Written by Jeni Bone
21 June 2018
The Whitsundays first captured the attention of mariners when Lieutenant James Cook – then a junior naval officer with promising cartography skills – and his crew aboard the HMS Endeavour made their first voyage to the unknown southern land.
On 4 May 1770, known as Whit Sunday, Cook sailed through what he named the Cumberland Islands, and called the passage between the northern islands the Whitsunday Passage. But for 9,000 years before his arrival, the first people of the region, the Ngaro (also known as the Island People), were hunters, gatherers and skilled navigators, travelling the full extent of their islands in search of food, as well as for recreation and social gatherings.
The Whitsundays is a patchwork of 74 islands positioned in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef, which is renowned as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
The Whitsunday group is defined by the Queensland National Parks Authority as extending from Gloucester Island (east of Bowen), to Thomas Island (east of Cape Conway). In terms of tourism, however, the Whitsunday group includes Hayman, Hamilton, Hook, Lindeman, Long, South Molle and Daydream Islands.
In 1975, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) was established to protect and manage the reef, which is home to a huge variety of creatures including endangered species as well as over 400 coral species, 1,500 different types of fish and 4,000 types of mollusks.
There has been major investment in anchorages within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park over the past 12 months, with 21 new superyacht anchorages for vessels from 35–69 metres established, as well as 37 new moorings at popular spots. There are also new walking tracks on several islands that were previously inaccessible.
The GBRMPA has installed the additional moorings as part of their commitment to protecting the health of fringing reefs, and to ensure that sections of reef recover from the impact of tropical cyclones.
Yachts can explore the entire coastline of this fascinating part of Australia. Cruising grounds stretch from the top of Cape York and the islands of the Torres Strait, and south to the Gold Coast and Brisbane – or beyond if time and inclination allow.
At 16.9186° S, Cairns is the gateway to both the Great Barrier Reef and the tropical rainforests of the Daintree. There’s an international airport with private jet facilities just 10 minutes from the Cairns Marlin Marina that accommodates vessels up to 140 metres, has three Lloyds-accredited shipyards with service and refit capabilities, and a reliable network of local suppliers with world-class expertise.
Events in and around Cairns include the Cairns Ironman Triathlon in June each year, which attracts the world’s top triathletes; the Cairns Amateurs Racing Carnival, three days of horse racing and fashion held in September each year; and the Cairns Bluewater Billfish Tournament off Fitzroy Island where the allure of the Black Marlin entices the world’s competitive anglers for a tag and release tournament every August.
Between July and September every year around 1,200 humpback whales, including the rare albino whale Migaloo, migrate from cold, southern waters to calve and cavort in the sheltered waters of the tropics, putting on a great show for yachts moored around the islands.
For nature lovers, the mass coral spawning that occurs each November and December during a full moon is a phenomenon that enchants divers, scientists and visitors alike to the reef.
South of Cairns, Townsville is a major regional centre and a suitable stop for provisions, a dose of Australian culture, some bushwalking or shopping. The calendar includes a range of colourful events from the rugby, triathlons and bull riding, to food festivals and chamber music concerts.
Fishing and diving enthusiasts will enjoy the wreck of the Gothenburg in Flinders Channel as well as Keeper Reef, while Hinchinbrook Island and Magnetic Island are renowned for their plentiful sportfish such as barramundi, mangrove jacks, trevally, queenfish, salmon, fingermark, grunter and cod.
Horseshoe Bay on Magnetic Island is ideal for watersports, and the island welcomes a diverse and friendly fleet for Magnetic Island Race Week in late August.
Ninety nautical miles south of Townsville is the coastal town of Bowen, the famous backdrop of the Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman film, Australia.
There are plans in the pipeline for a significant marina development on the existing site of Bowen Boat Harbour that would position the region as the Monaco of the South Pacific, complete with shipyard, service centre and a Maritime Centre of Excellence for professional training.
Abell Point Marina owner Paul Darrouzet is the visionary behind the proposed state-of-the-art facility that he believes will be required within the decade to cater to the rising numbers of superyachts, and the predicted influx of vessels ahead of the next America’s Cup in New Zealand.
A food bowl renowned for its prolific production of tomatoes, beans, capsicum and the famed Bowen mango, it is well worth a visit for its white sandy beaches such as Horseshoe Bay, Rose Bay, Murray Bay, Grays Bay, Kings and Queens Beaches, and a refreshing ale at the bar of the Grandview Hotel, named Australia’s Best Regional Pub in 2015.
Lying 30 nautical miles north-south is Airlie Beach and Abell Point Marina, the departure point to the Whitsunday islands and a destination in its own right. Abell Point Marina has invested in amenities to accommodate visiting superyachts and large cruising vessels, including its Ocean Club customer and crew lounge.
Abell Point Parkway is 2.5 hectares of public parklands open for concerts, festivals, events, weddings and recreation. Then there’s the daily heli-service from Airlie Beach Helipad that includes airport transfers, scenic flights, private flights, and fly and golf packages.
For visiting yachties and crew, the staff at Abell Point provide an extensive guide to the region, covering accommodation options both on the islands and onshore, restaurants and bars, events, golf, diving, jetski or parasailing instruction, watersports on the sea or local dams, wildlife experiences, hiking, gliding, angling, Indigenous cultural experiences, barbeques on the beach and camel riding!
Next on the agenda is the $86 million redevelopment of Daydream Island, and similar refurbishment of Hayman Island. Both suffered from Cyclone Debbie in 2017, and are due to reopen in 2019.
The Palm Bay Resort on Long Island, easily accessible by boat, helicopter or aircraft from Shute Harbour or Hamilton Island, remains open and is a tranquil enclave with a range of Balinese-style bures and villas. An array of activities is on offer.
Hamilton Island hospitality
The jewel in the crown of the Whitsundays is Hamilton Island, a compelling blend of eco and established attractions where visitors can experience everything that is uniquely Australian – palm-fringed beaches, tranquil turquoise waters, coral reefs, diverse flora and fauna, a range of accommodation, boutiques, galleries, a wildlife park and a multitude of activities.
Following Cyclone Debbie, Hamilton Island took the opportunity to construct new arms at its marina and upgrade existing superyacht facilities to accommodate vessels up to 50 metres.
Marina services have been bolstered with a luxury concierge that can arrange provisions, transfers and bookings for restaurants, spas and tours for guests of Hamilton Island and their vessels.
Five-star qualia comprises 60 elegant one-bedroom pavilions and a Beach House, each set among eucalyptus trees with picture-perfect views of the idyllic blue-green waters of the Whitsundays. An extensive planned renovation was also activated at qualia following Cyclone Debbie.
The rejuvenated qualia boasts upgrades and interiors by the renowned George Freedman, who ensured the beauty of qualia’s natural environment is celebrated with a colour palette that reflects its surroundings.
The resort’s restaurant offerings have been transformed, and qualia has welcomed a superb Palm Beach Motor Yacht to its existing charter fleet.
For avid golfers, the championship golf course on neighbouring Dent Island is a par 71 course designed by five-time British Open winner Peter Thomson. Strung along spectacular ridges and steep valleys with a variety of obstacles for those willing to take on the challenge, the course boasts breathtaking vistas.
Hamilton Island Race Week rolls around in August. Australia’s largest offshore keelboat regatta attracts spectators and sailors from all over the globe. The five days of competitive racing, including superyacht and multihull race classes, also boasts a colourful social scene.
Whitehaven Beach is a short 12-nautical-mile voyage from Hamilton Island through Solway Passage, prized for its fine white sand beach and crystalline waters.
A Whitehaven must-do is to explore the iconic Hill Inlet walking trail for breathtaking views of the Whitsunday Islands.
Cid Harbour is a secluded anchorage on the western side of Whitsunday Island, offering visitors rainforest walking trails between the beaches, including a one-hour trail to Whitsunday Peak and its awe-inspiring, 360-degree views.
Located on the north-western side of Hook Island is Stonehaven, a short tender ride to some of the best snorkeling spots in the Whitsundays, including Butterfly Bay and Manta Ray Bay on Hook Island.
Tracking north from the cruising grounds of Cairns, the intrepid explorer will find the remote islands of the Torres Strait and Papua New Guinea. Joanne Drake, Manager of Super Yacht Group Great Barrier Reef says, “The northern Great Barrier Reef, from Cairns to Cape York, is David Attenborough country.
“The reefs and islands north from Cairns to the Torres Strait are some of the most pristine and unvisited in the world – one of the few places to see reef sharks and Minke whales, and to sail waters where you just don’t see other yachts.”
Port Douglas is the ideal base for experiencing local Indigenous history and culture while exploring the northern reef, the wonders of the Coral Sea, the Daintree Rainforest and tropical Far North Queensland. With 135 berths for mono and multihulls, Crystalbrook Superyacht Marina in Port Douglas is Australia’s northernmost marina, and now welcomes superyachts up to 50 metres.
Lizard Island is renowned for its fishing, five-star resort with spa and restaurant, as well as excellent anchorage with unrivalled views of tepid, azure waters and myriad coral coves.
For divers, a trip to Coral Sea reefs such as Osprey Reef is close by (and still in Australian waters), with a profusion of ocean seamounts, pelagic species and dramatic coral walls.
Onshore in Cooktown, which is accessible by helicopter, the biannual Laura Dance Festival in July is one of the largest gatherings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Guests can share in the music, art and celebrations involving over 20 communities, 500 artists and 5,000 visitors.
Further north, en route to Papua New Guinea, the Torres Straits offer a labyrinth of islands and a fascinating mix of Polynesian and Melanesian cultures. “You could never tire of the cruising grounds of Far North Queensland and the Whitsundays,” says Drake, who adds that international yachts are realising this in increasing numbers.
“It is evident from our figures that vessels are enjoying our region more and more. There has been a 60 percent increase in the number of days in port from 2,850 in 2016 to 4,716 in 2017, with an average length of stay of 42 days in 2016 and 66 days in 2017.
“A total of 38 vessels in 2014 has grown steadily to 71 vessels in 2017, with an extremely promising year in 2018 so far. The feedback received from captains and crew has been that they are really enjoying discovering this unique destination, and are relishing the convenience of quality services and skilled workmanship right here at their fingertips.”