|Gems in a Jewel Sea|
On planning my travel to the Great Barrier Reef, I was pondering the best way to fully experience this impressive natural wonder – there seemed to be so many options. We decided the best way to see the Reef was to spend my time above it, on the islands of the Great Barrier Reef.
There are more than 918 islands (technically 600 islands and 318 coral cays) dotted up and down the Reef along the northeast coast of Australia, around 25 of which are island resorts. Our journey would take us to six of these, and I was very interested to discover how the Australian tropical island experience would compare to my trips down to the Caribbean.
Our first stop was to a group of 74 islands called the Whitsundays, right in the heart of the Reef. We flew in to Hamilton Island’s airport, about an hour and half flight from Brisbane. Hamilton Island, the largest inhabited island on the Reef, is known for its large range of accommodation options and activities – tip: make sure you get the activities brochure from the tour desk and ask for recommendations.
A complementary airport shuttle took us to the Reef View Hotel, which definitely lives up to its name. We took a few moments to admire the stunning view out to the Coral Sea from our hotel room’s balcony before heading out to explore the island.
We wandered down to the Marina Village and spent some time meandering through the shops and boutiques. I had heard that the Whitsundays sunsets were nothing short of spectacular, so in the early evening we hopped on a sunset cruise, relaxed with some delicious appetizers and cocktails while admiring the orange, red and yellow hues of our first Great Barrier Reef sunset.
We woke the next morning to a clear blue sky and in anticipation of our scenic flight over the Great Barrier Reef. Our sea plane took off from the marina and flew north east over the Whitsunday Islands to Heart Reef – a very romantic composition of coral, only 55 feet wide, that has naturally formed into the shape of a heart.
We then flew back south to land on Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island. Whitehaven Beach is regarded as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and I would have to agree. The crystal clear aqua water and the pure white silica were amazing. We were lucky enough to be able to spend a few hours there relaxing with a gourmet picnic, snorkeling in the azure water and hiking to get the best vantage of Hill Inlet, a stunning cove where the sand and water mix to create a beautiful fusion of colors. Whitehaven Beach is a must-do to anyone visiting the Whitsundays – we didn’t want to leave!
We spent the evening at the recently opened, Hamilton Island Yacht Club. The architecture of the yacht club is quite impressive – the huge copper roof is designed to resemble sails. We sat in the Bommie Restaurant, enjoyed some fine Australian wine and fare, and watched yachts sail in from a day of exploring the reef and islands.
The next morning, we boarded a luxury launch vessel and cruised through the Whitsunday passage to Australia’s most awarded five star resort, Hayman Island. We had to try one of Hayman’s Signature Experiences, so we opted for the weekly run Chef’s Table, hosted by the island’s Executive Chef. The 6 courses and matching wine were paradise on my palate – for me, the highlight was definitely the Hayman Chocolate Room.
Our next adventure was a day trip to the Reef. A cruiser took us out to the Knuckle Reef Pontoon. This magical day was spent snorkeling through schools of fish and past colorful coral, or relaxing on the deck. I don’t SCUBA dive and was worried I would miss some fantastic sights, but I learned that most of the Reef is only 8 feet deep, and the best colors can been seen snorkeling, rather than diving deep.
If I wanted to, I could even see the fish and coral without getting wet! The Pontoon’s underwater sea chamber and a trip on a semi-submersible would make sure of that.
The following morning, we waved goodbye to Hayman and made our way final Whitsunday island resort stop, Daydream Island Resort and Spa.
Daydream is definitely a family-friendly island – loads of fun activities for the kids, while the parents can completely relax at the Rejuvenation Day Spa. We spent some time at the Living Reef, a man-made lagoon home to wonderful sea creatures such as stingrays, clown fish and sea stars (amongst many others!). I really got a lot out of learning about these amazing creatures from the island’s marine biologist – really worthwhile.
With fond memories of the Whitsundays, we flew north to Cairns, then a 45 minute drive to Thala Beach Lodge.
This family operated eco-luxury resort sits spectacularly atop a headland with breathtaking views of untouched coastline. An island on the mainland!
Our accommodation was so unique – beautiful bungalows were built on stilts up in the treetops blending in with their environment. On our balcony, birds and possums were regular visitors. I even caught a glimpse of a sugar-glider flying from one tree to the next.
We made sure to take the short hike through the rainforest down to the resort’s secluded beach and the guided tour of the neighboring coconut plantation was very interesting…and tasty!