British explorer James Cook sailed into sheltered waters on Australia’s north-eastern coast on Whitsunday – June 3 – 1770. Could he have failed to be dazzled? He named this impossibly blue safe harbour – dotted with 74 green island – Whitsunday Passage.
Today, those islands and that azure water are still dazzling visitors to the Whitsundays, and I’m no exception. It’s been eight years since my last visit but I still remember the blast of summer heat that greeted me as I stepped off the plane. This time, it’s just a few days into winter…but still the balmy tropical warmth seeps into me within minutes of arriving.
The Whitsunday region has two airports. One is on Hamilton Island, the other on the mainland at Proserpine. It’s the latter that I fly into (the islands are going to have to wait for another visit) and it’s a lovely drive through sugar cane fields – all in bloom – as I head to the town of Airlie Beach, the heart of the Whitsunday Coast. It’s about 1000 km north of Brisbane, and a world away from city life.
Airlie Beach has undergone a revamp, with $23 million being spent on giving it a fresh new look, but it still has the feel of a holiday town, with lots of souvenir shops along the main street selling brightly coloured shirts and sarongs, buckets and spades, and all things beachy. There are also lots of restaurants and cafes, and I was happy to also see a great second-hand bookshop.
At the end of the main street is the new Port of Airlie Marina, which is set to become the new gateway to the islands and the Great Barrier Reef. Many of the tour operators who currently leave from Abell Point will be relocating closer to the town centre, and new hotels are springing up around this new development.
In the afternoon, I followed the Bicentennial Boardwalk from the Port of Airlie along the beachfront. The 3.7km boardwalk runs along the coastline to Cannonvale, with fabulous views out to boats bobbing on the Coral Sea, through stands of mangroves, and the new Botanic Gardens being developed at Cannonvale. There were plenty of people out, jogging, walking and biking along the path. Others were soaking up the sun on the beach or enjoying picnics on the grass. Some fun sculptures of birds and sea life are dotted along the way too. The boardwalk also passes the Airlie Lagoon, a large man-made swimming area that’s perfect year-round but especially popular during summer when marine stingers make a dip in the sea a hazardous activity.
After an easy day, I was ready for dinner at the Airlie Beach Sailing Club, and was rewarded with a stunning sunset.
But there was one more surprise waiting for me…when I woke in the morning, a few of the locals had dropped in to say hello!
Airlie Beach is a great base for exploring the islands and the Great Barrier Reef. And that’s just what I set out to do during the rest of my visit. Stay tuned for more posts on the wonderful Whitsundays.
A Glass Half Full travelled as a guest of Tourism Whitsundays.