27 September 2016

 
Fabulous sights await snorkellers on the reef
Slip, slop, slap in Australia
Jenny Coad visits the stunning Whitsunday Islands, jump off point for the Great Barrier Reef, for a whistlestop tour of snorkelling and trekking
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t's slip, slop, slap time on the Whitsunday Islands in Australia. That’s slip on a top, slop on the sun cream and slap on a hat, as they say over here. If you’re planning a trip Down Under you'd be mad not to includea few days visiting these bountiful islands, which sit off Queensland’s sub-tropical east coast within the Great Barrier Reef. They're two hours from Sydney by plane, or 90 minutes from bothCairns and Brisbane - and boats leave to several of them from the popular back-packer spot, Airlie Beach.

Captain Cook came across the islands at Whitsun during his 1770 voyage. He christened the stretch between the islands and Cape Conway (to their west), Whitsunday passage – hence the name. They are brimming with extraordinary life - the fattest parrots, iridescent fish, fascinating bush landscape and the squeakiest sand. Most of the Whitsundays have national park status and offer only camping by way of accommodation. Happily, we are basing ourselves on two which have proper beds.
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Beach-combing on the extensive white sands
High end luxury is available at the One&Only Hayman Island
Each evening great flocks of cockatoos and parakeets swoop about. Holidaymakers at the Reef View tend to travel around by golf buggy but you can reach everything on foot. There’s a yacht-filled harbour with beach shops, boutiques, ice cream booths and fish-and-chip counters. We buggy down here for ice-creams, provisions and, on our last evening, posh cocktails in the stingray-shaped yacht club.

Now I’m a sluggish sort of person in the sunshine. My sister, Felicity, isn’t. To put it in local terms, she is the kangaroo to my koala. I would be happy to watch the weddings go by on the beach, but am marched up to Passage Peak – a fairly challenging climb in a warm climate – but one which has rewarding views across the island and beyond. Then it’s off to Dent Island, a golfer’s honeypot, for lunch. Dent is a ten-minute boat ride from Hamilton Island and popular with keen golfers such as Formula 1 star Fernando Alonso. We aren’t golfers but the course is an attractive diversion and you get a tasty lunch in the restaurant.

The really big attraction is the water. The Whitsundays are a jumping off point for the Great Barrier Reef. But if you don't want to splash out on the full-day excursion to a floating pontoon (which looks like a space station) moored beside it and you’re not a diver, then there are other snorkelling sights which cost less and attract fewer visitors. We opt for one which includes a drop-off at Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island. This four-mile stretch is a ‘beaut’, as the vernacular goes here.
Hamilton Island, our first port of call, serves family-friendly fun with big resort panache. At the Reef View Resort there’s a pool alongside the restaurant so parents can eat and watch their young squeal and splash.
"The Whitsundays are a jumping off point for the Great Barrier Reef."
A short walk from the beach takes us to Tongue Point Lookout, from which we see water swirling away across sand and mud flats like a marble cake. Stingrays and Blacktip reef sharks are dotted about in the shallows and we spy a tree snake winding its camouflaged way through the branches.

Blacktip and Whitetip reef sharks are common in these waters - and nothing to worry about. Hammerheads have been spotted, but there have been only three recorded shark-related fatalities in the Whitsundays. It’s the jellyfish I am watching out for.

Irukandji are tiny but deliver a punchy sting, which can be fatal. So we all don head-to-toe stinger suits and go into the sea with some trepidation.
"The islands are brimming with extraordinary life - the fattest parrots, iridescent fish, fascinating bush landscape and the squeakiest sand."
The spectacular sands of Whitehaven stretch into the distance
Enjoy the spectacular diving on the Great Barrier Reef
Family fun on the sands of the Whitsundays
Clownfish (of Nemo fame) guard their anemone homes, parrot fish chip away at the coral, munching noisily as if at crisps, fish with giraffe spot camouflage lurk at the bottom, black and white striped zebra types flit about and jellies bob near the surface. The coral is like a wellstocked sweet shop, with blue tipped wands, purple puckered lips that kiss the water, sponges, thick wafts of tagliatelle, sugary pretzel twists. It’s all very much like the breakfast buffet at our next stop, Hayman Island. This sultry place has a different pace altogether. It’s positively quiet. Reached by a 50-minute ferry from Hamilton, champagne included, it offers high living.

The hotel is beautifully landscaped with rooms overlooking the ocean. I would be supremely happy doing nothing but, as discussed, this is not an option with my sister. So we’re off on a four-mile trek through the bush, swiping away spider’s webs with a stick and listening for the slightest slither. We see bush wallabies, butterflies the size of sparrows and ancient grass trees. Plus two newly-built residences, priced from £12million. Incidentally, if you are in the market for a Whitsunday retreat - Daydream Island, is for sale, priced at £75million.


Original article published in Feb 2015. All info and prices correct at time of publication.
 
 
 
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