Sailing the Whitsundays: 5-day island-hopping family holiday
If you’re anything like me (i.e. the un-boaty type), you probably think a bareboat family holiday sounds way too tricky, especially if you don’t know your bowline from your reef knot.
But here’s the thing: bareboating – where you skipper a yacht, catamaran or launch – is actually way simpler than it looks. As long as your children are old enough to swim, island hopping through the Whitsundays‘ 74 magical islands is one of the safest and most enjoyable family holidays going.
Messing around with boats is also heaps of fun for smaller crew members – they can take a turn at the wheel, learn to navigate, talk on the marine radio or just let their face be kissed by the salty breeze. Even sleeping on a gently rocking boat beneath a starry sky is a magical experience, not to mention all the sandcastles to be built, turtles and dolphins to spot, and snorkelling to be had.
Best of all, there’ll be no cries of “Are we there yet?” because on a nautical adventure, you’re already there.
Use this itinerary to plot the course for your own island-hopping family adventure in the Whitsundays.
Day 1: Prepare for sea, landlubber
Any sailing adventure through the Whitsunday Islands starts at Airlie Beach – gateway to the Whitsundays (fly into Whitsunday Coast Airport) – or Hamilton Island. Either way, give yourself at least a day to prepare.
Go shopping for the things you’ll need onboard (don’t forget to stock up on alcohol and chocolate as there’s virtually no shops out there), or better yet, let Whitsundays Provisioning do this for you. That means you’ll arrive at your boat, and all your supplies will already be unpacked for you.
The Mantra Boathouse Apartments are a good option pre-sail, and give you the chance to explore the seaside town fast shedding its backpacker mantle.
Offering contemporary two and three bedroom apartments overlooking the Port of Airlie and the Coral Sea, you’ll also be a mere five-minute walk from town. All apartments come equipped with a full kitchen and laundry facilities, which proves particularly useful after a week on a boat if you plan to return here.
Most importantly, kick off your shoes (you’ll hardly need them this week) and adjust your watch to island time.
Day 2: Airlie Beach to Langford Island
Sailing adventures tend to start early, so fuel up with coffee at the Bohemian Raw Café at Abell Point Marina.
It’s a blue-sky day with a slight breeze when we head out to sea after a comprehensive briefing. It’s the kind of day you can only hope for when your destination is Langford Island.
Langford Island is approached from the north, and it takes some quick manoeuvring to anchor off the tiny island.
Onshore, don’t be surprised if you have the whole place to yourselves. Suit up for a snorkel and watch other local charter boats come and go from this lovely sand cay.
Here, the water is warm and you’ll have fun spotting tropical fish and looking out for green turtles. Any bet you’ll be more than happy to play castaway on this idyllic tropical isle.
Tip: You can hire stinger suits (advisable particularly from October to May) and snorkel gear at Abell Point Marina. Both powered vessels, sail catamarans and yachts are available for charter depending on your boating ability.
Day 2: Langford Island to Hook Island to Hamilton Island
“A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor”, is a saying you probably never gave a passing thought, until you skipper a boat, that is.
Remind yourself of this if the skies happen to turn a rather troublesome shade of grey, and rain starts falling on your parade. Thankfully, no matter the weather it’s still warm in the tropics, and it’s easy to find shelter in the island’s many protected bays and inlets.
Nara Inlet at the southern end of Hook Island is a terrific place to anchor overnight, with its deep fjord-like expanse. At the furthest end of the inlet is a cave where you’ll find the Ngaro Aboriginal Cultural Site.
The upside to gloomy skies is rainbows – scores of them. It’s terrific fun to watch other boats sail right beneath enormous rainbows spanning the sheltered bay.
After exploring the inlet set your compass for ‘Hammo’ (Hamilton Island, that is). In rough seas, it can be a rough ride, but thankfully it doesn’t take long.
Once you’ve settled into the marina, wobble around on your sea legs and get acquainted with this wonderful, bustling holiday island.
Day 3: Hamilton Island
No matter the weather, Hamilton Island makes the ideal stopover for a day or two, so make the most of all it has to offer.
There’s dinner at Coca Chu (try the wicked twice cooked pork ribs with sweet blood plum tamarind sauce), sunset drinks at One Tree Hill (the mojitos are fabulous) and for fun, hire a golf buggy – the island’s preferred mode of transport – and tootle around the island waving at other holiday makers (it immediately slows you down a notch or two).
The Hamilton Island Marina has 301 berths and berthing for up to 60-metre super yachts, right next to the Hamilton Island Yacht Club with its billowing sailed roof. Mooring here is a cinch with courtesy vessels on hand to guide you to your berth (bookings are essential).
Marina guests have access to hot showers, coin-operated washing machines, dryers and all resort facilities including restaurants, swimming pools and the beach. You can get a decent coffee at Marina Café and even squeeze in a quick cuddle with a koala at the island’s wildlife park.
Best of all, you’ll sleep snug onboard in the marina’s calm protected waters, surrounded by other holidaying boaties.
Tip: Use the marina’s washing machines and dryers to get any towels and clothes dry if the weather’s a bit damp.
Day 4: Hamilton Island to Whitsunday Island
Each day onboard begins with morning scheds (scheduled radio calls with Charter Yachts Australia).
Almost every charter boat sailor hopes to reach the famed Whitehaven Beach for a walk along its squelchy white talcum sand. Alas, if the seas are too rough, you’ll need a backup plan (and your charter company will help you with your planning).
The good thing is there are countless lovely beaches and bays within easy access, many equally as inviting as Whitehaven so you won’t be disappointed.
With a gap in the weather, it’s time to navigate out of the busy Hamilton Island Marina. Checkout (11am) is like Pitt Street in Sydney. From the Cid Harbour side of Whitehaven Beach, lower your dinghy off the back of the boat and head ashore for exploration.
From this side of the island there are two walking trails: for those with stamina, head for Whitsunday Peak for expansive views from the ‘rooftop of the Whitsundays’ (ed’s note: the Peak Track is currently closed. For an alternative, the Hill Inlet track and viewpoint is open); for a more leisurely stroll, try the trail from Sawmill to Dugong Beach, winding your way beneath towering hoop pines and shady rainforest.
At Dungog Beach you can take a swim in languid waters, build sandcastles, and marvel at once again having the entire beach to yourselves.
One of the most special things about sailing the Whitsundays (aside from the endless stretches of azure coloured water) is star gazing. It’s super fun looking for shooting stars and you’re almost guaranteed to spot some.
It’s also comforting looking around you at night and seeing other boats safely moored, their masts gently swaying in the breeze.
Tip: Bring old-fashioned board games and cards to entertain the kids at night. There’s no TV and limited WiFi out in the islands (and seriously, isn’t the whole point to get them off devices anyway?).
Day 5: Whitsunday Island to Long Island
Enjoy an early morning coffee on the deck and then head for Long Island. The kids can have a go of steering the boat as you make the crossing, looking out for dolphins or even whales (in season) en route.
A lovely secluded spot to anchor is just around the corner from Palm Bay, where the waters are calm and sheltered no matter what’s going on out at sea.
Swim, take the stand-up paddleboards out for a spin, tell stories and play board games. iPads and other devices will not even be mentioned, let alone make an appearance.
That night, after witnessing yet another tropical sunset, head out on deck and lean overboard to stir the cool, dark water with your hands. As you do, the kids will be astounded as bioluminescent plankton flashes like magic just beneath the surface, while overhead the sky is a blanket of twinkling stars.
No matter where you sail around the Whitsundays’ string of beautiful islands, you’re guaranteed to see magnificent starry skies and incredible sunsets that literally stop you in your tracks.
You can walk, swim and play on deserted beaches, hike trails on uninhabited islands, spot turtles and snorkel in aquamarine waters.
Best of all, you’re captain of your own destiny, living in the moment and allowing the wind and the sea to guide your path.
Tip: From Long Island, it’s a short sail back to Abell Point Marina. Ideally, spend a couple of days post-sail either at Hamilton Island or Airlie Beach to get your land legs back.