Paradise without the price
Close your eyes and imagine an affordable family holiday featuring islands, pools and kids' clubs.
Chances are you're thinking about a resort in Bali or Fiji. Now picture such a trip in Australia. I'll give you a second. Still working on it?
Yep, it's not easy getting that kind of bang for your buck on our shores, but it is possible. Even on the Whitsunday coast, somewhere that many assume to be beyond their budget.
Queensland's most tourism dependent region has long had a reputation for big boats and bigger bills.
Major money comes in from cashed-up resource-sector workers taking a break from the nearby Bowen Basin,which happens to be home to Australia's largest coal reserve. But there's another side to the Whitsundays, especially the region's mainland hub, Airlie Beach.
The seaside town still has its fair share of flash cash at one end of the spectrum and backpackers at the other, but there is a growing space for families who plan on enjoying a little luxury without the big expense.
As I look out over the sea from the terrace spa of our spacious apartment set high in the hills behind Airlie Beach, I can't help but think the plan for my family of four is working very well.
Pinnacles Resort and Spa sits at the highest point of the very steep and rather exclusive Golden Orchid Drive, so I really do feel on top of the world as I watch a cruise ship glide between Hayman and Double Cone islands.
A rainbow fades in and out of vie was sun showers cross the western ranges, while a light breeze ruffles the feathers of a couple of cockatoos hanging out on the terrace. It's bliss.
But such luxury comes at cost, and that's where our plan comes in: stay in top-end, self-contained accommodation while keeping the cost down by self-catering and taking advantage of the region's many free and low-cost activities.
So far we've been bushwalking on coastal tracks, swimming at Airlie Beach lagoon and Boathaven Beach (both marine-stinger free), and wandering around the town centre (which should be a lot more pedestrian-friendly when a A$20 million renovation is completed by September).
None of that cost us a cent. We've taken day trips to nearby islands and flown over the region in a light plane. All amazing experiences; not free, of course, but hardly bank breakers.
Our next stop is the Whitsunday Sailing Club for a bit of twilight racing. We're not watching, we're taking part.
This is something you can do for free every Wednesday afternoon as up to 30 yachts of various shapes and sizes compete in ''round the buoys'' races. Anyone over the age of five can join a crew, even certified landlubbers like us.
Heather is the skipper of La Quilta, the Moody 45 Deck Saloon that we've been assigned to.
The local quilting aficionado (hence the vessel's name) ta
kes guests out most weeks, as she's keen to give sailing newbies a taste of life aboard a 14-metre cruising yacht. Today's all-female crew consists of a pharmacist, a midwife and a theatre nurse from the local hospital.
Captain Heather has us all leaping from one side of the boat to the other as we heel, tack and jib around a triangular course. The day's conditions are better suited to the smaller boats, and we are last over the line.
Not that anyone seems to care; the bubbles and nibbles are soon out as we motor back to the marina.
All of us, children included, are made to feel valued and welcome, and large doses of hospitality and good humour make this a holiday highlight.
Our next move may come as a surprise, as we voluntarily leave our apartment and head for a caravan park. But those who've stayed at BIG4AdventureWhitsunday Resort will understand.
It has been owned by the McKinnon family (three generations thereof, no less) for more than two decades, and it is clear they appreciate the needs of holidaying parents and children.
They have won as wag of awards for their efforts, including the most recent best tourist and caravan park gongs at the Queensland and Australian tourism awards.
To be clear, we have no intention of toning down the luxury aspect of our trip. On top of the resort's 120 caravan and camping sites, there are 45 self-contained cabins.
We settle in to a three-bedroom pool-view condo, which I'm told is a popular choice for intergenerational family holidays.
With a large, well-appointed kitchen, a barbecue on the balcony and a shopping centre just down the road, self-catering is easy. You can also order food packages ranging from lasagne and salad from nearby Marino's Deli (highly recommended), to barbecue packs and breakfast hampers to keep you going during the first few days of your stay.
The resort's piece de resistance is a lagoon-style swimming pool with two water slides, which the kids only leave for meals or games of mini golf.
There are also adventure playgrounds, pedal carts, basketball and tennis courts, an outdoor screen for movie nights, and a large inflatable jumping pillow. It's basically child heaven.
Plus there's a kids' club, toddler-time program and varied activity schedules, where regulars such as face painting are joined by special events such as the ''Kids in the Kitchen'' program, run by past contestants from Junior MasterChef.
Forme, it's as simple as this: An Airlie Beach apartment is the perfect choice for families with teenagers who can independently enjoy facilities such as gyms and wet-edge pools, and who can stroll to town on their own.
For parents of younger kids, BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort combines a friendly old-school caravan park feel with as much self-contained comfort as you could want. And with plenty of affordable - often free - island, bushland and beach adventures on offer, the rest of the holiday will take care of itself.
Sean Mooney was a guest of Tourism and Events Queensland and Whitsundays Marketing and Development.
Becoming a Marine Debris Removal Program volunteer. Excursions to clean island beaches are organised by Eco Barge Clean Seas. ecobargecleanseas.org.au.
Strolling through Airlie Beach community markets, which are on the town's foreshore every Saturday morning. whitsunday.qld.gov.au.
Hiring a small car ($75 will get you a Honda Jazz for 24 hours) and driving to Cedar Creek Falls or Peter Faust Dam for a picnic and swim - and stopping at Whitsunday Gold Coffee Plantation on the way. funrentals.com.au.
Trying the fantastic house-made ice-cream at Fish D'vine Cafe and Rum Bar on Shute Harbour Road in Airlie Beach. The chilli mud crab and mojitos are pretty good, too. fishdvine.com.au.
Virgin Australia and Jetstar fly daily from Sydney to Great Barrier Reef Airport on Hamilton Island. Fares start from $139 a person, one-way. This option requires a transfer to the mainland by light plane ($92, whitsundayscenicflights.com.au) or ferry ($52.6, cruisewhitsundays.com). Both airlines also fly via Brisbane to Whitsunday Coast Airport, which is about 40 kilometres from Airlie Beach (shuttle service available for $21, whitsundaytransit.com.au).
Pinnacles Resort and Spa, 16 Golden Orchid Drive, Airlie Beach. Two-bedroom "seaview" apartment from $345 a night for a family of four. pinnaclesresort.com.
BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort, 25-29 Shute Harbour Road, Airlie Beach. Three-bedroom pool-view condo from $339 a night for a family of four. adventurewhitsunday.com.au.
Having fun there
Join the crew on a yacht for Wednesday twilight social racing. Free. whitsundaysailingclub.com.au.
Do a day trip to Daydream Island - it's only 30 minutes by ferry from the mainland (adults $37.5, children $24.5, under-4s free. cruisewhitsundays.com). You can feed stingrays, sharks and barramundi at the Living Reef facility, but take your own snorkelling gear and food to avoid island prices. daydreamisland.com.
Take a scenic flight over the islands. It costs $92 a person. It's an even more justifiable expense if you choose to fly from Hamilton Island to the mainland (after flying from Sydney) via the scenic route over the islands ($127, including road transfer to your accommodation). whitsundayscenicflights.com.au.
More information tourismwhitsundays.com.au.
Sydney Morning Herald