The fact that our boat was called Thunderstruck was the first indication we were in for a good time.
It was a bright, warm morning as my family stood at Airlie Beach’s Abell Point Marina, checking in for our day-long excursion through the spectacular Whitsunday Islands. As we typed our information into iPads, Ocean Rafting’s young crew of easy-going Aussies with sun-streaked hair cracked jokes with the crowd, handing out wetsuits as we got set to head out.
The lemon-yellow inflatable vessels we’d be spending the day on only hold about 30 people, so it was quick for us to all hop on and get sorted—a nice change from many tourist operations. Some people sat on benches sheltered from the blazing sun, while others like me chose to prop ourselves up on the side and wrap a rope around our hands to ensure we didn’t end up going for an unplanned swim. A safety briefing that doubled as a comedy routine was up next, the skipper turned up the stereo to set the soundtrack for our day, and then just like that we were off, speeding toward the islands.
The Whitsundays are home to 74 islands, which all look like lush, green mountains jutting out of the spectacularly turquoise water. Some are home to resorts, including Hamilton, Long, Daydream and Hayman Island, while others are completely uninhabited. It was those untouched ones we were after today.
It took about half an hour to glide over the glass-like, calm sea toward Whitsunday Island, which was our first stop. The breeze off the water kept us cool as we scanned the horizon for any sign of a whale or dolphin pod, and our skipper slowed down a few times so we could get a closer look at the large turtles, who would occasionally peek their dark heads out of the ocean before lazily disappearing again without a trace.
Despite still being early in the morning, the island was already bustling when our craft pulled up. Those who’d spent the night camping in the national park had their bags strewn about, getting set to take a refreshing dip in one of the nearby reefs. Mothers slopped sunscreen and hats on children eager to start exploring, and day trippers disembarked their boats in a steady stream. We weren’t wasting any time either, as our first order of business was to visit the famous Hill Inlet lookout point.
Hill Inlet is a spectacular spot on the north end of Whitehaven Beach where the tides shift, creating vibrant blue swirls around the sparkling sand. Arguably one of the most amazing spots in all of Queensland, it rightfully draws visitors in droves. Tongue Point is one of the best places to see it, as there are two elevated lookout points which are reached after a 10 minute bush walk along a dusty trail. The walk can be a fun experience in itself, and those who keep their eyes peeled may even spot a snake or huge lizard.
We hurried along the trail, eager to see the postcard-worthy view, and eventually the cover of the thick, dry brush gave way to an open expanse of sunny blue skies, lush foliage and an unobstructed view of Hill Inlet. It was one of those special sights you simply could not tear your eyes away from. The different hues seamlessly blending with the ivory sand could not have been painted more perfectly, and the shallow water meant we could see the life below the surface, even from so high above. It is truly one of the most beautiful and special places I had ever had the pleasure of seeing, and could have stood there silently all day just taking it in.
Shannon, one of the good-natured guides on our boat, had to eventually coax me away as we had a schedule to keep, but suffice it to say I wouldn’t have been too disappointed to find myself marooned on that island. Fortunately there was more fun in store: we were heading down to the inlet! Ocean Rafting is one of the only boat operators with direct access to Hill Inlet Beach, which meant we were able to head straight to the untouched strip of breathtaking shoreline.
I kicked off my sandals and sunk my toes into the velvety-soft silica sand, which incredibly does not retain heat so it’s comfortable to walk on despite the soaring Queensland temperatures. I slowly crossed the expansive beach where there was barely a soul in sight, feeling a cool breeze blow through my hair, and committed the spectacular sight of the swirling inlet to memory, wishing I could stay there forever.
We would be returning to the island later that day, but first we had another of business—exploring the Whitsundays’ underwater world. We’d taken a quick boat ride to a different reef and were now floating in a quiet inlet surrounded by steep cliffsides dotted with vegetation. As it was stinger season, we zipped on our thin wetsuits designed to give us that extra layer of protection in case we inadvertently swam into one of the resident jellyfish. After adjusting our masks and slipping on some flippers, we hopped off the boat into the cool water below.
We were positioned right over a reef and spent the next half hour swimming between the coral, treading water when we needed to pause and take a closer look at one of the colourful fish that happened by. Unfortunately my sister and I became so distracted by also keeping an eye out for the stingers that would pop up in front of us with no warning, that we decided not to test our luck any further and rejoin my mother back on the boat deck. We stripped off our snorkeling gear, gratefully accepted a couple of ice-cold beers, then hung our feet over the side of the boat as we soaked up the sun and enjoyed the scenery.
Once the rest of our group made it back on board, it was time for the pièce de résistance: Whitehaven Beach. Consistently ranked one of the best beaches in the entire world, the seven-kilometre stretch of shoreline is made up of 98 per cent silica sand, renowned for its exfoliating properties.
As soon as we anchored I hightailed it to shore, barely taking a second to lay down my towel before starting to scrub the sand all over myself. I’d been told about its incredible exfoliating properties, and hours later was amazed to find that my legs were still literally sparkling from my impromptu spa treatment. The sand is also fantastic for cleaning jewelry, so my rings got some TLC as well. Just don’t even think about bottling up any sand to bring home, as it can result in a $2000 fine!
It wasn’t long before we were invited back on board to load up our plates with a BBQ lunch, which included delicious roasted chicken, buns, potato salad and fresh fruit. All of us decided to eat on the beach, determined to enjoy every second we had there, but that did mean we were fair game for the seagulls. It turns out the birds are more brazen when you actually try and shoo them away, and it was quite humorous watching a group of Japanese girls jumping around and squealing as they tried to protect their food from the feathered-fowl that had descended upon them.
The next couple of hours were spent enjoying the blissful peace and quiet, on a stretch of dazzling white sand away from the camera-toting crowds. Given Whitehaven’s enormous size it wasn’t hard to find our own piece of paradise, and we alternated between wading into the shallow, warm water and relaxing on the beach soaking up the sun. At one point a helicopter touched down near us, so we wandered over in hopes of a celebrity sighting. No luck. On this day we didn’t have enough time to explore all of Whitehaven Beach, but it’s always an option for those who charter their own boats or helicopter. It may hurt the wallet, but the experience would be well worth it.
When it was time to head back, we grudgingly gathered up our beach gear and meandered toward the boat, trying to soak in every last second on Whitehaven Beach. Perhaps trying the ease the blow of having to leave, our boisterous crew decided to race with another boat back to shore, purposely speeding toward the waves created by each other’s crafts and launching over them. By design, Ocean Rafting’s vessels are much faster than most Whitsunday carriers, which not only makes them more fun but also allows groups to experience more of the islands in less time. As we peeled by the islands letting out enthusiastic cheers, the guys gathered up the cake leftover from tea time and proceeded to hurl them at the other boat. Who doesn’t like a good, old fashioned food fight?
As Airlie Beach came back into focus, our skipper did one last circle over the waves making for some last-minute excitement, then pulled into the harbour. It was safe to say that none of us wanted to get off.
Cost: An adult ticket for the Ocean Rafting tour costs about $134, while children cost $87. Lunch, on-board drinks and wet suit rentals are extra. If time and budget permits, book the package that adds a spectacular scenic flight over Whitehaven Beach and up to the Great Barrier Reef—you won’t be disappointed.
Duration: Tours run about 6 1/2 hours, and include pickup and dropoff at your hotel. Ocean Rafting offers two routes: Northern Exposure and Southern Lights. The northern route offers more snorkelling time, while the southern route includes more time on the beach.
Top tips: Bring lots of sunscreen. It can get extremely hot in the Whitsundays, especially on Whitehaven Beach where there isn’t much shelter. Water is a must (and can also be purchased on board) as well as a towel and hat. There is secure storage on the boat so there’s no need to worry about your items getting wet, but be careful with electronics such as cameras and cell phones nonetheless.
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Globe Guide travelled through the Whitsundays as a guest of Ocean Rafting and Tourism Whitsundays. As always, hosts have no editorial influence on articles.