were still sitting on the rocks on Daydream Island – well before Cyclone Debbie washed them away in 2017, so I definitely noticed some changes, and the best has taken place at the foreshore, which was also damaged by Debbie.
A path connects Airlie Beach Lagoon to the Whitsunday Sailing Club, and is well lit at night which makes it a good option for a stroll after dinner. There’s also a new playground, stage and market area. We browse the stalls on Saturday, and it makes for a chilled morning out.
A new outdoor movie screen was also recently unveiled on the foreshore and I’m predicting it will be a hit during the summer school holidays.
Out on the water
As I mentioned earlier, I’m not really a beach person, but I pulled out the togs, 10 litres of sunscreen and headed out for a day trip with Ocean Rafting Whitsundays – and I’m so glad I did.
We boarded the Wipe Out at Coral Sea Marina for the Northern Exposure tour and headed straight for Whitsunday Island – the largest of the 74 islands in the Whitsundays.
The boat, which thankfully has a roof to fend off the heat of the sun, also has some serious horsepower that had us bouncing off the waves at high speed. If you’re looking for a leisurely paced cruise, this trip isn’t for you. The WipeOut was a wild ride, and a fun one complete with plenty of seaspray, so don’t expect to stay dry.
We step off the boat at Tongue Bay and head up the stairs to Hill Inlet Lookout. There’s plenty of stairs, but the 15-minute walk is well worth it when you see the view from the top. Three lookouts offer spectacular views over Hill Inlet, Whitehaven Beach and Champagne Beach.
There’s a lot to take in, but what immediately captures the eye is the brilliant white sand of Whitehaven Beach, which is made up of some of the purest silica sand in the world, and is the only place in the Whitsundays it’s found. Our guide, Kate, tells us it’s not known how it came to be there, but there’s no doubt why Whitehaven was named the best beach in the world in Tripadvisor’s Travellers’ Choice Best of the Best list for 2021. The brilliant white sand makes the turquoise waters look even more magical. Pictures barely do it justice.
But it’s not just about Whitehaven. Look into the shallows below and if you’re lucky you’ll see baby stingrays – we spot at least half a dozen. Then there’s Hill Inlet itself and its swirling waters which are the result of the sand meets the sea as the tide comes in and goes out.
After a few happy snaps, we head down to the southern end of Whitehaven Beach and step onto that white sand, which is surprisingly cool, even in the 30-plus degree warmth of midday. We’re told the reason it’s cool is because of the high silica content.
Under the water
After lunch and a swim, it’s time to see the Whitsundays from below the water.
I’d never been snorkelling before and despite a few snorkelling equipment malfunctions – OK, user errors – and consuming a litre or two of saltwater, I had a ball.
It was like being in another world, or like I was finally living out my long-held dream of being Ariel from The Little Mermaid (sans shell bikini). Sadly there was no breaking out into song, but it’s probably just as well the fish couldn’t talk, though they did seem pretty cool about me invading their space. I’d expected flighty fish, darting away to hide in the coral, but they were happy enough to swim right on by and have as good a gawk at me as I was at them. How could I not be anything but mesmerised by them, so many different shapes, sizes and shimmering colours swimming among a coral wonderland with its own stunning range of hues, textures and movement.
But the most magical moment was seeing a huge sea turtle eating what I assume was algae on the coral. I’m so lucky to have been treated to a sneak peek of its world. If only I’d had a camera to take underwater, so I could prove, even to myself, that what I was seeing was real.
We snorkelled at two locations, then headed back to Airlie, snacking on fruit and lamingtons on the way. What a great day.
After enjoying a taste of the action in Airlie and its waters, it was time to hit the road to explore more of the Whitsundays. About an hour away is Bowen – the oldest town in North Queensland, famous for its mangoes, so of course, the first stop had to be the 10m tall Big Mango, to tick off another attraction from Australia’s Big List and sample some mango sorbet.
The Big Mango, on the Bruce Highway on the outskirts of town, is also home to the Bowen Visitor Information Centre where you can check out what sites to see and activities on offer before making your way into town.
I love country towns, and Bowen has all the features of one: wide streets, few traffic lights, beautiful old buildings, lots of local businesses and fewer national chains, and a sense that time has slowed down a bit since leaving the highway. But it also comes with a huge bonus country towns aren’t known for – it’s right on the beach.
The town itself feels stretched out, which I’m told is partly because it was once thought Bowen would be the capital of Queensland, so it was laid out in a precise grid of extra-wide streets in preparation for its growth. However, it also seems stretched out as the town hugs the coastline and its beautiful beaches.
There are eight beaches in Bowen, and we are lucky enough to stay at Whitsunday Sands Resort which offers us a view of Grays Bay from our balcony, which we discover is the perfect spot to watch the sunset over the water.
Just around the corner is Horseshoe Bay, which I’m keen to get back to now that I’m practically a professional snorkeller as there’s a coral reef just offshore which you can swim out to from the beach – no need for a boat trip.
While I didn’t get a chance to check out the reef, I did hike up to Rotary Point Lookout as the sun was setting – the view is stunning.
Baz Luhrmann obviously thought Bowen had plenty of charm – he spent two months filming scenes for his 2008 blockbuster, Australia, which stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, in the town which became the film’s pre-war Darwin backdrop. Fans of the film will recognise Bowen’s Grandview Hotel as the pub in the movie. Displays at Front Beach show how the town was transformed into a movie set. There’s also a memorial to commemorate World War II efforts in Bowen, as the Catalina Flying boat base.
Bowen’s culture and history also feature on more than 28 murals found throughout the town. You can grab a Bowen information book from the Big Mango and go on a walking tour to spot them all.
As for me though, next time I’m in Bowen I’ll be making a beeline for that water – who said I wasn’t a beach person?
The writer was a guest of Tourism Whitsundays.
This article originally appeared on Escape