Fantasea Adventure Cruising (tel. 07/4967 5455; www.fantasea.com.au) makes daily trips to Hardy Reef from Shute Harbour, near Airlie Beach, in a high-speed, air-conditioned catamaran. The boat has a bar, and a biologist gives a marine ecology talk en route. You anchor at the massive Fantasea Reefworld pontoon, which holds up to 600 people, and spend up to 3 1/2 hours on the Reef. The day trip costs A$225 for adults, A$102 for children 5 to 15, or A$589 for families of four. Guided snorkel safaris cost A$40 extra for adults and A$20 for children. You can book dives on board for A$115 for first-time divers and A$100 for certified dives. Cruises depart at 8am and pick up passengers at Hamilton island resort.
A fun alternative is Fantasea's 2-day, 1-night ReefSleep, during which you spend the night on the pontoon. This gives you a fabulous chance to snorkel at night when the coral is luminescent in the moonlight and nocturnal sea creatures get busy. The trip includes two scuba dives, plenty of night snorkeling, two buffet lunches, dinner under the stars with wine, and breakfast and more snorkeling on the second day. You can stay in a clean, comfortable bunkroom for four for A$460 per person, or in the double cabin, which has a king-size bed, for A$630 per person. With so few guests per night, you have the Reef all to yourself.
Day-trippers to Hamilton, Daydream, South Molle, Club Crocodile Long Island, and Hook Island resorts can rent the hotels' watersports equipment, laze by the beaches and pools, scuba dive, join the resorts' activities programs, hike their trails, and eat at some or all of their restaurants. Club Crocodile's Long Island Resort is rather noisy but unpretentious, with plentiful watersports, picturesque hiking trails, wild wallabies, and a large beach-cum-tidal-flat where you can relax on sun lounges.
Expect to pay A$199 for a 20-minute flight over the Whitsundays -- a spectacular sight from the air. Aviation Tourism Australia (tel. 07/4940 1397; www.avta.com.au) and Air Whitsunday (tel. 07/4946 9111; www.airwhitsunday.com.au) offer a large range of tours, including seaplane flights to a Reef pontoon to snorkel for a couple of hours, or a helicopter trip to a private island with a picnic lunch and snorkel gear.
Cruise Whitsundays ( tel. 07/4946 4662; www.cruisewhitsundays.com.au) makes daily trips to Hardy Reef in a high-speed, air-conditioned catamaran. The boat has a bar, and a biologist gives a marine ecology talk en route. You anchor at the massive Reefworld pontoon, which was built to hold up to 600 people, and spend up to 3 1/2 hours on the Reef. The day trip costs A$225 for adults, A$99 for children 5 to 15. Guided snorkel safaris cost A$45 extra for adults and A$30 for children. You can book dives on board for A$119 for first-time divers and A$99 for certified divers. Cruises depart at 8am from Airlie Beach, picking up at Hamilton Island at 9am. Passengers from Daydream and Long islands take the ferry to Hamilton to board there.
A unique experience is Cruise Whitsundays’ReefSleep, during which you spend the night on the pontoon. You travel with the day-trippers, but when they leave you will be with a maximum of 16 people. This gives you a fabulous chance to snorkel at night when the coral is luminescent in the moonlight and nocturnal sea creatures get busy. The trip includes 2 full days on the Reef, all meals, and the chance to sleep under the stars (or in the one double cabin that’s available). The cost is A$449 per person for the double room, or A$399 per person for a “swag”(a type of outdoor sleeping bag) on the deck under the stars (which may have never seemed closer).
In and around the Whitsunday islands, you can visit and explore the many excellent dive sites close to shore. Mantaray Charters ( tel. 07/4948 1117; www.mantaraycharters.com), based at Abell Point Marina, runs day tours to Whitehaven Beach and gives you the chance to dive near Hayman Island or Hook Island. Tours are limited to 36 passengers and leave at 8am, returning at around 4:30pm. The cost is A$148 adults, A$80 kids ages 4 to 14, and A$435 for a family of four. The cost includes lunch, snacks and all equipment, whether you are diving or snorkeling. You’ll pay A$80 for an introductory dive.
Sailing & Snorkeling Trips
A journey on one of the many yachts offering 3-day, 2-night sailing adventures is a great way to see the islands. You can learn to sail or get involved with sailing the boat as much or as little as you want, snorkel to your heart’s content over one dazzling reef after another, beachcomb, explore national park trails, stop at secluded bays, swim, sunbathe, and generally have a laid-back good time. A few companies offer introductory and qualified scuba diving for an extra cost per dive. Most boats carry a maximum of 12 passengers, so the atmosphere is always friendly and fun. The food is generally good, the showers are usually hot, and you sleep in comfortable but small berths off the galley. Some have small private twin or double cabins.
Prices usually include all meals, Marine Park entrance fees, snorkel gear, and transfers to the departure point (Abel Point Marina or Shute Harbour). In the off season, the boats compete fiercely for passengers; you’ll see signboards on the main street in Airlie Beach advertising standby deals.
Prosail ( tel. 1800/810 116 in Australia or 07/4946 7533; www.prosail.com.au) runs sailing trips through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. All trips include sailing, snorkeling, scuba diving, and bushwalking, and you can sail on megayachts such as the Condor, Broomstick, and Hammer. A 2-day overnight trip costs A$349 per person.
These kind of trips are a cheaper alternative to “bareboating”(skippering your own yacht)—which is a hugely popular thing to do, despite the cost. If you are confident about sailing yourself—and most yacht-charter companies in the islands will want one person on the boat to have a little experience—you do not need a license, and sailing is surprisingly easy in these uncrowded waters, where the channels are deep and hazard-free and the seas are protected from big swells by the Great Barrier Reef. The 74 islands are so close to one another that one is always in sight, and safe anchorages are everywhere. But for extra reassurance, the company may require you to take a skipper along at an extra cost of around A$40 per hour or A$355 overnight. Before departure, the company provides a thorough 2- to 3-hour briefing and easy-to-read maps marking channels, anchorage points, and the very few dangerous reefs. Your charter company will radio in once or twice a day to check that you’re still afloat, and you can contact them anytime for advice.
You can buy your own provisions or have the charter company stock the boat at an extra cost of about A$30 per person per day. Most operators will load a windsurfer, fishing tackle, and scuba-diving equipment on request, for an extra fee if they are not standard.
In peak season, you may have to charter the boat for a week. At other times, most companies impose a minimum of 5 days, but many will rent for 3 nights if you ask, rather than let a vessel sit idle. In peak season, expect to pay A$600 to A$750 per night for a standard four- to six-berth yacht, more if you want something luxurious. Rates in the off season, and even in the Whitsundays’busiest time, June through August, will be anywhere from A$100 to A$200 less. If you are prepared to book within 14 days of when you want to sail, the deals can be even better; you should be able to find a boat that late in the off season. You may be asked to post a credit card bond of around A$2,000. Fuel and park fees are extra, and mooring fees apply if you want to stop at one of the island resorts overnight. A number of bareboat-charter companies offer “sail-[‘]n-stay”packages that combine a few days of sailing with a few days at an island resort.
Most bareboat charter companies will make complete holiday arrangements for you in the islands, including accommodations, transfers, tours, and sporting activities. Most companies operate out of Airlie Beach, Hamilton Island, or both. Well-known operators include Whitsunday Rent-A-Yacht ( tel. 1800/075 000 in Australia or 07/4946 9232; www.rentayacht.com.au); Queensland Yacht Charters ( tel. 1800/075 013 in Australia or 07/4946 7400; www.yachtcharters.com.au); and Sunsail ( tel. 1800/803 988 in Australia or 02/8912 70 55; www.sunsail.com.au).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.