Why The Whitsundays Islands Are The Perfect Winter Sun Destination
Free from the humidity of summer, and with the oceans (largely) stinger-free, winter is the perfect time to visit this beautiful region – a stretch of lush coastline lined with 74 tropical islands in the calm, astonishingly turquoise waters of the Coral Sea.
Winter had just arrived in Sydney when I left for The Whitsundays. April and May had been unseasonably mild – dominated by cloudless skies and a gentle sunshine whose gaze weakened by the day – and then suddenly, the chill of June had appeared and turned the air to ice.
I’d spent the weekend in the snowy mountains, then returned to Sydney to board a plane to Hamilton Island, two and a half hours north and straight into a sun-soaked paradise.
Flying into Hamilton Island, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that you’re arriving at a holiday destination. From out of the sparkling Coral Sea, the islands appear beneath you like emerald-studded orbs. Dreamtime stories of the Ngaro people – the traditional owners and custodians of the land – tell of the Whitsunday islands as the eggs of the Rainbow Serpent. You can’t deny that there’s something otherworldly about these flooded mountains, which rise imposingly out of the ocean, thick with canopies of Hoop Pines and lined with a varying coastline of powder white sand and dramatic, rocky beaches. Of all of the 74 islands – the largest group of offshore islands in Australia – only five are home to operating resorts, and seventy percent of the region is a protected national park.
And though I’m sure the region is beautiful regardless of the season, I’d be surprised to hear someone argue that there’s a better time to visit The Whitsundays than in June. The oceans at this time are warm but free from the stingers that plague them in the summer months. The beaches are quiet but still home to enough of a buzz to remind you you’re on holiday. And the weather is perfect: 25 degrees without a hint of rain. At least, that was my experience, typified by a magical seven days I spent in the region – my perfectly timed serving of winter sunshine.
My first two days were spent at qualia: the exclusive, hyper-luxurious adults-only resort on the northernmost point of Hamilton Island. These days were slow and indulgent: spent between the spa and the resort’s two glittering infinity pools. On the second morning, I woke before sunrise and hiked the 4k trail up a mountain on the east of the island. Passage Peak is one of several walking trails on the island, and one that a number of other guests had recommended I complete during my stay. The 40-minute trail led me up a dusty track to a lookout that takes in a 360-degree vista: ocean and evergreen islands in every direction. Read the full review here.
I left Hamilton Island via boat – for a 36-hour, surreal experience on the reef. My experience with Cruise Whitsundays and Reefworld was about as magical as a commercially run tour experience could possibly be. The boat carried us two hours into the ocean, past breaching whales (the region is an important calving ground for humpback whales between June and October) and stunning deserted islands, onto the corner of Hardy Reef. There, we climbed aboard a two-story pontoon that’s home to Australia’s first underwater hotel rooms, plus two main dining areas, two bars and twelve tent-style “Reefsleep” beds.
I spent that first day in and out of the ocean, exploring the reef that folded out in every direction – alive with stunning coral and beautifully colourful, prehistoric-looking fish.
The catering aboard the pontoon anticipated the level of physical activity that the reef – in all its overwhelming beauty – demanded. Meals were prepared by a French-trained chef who clearly understood the importance of butter, and each dish formed perfectly delicious high-calorie fuel for more hours spent exploring the ocean.
Canapes were served just as the sun sank behind the ocean – with each of the fifteen guests presented with a slate platter crowned with spiced prawns, oysters and creamy, seared scallops. Once the light had left the sky, we moved downstairs to where dinner was served – a French-inspired menu that made nods to fine dining, but with a heavier focus on nourishment.
After dinner, I made my way to my bedroom for the night – a canvas-wrapped bed beneath the Milky Way.
The true magic of the Reefsleep experience hits you at sunrise. You wake to uninterrupted views of the ocean in every direction, a fish leaps metres into the air and you’re not quite sure if you’re still dreaming, and gradually the clouds on the horizon turn from light pink to powder blue as the sun pushes up above the sea.
The second day aboard was spent in a similar fashion to the first: taking breaks from snorkelling to eat pastries and drink mimosas in the sunshine, before getting back into the water.
On the boat back to the mainland, a family of whales beached at the surface as deserted, divinely unspoiled islands sailed past.
I spent the one night I had in Airlie Beach at Coral Sea Resort: a waterfront resort a short walk from the town. The 77-room hotel is home to a 25-metre swimming pool and an expansive indoor-outdoor restaurant that overlooks the harbour, with its private jetty awaiting the arrival of boat-going guests. My room overlooked the harbour, and when I woke the next morning, the water was the colour of the sky: a gentle powder pink.
After breakfast by the pool, I travelled to Shute Harbour, where I boarded a boat to Elysian Retreat: the barefoot luxury eco-resort where I’d spend the final two days of my trip. Read the full review here.
Elysian is a diamond of a resort: a uniquely magical, quietly luxurious adults-only paradise occupying a secluded bay on a palm-flanked corner of Long Island. After two days at Elysian, I’d fallen in love with the place – stunned into a sense of deep calm induced by the stillness.
And that’s the main draw of The Whitsundays: peaceful beyond compare but thrumming with life.