Along with Uluru at sunrise, the Sydney Harbour Bridge at sunset and the Opera House at any old time, it is one of the great postcard images of Australia. Boats anchored on sea like a sheet of glass, suspended over the world’s largest living organism, the Great Barrier Reef. For some, this is a luxury day-trip from Cairns – a bundle of dollars to get you further out, past the greying inner reef. For others, however, it can be part of everyday life, a cruising adventure among the Whitsunday Islands.
There are 74 islands in the Whitsundays. Most of them are national parkland, some have resorts on them and you can camp on many others. Sailing in the Whitsundays represents a kind of working laziness: the chance to swan about in paradise like a millionaire for a reasonable price and in relative safety – but with a keen eye on the sea and the sky.
Before you sail
We’re sailing our own boat, and one of us is a skipper, so it’s up to us to plan where we want to go. Our eventual trip bears practically no relation to the original plan, thanks to sheer bone idleness and the fact that the wind isn’t always in our favour. If you’re hiring the boat, the company will recommend a route, but bear in mind that that’s the route lots of other people will take, too.
You’ll need a food plan (unless you’re having the whole thing done for you, which is pricey). All things start and end on Hamilton Island, which means there are plenty of shops and other facilities to sort you out – but the prices are on the steep side. Wary of spending a fortune and still being caught short out at sea, the four of us make a daily meal plan that includes booze and fresh drinking water – but also takes into account the limited storage space on board. Fresh meat is one of the most expensive things on Hamilton, so I find a specialist butcher in Sydney and order frozen, vacuum-packed meat that I can take with me on the flight from the mainland, as well as whatever other provisions I can fit in my bag. It sounds extreme, but four friends bought everything on Hamo, and spent $1600 for a week – we end up spending less than a quarter of that.
And they’re off
Safe, sheltered and relatively calm, there are few bits of sea on earth more packed with inexperienced sailors. After minimal instruction, companies will turn you loose on one of their vessels to “bareboat” your way around. On our first day, it’s easy to see why: there is no wind. Sailing conditions are rarely too rough here – sometimes bites of wind – known as “bullets” are forced down the narrow passages and give you a bit of a knock, but today, as on a few others, we turn on the engine, and nose out of Hamilton Marina. Within two hours we’re in picture postcard land.
Whitehaven Beach is 5km of squeaky white loveliness. There may be a better feeling than dropping anchor, climbing into your tender and putt-putting your way to Whitehaven’s pristine expanse, but not many. In mid-afternoon, the light’s perfect to get that shot of the tender pulled up on the beach, with your boat just behind it offshore. That’s the shot you send your friends if you want to really annoy them.
As the afternoon draws on, the sandflies wake up and start leaping about on the shoreline like blood-hungry maniacs. Time to head back and get into something cold and alcoholic.
There is still no wind, but another half-hour’s motoring brings us to Apostle Bay, just off Whitsunday Island. In the previous bay, at least 10 other boats are anchored; here, for some reason, we are completely alone. Here’s a free tip: before you go sailing and park yourself in a deserted bay, don’t rent the movie Dead Calm.
Without the city lights to drown them out, the night sky is huge and glittering, the Milky Way never so milky up beyond the swaying mast; there’s no sound beyond the faint trickle of water and the louder clink of beer bottles.
In the morning, a tiny head pops up out of the sea and regards us. It takes a deep breath and shows us its turtle’s bottom. We are in the middle of a nature documentary and the almighty has called “action!” More turtles appear, and an eagle tracks low and silent over the surface. Finally, just when the cheap seats are getting restless, a whale curves into view in the middle distance.
When the wind picks up, we have to actually do something. It may not be Force 40 around the Cape, but there are sails to put up and down, sheets to be pulled, tacks made and navigation thought about. In the middle of all this, we have to put more beer in the fridge, make lunch, wash the dishes up and stow them all away again. The stronger the wind gets, the more fun all that is. I try very hard to lie around and read a book, but I can never get a really good run at it.
Mixing it up
A week or more on a small boat can push even the best friendships to the limit, so the key is to do enough so you don’t feel like you’re in jail: we spend one afternoon snorkelling a reef and have a couple of excursions to deserted beaches for bushwalks inland. We even spent a couple of nights ashore. There are a resorts built on a few of the islands, and while some of them are keen to offer you the “ultimate experience”, at hilarious prices, venerable Daydream Island is reasonably cheap, and offers you a pool to lounge beside and a good variety of food.
Whether you’re bareboating it or being skippered, a keen sailor or a gin-and-sunset man, the hilly, wooded landscape of the Whitsundays, fringed with coral reefs beneath a clean, clear sea, gives you the kind of thing your parents called the “holiday of a lifetime”. And it’s only 60km offshore.
Jetstar flies to Hamilton Island from Brisbane, Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne; Virgin Blue flies daily from Brisbane to Hamilton. There are also very regular flights to Proserpine on the Whitsunday coast, and a slick bus-ferry set-up.
Try Daydream Island Resort and Spa for a couple of days’ break off the boat at an acceptable price
This means you rent the boat without skipper, crew or provisions. No boating licence is required and only minimum experience. You’ll get a briefing and hands-on sailing instruction before you’re allowed out. There are some rapid tides and occasionally tricky wind conditions but it’s a popular option. Most companies have a good range of yachts and cruisers; they’ll need a booking deposit, a security deposit and a minimum of five nights’ booking. Expect to pay from $350 per night for a basic yacht sleeping two, from $500 for something that sleeps four, onwards and upwards. Try Whitsunday Rent a Yacht or Charter Yachts Australia but there are loads, so shop around.
Where to go, what to do
www.whitsundaytourism.com is a good place to start, but it’s essential to have a guide book on board with you, as well as the maps and charts. David Colfet’s 100 Magic Miles of the Great Barrier Reef and The Whitsunday Islands, is excellent.
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