Into the breach ... humpback whales perform off Hervey Bay. Photo: Alamy
Lee Atkinson visits a family holiday spot that is one of the best places to see humpback whales.
More than 14 kilometres of calm beaches with stinger-free water warm enough for swimming for most of the year and plenty of tour options make Hervey Bay in Queensland a favourite family holiday spot.
What it's known for
Hervey Bay is one of the best places to see humpback whales: they stop here on their annual migration from Antarctica, taking advantage of the calm waters in the shelter provided by Fraser Island, and you can get very close to them on whale-watching tours. Almost a dozen whale-watching operators run cruises in the bay during the season, from June to November. The best time to see them is August, September and October, when they head back to Antarctica with their newborn calves. They stop in Hervey Bay for a rest, and the whales are quite active, with spectacular displays of breaching, tail flapping and pectoral slapping. visitfrasercoast.com.
What you didn't know
The action might have happened in Cherry Tree Lane in London, but Mary Poppins was from Maryborough, 34 kilometres south of Hervey Bay. P.L. Travers, the creator of the famous children's books, was born here in 1899, and she is quoted as saying "Mary Poppins is the story of my life''. Legend has it that Travers was inspired by an old-fashioned Maryborough local who carried an umbrella with a bird's head carved into the handle. There's a life-size statue of the famous nanny outside the old bank where the author's father was bank manager (on the corner of Richmond and Wharf streets). You can buy a guide to the Magical Mary Discovery Trail at the visitor information centre for $2 that will show you the famous Mary sites around the city. The annual Mary Poppins Festival is held in Maryborough during the winter school holidays (June 30, 2013) but you can also take a Tea with Mary tour at other times, when a Mary Poppins character will show you the sights and then take you out for morning tea (call 1800 214 789 to book; $20 a person). marypoppinsfestival.com.au.
There's still plenty to do in the bay when the whales have gone. A new jet boat tour from Aquavue Cafe Watersports runs 30-minute thrill rides for up to 10 people at a time, as well as three-hour trips to Big Woody Island off Hervey Bay, reaching speeds of up to 45 knots. Thrill rides start from $50 a person and bookings are essential. aquavue.com.au.
Also new is the Fraser Coast Cultural Centre, a $4.9 million museum and gallery space that includes the Fraser Coast Discovery Sphere, where you can learn about the world of the whales, including an immersive "underwater encounter'' with humpbacks and a full-size reproduction of a whale skeleton. You can't miss the 12-metre-high sculpture of a breaching humpback whale out the front. 166 Old Maryborough Road, Pialba, Hervey Bay. Open daily, 10am-4pm. Adults $7.50, kids $5.50, family tickets $20.50.
Where to eat
The views are just as good as the food at Coast Restaurant & Bar on the Esplanade. Food is designed to share, and the restaurant manages to be casual but stylish enough for a romantic night for two. Open daily for lunch, dinner and all-day bar snacks. 469 Charlton Esplanade, Hervey Bay. (07) 4125 5454, coastherveybay.com.au. For great takeaway fish and chips, try Maddigan's Seafood, also on the Esplanade. 401 Charlton Esplanade, Hervey Bay. (07) 4128 4202.
Where to stay
Peppers Pier Resort is opposite the pier on Urangan beach and has a range of one-, two- and three-bedroom suites, most with great views over the bay towards Fraser Island. Facilities include two heated pools, a day spa and a great restaurant. One-bedroom suites start about $185 a night with a minimum two-night stay. (07) 4194 9700, peppers.com.au /pier-resort. A good family option, the Australis Shelly Bay Resort is opposite the beach and every self-contained apartment (except the studios) has an ocean view. One-bedroom rates start about $140 a night, but you can often pick up a $99 special online. 1800 240 797, shellybayresort.com.au.
How to get there
Hervey Bay is 290 kilometres north of Brisbane, about a 3 -hour drive. Virgin Australia has daily direct flights to Hervey Bay from Sydney. virginaustralia.com.