Airlie Beach is lovely. I’ve heard it described as a miniature Byron Bay and, while I can see how people could make the comparison, it definitely has a different vibe. You have the similarities in that it is full of backpackers, hostels, backpacker-friendly bars, and other tourists, but it certainly lacks the hippy vibe of Byron and definitely doesn’t feel as laid back. Perhaps this is because, despite the name, Airlie doesn’t actually have a proper beach. Perhaps this is because there is more money in Airlie (I don’t know if this is actually true, but a glance at the marina full of yachts makes me think I’m on track). Regardless of the reason, there is certainly more of a push toward the proper in Airlie (in Australian terms), as many signs telling me to wear shoes constantly reminded me.
As with Rainbow Beach, most people don’t visit Airlie for Airlie itself, but for what lies just off the coast. The Whitsunday Islands are a collection of 74 breathtaking islands surrounded by fringing coral reef, and visiting these islands is something you essentially need to do if you find yourself in this corner of the world. The options for seeing the islands are endless, from a one-day speed boat trip for $100 to a three-day, all inclusive catamaran trip for upwards of $600 (and I’m sure you could spend much, much more than this if you were so inclined). I opted for a three-day, two-night maxi sailing trip that should have cost me about $550, but thanks to my old job, I managed to save a couple hundred of dollars and got the trip for a steal. The only thing that we had to contend with was the weather, as Airlie had been suffering a similar fate as Rainbow, and heaps of rain was in the forecast. Luckily, after one day of somewhat questionable weather and a couple of downpours, the weather turned and we had (mostly) beautiful sun for the remainder of our trip.
Now, for the trip itself. Our boat was Apollo, a famous sailing boat who won many races in Australia back in her day before she retired to the Whitsundays. There were 27 guests and 3 crew eating, sleeping, and playing on the boat for 3 days. And play we did. I’ve never done this before, but I will most certainly do this again. Sailing is fun. Like ridiculously-can’t-stop-grinning-never-want-to-get-off-this-boat-I’m signing-up-for-a-sailing-course-sometime-in-life-I-feel-like-a-happy-puppy-with-my-head-out-of-the-window fun. It took three guys significant effort to raise each of the sails on Apollo, and when the wind gets in those sails, this boat moves. At a very steep angle. One side of the boat was skimming the water as we all perched on the high side, legs dangling over the edge. Laying flat on the boat, feet to the low side (or “suicide”), you would almost be standing perpendicular to the water. At the end of our sail on the last day, even our skipper was floating on how exciting and good of a sail we had just had.
One of the reasons I chose this boat was that it offered a free scuba dive. The reef around the Whitsundays is referred to as fringing reef – the Finding Nemo rainbow of brilliant colours is not what you will get here. Add in the bad weather from the last few weeks and visibility is quite poor. Only a couple of boats visit the Outer Reef (the better bit) and you’ll pay for it if so inclined. Luckily, I was aware of this (it was kind of my job, after all), so I wasn’t expecting amazing diving. I just wanted to get a taste of diving to see if I wanted to follow through with my open water course in Magnetic Island and dive trip in Cairns.
The good news is that yes, I definitely want to do my PADI Open Water and keep diving. Breathing underwater has to be one of the strangest sensations a person can experience. What you’re doing is innately, fundamentally wrong. As I let the air out of my buoyancy vest and began to sink below the surface, most of me was expecting it to simply not work, and that at any moment I would take a huge breath of salt water. But it did work. With Darth Vadar-like sounds emerging from my regulator, bubbles flying towards the surface, I took my first few breathes fully submerged in the ocean, fringing coral reef and fish all around. Unfortunately, the dive was quite poorly executed and the dive instructor didn’t give us nearly enough proper instruction. Important things such as how to equalize and how to read gauges were not even mentioned. The dive was short, shallow, and poor, but gave me just enough to want to learn properly, get comfortable, and get back underwater.
The Whitsundays are basically ridiculously beautiful. You would be hard pressed to be unhappy while sailing around, lounging on Whitehaven Beach, or watching the sun set from deck while moored in a quiet bay. Here I shall insert photos as evidence.