The Whitsundays – Open for Business!

This is the message the locals are spreading just 2 short months since Cyclone Debbie ripped through the region causing devastation, with the eye of the storm hitting right smack bang in the Whitsundays.

Talking to a lot of locals, they have been there before. Cyclones are par for the course when you live in a tropical region. The difference with Debbie was that it hung around lasting around 18 hours and was followed by a massive electrical storm that dumped 500 mm of rain in a few short hours. Long time local resident John said “we never thought it was going to end.” It has hurt the region both physically and emotionally, but there’s nothing like a natural disaster to bring out the best in people and bring a community together.

Having travelled to Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands around the same time last year, I was thrilled to be invited back and interested to see exactly how the area has been effected and how much damage had actually been done. With fingers and toes crossed, cameras and swimsuit packed, I took the 1 hour 45 minute flight north to see for myself.

Tiger Air has recently introduced a flight directly from Brisbane into Proserpine several times a week. Before you turn away and start Googling ANY other airline, having been taken over by Virgin Airlines in October 2014, there has been a lot of change in the Company and there is definitely evidence of the “VA” influence.   The service is friendly and efficient, overall a definite improvement from their past somewhat sketchy reputation and I will certainly choose to be flying them again in the future. You can also fly to Hamilton Island and if required transfer to Airlie Beach as another option.

Arriving into Proserpine airport, the transfer to Airlie Beach is a matter of picking up a hire car at the airport, private transfer or if you’re trying to save a few pennies, a public shuttle. I travelled with Whitsunday Transit who greets every flight arriving into Proserpine and transfer guests on luxury air conditioned busses the 14km to Airlie Beach or beyond to Shute Harbor. Our driver Eddy also ended up being our local area tour guide, comedian and all round entertainment. He definitely made the transfer all the more interesting!

Once we reached Airlie Beach, the town itself appeared on the surface to be intact.    Sure, there is still plenty of work going on. A few of the local restaurants and hotels remain closed with flood damage. There is also the main lagoon in town that is a popular swimming area which continues to be out of use, but other than that, the palm trees still line the beaches, the water is the same iridescent blue green that makes you just want to jump right in and the sunsets from the yacht club (or pretty much anywhere) are breath taking. I expect it won’t be long until things are back up and running at 100%.

Although you have the option of transferring to one of the islands from Airlie Beach, don’t discount staying in town as a base point from which you can day trip around the region. Airlie Beach serves as the gateway to the Whitsundays as well as many local land attractions.  There is all sorts of accommodation options in Airlie Beach from backpacker to 5 star luxury resorts. I was treated to the stunning Mirage Resort next to the Abel Point Marina, right on the water with cove beaches right outside. It’s 2.5 km outside the main street of town, but it is quiet and away from the hustle bustle, which I always prefer when on holidays.

As something different, for this trip, I was treated to breakfast delivered daily to my room by Peach & Pear, a local catering company who specialise in pretty much anything from picnic baskets to event catering.  Each day, miraculously in my hotel fridge would appear a beautifully packaged box with all sorts of goodies from fresh fruit and juices to my daily favourite, the bircher muesli and yoghurt.  The prevention alone of these gorgeous hampers was enough to entice me with cute little jars and always fresh flowers.  I would highly recommend them if you are in town, particularly if you have a day trip planned somewhere.  I could think of nothing more perfect than a day on the beach with one of their hampers.

A day in Airlie Beach can be spent strolling around the boardwalks along the water or streets visiting shops and the beach markets just taking in the chilled north Queensland vibe. There are plenty of places for a swim in the calm waters, or for a totally relaxed afternoon blending into evening, Airlie beach has some incredible restaurants which would rival the most trendy city hang outs.  Hemingways is one of the latest editions, new to the local restaurant scene located on the water at Abel Point Marina with stunning views out to the Coral Sea.  The décor is just divine inspired by namesake Ernst Hemingway with first class modern Australian dining.  A definite must visit whilst in the region.  Some other great meals I enjoyed whilst visiting Airlie Beach was Treehouse, a family friendly delight looking over the lagoon and Coral Sea in the distance with great value food.  For seafood lovers you cant go past Fish D’Vine, located in the main street, famous for it’s chili mud crab and rum bar, also offering takeaway I enjoyed a few meals from this delight and last by in no means least, award winning, Chefs Hat, Walters Lounge at the Port of Airlie Marina, this is a tapas style restaurant with fantastic daily cocktail specials.

Although I love Airlie Beach, from the minute I arrived, I couldn’t wait to get out on the water. Let’s be totally honest, when visiting the Whitsundays, one of the main attractions is the islands, reefs and surrounding waters. Of course, my absolutely number one favorite place, not only here in the Whitsundays, but probably of anywhere I have ever travelled, is a trip to Hill Inlet and Whitehaven Beach. One of the worlds most photographed locations, a day trip here and you can easily see why it is a bucket list worthy place. Cruise Whitsundays offer day trips from both Airlie and Hamilton Island that take in both Hill Inlet and Whitehaven beach as well as optional trips out to various snorkeling spots.

Located on the largest of the 74 Whitsunday islands, Hill Inlet is pretty much unchanged from the cyclone. The trees perhaps are less leafy, but this is such a short term change. The most important part of this location, the sand and the beach, are still as immaculate as ever. In fact, there is now a large tree draped in the corner of the beach at Hill Inlet which has created its own tourist attraction with people literally lining up to have their photo taken on it, with the pristine sands and waters in the background.

Whitehaven Beach is a slightly different story. The sand has shifted which has altered the beach itself and the trees are a lot more damaged than in other areas, but the 7km of brilliant white silica sand named as purest in the world is still as perfect as ever and the water crystal clear. Whitehaven Beach remains a great place for a day trip, or even to moor up on one of the many yachts and boats that you can charter. It may not look like the brochures from the past, but again, this is only short term as far as the trees re-growing their leaves and the rest is still Whitsundays perfection. I was actually quite surprised how much regrowth there was on the trees in such a short time.

Around the Whitsundays there are plenty of places to enjoy snorkeling the beautiful coral reefs fringing the coastline as well as the millions of fish including the famous giant Maori Wrasse named George at Manta Ray Bay. He is so friendly and always pushing in to photo-bomb your selfies!   There are many other great spots including some of my favorites, Langford Island, Hook Island and Bali Hai. You can get on board one of the tour operators who do day trips like Cruise Whitsundays and one of the great benefits of companies like this is they know all the best locations, particularly taking into consideration the weather conditions on any particular day which can often be windy and changeable in certain places.

One thing I did try this trip, which is something relatively new on offer and becoming more and more popular, is a Seabob. The easiest way to describe one is a cross between a Jetski and a boogie board. Electrically powered it’s quiet and environmentally friendly and allows you to glide through the water while exploring. The best part is you can dive down under water quickly and easily as well as being great fun. Cruise Whitsundays offered this as an additional option from Whitehaven beach and was an exhilarating way to explore the reefs without having to exert yourself.

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Day tripping aside, another way to explore the Whitsundays region is a tranquil sunset sail. Again, there are many tour operators offering various different kinds of cruises, but for something different, try the Solway Lass. Not only will you be treated to a gorgeous leisurely evening sail with canapés and cocktails, but the history of this Tall-ship is worth the trip alone. Built in 1902 it has been through 2 world wars, ran aground and finally been purchased and restored in 1999 to sail the Whitsundays. Being a genuine sailing Tall-ship, guests are invited to have a turn at hoisting the sails and really be involved in the sailing of this beauty, or just sit back and enjoy the view on the deck with a champagne or a cocktail.

One of the main reasons myself and I’m guessing pretty much most tourists visit the Whitsundays is for their beautiful islands, beaches and the Great Barrier Reef, but back on dry land, there is still plenty to explore and discover, particularly if you have your own transport. If you do visit Airlie Beach and have the time, make sure to consider visiting some of the hidden secrets of the area. Firstly, Cedar Creek falls, a 20 minute drive from Airlie Beach is a really popular tourist spot and a great place for a swim. It’s also a good place to visit when the weather is wet. It’s never really cold in the Whitsundays so what could be nicer than a swim in these beautiful falls on a rainy day.

Continue on north and you’ll find Hideaway Bay and Montes Beach halfway between Airlie Beach and Bowen. These beaches are popular with locals but sometimes forgotten by tourist although well worth the visit. Finally, finish your visit in Bowen, a small coastal town about an hours drive north of Airlie Beach. It’s not as busy as Airlie Beach but every bit as beautiful and of course you have to make a stop at the famous Big Mango on the way for a photo and try their delicious mango sorbet.   If you don’t have a car, all of these locations can be visited via public transport and tourist coaches as well.

The Whitsundays is one of my most absolute favorite parts of Queensland and aside from the obvious reason – it’s so darn beautiful, there is also something about the people in this region. They are so warm and welcoming. It’s like they are greeting a long lost family member when you visit and nothing is ever too much trouble. They have all been through a tough time recently, yet the region still shines and has so much to offer. A benefit concert was held in late May to raise money for the SES volunteers who worked so tirelessly during the cyclone and proceeding weeks and months. For many locals, this concert marked a symbolic end to the devastation that was felt both physically and emotionally. It’s time to move on and get down to the business they know best, welcoming visitors. The best we can do to help is get on a plane and go and support this great community and enjoy the best of what the Whitsundays has to offer and right now could not be a better time. Winter in North Queensland is one of the best times for this region with beautiful warm weather as we are starting to chill down south.

For more images taken in the Whitsundays, go to my Instagram or Facebook page @JulesIngall

Note that this story was published in the Gold Coast Bulletin Eye Magazine lift out on 17/18 June 2017

 

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