Why Australia's best beach is still a mystery

WHITEHAVEN BEACH: Considered the jewel in the crown of the Whitsundays and regularly tops lists of the world’s best beaches.
WHITEHAVEN BEACH: Considered the jewel in the crown of the Whitsundays and regularly tops lists of the world’s best beaches.

According to TripAdvisor, the world's biggest travel website, one Australian beach sits above all others - Whitehaven, on Whitsunday Island off the Queensland coast.

No only is it Australia's No.1 beach, according to TripAdvisor's Travellers' Choice Awards, but it's the fifth best beach in the world.

So what is all the fuss about? On a visit to the Whitsundays I had the opportunity to find out.

WHITEHAVEN BEACH: Abandoned in paradise.
WHITEHAVEN BEACH: Abandoned in paradise.

Setting up base in Airlie Beach on the mainland, I head out to Whitsunday with Ocean Rafting, who offer tours of the island via their high-speed, motorised rafts. The journey out is a highlight in itself as we tear across the waves in a trip that more akin to a thrill-ride than a gentle cruise (this feeling is aided by rough seas).

The weather is, unfortunately, not at its best and, while the sun makes several welcome appearances throughout the day, we're also treated to the occasional Queensland downpour.

Nevertheless, when we land at Whitsunday Island and make the short hike to the Hill Inlet lookout, suddenly all the praise for the beach makes sense. Even as dark clouds gather overhead, the view is stunning.

The inlet below us is a striking mix of aqua and white as swirls as the island's famed sands shift through the waters, creating beautiful patterns.

For such a famous beach, Whitehaven remains something of a mystery to the scientific community. The pristine white beach consists of the purest silica sand in the world - so pure, in fact, that guides claim it was used in the manufacture of glass for the Hubble Telescope (though this is likely a myth).

Nevertheless, the sand is unique - the other beaches in the Whitsundays do not feature such fine, pure sand. Rather, on other beaches you'll find coarser sand featuring broken shells and coral.

So why is Whitehaven's sand so different? It seems no one knows for sure. Geologist theorise that the sand drifted to the island from elsewhere, millions of years ago, eventually becoming trapped by the rocks and headlands of the area.

Over time, and ice ages, fresh water leached the impurities from the land, leaving only the pure, fine white sand we see today.

We disembark from our raft and relax on the beach while our crew prepares a picnic lunch. The sun comes out on cue and it's enough for the keen foreign tourists among our party to strip down to their boardshorts and bikinis.

The sand feels different on different parts of the beach. In the water, it is soft-but-firm and comfortable to wade on. At the water's edge is becomes almost hard (perfect for beach cricket) and at the edge of the beach, near the treeline, it is extremely soft (though twigs and other debris from the trees make it less pleasant to walk on).

The water is clear, though not at its best due to the weather, and warm. A sea turtle swims behind the anchored raft, just 20 metres from the shore, popping its head above the surface occasionally.

We're only here for a couple of hours and I find myself looking with envy at the tents pitched on the edge of the 7km-long beach. There are people camping here who will wake up to be greeted by the sun and dazzling white sand. I can't think of a more pleasant way to greet the morning.

Unfortunately we're forced to beat a hasty retreat when our idyllic afternoon is interrupted by the biggest downpour yet. We flock back to the raft and it's a wet ride back to Airlie Beach, though it's still fun and our driver gives us one last thrill by spinning a few doughnuts with the vessel before we reach the dock.

So is Whitehaven truly Australia's best beach? It's impossible to say. It's certainly beautiful and unique. But in the end, every beach carries different meanings for all of us, whether it's the crowded city-fringe of Bondi or Cottesloe, the symmetrical beauty of Wineglass Bay, the rough and rugged coves of the Great Ocean Road, or the calm, bright Whitehaven.

After all, one person's heaven is another's hell. When we reported on TripAdvisor's best beaches list, one reader's feelings about Whitehaven were summed up by a simple comment: "No waves and it's not a beach. It's a piece of sand."

But what a piece of sand.

The writer travelled as a guest of Whitsundays Marketing & Development.

Trip notes

Getting there Travellers can reach the Whitsundays via Whitsunday Coast Airport, Proserpine (Jetstar, Virgin Australia, Tiger Air) or Great Barrier Reef Airport, Hamilton Island (Qantas, Jetstar, Virgin Australia. Cruise Whitsundays runs ferries between Hamilton Island and Airlie Beach (see cruisewhitsundays.com for details).

Staying there

The Airlie Beach Hotel is centrally located on the town's beachfront with three and four-star accommodation in its motel and hotel rooms. Rates start from A$145 per night for two in motel rooms and A$189 for two per night in the spacious hotel rooms. See airliebeachhotel.com.au

Visiting Whitehaven Beach

Ocean Rafting offers two different daily Whitsundays tours, both visiting Whitehaven Beach. Tours depart from Coral Sea Resort jetty in Airlie Beach (about 10 minutes' walk from the hotel, though Ocean Rafting provides a courtesy shuttle). Prices start from $134 per person for adults. See oceanrafting.com.au