The alternative Whitsunday

Splendid isolation ... Keswick Island from on high.
Splendid isolation ... Keswick Island from on high. Photo: Andrew Bain

Andrew Bain discovers nature trails, huge tides and a tiny community on resort-free Keswick Island.

The Whitsunday Islands are said to account for about one-third of all tourists to the Great Barrier Reef. In the year to March, about 700,000 people visited the island group, yet perhaps fewer than 300 of them made it to Keswick Island.

Among the southernmost of the group's 74 islands, Keswick is the Whitsundays as you see them nowhere else: personal and personable, a piece of small-town Australia transplanted on to a tropical island. As with the majority of the Whitsunday Islands, Keswick is largely protected by national park - about 80 per cent of the island is reserved as parkland - but there are no resorts here and no campgrounds.

Instead, draped across a saddle at the island's southern end is a community of about 20 people. Its residents buzz about in golf carts and there's not a home that doesn't have a five-star view, either across 32 kilometres of sea to Mackay and the mainland, or to scattered outer islands such as Calder and Wigton.

Among the buildings, in the very arch of the saddle, is a pistachio-green house. The first home built on the island, today it is the Keswick Island Guest House, the island's only catered accommodation, providing a suitably homely stay among the Whitsundays's true homes.

"We'll never be a Hamilton or Lindeman Island," says the guesthouse manager, Brian Kinderman. "We offer something a bit different - personal service. People step out of their room and we say, 'Do you want a cup of tea or a beer?'"

Refurbished and reopened last August, the guest house has four king suites looking over the Coral Sea, a view framed by Keswick's headlands and fringing reef. At the back of the house, a 150 sq m deck hangs above a canopy of rainforest, looking across the narrow Egremont Passage to St Bees Island, once briefly owned by Alan Bond but now more famous for its colony of koalas. Set at the foot of a grass-tree-covered ridge that climbs to the island's highest point (309 metres above sea level), the guesthouse's front doors close only to keep out curious goannas, while its back doors open to the spring sight of migrating humpback whales.

"The last three years we've had whales give birth just down here," Kinderman says, pointing into Horseshoe Bay, immediately below the house. "Just three to four days ago we had a pod of eight whales go through the channel."

The same bay also has Keswick's best snorkelling among the reefs that gift-wrap the island. From the boulder-strewn beach at Horseshoe Bay I step straight into shoals of fish, flickering past me like strobes as I float over oyster-covered boulders and vivid green corals shaped like marine staghorns.

Tidal variations around the 530-hectare island are huge - up to six metres - and within hours I'm no longer snorkelling over the reefs but walking among them in Basil Bay. With low tide sucking the bay dry of water, I wander across the sea floor into adjoining Arthur Bay where, amid new blooms of coral, giant clams yawn at the sky. It's difficult to imagine the high-tide scene of rays and green sea turtles cruising around the bay but it will return in just a few hours.

From Arthur Bay I return to the guesthouse along a fire trail, past pockets of rainforest and tall, ancient cycads. A snake slides away into the scrub and hundreds of butterflies glide around me. It's a reminder that if you spend too long looking out to sea here you can miss much of the island's beauty: the five sandy beaches etched into its rocky shores, the hillsides speared with grass trees, the bush that's alive with birds.

They are terrestrial pleasures best explored on foot - golf carts are the only other transport option - with tracks heading from the village down into Basil Bay and north to Connie Bay, an arc of sand that looks over the sea to Brampton Island and inland into the enormous paperbark trees of a swamp.

With the island free of venomous snakes, it's also possible to walk up the ridge, through long grass and grass trees, to the island's major summit. Or you can remember that it's a tropical island after all, and simply spend the day at the guesthouse, with its large library of books and dance-floor-sized deck.

Inside and out, the guesthouse's decor has Asian touches but no consistent theme, a randomness that seems only to enhance the sense of homeliness, giving it a less-manufactured, less-clinical atmosphere than nearby island resorts. It's clear that people not only stay here but also live here.

"I just picked things that I liked," admits Kinderman's wife, Lyn.

But the design feature that stands out most is the open central kitchen, with the rest of the guesthouse seemingly wrapped around this big, inviting space. It's an immediate statement that food is just as crucial to a stay here as the rooms, the views and the parade of whales. Keswick Island has no shops, cafes or restaurants, so the couple prepares three daily meals for guests, with fresh produce flown from Mackay to the airstrip on the island's single piece of flat ground.

Having walked up an appetite, I'm treated to a dinner of roast leg of lamb stuffed with garlic, rosemary and feta and a wine that I'm happy to let Lyn recommend - she worked in the wine industry before taking over the management of the guesthouse in 2006. The pear tart that follows is drizzled with honey from Keswick Island's own Caucasian beehives.

Sleep brings the prospect that through my open door I might hear whales in the night. They are out there but the first sound I hear is the electric hum of a golf cart soon after dawn. It is Tuesday - rubbish day - one of the few discernible on the Keswick Island calendar, when one of the island's residents scoots about emptying household bins. "Sometimes this is the only time of the week that we know what day it is," Kinderman says. It might be Tuesday but, on Keswick Island, the Whitsundays still feel uncannily like a Sunday.

Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of Tourism Queensland.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Keswick Island is 32 kilometres off the coast of Mackay. Virgin Blue has a fare to Mackay for $149 from Melbourne via Brisbane and $130 non-stop from Sydney. Qantas has a fare from Melbourne via Brisbane for $247 and Sydney via Brisbane for $170. (Fares are one-way including tax.) There are regular ferries from Mackay to Keswick Island. Local airlines flying to Keswick Island are Horizon Airways and Whitsunday Helicopters.

Staying there

Double rooms at Keswick Island Guest House cost from $525 a night, including three meals daily for two people. See keswickislandguesthouse.com.au.

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