Just inland from the magnificent Whitsunday Islands lies the legendary Airlie Beach. Air-lie. The name immediately strikes me as unearthly, evoking images of a fabled paradise. What will I find there? Immaculate beaches and infinite secluded lagoons? Lapping waters of azure blue and billowing shores of platinum sand? Waves breaking rhythmically around Brooke Shields’ naked thighs, like in The Blue Lagoon?
Arriving in downtown Airlie Beach, I’m relieved to find an inviting selection of pubs and cafés. I order a beer – seeing as I’ll be on land for just one night, I’m determined to experience Airlie Beach before rushing off to explore the islands beckoning me from the horizon.
”Which way to the beach?” I ask the barman at the pub with the blackboard advertising a weekly Wednesday night wet T-shirt competition. “Over there,” the Irishman replies, pointing to what looks like brown mudflats. I survey the apparent beach from over the top of my glass. I’ll seek it out later. For the moment, I want to soak up the ambience before sailing off into Paradise.
Sailing the Whitsundays hovers pretty close to the top of most backpackers’ “must-do” lists. People come for different reasons: some to dive by the Great Barrier Reef, some for Whitehaven Beach and others for the pure luxury of exploring this part of Australia without having to cook, clean or even lift a finger, apart from putting on suntan lotion that is. The trip can be as action-packed or chilled out as you want it to be.
Cruising through the Whitsunday Islands, by the Great Barrier Reef, and not giving diving a go is simply not an option. And so, as we’re waiting to do our first ever dive, lingering under the water, waiting for one of our group to get to grips with her equipment and join us in the deep blue sea, it feels like we’ve been under there forever. I want to burst out laughing, looking at my friend hooked up with all her scuba gear. But I dare not – if the breathing apparatus slip out of my mouth, it will be panic stations. As we wait, I get to thinking – is my mask filling up with water? Would a shark find me tasty? Am I still breathing?
As unnatural as it all seems at first, once you glide through the crystal clear waters, like the Little Mermaid’s long lost twin, you soon feel right at home in the underwater world. Well, maybe it doesn’t come quite as naturally as that, but as you swim deeper and watch all the brightly coloured little fishies float by, it’s not difficult to get lost in the awe of it all. It is amazing to look around and see hundreds of little eyes look back at you as they swim by. At one stage, I even forget I’m swimming with other humans at all, stopping to watch the shimmering of blue and yellow scales flicker past every inch of my vision. We also see little turtles and hundreds of varieties of fish in every size, shape and colour. And, sure enough, once I’ve got a taste of the life aquatic, I’m soon donning my snorkle to head in again. And again. And again. I’ve fallen in underwater love.
There are 25 of us on board, all experiencing our first taste of the Whitsunday Islands and most of us embarking on our first ever sailing trip, all equally impressed as we spread out across the boat’s spacious deck to enjoy front-row seats for the spectacular sunset, which paints an orange-and-red masterpiece across the sky.
There are so many amazing spots to visit around the islands that you couldn’t possibly see them all on one trip, but when our skipper drops us on Whitehaven Beach, with its 98 per cent-pure silica sand, it instantly becomes my personal favourite. The weather is amazing, and in between exploring the waves and some backyard cricket along the shore, the time passes far too quickly for my liking.
We put the sails up once but there is less than a gnat’s fart of wind and we do it more for the appearance than for any practical purpose. It would have been cool to wrestle with billowing sails and plough through foamy wave crests, but the calm means the conditions are perfect for diving, and I’d take good visibility over seasickness any day.
Stopping off at one of the world’s top three beaches is undoubtedly the highlight of many visitors’ trips. Indeed, having a picture of yourself in a human pyramid on Whitehaven Beach is a mandatory addition to any self-respecting backpacker’s Facebook page.
From the lookout point, Whitehaven Beach looks beautiful but it’s not until we’re down there that we see exactly why it is regarded as one of the best beaches on the planet. The sand is so fine that you can clean your jewellery with it and no matter how high the temperature, the sand remains cool thanks to its unexplained amounts of silicon.
At the risk of sounding like a glutton, one of my favourite aspects of the trip is the food. After travelling the coast for a few weeks, it’s great to get quality food, and plenty of it. Being a vegetarian – or vege-terrible as Captain Johnno dubs me – I didn’t know what to expect. However, I couldn’t be more satisfied. Each night after dinner the crew produce a slideshow of all the pics from throughout the day, which makes for a hilarious and often embarrassing night’s viewing. The shots from the dive sites are particularly entertaining and we all get some great snaps underwater, kitted out in our scuba gear.
After an unforgettable tour of the Whitsundays, it’s then back to Airlie Beach where the fun most doesn’t stop. After a long, much-anticipted shower – we had to limit them to just two minutes a time on the boat – we meet up again with the group and crew to enjoy free jugs of beer in the bar and spend the night recounting our sailing adventures.
There is a reason why sailing the Whitsunday Islands is high on most travellers’ agenda. If you go, expect to spend some of the most memorable days of your travelling here. You’re guaranteed to leave with plenty of very happy memories and lots of very cool photographs.
Return to the Blue Lagoon
Finishing my beer, I follow the direction of the Irish barman’s casual wave. I walk the coast for a good half-hour but find no beach. It’s 1pm and about 32°C. The sky is an uninterrupted expanse of perfect blue and I’m surrounded by a relaxed-looking group in sarongs and boardshorts. Groups of travellers saunter past with beach bags and guitars and I count three combies parked along the kerb.
As if the gods had noted my disappointment, I walk straight into a lagoon. It’s not the kind of lagoon I’d expect to see Ms Shields spear-hunting supper in – this one is man-made for a start. Nevertheless, it is a lagoon so I whip off my bits and lie roasting in the tropical Queensland sun.
At the hostel that evening, I sit poolside with a group of Americans drinking XXXX and discussing their recent seafaring expedition. They have been here a week and confirm the following: sailing the Whitsundays is one of their best ever life experiences; there is no beach at Airlie Beach and – most importantly to them – Bud is a better beer than XXXX. Perhaps not the greatest accolade, but don’t say so within earshot of any Queenslanders, who are fiercely proud of their local brew.
I grab a Brit and suggest we head back down to the main drag, where we soon hit a heaving Irish pub. The rest of the evening unravels into a surreal montage of Swedish girls wearing bikinis and witches’ hats – just another Airlie night, apparently.