Heart Reef, Great Barrier Reef, Whitsundays: Australia's proposal capital

The turquoise sea glimmers from the seaplane window, the sand pure white in the distance, gentle clouds float past. Just as you pinch yourself to check it's not a dream – for once everything looks just as it does in the brochure – the plane lands alongside a perfectly formed coral reef in the shape of a heart. Your paramour pulls out some kind of sparkle, and pops the question, the pilot pops a sparkling wine, you say yes, tears ensue.

This, apparently is how countless proposals have gone down in the Whitsundays, thanks to Heart Reef, a natural heart shaped coral formation in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef.

Ironically, it was discovered by a seaplane pilot on a PR mission 41 years ago. Air Whitsundays pilot John Ramsden was out scouting for promo opportunities when he snapped a picture and bang, the Heart Reef became one of the world's most photographed love icons.

Despite its (surprisingly) small size – only 17 metres in diameter – the natural heart shape of the coral bommie, and its distance from the other corals, in the clear sea, really does pack a punch when seen from the air. Which is the best way to see it; due to its protected status, scuba diving and snorkelling tours are banned there these days, unlike a few decades ago, when people used to pop an esky in the middle and picnic around it.

If there is one occasion to take a ride by air, this is it: it's a spectacular view from up high. And there's something about little planes that makes you contemplative – it conjures thoughts of love and loss and the special people in life.

"We call it the heart attack," says Air Whitsundays chief pilot Lee Haskell. "People just love it. And you never get sick of flying over it." If you are popping the question, he suggests, be sure to word your pilot up beforehand for some additional Heart Reef circling.

As a romantic destination, a seaplane or helicopter tour of the Whitsundays must be up there with those other lovebird hotspots: climbing the Eiffel Tower, a horse drawn carriage in Central Park, the gondolas of Venice.

My nervous paramour popped the question on top of the clocktower in Sienna, looking over that wonderful Tuscan view, and I was completely taken away by the beauty and ceremony of it all. A special location really does make a difference.

Coral reefs, wrote Charles Darwin, "surely rank high among the wonderful objects of the world" – and the Great Barrier Reef is the largest of them all. It's a gigantic, stunning coastal stretch along Queensland of more than 2000 kilometres, with the 74 islands of the Whitsundays at its heart. Just six are inhabited, making a private boat day trip seem extra intrepid.

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The coral is spectacular, and marine life abounds: during a snorkel not far from heart reef we saw countless fish species, dolphins and sting rays, as well as a couple of turtles.

Also nearby is the glamorous Whitehaven Beach, with that whiter-than-white sand, the national park, and the swirling sands of Hill Inlet. Take a romantic picnic, then a stroll up to the lookout high above that turquoise sea for another perfect, popular picture/proposal opportunity.

Or just sunbathe. This area has the only type of this 98 per cent silica sand in the world, sand so white it reflects the heat so you don't even have to wear shoes on the hottest summer day. It's also a great exfoliant, and so covetable that a wealthy businessman once got busted trying to export several tonnes of Whitehaven beach sand on a barge to his private island (he apparently copped a $500,000 fine).

And if you have already been proposed to, pack your engagement ring: it shines diamonds beautifully.

WHERE TO STAY: AIRLIE BEACH

You've heard about archetypal couples destinations One&Only on Hayman Island, and Qualia, on Hamilton Island, right? Those two rockstar resorts made famous by the likes of Pink and Oprah?

Airlie Beach is another option: less-exclusive but with a busier holiday vibe. The doorway to the beautiful reef and all its adventures has recently had a $23 million dollar facelift – one that retained the (groan) wet T-shirt comps and foam parties but added a more sophisticated focus on good food, boutiques and activities.

For our Whitsundays minibreak, we opted to stay slightly out of town at the Whitsundays Mirage, a slick five-star apartment resort which opened to the public after a refurb six months ago (from $240/night). My room's lounge area had a baby grand in it: as close to rockstar as it gets for me. All of the rooms (even those roughing it without a piano) are spacious and stylish, and face the water, which the sun sets over in truly breathtaking style. There are two decent-sized pools as well as the mini ones outside many of the rooms. It's an easy 25-minute stroll to the centre of town, but there is no restaurant, meaning no room service, no pool bar, and – worst if all – no early flat whites if you're stuck with kids and can't do the leisurely breakfast thing around the corner. (Management tells me there are restaurant plans, and one will open on-site "within the year".) As for the piano? It didn't get touched. But it was nice to know it was there. (Mirage Whitsundays: 10 Altmann Ave, Cannonvale, phone 1300 088 988, miragewhitsundays.com.au)

WHAT TO DO

Beside the main street is a fun kids' water park with man-made lagoon and slides, grassed areas and a little beach.

Nearby, departing from the boat marina, is a brilliant jet-ski outfit. None of this backwards forwards along the beach for an hour – our guide "I've got the best job in the world" Tony takes us towards the horizon as the sun is setting, around a ship-wreck, and some quality local sights and locals, including dolphins. It's adrenaline pumping and interesting, and nothing like the boring-bogan visions I'd long had of jet-skiing. The same outfit, Ocean Dynamics, run luxury sunset cruises, boat charters and whale watching too. (Airlie port jet ski, $189, Ocean Dynamics: Port of Airlie Marina, Airlie Beach, phone 07 3226 9150, oceandynamics.com.au).

Another activity I had to change my mind about was riding a Segway. Those two-wheeled electric vehicles definitely look silly, but are a really fun way to see the town and surrounds, once you master the stand-up technique on the concrete. (Boardwalk tour $99pp, rainforest tour $129pp, Whitsunday Segway Tours: 4 Golden Orchid Drive Airlie Beach, phone 0432 734 929, whitsundaysegwaytours.com.au).

And don't forget to tick off your bucket list with a seaplane or helicopter tour of the wonderful reef. It's such a different perspective from the air. To combine it all, our tip would be the Panorama tour with Air Whitsunday ($565 adult, $450 child), which includes a scenic flight over the reef and islands, two hours on a glass bottom boat, snorkelling and a trip to Whitehaven Beach. (Air Whitsunday: Terminal One Whitsunday Airport, Air Whitsunday Road, Airlie Beach. Phone 07 4946 9111, airwhitsunday.com.au).

WHERE TO EAT

For breakfast or lunch, stroll the boardwalk out of town to Fat Frog with its excellent adults', kids' and pets' menus and a nice easygoing vibe. (Fat Frog Beach Café: 44 Coral Esplanade, Cannonvale, phone 0417 979 960, facebook.com/fatfrogbeachcafe). Every local we quiz about dinner mentions Mr Bones as the pick of the Airlie Beach restaurants: it turns out to be a laidback pizzeria run by a groovy young family. The lamb and baba ghanoush pizza is way better than it sounds, and they get all the regular Italian fare right too. (Mr Bones: 263 Shute Harbour Rd, Airlie Beach, phone 0416 011 615, mrbones.com.au).

Over on the marina, Barcelona Tapas Bar offers friendly service and nibbles – and a C-grade celebrity link: the original head chef was UK MasterChef contestant Dani Bowler, and his signature pan-fried scallops are still on the menu. (Barcelona Tapas Bar: Abell Point Marina, Airlie Beach, phone 07 4946 4277). But our fave find was Fish D'vine and Rum Bar, an excellent way to linger over an afternoon. There are 501 rums in owner Mark "Dr Rum" Wyatt's collection, the biggest, he's sure, in the southern hemisphere. He is excellent company, and a huge rum nerd, ask him anything. The seafood fare is also spectacular – try the mud crabs. (Fish D'vine, Rum Bar: 303 Shute Harbour Rd, Airlie Beach, phone 07 4948 0088, fishdvine.com.au).

GETTING THERE

Virgin, Tiger and Jetstar fly daily to Whitsunday Coast Airport (formerly known as Proserpine Airport). The flight takes from three hours and a transfer to Airlie Beach takes 30 minutes.

Kate Cox was a guest of Tourism Queensland. queenslandholidays.com.au, loveairliebeach.com.au

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