Swim, sail, snorkel or sip cocktails - the aquatic world is your oyster in these 74 pristine tropical havens protected by Queensland's Great Barrier Reef.
1. Coral reefs
The Whitsunday Islands are home to an aquatic wonderland of colourful fish, clams and coral. Conditions are ideal for snorkelling because many of the coral platforms are close to shore and the water temperature is 22 to 27 degrees Celsius year round. Butterfly Bay, Luncheon Bay, Manta Ray Bay and Maureen's Cove on the northeastern side of Hook Island are the best snorkelling spots. Blue Pearl Bay on Hayman Island is home to Elvis, an enormous hump-headed Maori wrasse. Tuck some bread into a sealed plastic bag and when you come across a school of fish, drop a few crumbs. It's an amazing experience to see shoals of fish flit past your eyes. Go to www.whitsundaytourism.com.
2. Whitehaven Beach (below, left)
Constantly lauded by publications world-wide as being among the planet's best beaches, this long stretch of pure silica sand is one of the Whitsundays must-see destinations. The best way to experience it is to take a seaplane tour from Airlie Beach on the mainland. At the beach's northern end is the picturesque Hill Inlet, a fine place to spot stingrays. See www.airwhitsunday.com.au for tour details.
3. Fantasy on water
Cruise around the islands in luxury on the newest top-line cruiser in the Whitsundays. The 60-metre, 32-cabin MV Fantasea Ammari (www.fantaseaammari.com) is equipped with a restaurant, cafe, bars, saltwater pool, day spa and souvenir shop. All cabins are air-conditioned and have en-suite bathrooms. Three-night cruises start at A$1,485 (HK$9,880).
4. Bush walks
Named by James Cook when he sailed through the area on Whit Sunday in June 1770, most of the islands are uninhabited pristine national parks with excellent bushwalking tracks. On Whitsunday Island, the Hill Inlet walk starts from Tongue Bay and is an easy trail that meanders to a look-out with spectacular views of Whitehaven Beach and the island. Another good walk starts from Sawmill Beach; the path winds its way through a rainforest and over a ridge, revealing magnificent views of Cid Harbour before descending through a palm forest and down to Dugong Beach.
5. Hamilton Island (middle, top left)
For an action-packed stay, Hamilton Island (www.hamiltonisland.com.au) is a lively hub with 10 restaurants, six bars, shops and boutiques. It's perfect as a pre- or post-sail stopover where you can participate in activities such as sea kayaking, jet-skiing, game fishing and day cruises. Accommodation options include the five-star Beach Club, the Reef View Hotel, the self-contained Whitsunday Holiday Apartments and the three-star Palm Terrace. The island's newest five-star resort, Qualia, is scheduled to open next month and promises an opulent experience for luxury lovers, with guest pavilions from A$1,400 a night. See www.qualiaresort.com.au.
6. Long Island
If you're after peace and quiet, Peppers Palm Bay (middle, bottom; www.peppers.com.au) on Long Island is a boutique resort comprising only 21 huts, cabins and bungalows set along a secluded beach. The island has more than 13km of walking tracks with stunning look-out points and secluded beaches. Dine with the resident curlews in the rainforest setting of the resort's restaurant, La Riviera. The chef prepares a different menu each night.
7. Daydream Island
Treat yourself to a luxurious marine body wrap at the Daydream Island Rejuvenation Day Spa, which has 16 treatment rooms. Unique to this island is a mini-golf course based on Australia's tourist attractions, with holes such as the Sydney Opera House, Birdsville Pub and Hervey Bay. The world's largest outdoor aquarium is a living lagoon and the resort's centrepiece. See www.daydreamisland.com for details.
8. Lindeman Island
The resort on Lindeman Island is part of the Club Med chain, so if you have children with energy to burn this is the island for you. A busy schedule of activities - archery, sailing, windsurfing, kayaking, tennis, golf and talent workshops for children - are offered throughout the day. One of the highlights is the Circus School, where children (and those young at heart) can have fun on the flying trapeze.
9. Hayman Island
Hayman Island (www.hayman.com.au) is the place to sit back and indulge yourself. Succumb to the ministering of a Spa Chakra therapist in a beachside hut or sip a cocktail by the resort's pool (middle, top right). There's a choice of fine French dining at La Fontaine, inventive Asian cuisine within the serene gardens of the Oriental, fresh seafood at Azure and authentic Italian at La Trattoria. Or have a private candlelit dinner with your own waiter anywhere in the hotel, although the beach is the most popular spot.
One of the best ways to explore the Whitsundays is to charter a yacht and sail off into the blue yonder. You don't need a lot of sailing experience because there are several options for beginners, including hiring a qualified skipper or joining a crewed catamaran cruise, on which you can sit back and let someone else do the sailing and cooking for you. Sunsail (tel: 61 7 4948 9509; www.sunsail.com.au) has a fleet of yachts and catamarans for charter.