Speckling the calm waters of the Coral Sea, the superlative Whitsunday Islands are one of Australia’s greatest natural attractions. Opal-jade waters and pure-white beaches fringe the forested domes of these ‘drowned mountains’, where you can camp in secluded bays, laze in resorts, snorkel, dive or island-hop through the archipelago. Beneath the shimmering seas, tropical fish swarm through the world’s largest coral garden in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The gateway to the islands, Airlie Beach, is a happening backpacker hub with a continuous parade of tanned, happy faces zinging between boats, beaches and banging nightclubs.
South of Airlie, Mackay is a typical coastal Queensland town with palm-lined streets framed by an attractive jumble of art deco buildings. There’s not a huge amount to do here, but Mackay is a handy base for trips to Finch Hatton Gorge and Eungella National Park – lush hinterland oases where platypuses cavort in the wild. To the north, little Bowen has sensational secret beaches and quirky, historical street art.