Whitsunday Islands

The Whitsunday Islands are the most well known and well visited island group in Australia. They have become the epitome of the perfect tropical island holiday destination and are synonymous with the image of paradise. As one of the country's major tourist attractions and holiday destinations, these islands and the neighbouring coast are considered a very special part of Australia. Located just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, the Whitsundays are right in the heart of the World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef. The main islands lay directly between the Queensland Coast and The Great Barrier Reef to the east.

Fringing coral cays surround many of the Whitsundays' 76 islands. The Cumberland and Northumberland Island groups, commonly called the Whitsunday Islands, form the largest offshore island chain on the Australian east coast. The islands are remnants of a coastal range which was submerged when sea levels rose at the end of the ice age. Most of the islands have National Park status, while a 35,000 sq. km marine park stretches from around Sarina in the south to Cape Upstart to the north.

The Whitsundays are well developed as a tourist destination and boast a diverse range of tropical island resorts and hotels as well as the coastal resort village of Airlie Beach, catering fully for all tastes and budgets from 'el-cheapo' backpacker style accommodation to the up-market five-star resorts. Over the years, these resorts have gone through a succession of owners and numerous upgrades in their struggle to attain and maintain financial profitability. As the nightlife of the Whitsundays is centred around the downtown area of Airlie Beach, it can get a bit noisy at night, so keep this in mind when selecting accommodation.

The options are limitless here ... you can enjoy the mainland, charter your own yacht, cruise the beautiful Whitsunday islands, dive and snorkel the cays and surrounding reef, fish, or just sit back and relax on the beautiful island resorts. From April to October, daytime temperatures are 20 to 24 degrees C and vary at night from 14 to 18 degrees. During the "green season" from November to March, the daytime range is 24 to 30 degrees with nights from 18 to 26. The waters in this tropical paradise remain at a constant 20 to 22 degrees throughout the year.

Whale watching in The Whitsundays

Whales in the WhitsundaysWhales visit the Whitsundays every year on their annual migration north during the winter months. From June to September, whales are a common sight frolicking amongst the islands and even occasionally out on the Great Barrier Reef. They choose the Whitsundays to give birth to their calves, choosing the warm, calm, protected waters of the Whitsundays as in ideal nursery.

There are currently no formal whale watching tours in the Whitsundays, but whale sightings are a free bonus inclusion on most tours around the region. The best way to see whales is to hop on any of the day tours around the Whitsunday waters, as whale sightings occur almost daily for most of the boats in the region during these peak winter months. Seeing the whales from the air is a real treat, and those enjoying seaplane or helicopter scenic flights are lucky to get a whole new perspective of these magnificent creatures. Humpback and pilot whales are the most common species sighted, and Migaloo the white humpback whale has also been seen in the Whitsundays for the last few years.

Climate

Airlie Beach, the area's mainland service town, and the Whitsunday Islands themselves lie on the same tropical latitude as Honolulu in the northern hemisphere and Mauritius in the south. A year round warm tropical climate with an average temperature of 27.4 degrees Celsius is enjoyed by the region, making it ideal for holidays all year round. Its maximum summer temperatures (December to February) are around 30 degrees Celsius, with maximum winter temperatures (June, July and August) around 23 degrees.

How to Get There: The Whitsundays are located 150km north of Mackay and 300km south of Townsville on the central Queensland coast. The region is approached by road from Bowen to the north or from Mackay to the south via Bruce Highway. The turn-off to the Whitsundays is at the town of Proserpine. Access to the islands is by air (Hamilton Island is the only island to have its own airstrip) or by sea from Shute Harbour or Airlie Beach.

About the Whitsunday Group

Snorkeling on the WhitsundaysGeologically the Whitsunday Islands are all drowned mountains. It is believed that, prior to the last Ice Age they were connected to the mainland and would have all been prominent mountains in the area. The melting of the polar caps drowned the valleys between the mountains creating a network of 74 islands. Eight of these islands now have resort facilities. Beyond the resorts the whole area is part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the uninhabited islands are all controlled by the National Parks and Wildlife.

Today the words Whitsunday and Whitsunday Islands encompass the large 'town' of Whitsunday (created in 1987 to include the mainland settlements of Airlie Beach, Cannonvale and Shute Harbour) and the 74 islands surrounding Whitsunday Passage which make up the Whitsunday Islands. Eight of these islands have resort facilities.

Stretching over nine kilometres, this pristine expanse of pure white silica sand fringed by brilliant blue water and lush tropical island, is recognised as one of the jewels of the Whitsunday Islands. Promoted as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and rightly so, Whitehaven Beach is an integral part of the unique beauty of the Whitsundays. No visit to the Whitsundays is complete without a trip to Whitehaven Beach. It is serviced by modern Ferries, cruising yachts, seaplanes and helicopters. A variety of companies offer day trips and/or overnight charters to Whitehaven Beach from both the Islands, Shute Harbour and Airlie Beach.


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Hill Inlet Lookout, Whitsunday Island

The classic view of Hill Inlet and Whitehaven Beach that can be found in the photo collections of just about everyone who visits the Whitsundays is taken from Hill Inlet lookout on Whitsunday Island.

The lookout is at the end of a gentle, easy 15 minute walk up a natural bush track up the northern face of the island from Tongue Bay. What you can see is the full view up peaceful Hill Inlet - a stunning inlet were tidal movements shift acres of pure white sand to create a fusion of beautiful azure blues. Whitehaven Beach provides the inlet's equally stunning backdrop.

So popular is the locality, at times, cruise vessels queue up to offload their passengers so they can make the trek up to the lookout. If possible, try to reach the lookout when the tide is changing, as the golden sand and aqua water hues blend seamlessly into a mosaic of colours.


Heart Reef

The Whitsundays is quite literally situated in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef so it is appropriate that the most famous reef in the Whitsundays is Heart Reef. Located within Hardy Reef, Heart Reef is a beautiful composition of coral that has naturally formed into the shape of a heart, complete with its own lagoon. It can best be experienced from the air by helicopter or seaplane. A visit to Heart Reef is considered the perfect Valentine's Day, anniversary or romantic surprise for a loved one. Seeing the unique heart shaped coral formation from the air is a Whitsunday experience you will never forget.

Many tour companies combine a visit to Heart Reef with trips to other locations in the Whitsundays, including Whitehaven Beach and Hill Inlet. Interestingly, Heart Reef can only be viewed as heart-shaped from the air. At sea level it looks like any other reef and is rarely identified except by people who are very familiar with the reef.

History of the Whitsunday Group

The Aborigines of the Whitsunday Islands were called the Ngaro and are among the earliest recorded groups in Australia. Often called the 'Island People' their territory expanded north - south along the island chain. They also inhabited the coast of the adjacent mainland. In their occupation as maritime hunters and gatherers, the Ngaro became well known as skilled navigators.

British navigator Lieut. James Cook literally put the Whitsundays on the map when he visited the islands during his voyage of discovery along the east coast of Australia in 1770. He passed through Whitsunday Passage, between the mainland coast, South Molle and Daydream Islands to the west and Dent, Whitsunday, Hook and Hayman Islands to the east, on what he believed was Sunday 4th June 1770. That day is Whit Sunday (the seventh Sunday after Easter), the Day of Pentecost on the Christian calendar - hence the names 'Pentecost' and 'Whitsunday' which he bestowed on the island from which he took his bearings and the passage of water between the islands and the mainland.

It is now widely accepted that he didn't actually pass through on this date, as he had failed to take into account the yet to be brought into existence International Date Line. Cook gave the 160-plus islands in the area the collective name of Cumberland Isles, after the Duke of Cumberland, Henry Frederick, younger brother of King George III of England. The county of Cumberland lay in the north-west of England, its northern border being also part of the southern border of Scotland. However the county of Cumberland as Cook knew it does not exist today. In 1974 it was merged with Westmoreland, part of the West Riding of Yorkshire and the Furness area of Lancashire to become the new county of Cumbria. Cook named only one individual island - the craggy, rocky Pentecost Island.

Later, once surveyed, the Cumberland Islands were divided into smaller groups - the Molle Islands, Whitsunday Group, the Lindeman Group, the Anchor Islands and the Sir James Smith Group. The Whitsunday group was defined as 'The islands between Young Island, Long Island, North Molle Island, Hayman Island and Edward Island'. The Lindeman group was defined as 'The islands between Thomas Island and Pentecost Island' (Notice to Mariners No. 316 of 15 July 1960). Though their group names have not been changed, the 74 islands which surround Whitsunday Passage have become known collectively as the Whitsundays through common use.

During the mid 1800s the Whitsundays were the first north Queensland islands to attract the attention of the pioneers of the mainland coast. In the 1880s, grazing leases were granted for the islands. It was not until the 1920s that 'dreamers' built galvanised iron huts for guests. Cruise ship passengers rowed ashore for tropical fruits, tea and scones. The first day trippers from the mainland were the Prosperpine residents. They arrived on the island aboard the weekly mail boat. In 1962, the islands became more accessible when the road from Airlie Beach to Shute Harbour and the jetty were completed.

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