There’s an almost giddy pleasure about peeling off layers of sombre, cloying clothing upon arrival in the Whitsundays.
It’s goodbye biting cold, hello balmy sunshine, warm seas, oodles of islands and that soothing northern vibe that immediately softens knotted shoulders.
The direct Tigerair flights from Sydney and Brisbane arrive in the morning, so there’s plenty of time to relax and settle into the chilled, cosmopolitan village of Airlie Beach.
Airlie’s banyan and palm fringed promenade is dotted with atmospheric places to soak up the picturesque backdrop of glassy water, glistening boats and mountains that appear to plunge straight into the ocean. I soon suss out a few favourite haunts: the breezy Treehouse, where hearty meals are honed from local ingredients and for afternoon drinks next to the sparkling marina, Hemingways.
Surrounded by lawns and lounging spots, the large swimming ‘lagoon’ is a focus for locals – they’re friendly and approachable here; none of the hauteur sometimes found in lifestyle locations – and visitors.
Airlie Beach is abuzz with activity at the Saturday morning markets, but as I’m only here for a long weekend I’ve opted to spend as much time as possible in the water.
Sailing is the iconic Whitsunday experience, and the most evocative way to do so is aboard a tall-ship. As soon as I take off my shoes to pad about barefoot on the tallow-wood decks of the Providence, I know I’m in for something special. The friendly crew and intimate scale of the Providence sets the tone for a pleasantly sociable journey.
The daytrip takes in one of Australia’s most acclaimed stretches of sand – the almost implausibly bright Whitehaven beach – short bushwalks that reveal splendid vistas, as well as time spent snorkelling and beach-combing. It’s a convivial and engaging journey where passengers can help sail or simply relax and savour the dramatic and extremely varied islands of the Whitsundays.
I return to Airlie Beach in time for a slow-burn sorbet sunset that draws people to the extensive boardwalk.
Airlie Beach is home to a thriving live music scene – culminating in the annual music festival held each November – and even on this mid winter Saturday night I hear several temping options as I stroll along the main street.
But I’m windswept and invigorated from the day out at sea, and looking forward to an indulgent night watching movies and lounging in my room at the recently revamped Mantra Club Croc.
Situated near a sea-side walk, botanical gardens, shops and the pretty marina, Club Croc is a friendly and convenient base for a Whitsundays getaway. The gym is well equipped and the common areas downstairs are relaxed and open in a way that prompts conversations with other travellers.
A big bonus of a Whitsundays long weekend is the easy access to the Great Barrier Reef. There’s plenty of room aboard the spacious Cruise Whitsundays vessel, frequent snacks and guests can make themselves drinks along the way, whilst enjoying up-close views of the wilderness islands.
The bulk of the day is spent at Heart Reef, a hub for marine life and home to captivating meadows of intricate corals. Spacious Heart Pontoon is set up so that you can jump in the vivid turquoise water as soon as you select your snorkel gear and wet-suit. Upstairs, there’s an abundance of daybeds. I relish the delicious buffet lunch from a table with sweeping reef views.
The reef here is a frenzy of textures, stacked high and edged with coral overhangs from which a bedazzling array of fish emerge. I swim with everything from cute angel fish to a massive bright blue wrasse that’s way bigger than I am. I get so caught up oggling clusters of gem –coloured giant clams, I have to be reminded that it’s time to head back to Airlie Beach.
If I had more time, I’d hop aboard the historic tall-ship Solway Lass for several days of evocative island exploring.
Back on terra firma, a rewarding daytrip is to drive up to the nearby historic town of Bowen – be sure to check out the offerings at the retro cinema- and stop off at tucked away Dingo Beach.
But for now, there’s just enough time before my flight to take a relaxing walk from Club Croc down to the sun-silvered marina.
In the space of a weekend, I’ve morphed into a tanned, vastly more relaxed version of the person who arrived in the Whitsundays a mere few days ago.