I started out with a very loose plan for the Great Barrier Reef. In fact, in a rare display of spontaneity, I didn’t firm up a hotel until just a few days before I arrived – unusual for an obsessive planner like myself.
The first thing I learned about the Great Barrier Reef area is that there are a lot of options for where to stay. There’s a reason it’s not called the “small barrier reef” or the “medium-sized barrier reef .”
Stretching more than 1,600 miles along the coast of Queensland, Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system. Composed of more than 2,600 individual reefs and more than 900 islands, the reef is the only world wonder that can be seen from outer space and in 1981 it was designated as a World Heritage Site.
The Great Barrier Reef region is served by several airports from Cairns in the north to Hamilton Island in the south. The two most popular destinations for visiting the reef are Cairns or the Whitsunday Islands.
The first step was deciding which area I wanted to visit so that I could book flights from Sydney to the best possible airport. Ultimately, I decided I couldn’t resist the draw of the Whitsunday Islands near the southern end of the reef.
I was first introduced to the Whitsundays by alert RTWin30days reader and friend, Suzan, who has traveled there twice. Her pictures of swirling white sand blending lazily with clear blue waters surrounded by lush green peaks had been firmly imprinted in my mind since I first saw them (you don’t forget photos like that). I figured this seemed like the most logical choice to call home for the week.
So, I booked my flights into Hamilton Island back in December figuring I’d sort out exactly where to stay when it got a little closer. Unfortunately, I managed to excel in the procrastination department and didn’t seriously begin looking for a hotel until I arrived in Phuket the week before.
The Whitsundays are known for lavish, expensive resorts but I was looking for something more low-key and less expensive, so that I could spend more of my budget focusing on the many amazing excursions and day trips available around the reef.
Since the Whitsundays are about two hours by boat from the actual reef, there are a few options for getting there – full day cruises with Cruise Whitsundays for snorkeling and diving or scenic flights with Air Whitsundays or one of many helicopter companies. I really wanted to do both so finding reasonable accommodation was key.
I reached out to a couple of resorts in the area and ultimately decided to go with the Palm Bay Resort. Located on its own post-card perfect tropical island (Long Island), the Palm Bay Resort seemed like the perfect place to base for a few days of sun and fun.
Palm Bay Resort offers all of the modern conveniences on a gorgeous island, but it’s a more casual and budget-friendly option than the other (mostly 5-star) resorts in the area.
But just after I’d decided to spend all 5 of my nights on Long Island at Palm Bay, I was invited to experience the ultra-luxurious Hayman Island Resort (since re-opened as the InterContinental Hayman Island Resort) for my last two nights in the islands. This was the perfect opportunity to get a taste of both sides of the accommodation coin in the Whitsundays, so I gratefully accepted.
The Rainy Season
The thing about traveling around the world in a month (give or take) is that invariably you’re going to hit some destinations during their less desirable seasons. This was so with the Whitsundays since February was the heart of the rainy season. In fact, just a few weeks before, a fairly serious cyclone had blown through causing quite a bit of damage to local beaches.
And true to seasonal form it was raining steadily when I arrived on Hamilton Island. Since I was staying not on Hamilton Island but on Long Island, the resort had been kind enough to arrange the transfers for me.
Transportation around the Whitsunday Islands is largely provided by ferries operated by Cruise Whitsundays. Each inter-island trip runs $45 so if you plan to island hop a lot it can quickly add up. However, if you book day trips with Cruise Whitsundays, the transfers to and from your island of choice are included in the price of the ticket. Something to keep in mind when choosing a company for exploring the reef.
After a short ferry ride to cheerful but wet Long Island, I was checked into my lovely beachfront room at the Palm Island Resort and set about making plans for the next day. There was a pretty steady downpour happening on the island, but despite the weather, I didn’t want to waste any time.
I figured, who cares if it’s raining? I’m here to see the Great Barrier Reef which is, conveniently, underwater. Do fish care that it’s raining? Certainly not. And neither do I. Take that, cyclone season.
I arranged to join the full-day Great Barrier Reef tour with Cruise Whitsundays the following day which meant a ferry departure back to Hamilton Island bright and early at 7:20am.
Diving the Great Barrier Reef
The next morning after a solid night’s sleep (thanks to the peaceful sound of rain blanketing the island all night – a side benefit of rainy season) I arose early to have some breakfast before boarding the ferry. It was a 40-minute trip back to Hamilton to pick up more passengers and change to the larger boat which would carry us on the 2-hour ride out to the reef.
Since there are obviously no structures built on or near the Great Barrier Reef, tourism to the area relies on a system of large pontoons anchored just off the reef in a variety of spots.
Today, we’d be visiting the pontoon on Hardy Reef known as Reef World. The pontoon is outfitted with a complete dive and snorkel operation, lounge chairs, an underwater viewing observatory and even a submarine to give those guests who don’t want to get wet a chance to see the reef up close.
Almost everything is included with the price of your ticket (morning/afternoon tea, lunch, snorkel gear, etc.) but you also have the option to purchase extras like a dive or a helicopter flight over the reef. On the 2-hour ride to the pontoon the crew made good use of the time to sign people up for these popular extras.
I am not a certified diver, but I had done one “resort” dive before (last summer in Honduras) and a dive on the Great Barrier Reef was definitely something I was interested in. Since it was only an extra $100 I figured, what the heck? I mean, how many chances do you get to dive the Great Barrier Reef?
We arrived at the pontoon a little before 11am after a fairly rough ride from Hamilton. The weather was better out on the reef than in the islands, not raining but still overcast. Weather cooperation notwithstanding, it couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm for getting underwater to check out the world’s largest reef system.
I was scheduled in the first group of divers, so as soon as we arrived I headed straight to the dive area to gear up and get instructions. Since I’m not a certified diver, this was still considered a “resort dive” and I would have an instructor with me the whole time.
The dive was incredible and I had to pinch myself to believe that little ole rookie diver, me, was actually diving on the Great Barrier Reef. How awesome is that? We saw tons of fish but no sharks (just how I like my dives) and before I knew it, it was time to head back to the surface.
After the dive I switched over to snorkeling for the rest of the afternoon which was equally fabulous. It was incredible how much there was to see just inches from the water’s surface. Fish in every color of the rainbow, brilliant coral and giant clams the size of a suitcase.
After I finally came in from the water and stripped off my wetsuit (though the water’s warm, you have to wear one this time of year as it’s box jellyfish season), I decided to check out the pontoon’s underwater observatory and take a spin around in the submarine, both equally enjoyable ways to view the reef but not quite as much fun as actually being in the water.
By 3pm, it was time to start heading back and again the ride across the open sea to the Whitsundays was pretty rough. The crew made the rounds handing out seasick bags and they got quite a lot of use. Of course, I was fine because as previously discussed I am now seasick-bulletproof thanks to the Drake Passage on the way to Antarctica. And apparently I’m still good even when someone else is hurling 3-feet away from me. Noted.
After a quick stop in Hamilton to drop-off passengers and change boats I was on my way back to lovely Long Island where, unfortunately it was still raining. It was a terrific day out on the reef and a perfect start to my stay in the Whitsundays.
The Rainy Season – Part 2
The next day turned out to be mostly a washout. The rain continued most of the day and I decided to take it easy and catch up on some writing. I was hoping to book a scenic flight either by seaplane or helicopter over the reef and the Whitsundays’ most famous spot, Hill Inlet, but I didn’t want to spend the money unless the weather was going to be clear and so far the forecast continued to be less than inspiring.
That afternoon the weather cleared long enough for me to take a few sunny photos around the island and spend some time at the pool. I attempted to try out some of the island’s many hiking trails but found them too muddy to be properly appreciated. I also got to meet a couple of the island’s resident wallabies during my walk on the beach.
Despite the weather, I really enjoyed my time on Long Island. Palm Bay is not a fancy resort, but the rates are extraordinarily reasonable, the staff is friendly and my room was clean, stylish and comfortable.
I would absolutely recommend it for those looking to visit the Whitsundays without spending a fortune. There aren’t many budget options in the area but the Palm Bay Resort on Long Island is a solid choice.
Heavenly Hayman Island
The next day it was time to make the transfer out to the InterContinental Hayman Island Resort. I again boarded the 7:20am ferry from Long Island to the Hamilton Island airport where I’d be meeting one of Hayman’s three yachts used for transporting guests back and forth to the island.
I quickly discovered that the Hayman experience begins the minute you step onto their boat at the airport. As I was ushered onto the luxury yacht, my luggage was whisked away and instantly replaced with a glass of champagne (a good trade any day of the week).
I then met Captain Bill, a Hayman veteran who’s been living on the island for more than 40 years and would be sailing us out to the resort. After chatting with the charming Bill for a few minutes, I doubted there was a better island ambassador anywhere in the world. In fact, I briefly wondered if he did double-duty as the mayor. Again, Hayman impresses early and often.
Hayman Island is the farthest north of the Whitsundays and it takes just under an hour to reach by boat. Of course, once you get a look at that boat and have a glass of champagne in your hand you’ll wish it took longer.
We arrived at the Hayman jetty to smiling staff to welcome us. Since I’d completed the check-in process on the boat, I boarded a waiting golf cart and was taken straight to my “Retreat” which was just as divine as it sounds.
Tucked into a lush garden area just steps from the beach, my room featured hardwood floors, plush furnishings and a bathroom with an indoor/outdoor shower. I just love an outdoor shower, so naturally decadent.
The resort also has a number of other room types including Beach Villas and even Swim-Up rooms! So many wonderful options to choose from.
Since my arrival on Hayman, the weather had improved and the sun was just starting to shine making me wonder if the wizards of luxury at Hayman even had some pull with Mother Nature.
My plan for the afternoon was what Hayman calls an “Island Escapade.” This basically involves being dropped off with a chair, umbrella and snorkel gear on either nearby Langford Island or Blue Pearl Bay. Both are quiet, private stretches of sand where you can snorkel, relax and enjoy the scenic beauty of the Whitsundays.
I chose Langford Island and after being outfitted by the watersports staff with everything I’d need (including vinegar in case of an unlikely jellyfish sting and a cell phone for emergencies), I was dropped off on the perfectly-uninhabited sandy shore known as Langford Island accompanied only by one other family who’d arrived by private sailboat. Is this for real?
We arranged for a pick-up two hours later and I set up my lounge chair and umbrella and settled in on my island. My private beach got even more exclusive when the sailboat family left a bit later and I truly was on my own private island for the remainder of the time.
I snorkeled, read a good book and basked in the glorious sunshine which now commanded a blue sky for the first time since I’d arrived three days earlier. This just might be heaven.
Completely relaxed and really starting to get into the Whitsundays’ spirit, I arrived back on Hayman Island later that afternoon determined to firm up a scenic flight for my last full day in the islands. Unfortunately, I discovered that if there was one drawback to the remoteness of Hayman it was the lack of flight options servicing the island.
Unlike the other islands of Hamilton, Daydream and Long Island which are serviced by regular ferries, Hayman is only accessible by their own private boats. This limits your flight options a bit as only Air Whitsundays and one helicopter company service the island. If you’re able to fly out of the main airport in Hamilton you have a lot more options for scenic flights.
Since I’d waited so late to book something due to the weather, all of the Air Whitsundays seaplane flights were fully booked. That left the more expensive, yet definitely more exciting helicopter option.
I was prepared to throw some money at the problem but unfortunately, the helicopter flights required a minimum of two passengers and I was just one. Since there are 4 seats in a helicopter, I thought for sure I’d be able to tag on to another group of two going, but that didn’t seem to be the case.
In fact, the helicopter company operating on the island (which is not affiliated with the ever-helpful staff at Hayman) acted as if it was the most absurd thing they’d ever heard to accommodate one passenger on an existing flight (traveling solo does have its challenges sometimes).
Luckily, there was one other guest who was interested in doing a flight and looking to pair up with someone, so ultimately I was able to coordinate with him and get the flight over the Great Barrier Reef and Whitehaven Beach scheduled for the following day.
Satisfied that I had a good plan in place for my final day, I retired to the pool to become one with a lounge chair for the rest of the afternoon.
The Whitsundays from the Air
The next morning I slept in and awoke completely well-rested for the first time in days. I strolled into the Azure restaurant for a delicious breakfast with a beachfront view. My flight wasn’t scheduled until 1:30pm so I had lots of time to explore the island. I walked the seaside trails down to the marina to check out the giant grouper fish named “Jacko” who makes his home there.
Later, I took a tour of the resort with Sales Manager, Fiona, to see some of the other types of rooms including the fabulous Beach Villas (each featuring a private pool) and the striking two-bedroom Diane von Furstenberg suite.
I also got to meet Hayman’s resident lovebirds, swans Barry and Elizabeth and their adorable baby swan “Boom.”
After my tour, it was time to head over to the helicopter pad for my flight over the reef. Miraculously, after making a big deal about how unusual it was for a solo traveler to want to do a flight, the helicopter company had managed to find yet another solo passenger to fill the third seat.
After meeting our pilot Mitchell and listening to a brief safety presentation, we were strapped in and lifting off of Hayman Island on what could not have been a more spectacular day. There literally was not a cloud in the sky and I simply couldn’t believe my luck after so much rain earlier in the week.
The flight would take an hour and we started by heading out across the open ocean toward the reef. Fifteen minutes later the coral outline of the reef began to come into view and I instantly realized that seeing the reef from above was truly the only way to properly appreciate its grandeur.
We started over Hardy Reef and it was incredible to see the tiny pontoon below that I dived from just a few days before. We worked our way along the reef hovering close to the water and spotting sharks, rays and turtles from the air.
Within minutes we’d reached the Great Barrier Reef’s most photographed spot, Heart Reef. A perfectly heart-shaped coral formation, Heart Reef seemed almost impossible to believe. I was in awe of the size of the reef yet I knew I was just seeing a tiny portion of it.
From there we crossed back over the open ocean on our way to the Whitsundays’ most famous swirl of sand and sea, Hill Inlet and Whitehaven Beach. As we approached Whitsunday Island and I got my first glimpse of Hill Inlet, my first thought was that it was even more beautiful than all the glossy professional photos I’d seen. How often does that happen?
We took several passes over the silica shores of Whitehaven beach and the windswept cove of Hill Inlet. Absolutely spectacular.
The flight was expensive, but at that moment it was worth every last dollar. As beautiful as the Great Barrier Reef and the Whitsundays are, they are immeasurably more impressive from the air. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. This is travel heaven.
On the way back we flew over the nooks and crannies of Hook Island and circled all the way around Hayman to appreciate its beauty from every angle. I landed back on Hayman feeling like I’d finally seen the Whitsundays and I couldn’t have been happier. All the fuss to arrange the helicopter flight was totally worth it.
I spent the rest of the day relaxing by Hayman’s gorgeous pool and walked the beach with a glass of wine as the sun set thinking just how lucky I was to be here. It was a flawless two days in paradise.
There’s something very unique and special about Hayman Island. It exudes an effortless, barefoot luxury and is probably one of the most romantic places (I’m assuming) I’ve ever been. The rooms are luxurious and the service is attentive, yet unobtrusive. It’s the kind of place you dream of as a honeymoon destination or a quiet place to write a novel.
Sadly, the next morning it was time to leave but I felt completely renewed by my few days on the island. In fact, if I’d been any more relaxed after leaving Hayman someone would have had to carry me into the airport (and I have no doubt they would have).
I thoroughly enjoyed my week in the Whitsundays and I honestly can’t believe I hadn’t thought of visiting sooner. Big thanks to the delightful folks at the Palm Bay Resort and the top-notch staff on beautiful Hayman Island. I sincerely doubt there is any better way to experience the Great Barrier Reef than with a stay in the Whitsunday Islands.
Now it’s time to throw on a few more layers for my next and final stop – Aspen, Colorado!
Disclosure: Discounted accommodation provided by the Palm Bay Resort, two nights’ accommodation provided by Hayman Island Resort and complimentary Great Barrier Reef day trip provided by Cruise Whitsundays.