The Whitsunday Islands look just like the granite mountain peaks they once were before rising sea levels cut them off from the mainland six thousand years ago. They were seasonally inhabited by the Ngaro Aborigines when Captain Cook sailed through in 1770; he proceeded to name the area after the day he arrived, and various locations after his expedition’s sponsors. Today, dense green pine forests, vivid blue water and roughly contoured coastlines give the 74 islands instant appeal, and the surrounding seas bustle with yachts and cruisers.
Airlie Beach, around 149km north of Mackay via the workaday sugar town of Proserpine, is the gateway to the islands. Despite an attractive setting, nobody comes here to spend time in town – it’s just a place to be while deciding which island to visit. Island ferries generally leave from Shutehaven (aka Shute Harbour), 10km on from Airlie past Cape Conway National Park. Other cruises leave from Abel Point Marina in Cannonvale, a sprawling community lying in the wooded shadows of the Conway Range, just around the headland from Airlie Beach.