City lights …
“Wait till you see Whitehaven Beach at high noon,” says my Aussie crew member, Katelyn, cool as the May breeze here in the Southern Hemisphere’s late fall. The skyline arches above the waterline. The morning sun glints off a thousand windowpanes. From the first glance, Sydney is one gorgeous city. We cruise west past Point Piper and Darling Point, and then the curves of Sydney’s most iconic roofline lift before us like angel wings: the Opera House. Next comes the singular curve of Harbour Bridge — affectionately known as “the coathanger” — more than 80 years old but still elegant, even when filled with morning traffic.
“Magnificent,” Katelyn admits. Entering this lovely harbor by boat, she means, but she sounds just a wee bit grudging to my ear.
“Wait till you see it at night,” I say, back on my heels for the moment.
We’ve been having a debate. When I called Sydney “the prettiest anchorage” in Australia, Katelyn took exception. The Whitsunday Islands off Queensland, she countered, win hands down for sheer unsullied beauty. And what other criteria are there?
Ferries skirt past us, approaching and departing Circular Quay, Sydney’s watery hub. The brisk green and yellow boats form the backbone of Sydney’s public-transportation system. Commuting by boat is the norm here, my kind of town.
“I’m happy to see these so-called natural beauties,” I say. “But they’re better than this?”
“Pure natural splendor,” she says.
“Can you get a good curry up there?” I ask, smiling. “Or a burger?”
In late morning, we relaunch from d’Albora Marinas at the Spit, in the suburb of Mosman. We exit through the mouth of Port Jackson (as the greater inlet is known) into the open Pacific and turn south. Neighborhoods run down to the cliff’s edge. A couple of guys fish the surf from a 2-foot ledge 30 feet above the water. Coming around a headland, we see Bondi Beach. From the water, it looks like Southern California, classic city beach bordered by a seawall and bookended by rocky bluffs north and south. Surfers work the breaks with varying levels of skill. Beautiful bodies line the sand itself. The Bondi Icebergs swimming pool, open to visitors, sits right against the surf on the south end, its waves crashing over the wall. Gray-haired swimmers navigate the resultant turbulence, a rugged and chilly sport.
“Well, I’ve seen worse beaches,” Katelyn says with a shrug.
“It’s gorgeous,” I say.
“But crowded,” she says.
By night, we walk up through the buzzing city. The annual light show Vivid Sydney, held from the end of May though mid-June, is in progress. Animations in 16 million colors illuminate the facade of the Customs House near Circular Quay, growing jungle vines and fireflies coordinated to fit the building’s contours. Fanciful light sculptures adorn the streets. Even the locals seem to glow.
We cross Hyde Park to dine at Red Lantern on Riley, Vietnamese with a French influence. We forgo the frenzy of the vaunted tasting menus. I have kingfish with green mango. Katelyn has prawns wok-tossed in coconut cream with glass noodles and shallots.
“I could live here,” I say over a dessert of sesame dumplings filled with caramelized soursop. “We’re hardly scratching the surface of what Sydney has to offer.”
“It’s a great city,” she says, “but don’t sign that lease yet.”
At least she’s smiling — could be the shiraz.
Cruising back to the marina, we’re treated to Vivid Sydney’s displays projected on the cream-colored tiles of the Opera House — animal figures giving way to colorful patterns intertwining. The bridge is lit up on the other side. Eyes on the channel, captain. It’s easy to get distracted on an ordinary day in this harbor, let alone during a multimillion-dollar midnight light show.
Sydney has represented itself with literal brilliance. To compete with this, the Whitsundays will need to be magnificent.
Spectacular Nature …
“Wow,” I whisper. To heck with my game face. The helicopter hovers above the Great Barrier Reef, my first glimpse of this natural wonder. We flew into Hamilton Island minutes ago and boarded the chopper for the transfer to Abell Point Marina in Airlie Beach, mainland gateway to the Whitsunday Islands. This detour was Katelyn’s idea and — wow. “The reef” doesn’t look like a barrier at all, but more like a maze of coral heads pink, green, red and purple laced with the whole gradient of ocean blues. “Is it bigger than a football field?” a friend at home asked me. Indeed. Arrayed along more than a thousand miles of the Queensland coast, the reef covers an area approximately the size of California. We circle one outcrop shaped like a heart.
“Honeymooner favorite,” I hear the pilot say in my headset. Katelyn has a smug look. But she’s right. This is awesome.
Abell Point Marina has undergone a recent management change and renovations. The staff welcomes us with efficient warmth. The Whitsundays are a great place for yachtsmen of all experience levels, Luke McCaul of Abell Point tells us: “With so many bays, beaches and coves, there’s always a place to shelter from bad weather and unfavorable winds.”
The weather is sunny and breezy. We retrieve our power catamaran bareboat from Whitsunday Escape at the marina, get our gear aboard and launch — no hurry, no delay. We head north out of Airlie and over to the east, cleaving to the western side of Hook Island, its greenery mounting in tiers to rocky crests.
We drop anchor in a cove on the windward side of Hayman Island. No one else is around. We put on masks and plunge in. The reef is like Sydney’s light show, except in living color — orange and white clownfish, triggers, surgeons, the coveted coral trout. The corals themselves pile atop one another, antlers, lattices and squiggly brains. A dome-shaped bommie is bigger than our boat. Here, finally, I get a sense of the reef’s range of scales. Take this mesmerizing detail, the wild biodiversity right in front of us, and multiply that a million times. The reef network is built of microscopic organisms, and it’s visible from the moon.
We continue down the east side of Hook Island toward Whitsunday Island. With the sun directly overhead, we cross an inlet filled with the whitest sand I’ve ever seen. It flows from the inlet around a small spit and spreads into a long, narrow strand. Here’s Katelyn’s trump card, as if she needed one: Whitehaven Beach. More than 90 percent silica, this pure sand exists only here, nowhere else — even in the Whitsundays. Reverence is the automatic response. No littering please.
As we come ashore, a man awaits in a matching jacket of brilliant white — it’s butler Nick from One&Only resort on Hayman Island. He’s pouring bubbly, a Champagne that Perrier-Jouët bottled specially for One&Only. “Well, this is just overkill,” I say, “but I like it.”
We saunter down the beach while Nick opens a wicker basket behind us. Helicopters sit at intervals along the strand, all Robinson R44s, which could be the state bird of Queensland. One lands as another takes off. Helicopter time is calculated by the second. The best thing about coming by boat is you can stay as long as you want.
We sit under a white beach umbrella to enjoy the picnic Nick has set out: duck confit, fresh tropical fruit, more Champagne. We toast Katelyn’s victory. Sydney is a wonderful entry point for all things Oz, but it’s still a city, all rumble and flash. Isn’t that ultimately what we pine to get away from? And isn’t this what we want to get away to — reef and beach and untrammeled nature, but with transient slips, helipads and butler service?
“Name your prize,” I say.
“I’ve already got it,” she says.
1. Get your documents in perfect order — visas, etc. Good advice anywhere, but the authorities here don’t mess around. 2. Everything in Australia can kill you: jellyfish, sharks, spiders, snakes and toads. Respect the wildlife. 3. The sun kills more than all of the above combined. Wear sunscreen. Bring extra water.
Australia’s Gold Coast, on the east side of the country, south of Brisbane, is the country’s boating capital. It’s also a heck of a good time. Surfer’s Paradise is a resort town that resembles a seaside Las Vegas, while more laid-back locales include Coolangatta and Burleigh Heads. Live music is hugely popular along this stretch of coast, as is surfing — one of Australia’s most popular sports. If you’re interested in giving it a go, there are plenty of surf shops up and down the coast. Rent a board, paddle out and experience Australia in full.
This iconic town on the Gold Coast is nearly as famous for its chilled-out vibe as it is for its shreddable waves.