The Whitsunday Islands

Ocean Paradise

Jan 28, 2008
Outside Magazine
Great Barrier Reef

Explore the Great Barrier Reef from the Whitsundays    Photo: WestStock

Fly Right

In addition to major U.S. carriers, Australia's national airline, Qantas, flies the 14-hour route to Sydney from Los Angeles two or three times daily; the Qantas Aussie AirPass includes round-trip international airfare and three domestic flights, from $1,099 ( Apply for an electronic tourist visa online before you go ($18;

This chain of 74 lush isles off Queensland's central coast makes a gorgeous base camp for exploring the Great Barrier Reef. Though the coral's a bit farther offshore here—35 miles east of the resort center of Hamilton Island—than it is farther north, in bustling Cairns, the southern reef sees fewer crowds. And with protected anchorages and short crossings, the Whitsundays are a mecca for sailing.

WHERE TO STAY: From the open-air lounge at Qualia, a serene five-star resort that opened on Hamilton Island's secluded northern tip in September, you'll have unobstructed views of still-wild Whitsunday Island. The 60 guest "pavilions" are equally stunning: Each 1,292-square-foot room overlooks the water, with a private plunge pool, terrace, plasma TV, and cavernous slate bath (doubles from $1,264; The cuisine—including fresh-caught scallops prepared by a French chef—is just as indulgent.

WHAT TO DO: Take a scenic, 35-minute helicopter flight to the Great Barrier Reef ($631; and snorkel with the resident "reef rats"—barefoot dive masters who live on pontoons permanently stationed on the reef. Back at Qualia, you can skipper a catamaran, play bocce by the pool, paddle a sit-on-top kayak, or hop into a four-seat "buggy" (an electric golf cart) to explore the 15-mile network of dirt trails that loops around Hamilton Island. Or consider a week of sailing in the Whitsundays (bareboat charters from $2,884 per week; before retreating to Woodwark Bay, a stunning, 4,000-acre retreat on the mainland. The entire resort, which features seven high-end thatch-roofed huts, rents to just one party of two to 14 guests each night (from $685 per person for a group of 14, including meals; 

GETTING THERE: Jetstar and Qantas fly daily from Sydney to Hamilton Island (about $320 round-trip;

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