Whitsundays: which island?
Surprisingly, planning four days in the Whitsunday Islands was my most challenging travel project yet. You'd have thought it would be relatively straightforward: a visit to Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island was a must-do; I didn't want to stay anywhere too large and resorty; boat trips didn't have to include a Great Barrier Reef experience (done that); I needed a good restaurant for my friend's birthday dinner; and I wanted to see more than one island.
One's choice of island(s) will be largely dependent on three things: how much time you have; how much money you have; and which activities take your fancy.
If you're short of time, ideally you need to fly to Hamilton Island – the most developed island and the only one with a commercial airport – which you can do direct from Brisbane, Cairns, Melbourne and Sydney. Alternatively, you can fly (from Brisbane) to Proserpine on the Whitsunday Coast and transfer by bus to Airlie Beach or Shute Harbour, each of which has ferries to several islands.
Accommodation is a bit trickier. There are exclusive resorts that are fabulous but may well break the bank, on Hamilton and Hayman islands. There used to be a Club Med on Lindeman Island but it closed back in January 2012. At the other end of the spectrum are Hook Island Wilderness Resort, which is temporarily closed, and South Molle Island Resort. I suggest you read reviews on TripAdvisor if you're considering the latter. Probably midway on the scale is Daydream Island Resort & Spa. This large resort practically fills the small island but is pleasant enough and more family orientated. There are other hotels/resorts on Hamilton which didn't appeal to me online because of their size and/or price. I realised how good my instincts had been when we buggied over to Catseye Bay on our first afternoon (and viewed from the sea, below).
Hamilton Island has plenty of holidays houses and apartments available for self-catering. We stayed in a newish split-level apartment on the slopes of One Tree Hill above the marina. There were only two-bedroom options, so we had to spend more than I would have liked. It was spacious and nicely furnished, had a great view, a communal pool, beautiful leafy gardens, interesting visitors and a buggy included. Only utility vehicles are allowed on Hamilton: everyone drives around in electric buggies, and these are usually included in accommodation packages. There are a couple of bus routes if you don't have a buggy. If you're planning to walk everywhere, you should know that Hamilton is hilly.
When it came to researching where to stay online, I found the same accommodation options coming up again and again and most of them were too expensive or not my kind of place. So, you have to persevere, trawling through lists of holiday homes if necessary.
And what do you do while you're in the Whitsundays? There are lots of action-packed opportunities as well as sightseeing trips. Think of any water sport, and you'll almost certainly be able to do it. On land, on Hamilton, there are quad-bikes (for adults and children), go-karts and target sports. There are spas for pampering, bush-walking trails and a wildlife park – in effect, a zoo. (If you're a golf nut, I'm pleased to say you'll have to go over to Dent Island.) You can tour by boat, sea-plane and helicopter, but, surprisingly, the possibilities are not endless (see also Whitehaven hype).
I was told I could book trips when I got there. I ignored this advice, partly because, with so few days on the island, we didn't have much leeway if things were booked up, and it was a birthday treat so disappointment was not an option. Had I heeded the advice, I would almost certainly have done the Whitehaven trip differently, and I might even have hired a small boat. I wanted to go to South Molle Island, where the walks and the wildlife sounded promising, but the two main Whitsunday cruisers, Fantasea and Cruise Whitsundays, no longer timetable a stop there. You can hire small motorised dinghies or larger craft, but you need to know what you're doing – or take along friends who do – and big boats cost, as do scenic trips by air.
As with the accommodation, I found hamiltonisland.com.au steered me in very limited directions – even when I called them. Only when I was on the island did I find H2O Sportz, which offers a much better option for seeing Whitehaven as I wanted to see it. Their trips are only half-day, however, and don't include other islands. I think in another life I'd like one of these, please.
When planning your trip, other things worth noting are...
• Some cafes and shops only take cash*. Westpac have cleaned up on the holes-in-the-wall, so take plenty of cash with you if you don't bank with them and want to avoid transaction fees.
• Not all buggies have roll-down waterproof panels, which is another reason to take a lightweight mac if visiting during the wet.
• Eating out on Hamilton is expensive, even by Brisbane standards. Expect to pay upwards of $38 for a main course. I can, however, highly recommend barramundi and chips from Popeye's (on Front Street by the marina), a bottle of sauvignon blanc from the bottle shop a few doors along, and a deck overlooking Dent Passage at sunset.
• Beware sandflies: you won't spot them easily and their bites are almost as irksome as mozzies'.
• Especially if you're visiting in summer and you intend to spend a lot of time on the water, apply sunscreen regularly and liberally. A hat is essential, and preferably one that stays on in gusty wind.
• The ubiquitous Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, while charming, are allegedly able to chew through fly screens if you leave doors and windows open.
The Whitsundays had long been on my list. Whenever I'd previously chosen a Queensland island to visit – Magnetic, Heron, Dunk – the Whitsundays always lurked in the background; somewhere I knew I would have to go sooner or later. A long time had passed in which to form impressions and jump to conclusions. My preconceived ideas were mostly wrong, I'm pleased to say. These islands sprung many delightful surprises.
* If you are staying in the one of the resorts, you can charge purchases to your room.
Post script: please note that tour options change frequently.