Resorts first opened here in the 1930s and now number eight, but the majority of islands are still undeveloped national parks, with campsites on seventeen of them. Resorts aside, the few islands left in private hands are mainly uninhabited and largely the domain of local yachties. Those covered here all have regular connections to the mainland. Don’t miss the chance to whale watch if you’re here between June and September, when humpbacks arrive from their Antarctic wintering grounds to give birth and raise their calves before heading south again.
The largest island in the group, National Parks-run Whitsunday Island, is also one of the most enjoyable. Its east coast is home to the 5km-long Whitehaven Beach, easily the finest in all the islands, and on the agenda of just about every cruise boat in the region. Blindingly white, and still clean despite the numbers of day-trippers and campers, it’s a beautiful spot with blissfully little to do. The headland off the southern end of the beach facing Haslewood Island is the best place for snorkelling. On the beach’s northern end, a short track winds up to popular Hill Inlet Lookout for keenly photographed views of the sand-ridden bay.
Over on Whitsunday’s west side, Cid Harbour is a quieter hideaway that lacks a great beach but instead enjoys a backdrop of giant granite boulders and tropical forests, with several more campsites above coral and pebble shingle. Dugong Beach is the nicest, sheltered under the protective arms and buttressed roots of giant trees; from here you can walk along the narrow hill paths to another campsite at Sawmill Beach.
Directly north of Whitsunday, and pretty similar in appearance, Hook Island is the second largest in the group. Cruises sometimes pull into southern Nara Inlet for a look at the Aboriginal paintings on the roof of a small cave above a tiny shingle beach. Though not dramatic in scale or design, the art is significant for its net patterns, which are otherwise found only at central highland sites such as Carnarvon Gorge. On the rocks below the cave is more recent graffiti, left by boat crews over the last thirty years.
Snorkelling on the reef directly in front of Long Island’s resort is a must; snorkelling gear and surf skis are free (with deposit) to guests. The water is cloudy on large tides, but the coral outcrops are all in fairly good condition and there’s plenty of life around, from flatworms to morays and parrotfish. Day-cruises run from Airlie to the snorkelling spots and visit the top-rate fringing coral at Manta Ray Bay, Langford Reef and Butterfly Bay, on the northern and northeastern tips of the island – visibility can be poor here, but on a good day these sites offer some of the best diving in the Whitsundays.
The extremely high price of accommodation at Hayman pales into insignificance when compared with the resort’s building costs, which topped $300 million. Guests indulge in lush rooms, the best of which have extravagant antique furnishings, and staff move about through underground tunnels so that they don’t get in the way. Public access is restricted to just a couple of luxury tour operators although cruises and some dive-trips stop off for a look at the coral off Blue Pearl Bay – which isn’t actually that exciting – on the island’s west coast.
The Molles and nearby islands
South Molle Island was a source of fine-grained stone for Ngaro Aborigines, a unique material for the tools that have been found on other islands and may help in mapping trade routes. A series of fabulous coastal walking tracks crisscross the island, including one that leads off from behind the nine-hole golf course through gum trees and light forest, encompassing vistas of the islands from the top of Spion Kop and Mount Jeffreys, and on to some quiet beaches at the south end.
Daydream Island is little more than a tiny wooded rise between South Molle and the mainland, with a narrow coarse-sand beach running the length of the east side, and coral to snorkel over at the north end.
Tiny Planton, Tancred and Denman islands are just offshore from South Molle – with no facilities and limited camping at the National Parks sites here, they’re about as isolated as you’ll get in the Whitsundays. All three are surrounded by reef, but be careful of strong currents.
Long Island is exactly that, being not much more than a narrow, 10km ribbon almost separated from the mainland forests by a 500m-wide channel. It has some fabulous beaches however, and there are a few looping hikes through the rainforest to Sandy Bay and up Humpy Point.
With a large marina, an airstrip, tons of motorized sports and several high-rise apartment towers, Hamilton Island is the only brazenly commercial spot on the islands. Privately owned, its businesses operate under a lease: development includes a quaint colonial waterfront with bank, post office, bakery, nightclub, a handful of overpriced restaurants and four hotels that fall under the umbrella of Hamilton Island Resort, plus many holiday homes. The twin towers of Reef View Hotel loom over the east beach complex, and the best view of the whole area is from one of its external glass lifts, which run up to penthouse level. To explore the island, you can rent a motorized dinghy or a golf buggy to ride around the residential roads twisting along the northern peninsula. The best option, though, is the well-used walking track to the 239m-high Passage Peak, which offers the finest 360-degree panorama in the Whitsundays.