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Camping ON the Great Barrier Reef and Other Secret Ways to Explore This Amazing Area

Camping ON the Great Barrier Reef and Other Secret Ways to Explore This Amazing Area

Whitehaven Beach, in the Whitsunday Islands

I’m just back from The Whitsundays in Australia. Say where? Whit-what? 

If you’ve been to Australia, chances are you may have been to the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral-reef system where you can snorkel among brilliantly colored fish.

To get to the reef most people start in the populated tourist hotspot of Cairns, in Far North Queensland. A lesser-known part of the reef is the Whitsundays, off the central coast of Queensland. It’s the quieter sibling, and it’s a must-visit. This area is still untouched, with the majority of it dedicated national park. 

So just how to navigate this collection of 74 tropical islands? We’ve got the scoop.  

Getting There

If you are flying into Sydney or Brisbane from the US, you need to catch another flight to the Whitsunday Coast Airport (Proserpine) or Great Barrier Reef Airport (Hamilton Island). Of the 74 islands in the chain, only eight of the islands have resorts.

Related: The World’s Most Irresistible Islands

Hiking in Airlie Beach

Lay of the Land 

Airlie Beach is the hub of the area and the jumping-off point to the Great Barrier Reef and the Whitsunday Islands. You can also hop on a Cruise Whitsundays ferry to transfer to the island resorts. The coastal town of Bowen has eight beaches worth exploring, a coral bay, and great local produce. Bowen is also known as the mural capital of Australia: 19 murals, all within walking distance, showcase the town’s early history. And then there’s the former coal mining town of Collinsville; take the Coal Face Experience to learn about the battles and victories on the goldfields or try your hand at fossicking for jasper, crystal and calcite. 

Where to Stay (and Save)

If you want to stay centrally, here are a few smart and well-priced choices. In Airlie, the Airlie Beach Hotel has ocean-view rooms. Bowen’s Rose Bay Resort has rooms that open up onto the beach and — if you want them — kitchenettes. The simple-yet-cheery Collinsville Motel is close to town and attractions and the Bowen River. Hamilton Island Palm Bungalows are mid-priced, family-friendly modern bungalows with all the perks.

Camping on the Great Barrier Reef (Photo: Cruise Whitsundays)

The Ultimate Camp-Out

If you are looking for bragging rights, then this is it: sleeping ON the Great Barrier Reef. With the recently launched Reefsleep, you get to spend two days and one night snorkeling on Hardy Reef. At night, you sleep on the upper deck of a pontoon floating on the reef — either under the stars in a hammock (that’s the cool way) or in an air-conditioned tent with a king-size bed. The pontoon is 40 nautical miles from shore.

An ocean-dreaming massage at Hayman One&Only (Photo: Hayman One&Only)

Resorts Worth Splurging

To get to the just-opened Hayman One&Only, you arrive at Hamilton Island, the largest inhabited isle, and take the resort’s Sun Goddess cruiser to Hayman Island. One&Only is the only resort on the island, unlike Hamilton, which has many resorts and private homes. The resort just had an $80 million revamp, which included a new infinity pool with sails overhead that call to mind Sydney’s Opera House. At the spa you can now get an “ocean dreaming massage” on a bed that is placed right in the water — you’ll be “floating” in the middle of the Coral Sea, with the sounds of rustling coconut palms and lorikeets, native birds, zipping by. Bonus: The revamped resort is family friendly, and families now get their own wing, so honeymooners can be on their own. 

Another luxe option is Qualia on Hamilton Island, with plunge pools and a private beach where you can just snorkel and swim. The property has its own yoga deck and spa, but just sitting in the outdoor restaurant — overlooking the ocean and yachts cruising by — is heavenly. 

Related: A $60 Hotel in Crete and 6 Other Hotels So Remote You Can Only Get There By Boat

Heart Reef, which you can fly over in a helicopter

5 Top Whitsundays Adventures

• It goes without saying that snorkeling or scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef is a highlight. Cruise Whitsundays offers half and full day tours from Airlie Beach.

• Book a helicopter flight with Air Whitsunday Seaplanes over Heart Reef to spot whales frolicking in the brilliant blue sea. 

• A favorite off-the-beaten-path hike is through the lush green rainforest mountains overlooking the sea at Conway National Park, in Airlie Beach.

• For nature lovers, the Whitsunday Crocodile Safari allows you to see wild crocodiles as you cruise the Proserpine river.

• Go fishing at Lake Proserpine, where you can catch barramundi, a native fish. They grow more than one meter in the lake, which is stocked. You can buy bait and tackle from local fishing stores, and guided trips are available.

Related: Master Scuba Trainer Reveals the Most Dangerous Dives in the World

An aerial view of Whitehaven Beach

Top Beach

Dip your toes into the soft silica sands on Whitehaven Beach. Whitehaven is a hour’s boat ride from Hayman Island, and is also accessible from Hamilton Island on various tours.

What to Eat

Make sure to try the fresh local seafood — especially the huge succulent tiger prawns and coral reef fish — the fresh local produce (Bowen is Australia’s largest winter growing vegetable region), and the succulent steaks. The Whitsundays Sailing Club in Airlie Beach serves up a ‘grand catch’ of grilled coral trout, prawns, and mussels.

Hamilton Island Shoes (Photo: Soludos)

Don’t Leave Without … 

… picking up a pair of the very cool Hamilton Island shoes, which espadrille brand Soludos just created in collaboration with We Are Handsome.

WATCH: The Great Barrier Reef in Danger

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