Airlie Beach: 640km (397 miles) S of Cairns; 1,146km (711 miles) N of Brisbane

A days drive or a 1-hour flight south of Cairns brings you to the dazzling collection of 74 islands known as the Whitsundays. No more than 3 nautical miles (3.4km/2 miles) separate most of the islands, and altogether they represent countless bays, beaches, dazzling coral reefs, and fishing spots that make up one fabulous Great Barrier Reef playground. Sharing the same latitude as Rio de Janeiro and Hawaii, the water is at least 72°F (22°C) year-round, the sun shines most of the year, and in winter youll require only a light jacket at night.

Most of the islands consist of densely rainforested national park land. The surrounding waters belong to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. But dont expect palm trees and coconutsthese islands are covered with dry-looking pine and eucalyptus forests full of dense undergrowth, and rocky coral coves far outnumber the few sandy beaches. Only eight islands have resorts, but all offer just about every activity you could ever wantsnorkeling, scuba diving, sailing, reef fishing, water-skiing, jet-skiing, parasailing, sea kayaking, hiking, rides over the coral in semisubmersibles, fish feeding, putt-putting around in dinghies to secluded beaches, tennis, and more! Accommodations range from small, low-key wilderness retreats to midrange family havens to one of Australias most luxurious resorts, Hayman.

The village of Airlie Beach is the center of the action on the mainland. But the islands themselves are just as good a stepping stone to the outer Great Barrier Reef as Cairns, and some people consider them better, because you dont have to make the 90-minute trip to the Reef before you hit coral. Just about any Whitsunday island has fringing reef around its shores, and there are good snorkeling reefs between the islands, a quick boat ride away from your island or mainland accommodations.

The reef here is just as good as off Cairns, with many drop-offs and drift dives, a dazzling range of corals, and a rich array of marine life, including whales, mantas, shark, reef fish, morays, turtles, and pelagics. Visibility is usually around 15 to 23m (4975ft.).

A popular reef for both snorkeling and diving is Blue Pearl Bay off Hayman Island, which has loads of corals and some gorgonian fans in its gullies, and heaps of reef fish, including Maori wrasse and sometimes manta rays. Its a good place to make an introductory dive, walking right in off the beach. A little island commonly called Bali Hai Island, between Hayman and Hook islands, is a great place to be left to your own devices. Youll see soft-shelf and wall coral, tame Maori wrasse, octopus, turtles, reef shark, various kinds of rays including mantas, eagles and cow-tails, plus loads of fish.

Exploring the Whitsundays

The little town of Airlie Beach, perched on the edge of the Coral Sea with views across Pioneer Bay and the Whitsunday Passage, is the focal point of activity on the Whitsunday mainland. Cruises and yachts depart from Shute Harbour, a 10-minute drive south on Shute Harbour Road, and Abell Point Marina, a 10-minute walk west along the foreshore or a quick drive over the hill on Shute Harbour Road. For a birds-eye view of it all, head to the Lions Lookout.

Airlie Beach has a massive beachfront artificial lagoon, with sandy beaches and landscaped parkland, which solves the problem of where to swim in stinger season. The lagoon is the size of about six full-size Olympic swimming pools, set in 4 hectares (10 acres) of botanic gardens, with a childrens pool, plenty of shade, barbecues, picnic shelters, toilets, showers, and parking.

Getting out on the water is the most important thing here. Countless opportunities are offered, with the focus firmly on sailing, snorkeling and diving.