WANDERING THE WHITSUNDAYS
by Risa Weinreb Wyatt
“I’m very excited about our cruise today,” commented Dave, an experienced yachtsman, as he completed his charter-yacht briefing. “I’ve sailed all over the world and I’ll tell you one thing: the Whitsundays are the best.”
For adventurous travelers certain journeys rank as musts. Whitewater rafting through the Grand Canyon. Skiing the Vallée Blanche on the flanks of Mont Blanc in Chamonix. And, for the nautically inclined, sailing through the Whitsunday Islands in Australia.
Which is how I found myself with four friends in an airy pavilion on the dock of The Moorings charter base on Hamilton Island, the heart of the Whitsunday group. Here for the briefing at the start of our bareboat charter, we poured over charts and questioned Daryl Thompson, the base manager, about tides and currents. Although we were all veteran sailors, this marked our first, thrilling cruise in these legendary waters.
Cradled in the Coral Sea between the Queensland coast and the Great Barrier Reef, the Whitsundays encompass 74 islands. The archipelago lies about 20 degrees south latitude, as far below the equator as Hawaii is to the north, assuring balmy weather year round. Once the domain of wild goats (Capt. James Cook had dropped them off in 1770 as future fodder for marooned mariners), the isles have become prime play-waters for the sail set.
Across the horizon, islands — the tips of drowned mountain ranges — jut from a jet-blue sea ruffled by southeast trade-winds. Green hills slope to wooded peninsulas and shores cadenced with pearly beaches. Fringing reefs swirl the waters into a rhapsody of blues: sapphire, aquamarine, turquoise, indigo. The islands are part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the largest such preserve in the world. Except for a handful of resorts on eight islands, the remaining isles are — by government decree — unpopulated, and little changed since the arrival of the First Fleet.
Besides unspoiled beauty, the Whitsundays have the cruising waters that earn them the highest accolades among sailors. Even newcomers like ourselves have few difficulties navigating in the region, as we learned during our chart briefing. Consistent, easterly tradewinds average a gentle 5 to 15 knots, and sunshine is practically guaranteed — the Whitsundays get nearly 300 sunny days a year. The 1,200-mile Great Barrier Reef located well offshore protects the cruising waters from the large Pacific rollers. With a myriad of hideaway anchorages from which to choose, a yacht will frequently have a cove all to herself.
One of the biggest yacht-charter organizations in the world, The Moorings offers both crewed and bareboat (sail-it-yourself) charters from Hamilton Island. The staff takes pride in its provisioning services, and when we boarded our new Moorings 343 (34 feet in length) Stargazer, we found the galley stocked with Oz-land delicacies including coral trout, barramundi, and Moreton Bay bugs (the local crayfish). A selection of wines from the Barossa Valley and Adelaide Hills would round out meals.
We cast off from Hamilton Island Marina with a brisk 15-knot wind filling our sails for the broad reach north up Whitsunday Passage, the watery corridor through the middle of the island group. Cruising the Whitsundays offers both the solitude of hidden beaches and the gregariousness of established resorts, which range from Robinson Crusoe simplicity to Donald Trump over-the-topness.
For au naturel beauty, it’s hard to beat Nara Inlet, a fjord-like bay that pierces three miles into the south end of Hook Island. Because the anchorage is so protected, the waters remain calm even when winds blow through Whitsunday Passage. From the head of the inlet, an easy 20-minute hike through eucalyptus trees and Cook pines leads to 2,000-year-old Aboriginal rock paintings. Hidden in caves on the bluffs, the images were the work of the Ngaro people, seafarers who sailed ironbark canoes sewn fore and aft with vines and made watertight by natural gum from eucalyptus trees.
The next morning we headed to Hook Island’s northern shore and Butterfly Bay, so named because of its shape and the butterflies which swarm around its shores. It’s one of the best snor-keling spots in the region, teeming with Maori wrasse, clownfish, and fusiliers that fin through staghorn and brain coral.
Skipping from isle to isle, we found that each has its own personality. Scalloped with delectable strands bearing names such as Lover’s Cove and Mermaids Beach, Daydream Island drowses at the western limit of the island group. The namesake Daydream Island Resort has recently opened its Rejuvenation Spa, which features signature treatments such as hydrotherapy baths and marine-algae wraps.
A white-sand beach edged by swaying palm trees and brilliant bougainvillea adds allure to nearby South Molle Island, setting for a casual family resort. We hiked through gum-tree forests to a hilltop lookout with spectacular views down Whitsunday Passage.
Cast away without being cast out of creature comforts — wait, better change that to creature luxuries. That’s the feel of Hayman Island, the northernmost — and most sumptuous — isle retreat in the Whitsundays. Think of it as a maritime Beverly Hills. Guests include CEOs, honeymooners, and families young in their wealth but assured in their elegance. Protocol for visiting yachts screens out the riff-raff. Donning full uniform, visiting crews are expected to neatly furl sails and coil lines before entering the harbor.
The resort serves up a variety of sensory vignettes. With its stepped façade, the architecture recalls Mayan temples. A hint of Versailles suffuses the statues and symmetry of the Formal Garden, while opulence glints in the Waterford crystal chandeliers and gilt antiques in La Fontaine restaurant. Ponds abound with koi, swans, and lily pads, while a vast swimming pool — seven times Olympic size — flows around the hotel. Because the manicured resort property occupies fewer than 50 of the island’s 725 acres, much of the land remains wild, home to flocks of cockatoos and lorikeets as well as endangered Proserpine rock wallabies.
For dining we chose Oriental Restaurant, serenely surrounded by ponds with waterfalls, black bamboo, and a resident eel. Dining on a secluded platform with Japanese lantern-style lighting, we enjoyed choices such as wok-fried Aus-tralian rock lobster and braised beef with fresh horfun noodles.
However, the most famous anchorage in the Whitsundays doesn’t need a posh resort or pampering spa. Instead it’s the perfect, four-mile-long crescent of Whitehaven Beach, called Whispering Sands by the Aboriginal peoples. Often top-ranked on beachy “Best in the World” lists, the strand is formed from pure silica that glitters like snow crystals and feels like baby powder between the toes. The bay has wonderful holding ground, and we anchored close to shore, then enjoyed several hours swimming and beachcombing.
Tropical gardens, nature trails, and dozens of beaches. That’s what we found back on Hamilton Island, where we lingered at the end of our cruise. The island rules as Action Central, offering a full range of pastimes on land (tennis, skeet shooting), sea (waterskiing, windsurfing, day trips to the Great Barrier Reef), and air (flightseeing tours). Several unusual excursions are offered by Hamilton Island Aviation. Accenting the Whitsundays’ romantic rapport, the company features the “Whitehaven Champagne Picnic Flight,” whisking guests by helicopter to the fabled beach for lunch and snorkeling.
Despite the ample activities, the Hamilton Island lifestyle stays decidedly low-key. The late Beatle George Harrison had a house here for years (he named the address “Let’s Be Avenue”), and made his way around the island without attracting autograph hounds. Since cars are discouraged, most people get around by golf cart. More than 70 percent of the island remains natural bushland, home to Australian animals and birds including kangaroos, wallabies, cockatoos, and lorikeets. Several beaches inlay the shoreline including Catseye, a perfect half-mile crescent. We stopped at the Koala Gallery wildlife center to view odd Oz animals such as bettongs, potoroos, and cassowaries. But the stars of the show are branchfuls of cuddly koalas who descend from their perches to pose for photo ops. Stoutly built and surprisingly heavy for their size (I kept thinking they resembled minature sumo wrestlers), the creatures smell like fuzzy cough drops from their eucalyptus diet.
But after a day on land, we once again got the urge to ride the winds of the Whitsunday Passage, to heed the allure of islands undiscovered but just an easy tack away. We yearned to see the Southern Cross hovering in a dome of stars from the open sea, while bioluminescence sparkles in the waters around the hull. Sea and sky merge into a galaxy of light ... diamonds above, diamonds below.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, contact The Moorings: Tel. 888-952-8420; Website: www.moorings.com.
TRAVEL TIPS – WHITSUNDAYS
• Hamilton Island is the gateway to the Whitsundays, served by regular flights on Qantas Airlines from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Cairns.
• Before heading out on their cruise, charterers should inquire about any difficulties the previous guests had with the boat. Although repairs will have been made, this helps alert sailors to potential repeat problems.
• The Whitsundays have a year-round tropical climate, with temperatures in the low to mid-80s from October– April, and in mid-70s from May–September. Tropical showers can occur December through February.
• August marks the biggest event on the Whitsunday calendar: Hahn Premium Race Week, a week-long sailing regatta that attracts 200 yachts from all over Australia.