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Sailing the Whitsunday Islands from Airlie Beach, Australia

The sheltered waters of the Coral Sea off Queensland’s tropical coast are best explored by boat. Here’s our account of sailing the Whitsunday Islands.

Home to 74 tropical islands, the Whitsundays are perfect for sailing. Dotted along the beautiful tropical coast of Queensland, fringed and sheltered by the Great Barrier Reef, the picturesque islands are home to some of the finest beaches in the world.

One’s gaze is immediately drawn to Whitehaven Beach, repeatedly named one of the best beaches in Australia and indeed the world. With 74 islands to choose from, however, there are secret beaches hiding around every secluded bay.

The only way to truly appreciate the islands is to explore them by boat – and by sailboat at that.

We suggest you ignore the myriad noisy, overcrowded speedboats which frantically dart tourists back and forth across the water. We recommend sailing the Whitsunday Islands from Airlie Beach aboard the Amadeus, a 36ft sailing yacht skippered by effusive captain Dale from Airlie Beach Day Sailing.

We joined two other passengers on Dale’s recently renovated yacht for a day trip to Nara Inlet, a well-protected anchorage nestled at the southeast end of Hook Island.

After a slightly choppy morning crossing the Whitsunday Passage where we were all given the chance to pitch in, raise the sails and take a stint behind the wheel, we arrived in the picturesque Nara Inlet where we anchored.

Exploring the Whitsundays via traditional sailboat instead of a petrol-fuelled speedboat leaves a smaller environmental footprint and offers relaxed cruising at a slower pace. Also, a small yacht with a smaller draft such as the Amadeus allows access to shallower, more secluded bays such as Nara Inlet.

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Anchored at Nara Inlet on Hook Island

At Nara, Dale ferried us ashore for a visit to the Ngaro Aboriginal cultural site, just a short walk up the hillside of Hook Island. Positioned within the hills of the island are caves with ancient rock wall paintings.

The Ngaro people have lived, hunted and fished in these islands for over 9,000 years. Also known as ‘the canoe people’, the Ngaro were adept at spearfishing, boatcraft and navigation.

Early European explorers described meeting ‘natives’ piloting simple canoes sculpted from a single sheet of bark, or in larger canoes made of three sheets of bark tied together with roots. The larger canoes were capable of travelling longer distances between the islands in the area – up to 21km.

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The beauty of a sailing charter is the ability to find true seclusion

Protected from the elements in this once-hidden cave, Ngaro artwork still graces the rock surface today. A series of interpretive and interactive signs explain the history and significance of the region.

The beauty of a sailing charter is the ability to find true seclusion. At Nara Inlet, we met only one other small group of tourists.

After our brief sojourn, Dale met us at the shore and ferried us back to the Amadeus for lunch. Now, I’ve been on plenty of sailing trips in the past and lunch tends to be simple sandwiches and a flask of tepid tea. Aboard the Amadeus, however, lunch is a truly Epicurean affair.

Dale and his wife, Tam, have managed to persuade ‘retired’ French chef Alain Antonius to create gourmet picnic lunches for their passengers. Needless to say, lunch on the Amadeus supersedes any and every meal I’ve ever eaten on a boat.

Atlas & Boots

Soon after, we moved onto another of Hook Island’s small coves for a spot of snorkelling. Depending on your route, there will usually be opportunities to get into the water for some snorkelling.

Being stinger season – between October and May jellyfish are more prevalent in the waters around the Queensland coast – Dale supplied us with stinger suits along with excellent easy breath snorkel masks. As you would expect in waters fringed by the world’s largest coral reef system, the snorkelling was exceptional.

It was soon time for the return voyage across the passage to Airlie Beach. Again, we all took turns to get involved in the sailing with Kia in particular striking the best impression of a competent sailor!

Dale is a man who clearly loves his job and why wouldn’t he? With wind in the sails beneath bright blue skies it’s hard not to get carried away.

There must be a million worse ways to spend your days than sailing the Whitsunday Islands.

Atlas & Boots

sailing the Whitsunday Islands: the essentials

What: Sailing the Whitsunday Islands from Airlie Beach in Queensland, Australia.

When: The best time for sailing the Whitsunday Islands from Airlie Beach is during the shoulder seasons of Apr-May and Oct-Nov when the area enjoys warm and pleasant temperatures with longer days.

The area can be visited all year round, but summer (Dec-Mar) is hotter and more humid while winter (Jun-Sep) is generally drier and cooler though accommodation prices can soar. Australian school holidays are busier, particularly the September/October break.

It’s worth noting that October to May is stinger season (although jellyfish are always present).

Where: We stayed at Coral Sea Vista Apartments, a family-run apartment complex located just 10 minutes from the centre of Airlie Beach and the nearby Abell Point Marina where the Amadeus is moored.

Coral Sea Apartments are set back on a quiet hillside road just a few minutes’ walk from the waterfront. All apartments come with north facing balconies enjoying striking views across the town and bay.

The apartments are spacious and fully equipped for self-catering. They include air-conditioning, kitchenware, a dining area and a flat-screen TV. The complex also includes a swimming pool. The owner, Scott, and his family are always on hand to offer advice or help with organising tours.

How: Book a trip with Airlie Beach Day Sailing via the online booking form, telephone +61 437 558 358 or email. The cost per person is $199 AUD or the Amadeus can be booked out for a private charter from $1,500 AUD per day for up to eight adults or 10 with children.

The cost includes morning tea, a gourmet lunch and snacks for the return journey, any soft or hot drinks, snorkelling equipment and all park fees. Feel free to bring your own alcoholic drinks for the cooler.

Airlie Beach along with much of the Queensland coast can be easily reached using Greyhound Australia. We made use of our Greyhound Travel Pass to get ourselves around much of the country, including booking the Uluru Rock Tour, one of their outback experiences.

Car hire is also an option for visiting the area. We recommend Hertz Australia who we used for a road trip along the southeast coast from Adelaide to Sydney via Phillip IslandKangaroo Island, Mount Kosciuszko and the Great Ocean Road.

The nearest airport is Whitsunday Coast Airport, Proserpine (PPP), approximately 30 minutes from Airlie Beach by car. Book domestic or international flights via Skyscanner for the best prices.


Australia is a huge country. If you prefer to pass on the planning, we recommend G Adventures and their small group Australia tours.

Lonely Planet Australia is a comprehensive guide to the country, ideal for those who want to both explore the top sights and take the road less travelled.

Lead image: Atlas & Boots

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