The perfect trip: Queensland
Whitsundays: Best for beaches
The Whitsunday archipelago is made up of 74 islands, and several of them are spread out in the sea below like mossy rocks set on an azure blue quilt. Pilot David Macfarlane gently drops one wing of his tiny 12-seater seaplane and wheels around the northernmost point of Whitsunday Island. ‘Here it comes,’ he says through the crackle of the on-board speakers. The island’s soft green hills suddenly part and a broad estuary is revealed, an impossibly scenic tidal river with overlapping swirls of sand and sea meandering off into the distance in shades from glassy green to sky blue and deepest jade.
The plane swoops past several times to allow all of the passengers to take in the view, then slowly descends and skips like a stone over the surface of the water, coming to a stop at a curved bay of palest aquamarine, closely bordered by a thick brush of bright-green spinifex and casuarina trees. In the distance, a raucous group of kids is playing beach cricket and others are venturing into the waves, each clearly visible in the astonishingly translucent water.
This is Whitehaven, considered one of the greatest beaches in the world. The secret is in the sand. It’s the brightest white – almost blindingly so on a sunny day like this one – and is 98 per cent silica, which makes it talcum-powder fine and so reflective that, no matter how blisteringly hot the sun, it is always cool to the touch. There are a few people sitting quietly rubbing their feet in the sand. ‘It exfoliates your skin like a pedicure,’ says one lady, sounding mildly dreamy under her enormous sombrerostyle sun hat. ‘And I just cleaned my jewellery with it, too.’
The purity of the sand has led to conspiracy theories among locals. Legend has it that, in the ’70s, shady US government visitors turned up under cover of night and purloined sacks of the stuff to make the high-tech glass lenses for Nasa’s Hubble telescope.
‘The only way to get to the beach is to fly or sail in on a day trip,’ says David from his perch on one of the plane’s great floats. ‘So there are never very many people here, and occasionally you get the whole beach to yourself.’
He squints down the beach, admiringly. ‘It’s so beautiful, sometimes you can’t believe it has not been Photoshopped,’ he says. ‘I’ll never get tired of that view.’
Air Whitsunday has daily flights departing from the airport near Airlie Beach – the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands – and allows for time spent on Whitehaven Beach (£155).
Where to eat
Inspired by traditional sailor’s food, the cheerful Fish D’Vine, located on the main street of Airlie Beach, specialises in two key ingredients: seafood and rum. Diners can choose from a display of freshly caught fish and a wall of 280 rums. Special-recipe Mojito cocktails and beer-battered fish and chips are the house specialities (mains from £12; cocktails from £7).
Where to stay
Watching the sun set from a hotel balcony is a treat, but at the Coral Sea Resort you can have the decadent choice of seeing the spectacle from the comfort of your very own hammock or deck spa. Located on the tip of Airlie Beach’s western peninsula, the hotel looks out over bobbing white boats and aquamarine bays on two sides, and the nautical theme continues inside, with polished timber and boating prints on the walls (rooms from £150).
Port Douglas: Best for snorkelling and diving
With a sloshing, spluttering sound, six heads emerge from the water in unison, each adorned with snorkels and masks. ‘Did you see it?’ asks one. ‘I’m sure I did. Look again.’ Then down they go, to peer at the vast, colourful world of coral and sea life just a few feet below them, stretching out as far as the eye can see.