Saturday, April 21, 2007

Whitsunday Cruising on the Cheap

You can cruise the Whitsundays on all sorts of boats - cruising yachts, catamarans, ex ocean racers, dive boats and tall ships like Sollway Lass above - seen at Blue Pearl Bay off Hayman Island which has some of the best coral and fish life I've seen anywhere (image Australian Tall Ships Cruises)
The Whitsunday islands are 74 mountainous, heavily forested islands with deep inlets, pristine beaches and wonderful fringing coral reefs. They lie in the sheltered waters between the Great Barrier Reef and the rugged mid-Queensland coast.
This area has some of the best coral and fish I’ve seen, and Whitehaven Beach makes all expert’s lists of the world’s most striking beaches.

This is a popular holiday destination with a number of island and mainland resorts, and diverse water activities ranging from island and reef day-trips, diving and snorkelling excursions to much cruising around in boats.
You can do day cruises on ex-racing yachts, charter a yacht or motor-cruiser for multi-day trips (skipper provided if you can’t sail) or join other travellers in fully-catered 3 day or 2 day trips around the area, staying overnight in sheltered bays or in a few cases, at island resorts or camping spots.
The Whitsundays - Whitehaven Beach is the east-facing arc on the southeast end of Whitsunday Island (image
There are a dozen plus operators running 30 or more travelers’ yachts around the Whitsundays, with everything from 10m cruisers thru ex-Sydney-Hobart maxi-racers to classic 3 mast tall-ships. Check and to get an idea. Some yachts have dive-masters fer you bubble-blowers and offer free introductory dives for novices. Cheapskate tezza has done about half a dozen free introductory dives. There are also several dedicated overnight motor cruiser type dive boats and lots of dive dayboats.
Prices tend to start at around the $280 mark for the shorter travellers' yachting trips, and considerable standby discounts are often available.

Heading for Whitehaven Beach. Contrary to statements elsewhere on this blog, that aint Tezza after the big cosmetic-surgery trip to Phuket - Tezza is way hotter.

Airlie Beach is the mainland base for the islands. This attractive town, 1200 km north of Brisbane and 600 km south of Cairns has plentiful accommodation of all standards and a lively nightlife. Note there is no nice ocean beach here, although there is a great free artificial lagoon-type swimming pool covering several acres with a small imported beach and the best bird watching north of Noosa. Pacific Sea Raptors I mean. For more info and lot of pics, see this page.
The islands also have a half dozen or so resorts from the super luxury Hayman Island Resort to the perfectly located budget Hook Island Retreat which has backpacker facilities and camp sites. Camping is also available at a couple of National Park sites for $3 a day. More info at Budget Resorting in the Whitsundays.

Hamilton Island has the biggest resort in the Whitsundays, plus an commercial jet airport, marina and residential lots for rich guys (far right) - image See Down Under

Proserpine on the highway about 25 km inland is the airport and train stop for the Whitsundays - the regular midweek Virgin Blue budget fare from Sydney start around $130 incl taxes, although their specials can undercut $100. Jetstar also do this route.You can also fly into Hamilton Island. Lots of budget travelers arrive on Brisbane-Cairns buses which divert off the highway into Airlie and are met by minibuses from the backpacker places, even after mid-night.

The following is an article I did for the travel section of an Aussie newspaper about the one of my trips on the travellers' yachts. I'm real proud of it, earning me some beer money when I'm not a trained writer

'Oetella' bound for Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island.

Whoa, instant chaos! One minute I had crystal clear water between my face mask and the yacht’s hull. The next I was surrounded by a thousand fish ranging from shoals of tiddlers to big sunfish and reef cod, in a darting, twisting kaleidoscope of tropical colour.They seemed to be in some sort of feeding frenzy. Then I twigged - someone was throwing food scraps from the yacht. I lifted my head, and sure enough, there was Sue, the yacht’s hostess, giving incoming snorkellers a thrill by scattering lumps of bread from the deck. The instant she stopped the fish vanished back to the reef 15m below, to await the next feed when another group of snorkellers arrived.

There's always some fish to feed.

I hauled myself on board Oetella, accepted a mug of coffee from a smiling Sue and reflected on the great coral and fish I’d seen as I drifted across the lagoon on the tidal current.
I was at Blue Pearl Bay, on the western side of Hayman Island on the morning of the last day of a cruise around the WhitSunday Islands of tropical Queensland. Oetella is one of the many travelers’ yachts doing multi-day cruises around these 74 mountainous, heavily forested islands with their deep inlets, pristine beaches and wonderful fringing coral reefs.

This is an area I’d wanted to sail since first reading of its beauty and of the bareboat charter boats for hire. One problem - I can sail a small skiff around Sydney harbour reasonably well, but lack the experience to handle a big cruising yacht in an area with tricky tidal currents, narrow passes and treacherous reefs. Sure, there are skippers for hire, but the cost of one with even the most modest charter yacht is many hundreds of dollars a day.Then I heard about the travelers’ boats. Originally organized for the backpacker market, they have diversified to provide trips to appeal to all types. The cost is modest. My trip totaled $aud390 (about $us290) for three full days and two nights., food included. Some bigger yachts with upmarket facilities go over the $600 mark and it’s possible to do a 2 day cruise, a shorter 3 day (starting and finishing around mid-day) or a full 3 day-on-standby for well under $300.

Guests can do as much or as little to help run the boat as they wish. If you want to steer or help work the sails, fine.
As my fellow passengers returned aboard, they enthused about the site. Most considered Blue Pearl Bay to be the best yet for coral and fish. Canadian Glenn spotted some big tropical lobsters lurking under a mushroom coral outcrop and the French couple encountered a giant 2 meter wrasse (a tropical reef cod) the locals call Uncle Jack which is so tame it will eat tidbits from the hand (nearly all the islands area is Marine National Park with fishing banned, so the fish are incredibly tame and inquisitive). When skipper Dave tendered the Brazilian bikini babes, certified divers, back from the ProDive boat moored nearby, they bubbled on about the harmless white tipped reef sharks deep on the coral precipice where the fringing reef drops into the blue-black abyss.
There were a dozen passengers from seven countries on board. Typical ages were mid to late 20s, the oldest a Brit retiree in his late 50s. The boat’s junior was Takeshi, 18, from Nagasaki doing a motorcycle trip around Queensland. Laconic skipper Dave and I were the only Aussies. Hostess Sue, a cheerful 27 year old Glaswegian with a mischievous sense of humour, was finishing a working holiday around Australia with a month on Oetella. For a registered nurse, she sure could cook and was a mean hand on the winches and tender. Her medical skills came in handy too.

“Och laddie, don’t tell me this wee thing is hurting,” she said on the first day as she probed my heel for a sea urchin spine (the result of some careless wading on Border Island) with an instrument the size of a small harpoon from Oetella’s impressive medical kit. No Sue, these misting eyes are from the high emotion of being in such close proximity to your heart rending beauty. Jeez, here comes the iodine!!

Hostess Sue from Scotland yuks it up with guests on 'Oetella'.

The cruise followed a simple pattern. Each day included snorkeling in at least 2 different locations, some beach time, leisurely cruising and a night tucked away in a sheltered mooring. Over three days we did two bushwalks and a brief visit to one of the island resorts.
Guests can do as much or as little to help run the boat as they wish. If you want to steer or help work the sails, fine. Sue was a wizard at preparing meals and snacks when we were off on some activity, but never refused help in cleaning up. But there was never any pressure to pitch in. If you wanted to laze and totally relax, fine.

Food was simple, tasty and more than adequate. Breakfast consisted of lots of cereal, tinned fruit, toast (and on morning one, croissants), plus spreads. For the hot breakfast types, Dave did eggs any style. Lunches were buffet style cold meats, salad, fruit and bread, with dinner a choice of pasta and Mexican night one and barbeque night two. Tea, coffee, cordial and bikkies were always available.
For some reason, slightly more than the normal amount of alcohol gets consumed on these trips. Some yachts are licensed, but Oetella has the more common Bring Your Own policy. The little bottle shop at Able Point Marina where most cruises start, sure does good business.

Oetella was built as a cruiser-racer and has four separate sleeping areas for guests, two small cabins, the saloon and a sheltered section of the cockpit. Sue allocated them so that couples were not separated, but the logistics are such that you may share your area with a third or fourth person. My birth was in the saloon on one of the convertible seats.
I had a better idea, hauling my mattress and pillow on deck to a nice expanse on the saloon roof. Because the nearest town with its diffusing light was at least 30km away, the night sky was similar to outback campsites, the stars seeming twice as big and sharp as normal. The first night was absolutely perfect. As was the second, with the small exception of a 10-minute thunderstorm with drenching rain around 4am, starting with a deafening clap of thunder.I snapped upright and managed to brain myself on the overhanging boom. To escape the deluge, I dived for the hatch, lost my footing and half fell into the saloon - which woke everyone not already roused by the thunder.
Naturally there was a lot of good natured ribbing next morning.The first mate examined the ding in my forehead with interest: “Y’ know tezza, this wee cut is wide enough to warrant a stitch or five,” she said with the glint of a stirrer who has found a natural target. Forget the stitches Ms Nightingale, a wee scar would simply add more character to my somewhat rugged skull…Hold the weddin’, not the iodine again!!

Best beach visited was the superb Whithaven on Giant Whitsunday Island.
Whitehaven - one of the best - that's the southern end in the background (image

This 6km strip of dazzling white silica so fine it squeaks underfoot, backed by casuarinas and palms, makes most lists of the world’s best beaches. We moored at the northern end for three hours of swimming, sunning, soccer and a short hike to a low but panoramic lookout. This northern section has a lovely sandy inlet which becomes a series of pools and low tide, in which were stranded hundreds of small stingrays. For some reason, Sue had developed the idea I’m accident prone: “Don’t you dare go near those rays, Tezza”.

Whitehaven from the air - lots of rays at low tide in Hill Inlet pools (image

Whitehaven Beach - Whitsunday Island  Queensland. Best I've seen (image Google Earth)

Best overnight anchorage was Nara Inlet, a deep fjord like inlet in Hook Island. With my crewmates enjoying drinks on deck after a short bush-walk to a small waterfall, I dived overboard and swam 200m to the beach. I sat back and watched other boats gliding in for the night.
Tall ship 'Solway Lass' tucked away in Nara Inlet for the night - (image - Australian Tall Ships Cruises)

Smoke from cane burning on the mainland turned the western sky orange in the sinking sun, capped perfectly when a bagpipe player appeared on the deck of a nearby cruiser, kilt and all, and piped in sunset with Amazing Grace. This generated a rousing cheer from the various craft.

Delightful aromas began wafting from Oetella’s barbeque. To build my appetite I decided on a pre-dinner swim. Ian Thorpe, eat your heart out! - I sped effortlessly around the small headland to the next beach. Turning back, I realized why. This area has really big tides, and the outgoing tidal current made it impossible to make any headway on return. The climb across the boulder clad headland with its thick scrub and hoop pines was incredibly difficult. I hauled myself aboard Oetella in darkness more than an hour later.First mate grinned as she handed me a cold steak sanga: “So I lose the bet. I was sure you’d been kidnapped by desperate and dateless mermaids”. She spied a shin I’d barked rather nicely on my bush-bashing excursion: “Ooh laddie, that definitely needs a motza of iodine!!"

Trip route. Oetella was rather unique in Whitsunday backpacker boats in being rated for open ocean work (as against inshore charters)  so first day we left the islands and headed out to the Barrier Reef proper - Bait Reef. We anchored in the sheltered lagoon and did some drift snorkelling over about 2km on the tidal current which was running north to south. And then stayed overnight on the lagoon with just a couple of dive boats and a cruising yacht from Hawaii as company. A unique experience for me, but don't be too dismayed if your cruise does not do this - the coral and fish  are very good out there but not as good as at Blue Pearl Bay and a couple of the other fringing reefs (including Butterfly Bay, north end of Hook Isand) back at the islands.

For 40 superb images of the Whitsunday Islands and mainland, check out this section of Whitsundays's website.

If you are interested in budget cruising nice places perhaps you might like:



If you have any questions, please ask them in THE FORUM rather than below. I don't get a chance to check all threads daily, but unless I'm travelling I'll try to monitor THE FORUM regularly.


Alex said...

Congratulations for the post. I was also in Whitsudnay Islands but I am almost unable to add something more in your explanation. Just add the link if someone is interested to rent a boat charter as I had a really good time and everything was OK:

Some people I met after in Hervey Bay also spoke highly about a company called Habibi:


Sandra said...

Whitehaven Beach is a definite must see in the Whitsundays. Crystal clear waters and aquatic strip virgin silica sand Whitehaven seven kilometers along the island of Pentecost, the largest of 74 islands of the Whitsundays. It defines the nature at its best and offers the broadest sense of relaxation and escape. Here you can do many things, such as the Great Barrier Reef Cruise, let your feet sink and quartz, and Whitehaven Beach and Hill Inlet, relax and swim in the family of Airlie Beach Lagoon, an unforgettable evening under the stars and coral reefs reefsleep .

Chritsino said...

Whitsunday Islands boasts many breathtaking attractions for which people throngs to visit the islands. The attractions make the islands more special and renowned.

cielle said...

Awesaome place!

jerzy said...

Really a great place to start boating!
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geo said...

Great view of the sun and crystal clear water.

geo said...

Great view of the sun and crystal clear water.

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I was surfing for a holiday destination with a number of island and mainland resorts, diverse water activities ranging from island and reef day-trips, diving & cruising around in boats. Great post and thank you for making my search easier.

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