Is Whitehaven the Best Beach in the World?
It’s on the other side of the world, but this Australian beach is well worth the trip.
I love Aussies, but it’s fair to say that they, as a nation, are prone to hyperbole. A huge rock in the middle of the desert becomes “one of the most amazing sights in the whole wide world.” Aussie rules football? “Quite simply the greatest sport ever invented.” Mel Gibson? “Great bloke; just likes the drink is all.” So, decades ago, when a fellow from Perth opted to tell me about the greatest beach in the world, a swath of sand so white and so pure that it was like a talcum powder factory, I paid him little heed. Ditto when I heard the same refrain a few years later from a graphic designer from Sydney. But when my server in Whistler again piped up about this patch of greatness, I had to bite:
“Where is this beach?”
She looked from side to side before whispering, “Whitehaven Beach, near the Whitsundays,” and disappeared. Literally. As in she took forever to bring the mains.
I filed Whitehaven away on my ever-growing bucket list and promptly forgot about it until a chance trip to Brisbane had me Googling “best beach in Australia,” trying to jog my memory. The sand on Whitehaven Beach is among the whitest anywhere on earth. Composed of 98 percent silica, the sand on Whitehaven doesn’t retain heat and has a fine, powder-like consistency. Yeah, that’s it.
It was enchanting enough to keep me on track even after finding out that this would be no mere day trip—from Brisbane to the Whitsundays was 1,100 kilometres, and once there I still had to get either a boat or a float plane to get to Whitehaven. But, I thought, bucket lists aren’t exactly supposed to be easy.
My jumping-off point: Hamilton Island, the most developed of the 74 islands that make up the Whitsundays and home to what the check-in clerk at the airport says is a “six-star” hotel. Ah, Aussies, you never disappoint.
But it turns out this isn’t the typical hyperbole: the entire island is owned by the Oatley family, who made their fortune with Rosemount wines, and they’ve lavished some serious shiraz money on Qualia, the island’s flagship lodging. So much so that instead of planning my conquering of the world’s greatest beach, I spend my days hanging out in my room—in a rare form of reverse hyperbole, all the “rooms” are actually quite large villas—playing with the mechanized blinds, using binoculars to watch people golfing on a neighbouring private island and even finding a moment to sneak in a little spa time. And any wanderlust I experience I solve by hopping in my own little golf cart (cars are verboten on Hamilton Island) and tooling around to check out a marina full of serious racing sailboats, a hiking path to a lookout or just the joy of driving on the road in a golf cart. My sand quest has been derailed by the soft belly of luxury.
It is reinstated by the float-plane flight I had prepaid for several weeks prior to secure an excursion rate. So on my third day I drive my golf cart to the dock and am greeted by my suspiciously dude-y pilot, wearing swim trunks and a white pilot’s shirt so unbuttoned to mid-chest as to make a mockery of the whole uniform thing.
“Who’s ready to see the best goddamn beach in the world?” he asks. Rhetorically, I assume, given that I and my three fellow travellers had all purchased not-inexpensive plane tickets to fly to said beach. But as the plane climbs and we get a view of the other Whitsundays (most are uninhabited, though there’s a swanky, brand-new One and Only resort that just opened on neighbouring Hayman Island), my inner wisenheimer fades. God, this area is gorgeous, and just as I’m thinking that it’s not the destination that’s important on a journey but the corollary things you discover en route, the pilot pipes into the headsets:
“There she is.”
In an area of great beaches, Whitehaven stands alone. It makes you realize that beaches are constantly evolving things, and while we fly over numerous stretches of sand flanked by the same perfect 26°C crystal-blue water, only Whitehaven has the unique luck to be at the crossroads of tides, current, ocean-floor geography and dumb luck that enable it, and it alone, to draw its sand from the world’s largest deposit of ultra-fine silica, itself a product of the volcanic turmoil of 100 million years ago of the now-submerged microcontinent of Zealandia. Five kilometres away you have a plain old beach, but here I’m looking at magic.
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The pilot dips the wings, makes a large, showy bank low over the water (crashing in clear, warm water seems so much less scary than in the Strait of Georgia) before dropping the plane down a few feet from the shore. Trousers are rolled up, wicker picnic baskets are placed on heads and we wade to shore in a scene straight from a Ralph Lauren ad.
“We eat in an hour, so go explore.”
Some of our group frolic in the water, some set about gathering up the natural pumice stones that dot the beach (all for naught, it turns out, as you can’t bring them with you). I kick off my flip-flops and stroll. There’s a sailboat moored at one end of the beach, but other than that we’re alone. At first it seems as if I’m in some sort of relaxation virtual reality demo. The only sounds are the waves lightly lapping the shore, the only sensation a gentle breeze and the feeling of walking on sand so fine it seems almost like cornstarch. After a while I decide to play a game: I keep my strut constant but close my eyes. Counting to 10 is easy, but after that the sensory deprivation starts to kick in. I veer too far right and the water reminds me to correct my course; too far left and I feel the slope of the beach get steeper. By 60 every step seems a dice roll, though I know there’s nothing possible before me so I persevere. By 80 I’m so weirded out that I make a pact: get to 100 and you can stop. But I keep going until finally, for a reason I still can’t fathom, I open my eyes at 137 steps. I turn around and stare at a wildly veering path that looks like it was made by the aforementioned Mr. Gibson on a bender. The rest of my group is still clearly visible, hanging around near the plane. I keep walking until I get far enough that I can barely make them out, and then I turn around and head back. Lunch ensues, gigabytes of pictures are snapped and for the return trip our pilot ditches the epaulettes altogether and flies back shirtless. Aussies.
Soon—too soon—I’m back in my villa, but this time no amount of pampering can banish Whitehaven from my thoughts. Was it the “greatest beach in the world”?” Of course not. The solitude was great, but I didn’t have my wife, my kids, my friends—elements that make any of the dumpy beaches near Edmonton that I grew up with unbeatable. It was—at least that day—the nicest beach in the world, no hyperbole needed.