HAMILTON ISLAND, Australia — Arriving in the Whitsundays on a Monday seemed like the right thing to do.
After all, that's what Capt. James Cook apparently did when he discovered the islands in 1770. Cook thought he had arrived on the seventh Sunday after Easter--called Whitsunday, or Pentecost--so he named these 70 or so islands between the Australian mainland and the Great Barrier Reef the Whitsunday Group. But history suggests that the English explorer's log was off by a day because he failed to account for crossing the international date line.
Like Cook, we explored the islands in winter. It was July (the seasons Down Under are the reverse of ours), but the weather was still agreeable enough to be called balmy. But unlike Cook, we went about our undertaking languidly, taking little note of whether we were facing east or west except when we searched for a spot to sunbathe.
My husband, John, and my brother, Benj, and I had one goal for our three-day side trip from the cooler climes of Sydney, where we were visiting family and friends: to find a tropical setting on the water. We wanted to swim and snorkel, to see the open sea and the Great Barrier Reef, and to lie on the beach and let the rhythm of the waves wash over us.
It was certainly warm enough in Sydney for hardy souls who wanted to take a dip at the city beaches. I did it once; it was brisk, but not unbearably so. Still, I had to do laps to stay comfortably warm, not my idea of a tropical idyll.
So north we went, 2 1/2 hours by plane to Hamilton, the most developed of the Whitsunday Group. The 2.3-square-mile island was supposed to have been reserved for agriculture, but a developer managed to turn his farming lease into a tourism lease and began building in the 1980s. Now the island has its own international airport and resort, but with a population of about 1,000, Hamilton still feels like a small town. It's also not as expensive as, say, luxurious Hayman Island, the most northerly of the Whitsunday Group, or as bare-bones as the budget campgrounds at other islands, most of which were designated national parks in the 1930s.
For us and the variety of other visitors--Australian families (the island has a child-activity and day-care center), couples on short vacations and Japanese honeymooners--Hamilton had just what we needed, although in the end we didn't quite get just what we wanted.
Despite the development, a good deal of Hamilton has remained green. Trails wind through its forests, and the hilly island has lookouts with panoramic views of water, including Sunrise Bay and the Coral Sea to the east and Catseye Bay to the north. And that's what we were after. We also knew that unspoiled beaches and snorkeling spots were only a boat ride away.
It took less than 15 minutes after we landed to get to Coconut Palm Bungalows check-in. Our free-standing bungalow was one of about 50 scattered around a landscaped garden of grass, bushes and palm trees. Past the porch, the one large room inside had cushioned lounge chairs by the sliding-glass-door entrance and a king-size and a twin bed. The room, which had beams across the pitched ceiling that matched the wood on the floor, also had a refrigerator and a wet bar, which came in particularly handy when Benj and John both needed to shave.
Outside, to my dismay, I discovered the property also came equipped with "alarm birds," kookaburras that awakened us with a "kook kook kook" followed by their trademark fiendish-sounding laugh.
As comfy as our bungalow was, we were eager to make the most of our first afternoon, so we quickly shed our boots, sweaters and long pants and made the transition to tropical, with walking sandals and bathing suits topped by T-shirts and shorts. The temperature was in the low 70s, and under partly sunny skies we set off for Catseye Beach, an easy five-minute walk.
But the tide was so low that it was a good 10-minute trek from the dry part of the beach to the water's edge. The long stretch of wet sand in between made it impossible to hop quickly from beach towel into the bay and vice versa, so we passed on taking a swim.
We headed instead for Passage Peak, at 666 feet the highest point on Hamilton.
We walked along the shoreline to the trail head, where a sign welcomed and, we realized in hindsight, warned us. The trail, the sign said, was meant to be an experience in nature. It rose gently at first, then turned into steep log steps.
We climbed steadily, hardly talking until we reached a long, flat stretch. There we heard a rustling and stopped, scanning the vegetation. A brown, furry creature, sitting very still on its hind legs, stared back at us. Kangaroo? Benj asked, sounding doubtful because it looked smaller than a regulation kangaroo. No, wallaby, replied John, who grew up in Australia and knows that wallabies are smaller members of the kangaroo family. Whatever it was, I was mesmerized. Then it hopped off, breaking the spell and reminding us we had a destination.