Seventy four pristine islands lazing among the Great Barrier Reef… there really is only one way to see the Whitsundays.
Sand so white and sea so blue you’ll wonder if you’ve stepped into a painting… but this kind of dream destination comes at a price.
Choosing a tour to explore the Whitsundays is overwhelming, there is no denying it.
Operators advertise luxury yachts, party boats, romantic cruises for couples, boats with high speed thrills and then there’s the overnight packages – to stay on a boat or a pristine bay… and what about a helicopter ride thrown in?
Making the right decision is exhausting so here’s how I broke it down and came away certain I’d made the best choice for experience and budget:
About the WhitSundays
First things first, figure out what it is you’re interested in when it comes to The Whitsundays.
The islands were originally discovered by Captain James Cook in 1770.
The traditional owners are the Ngaro, who originally inhabited the the islands and had done for more than 8,000 years. To this day it is unknown where many sacred sites lie.
Many of the Ngaro people were brutally murdered by early western settlers.
Their ancestors still keep their traditions on the land secret in the hope a lack of knowledge will prevent further intrusion of tourism, and I assume, out of respect and resistance, rightly so.
Must see spots are Whitehaven Beach, voted second best beach in the world.
The sand is 98% silica, which is why it is so white! Meanwhile fine sediment in the water makes it appear so blue when light hits it.
Perfect for snorkelling!
You’ll also want the chance to head up to Hill Inlet lookout.
No two photos taken here are ever the same due to the movement of the white silica sand with the tide and the patterns it creates.
Then there is aptly named Heart Reef, because? It’s shaped like a heart…
Bare in mind this is usually only a sight you will see from a scenic flight.
Is it worth a scenic flight?
Having seen the Barrier Reef from underwater, scuba diving, there was no question I needed to see it from above.
There’s no way to comprehend a reef system that’s big enough to see from space.
And when you’ve road tripped for three days, seen the weather and landscape around you change – and still know the GBR is off the shore, you start to appreciate how vast it is.
To get the best of the reef you need to head to the outer reef – an area most tours won’t reach unless you’ve booked a specific Barrier Reef scuba or snorkel trip.
Furthermore, there’s no way any tour will get you round the 74 Whitsunday islands – and before long they will merge to look the same from the boat.
These are the reasons I decided seeing this area from above was the only way to soak it all up.
Overnight stay vs a day trip?
Initially I’d argued it had to be an overnight stay – who doesn’t love the idea of sailing into the sunset or sleeping on one of these secluded islands?
Only, my research started to suggest these insta-worthy moments wouldn’t be my reality.
Most of the overnight cruises, at least, within most people’s budgets (and I use the word budget lightly because, they still start around $500pp) will involve sharing a cabin with other boat-goers.
…and no-one wants to risk ending up with a sea-sink dorm mate in the bunk above.
That also means, sharing the prime photo spot at sunset on the boat, background nattering, music that may not be your taste – and again, the risk of bad weather and choppy waters.
You can of course head to an island retreat, most popular is Ride to Paradise, which many say is suited for all ages and not full-on, partying backpackers.
But budget allowing, you’ll still find yourself in a bunking up. No paradise private villas on the cheaper end of the scale.
And finally, when I checked the location, the private bay you head to each evening is just a secluded beach north or Airlie. Not the island dream I had in mind.
Best day trip?
With my new checklist I narrowed down my search to companies offering a flight and day trip combo.
In the end I opted for fly and raft package the with Ocean Rafting.
The other company offering this combo at a similar price was GSL.
We had the best day, and even saw whales within twenty minutes of heading out on the water!
Reasons I rate Ocean Rafting are:
- High speed boats – albeit not the imagine I had of sibling the Whitsundays – means only small groups and access to bays larger vessels can’t access.
- The tour guides were informative, relaxed and friendly.
- Lunch and wetsuit hire was included.
- We visited two snorkel spots and had them to ourselves (on the Northern Exposure trip. You can choose to snorkel once and have more beach time on the Southern Lights trip.)
- Included Hill Inlet and a guide.
- Plenty of time to relax and snap photos on Whitehaven beach – away from the other tour groups!
Trips begin at 6am if you do a scenic flight and end around 4pm.
Fly and Raft Northern Exposure with Ocean Rafting was $375.
Needless to say there are so many different ways to enjoy the Whitsunday Islands and Great Barrier Reef.
Want to scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef for free?
Read my guide here!
However you choose to see it, remember to soak up every moment.