Discovering the heart of paradise in the Whitsundays

The famous Heart Island on the Great Barrier Reef at the Whitsundays. Pictures: Michael Turtle
The famous Heart Island on the Great Barrier Reef at the Whitsundays. Pictures: Michael Turtle

Soaring through the air, lush green islands all around me, I see the Whitsundays from a different perspective for the first time. On this scenic flight, aboard a high-wing eight-seater plane where everyone gets a window, it's not just about one beach, one boat, or one island. All the islands of this Queensland paradise stretch out around me - some with dramatic peaks, others with long sandy stretches, a few with large resorts. In the clear water, I get glimpses of coral.

The plane continues east until we're about 100 kilometres off the coast and, looking down, I suddenly see the outer section of the Great Barrier Reef. More than just glimpses, these formations of coral are vividly clear in the turquoise water. I even spot a whale swimming along the side of a shelf. And then the pilot makes a turn so that right in my line of sight is Heart Island, the small bit of reef shaped like a heart that has become such an icon of the Whitsundays.

A scenic flight over the 74 islands of the Whitsundays.

A scenic flight over the 74 islands of the Whitsundays.

The photos of Heart Island (of which I, of course, took as many as possible) are a dream for marketers who get to use expressions like "the Heart of the Great Barrier Reef". But when I'm talking with Peter Pryor the next day, he uses the word in a different way. Peter is a traditional owner, one of the local Ngaro people, and he tells me the islands of the Whitsundays are ''the heart of his heritage''.

"150 years ago, that's how short it was that my ancestors were here," he says. "So it's still alive, it's still here. We can connect back to the islands and through tourism, this is a stepping stone for us, to be able to tell stories like I'm telling you now."

I've met Peter on a cultural tour with Whitsunday Paradise Explorer, a new experience for the region started by local skipper John Henderson. It's the first time traditional owners have been able to take visitors to the Whitsundays on a regular tour to important sites and share their culture. As we walk through the trees at one point, Peter explains how the Ngaro would've travelled between the islands for thousands of years ... until authorities forcibly relocated the last of them in 1870.

Peter Pryor welcomes Michael Turtle as part of the Whitsunday Paradise Explorer cultural tour.

Peter Pryor welcomes Michael Turtle as part of the Whitsunday Paradise Explorer cultural tour.

"Our canoes were made of three pieces of bark - two sides and a bottom - that were stitched together using this natural vine from the bush that is all around us," he says as he points at some of it.

It's this nature that makes the Whitsundays such a beautiful place and it's impressive that the majority of the 74 islands here still have no development on them. Whitehaven Beach offers a painting-like view of seven kilometres of bright white silica sand, with the shifting tides of Hill Inlet like delicate brushstrokes. But a variety of boat trips will take you to less famous, but just as picturesque, spots.

 Looking out across Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island.

Looking out across Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island.

To explore the area, I join Ocean Rafting for a day - a tour company that's a bit of a misnomer as there's nothing 'rafty' about their rubber speedboats. Bouncing over the surface of the water at about 60km/h, I appreciate the pace as we fit a lot into the trip, including some hiking and snorkelling. The fringing reef around the islands offers beautiful coral gardens, apparently with more than 1500 species of fish. While I do use a wetsuit when I jump in, the water is still pretty warm for winter.

Snorkelling at one of the coral gardens of the fringing reef on the Whitsundays.

Snorkelling at one of the coral gardens of the fringing reef on the Whitsundays.

It can sometimes seem like the big resort islands dominate the discussion about the Whitsundays - Hamilton Island, Daydream Island, Hayman Island - but, when you're actually here, those areas are quite inconspicuous unless you're staying on them. Across the eight inhabited islands, there are also smaller accommodation options.

I stay one night at the Palm Bay Resort on Long Island, not too far from the mainland, where there are bungalows on the beach and houses higher up among the trees. Although the design is Balinese inspired, it actually reminds me more of the Pacific, where you can have quiet sunset drinks under palm trees knowing the rest of the world is a boat trip away. Unlike a lot of the big accommodation, Palm Bay Resort is self-catered so it's more affordable and flexible.

A rainbow fills the sky at sunrise over the Palm Bay Resort on Long Island.

A rainbow fills the sky at sunrise over the Palm Bay Resort on Long Island.

You don't need to stay on the islands to experience the Whitsundays, though, and a lot of visitors choose accommodation on the mainland at Airlie Beach and do day trips. It's a bustling town - one of those coastal communities that officially has a population of about a thousand people but always has many more actually here. The food scene reflects the diversity of the tourists who stay here, with everything from cheap kebabs to fine dining. My tip would be Fish D'vine, which has had a recent redevelopment but still offers the fresh seafood and rum bar it's become famous for.

The pool and restaurant at the Coral Sea Marina Resort in Airlie Beach.

The pool and restaurant at the Coral Sea Marina Resort in Airlie Beach.

I stay at the Coral Sea Marina Resort, a modern complex with stunning views and easy access to the town. Exploring Airlie Beach, I'm struck by how relaxed everything is - which is probably not surprising for the kind of place that would build a large free public pool complex on its waterfront. (Called the Airlie Beach Lagoon, it truly is quite a sight!)

The free public pool at the Airlie Beach Lagoon.

The free public pool at the Airlie Beach Lagoon.

Although Airlie Beach is mainly a launching pad for excursions out to the islands, there are a few things to do on the mainland. In particular, I would recommend some of the hikes in nearby Conway National Park to see mangroves, rainforest, and epic views from the top of Mt Rooper. Most of the trails have information panels with details about the flora, fauna, and Indigenous history. When I go for a walk through the park, I even spot some of the vines and other plants that Peter Pryor had pointed out to me the day before. Perhaps I am getting a bit closer to the heart of the Whitsundays.

WHAT TO DO:

WHERE TO EAT:

  • For a delicious but casual brunch, the locals love Cafe One 3.
  • With fresh seafood and a rum bar, Fish D'vine is an Airlie Beach institution.
  • And for sophisticated casual where woodfired pizzas are the specialty, there's Sorrento Restaurant and Bar.

WHERE TO STAY:

  • At Airlie Beach, Coral Sea Marina Resort has beautiful modern rooms with great views and convenient access to the town.
  • The Palm Bay Resort is a lovely peaceful resort on Long Island that offers affordability and flexibility by being self-catered.

Michael Turtle was supported by Tourism and Events Queensland.

Michael Turtle will be bringing you a new idea each week for a trip within Australia. You can see more details on his Travel Australia Today website for things to do in Airlie Beach.

This story Discovering the heart of paradise first appeared on The Canberra Times.