What I Learned From My First International Trip
I rode an Air New Zealand SkyCouch on the way over, ditched my hotel two weeks early, zig-zagged all over the coast, and booked a last-minute sailing trip that made my year. Oh, and I majorly overpaid for an Airbnb.
On my birthday back in February, I decided I wanted to go on an adventure. A 20-day international adventure. More specifically, I wanted to go to Australia. The reason? I love warmth, sun, and surf. I also heard all about it as a kid, as my parents nearly moved us there when I was a child. In fact, my parents have always loved it, which is why they named me Sydney.
Ironically, the city of Sydney was not part of my itinerary. Instead, I decided to jet off to the Gold Coast, where I booked into the famous Q1 Resort for nearly three weeks. Owning the title of the tallest building in Australia, the Q1 is located in Surfers Paradise. After looking at brochures, it seemed like the perfect “base” for my adventures, being a midpoint between Brisbane (where I was definitely planning to visit) and Coolangatta (where I landed).
On the way over, I flew Air New Zealand with a connection in Auckland before I eventually arrived in Australia. At that time, no one needed a transit visa to get through the Auckland airport, but that’s actually changing as of October 2019. To visit Australia, I needed an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA). It came with basic restrictions, but it’s good for 12 months and it allows you to visit as many times as you want, staying up to three consecutive months per visit.
Applying for the ETA was quick and painless. Booking flights was easy, too. Being the novice traveler that I was, I went through Expedia and paid no mind to how many miles I could have earned given the long trip. I booked a roundtrip ticket that mixed fares (Air New Zealand on the way over and Qantas on the way back). I left on April 30 and was set to return on May 21.
The Air New Zealand SkyCouch
Hoping to minimize jet lag for the long, overnight flight, I paid extra to upgrade to the SkyCouch on the way over. This option was available online in advance. Interestingly, Air New Zealand first gives you the option to “bid” on a SkyCouch. When you explore the upgrades for your booking, you can decide how much you want to pay and submit your bid. They’ll let you know if your bid is accepted within so many hours of the flight. It gave “suggested” bids, and I’m pretty sure it suggested over a grand, if not two. Deciding against it, I closed the window. However, upon reopening it later, I found that it was no longer asking for a blind bid. Instead, Air New Zealand gave me the option to pay for the SkyCouch upgrade outright, which I did. I spent $999 to get it from San Francisco to Auckland.
The SkyCouch gives you an entire row of economy seats all to yourself. The footrests come up completely to create a bed-like surface and the seat back reclines a little bit. Being just 5′ 2″, I was able to stretch out completely and it was pretty comfortable. They give you a big comforter to lay across the seats for padding and a blanket to cover up with. You also get lots of pillows.In addition to the little pillows that they put on everyone’s seat for an overnight flight, I also got three plush pillows (one for each seat) thanks to the SkyCouch upgrade. I also got two extra blankets, two extra pairs of headphones, and pretty much three of everything else–except meals, obviously.
Following my long layover in San Francisco’s international terminal, I got the SkyCouch setup in no time at all. As soon as we were off the ground, I folded up the footrests and figured out the seatbelt, which allows you to be buckled and laying down at the same time. For meals, I just sat in the aisle seat with the tray table and footrest down, and then could instantly go to laying back down again even before they came to pick up what was left of our surprisingly delicious food.
With all the extra pillows strewn about my “couch,” I had placed a few at my feet as I went to go to sleep that night. Funnily enough, I felt someone steal one as I was still half-awake. I think I know who did it, too, because as we were disembarking the next morning, the four people who had sat in the center row shot me some jealous looks. It wasn’t my imagination, either, one of them straight up said, “I hate you,” (while smiling, of course).
The verdict: If you can sleep well under the pressure of envious gazes, you’ll adore the SkyCouch. Just guard your pillows carefully, but you won’t run short if you’re flying alone. As far as the price goes, you could probably get one for less if you used the bid feature. Still, it’s cheaper than buying a lay-flat bed in business or first class, but when you think about how much you’re spending to sleep just one night, the immense cost may make you rethink.
I landed in the Gold Coast Airport in Coolangatta. A speedy 40-minute Uber drive took me to my accommodations, which were supposed to be 4-star. I’ll go ahead and say it now: Uber is all over Australia. A few Uber drivers even asked me: “Is Uber this big in America?” As far as Uber goes, I can attest that all of the drivers I had were extremely friendly. In fact, everyone I met was extremely friendly. The first driver talked the entire trip to my hotel, which I was so grateful for. She told me everything I should do and see, and pointed out places along the way where I should go to or perhaps consider staying.
That’s right, from the very first person I spoke to, I was hearing about how I should get out of Surfers Paradise. I’m still not sure how I missed that memo in my weeks of research leading up to the trip, but I remained excited for the adventures ahead and refused to be discouraged.
The Q1 Resort
When I arrived at the Q1, they offered to stow my luggage since I was a couple of hours early for check-in. She put me on a waitlist and said she’d call as soon as my room was ready. Meanwhile, I received a card that gave me access to the resort’s pool, gym, and spa.I walked around for a bit waiting for my room to be ready and I eventually headed up to see my view. I don’t recall which floor I stayed on, but the ocean view was beautiful. I took it all in from my “balcony,” which was nothing more than a dining area with windows that opened. It was more of an excuse not to air condition the area, but I won’t nit-pick.
The first night, I took a shower and got into my pajamas before climbing into bed and calling up room service. I was jet lagged and really wanted a burger from the restaurant downstairs. So, I phoned in and asked. The girl was super polite, but rather than putting in my order, she warned me of the outrageous room service fee (which I was entirely willing to pay). She informed me that I’d pay just as much for the burger as I would to have it brought to my room, and that I’d better just head down to the restaurant and get it myself. I thanked her and hung up. I could hear when she picked up the phone that there was a party going on down at the restaurant (which doubled as a poolside bar, with the Q1 pool being one of the best around), and I didn’t feel like getting up, getting dressed, and pushing through a crowd of people to go get dinner after a 22-hour long journey.
If it happened to me today, I probably wouldn’t think twice about it. I’d either insist on paying the fee since they advertise room service or maybe I would go downstairs and get my food after all. But, my first night alone in a new country and in a city, I was simply too uncomfortable to go through the hassle. After all, within a few hours of my arrival, I had already been warned and told to get out of Surfers as soon as I could. Needless to say, I was a bit weary. Fortunately, I was soon informed by everyone I met that there was no real danger around. I was told to watch my drinks if I went to a club, but otherwise, locals simply told me to get away to experience more of Australia. Surfers Paradise is a party town and not much more.
In itself, being refused room service probably wouldn’t be enough for me to not recommend the Q1, but when combined with the following flaws, I’d say skip it.
Unfortunately, these complaints aren’t limited to my experience. I have since found other reviews that complain of a leaky shower door and a “bogus balcony,” alongside other things. I regret not choosing the Hilton across the road, but I learned a lot of lessons on this trip…and isn’t that what traveling is for? The Q1 was the worst part of my trip, and it wasn’t that bad (maybe a 3 out of 5?) with all things considered.
Now, at the very top of the Q1 tower, you’ll find a restaurant and viewing area. I went only once. The entrance to get up there is actually outside the hotel lobby, which is no big deal. You pay downstairs and then take the elevator up. Anyone can go, regardless of whether or not you’re staying at the Q1. The ride is fast and fun, but once you get out, you’ll encounter rude service and mediocre food. The only thing that might justify the visit is the view. You can walk all the way around to see not just the coast, but the whole skyline and all of the surrounding hinterland.
I would have loved to take the “Tower Climb” that takes you up the spire and I might just go back and do it one day. Still, the restaurant gets a 1 out of 5 from me, mainly because of the terribly rude server who told me to “just sit down” when I asked if I could buy one of the bottled juices being marketed behind the counter (at breakfast, there is no table service and you must approach to counter to get your food). But, I didn’t feel so self-conscious after I witnessed her treating all the other guests like trash, too, as she ignored other first-timers who were also unsure of how to get the breakfast they had paid for. Turns out, the only thing you can have is whatever’s on the buffet table, even though the Q1 website advertised bottled juices and additional food for purchase when I checked the website in advance. Regardless, a polite explanation is all anyone expected.
The Q1 Salon
For the first few days of my trip, I stayed close to the Q1 and Surfers Paradise beach. I had actually booked an appointment at the Q1 Salon for the day of my arrival and I have nothing but good things to say about Sophia and all of her stylists. I sat down around 11 AM and she spent the next few hours helping me figure out what to do with my hair. I got highlights for the first time (and they looked super natural) and she gave me a complementary style due to the wait since a bridal party rushed in during the middle of my appointment. I don’t typically pay for fancy hair stylists, but I would go back to Surfers Paradise just for this salon.
The Q1 Spa
During my stay at the Q1, I also visited the on-site spa. Yet again, I have nothing but wonderful things to say about the staff and service. I had never gotten a massage before I wandered into the spa that day, but I’ll certainly be signing up for more in the future. I walked in without an appointment and they fit me in as the next client. The massage therapist was very friendly and chose oils that she said would help me get over the sinus issues that were threatening to ruin my trip before it really started.
Side Note: That’s not an exaggeration! Upon landing in Australia, I could hardly hear out of my left ear. It felt clogged and my whole head felt stuffy. I tried everything to “pop” it. A sore throat was also making my voice scratchy and, at one point, I was coughing so bad someone actually asked if I was a smoker.
When I was originally looking for things to do around Surfers Paradise, Sea World was one place that kept coming up. They have rides, they have fish, and they have all sorts of “experiences” to enjoy. I was hesitant at first, given the reputation of our SeaWorld over here in the United States, but I soon learned that Australia’s “Sea World” (with a space) is actually an entirely separate company. When it was founded, the name was not trademarked, so they used it.
This Sea World does fantastic education and rehabilitation work. So, I fulfilled my dream of swimming with dolphins (well, one dolphin named Lulu) and I also did the tropical reef snorkel, which allows you to swim with the likes of tropical fish and rays along with Black Tip and White Tip reef sharks. While snorkeling the large outdoor pool, you can also see through the underwater gate that looks into Shark Lagoon where they keep Bull Whaler sharks and other larger species.
When I initially decided to go to SeaWorld, I got the four-day, four-park pass, which gives you access to SeaWorld and three other theme parks in the area. I went to SeaWorld my second day in Australia for the snorkel and returned my third day in Australia for the dolphin dive. I then decided to signup for a helicopter tour, too, because it seemed exciting.
I only paid for a 30-minute tour, but the girl who worked there upgraded me to the 60-minute tour for free because a small group came in who wanted to go up right away. I got to sit in the cockpit next to the pilot and experienced a tour that took us far down the coast past the Q1. The pilot pointed out plenty of sights and even showed us the most easterly point of mainland Australia (Cape Byron). He remarked that the sky was incredibly clear and said he typically couldn’t see so far out. It was my first helicopter tour, but I think it’s a great way to get your bearings when you land in a new place.
Gold Coast Skydive
Needless to say, swimming in tanks and taking a helicopter tour down the coast aren’t the best things you can be doing when you have a terrible ear issue going on, but I was being stubborn and refused to allow it to stop me from doing anything for the short time I was in Australia. So, I stayed true to the attitude and decided one morning that hurling myself out of a plane would be a good way to pass the time, too.
Sitting in my hotel room a day or two before the zoo tour I had scheduled, I was browsing yet another list of things to do on the Gold Coast when skydiving came up again. Skydiving is one of those things I told myself I’d never do. Or, at least, I figured I’d wait until I was so jaded by the fun of life that I needed to experience what’s purported as “life’s greatest thrill” in order to get my sense of exhilaration back. In other words, I thought it’d just be so insanely fun that, if I went skydiving so young, nothing else would ever compare. I would go on with the rest of my life completely unamused by plane rides and roller coasters. Worse yet, I feared that the excitement of wake surfing and dirt biking would suddenly feel mundane. Guess what? I was wrong again.
Skydiving was fun and all, but I’m not sure how it’s gotten the reputation for being the most thrilling thing you can ever experience. Thanks to my Uber driver, I did get butterflies as I stepped out of the car and walked up to the small office. He made me realize, “Oh wait, I’m actually doing this!” as I went in to sign the waiver. I arrived early, though, so I had a while to wait before I even went in to get suited up.
The girl who would be jumping at the same time as me was also a little late. And, as crazy as I was beginning to feel, she took the cake that day. Returning home from a trip, she thought it’d be fun to get picked up directly from the local airport and climb into another plane just to jump out of it. Needless to say, her whimsy inspired me!
We had to wear a life jacket in a pouch around our hips in case we accidentally landed in the ocean. Then, my tandem dive master put me in a harness and gave me a 60-second rundown of what I needed to do. He said “be a banana” when we jump out, keep my arms crossed until he taps my shoulder, and then pick my legs up as we land. Pretty simple.
After the long wait, I wasn’t feeling so nervous anymore, but as we took the slow plane ride up, the butterflies did begin to build again. The nerves were strongest the seconds before we jumped, when my legs were dangling out the door and the guy who was diving to film me was perched on the wing ready to record the flips and turns we took as we exited the plane.
The cold air was surprisingly shocking in May (which is the start of Australia’s “winter”), but you quickly embrace it. Free fall was the exciting part, and I might just enjoy it more the second time knowing what to expect. Of course, once they pulled the parachute, it wasn’t cold any longer.
It was actually amazingly peaceful as we gradually drifted down to the sandy beach below. I got to steer for a little bit and my dive master did some cool trick where you get the sensation of zero gravity as we continued gently floating to the ground. While I might not consider it life’s greatest thrill, I do not regret the experience one bit. It also made for a really cool video. I will note that, upon leaving the office after my sky dive that day, I didn’t have phone signal. That meant I couldn’t call an Uber, so I ended up walking into town and spending some time in Coolangatta (which I highly recommend doing). But, I still didn’t have signal later, so I went back to the skydive office and they called me a cab.
My driver was a 70-something-year-old great grandmother and she perfectly sums up the hospitality of all the people I met on my trip. When I told her I was traveling alone, she was quick to give me her phone number. Having lived in the area her entire life with her kids and grandkids and great grandkids spread all over Australia, she said I had nothing to worry about, but told me to give her a call if I was ever wandering around and felt uncomfortable or simply got bored. I’m used to people being “nice” back home, but the people I met on that trip were genuinely friendly.
The Australia Zoo
I had a good time doing all the things I did my first week in Australia, but I continued to hear about all the incredible places that I should go see. Regardless, I had to stick around Surfers a little longer because I had booked one thing (and only one thing) as part of my trip: a Platinum Adventure through Australia Zoo.That’s right, the Australia Zoo owned by the iconic Irwin family! I didn’t meet any of them, but we did see Robert riding his bike on one of the back roads as my tour guide and I were headed off to the on-site animal hospital early in the morning.
The Platinum Adventure is basically a private full-day tour. You get to go behind-the-scenes and meet all sorts of animals along with their keepers. It begins with the Tiger Walk, where you get to accompany one of the tigers and their handlers on the morning walk around the zoo before it opens. A professional photographer accompanies you for the entire day, so that you can get lots of brag-worthy pictures without spending a second looking through a screen.
The tiger is actually on a leash and handlers are right nearby, paying close attention to his body language. You’re allowed to pet him firmly with a flat hand from the base of his neck down his tail. Unsurprisingly, there is no telling him to “lay down” or “stay.” In order to get photos with him, we waited until he plopped on the ground for a brief rest. When he decided to stand up, photo time was over and we continued our unforgettable walk through the zoo.
By the way: If you ever find yourself near the zoo, you can book the Tiger Walk as a standalone experience. In fact, you can book most of these activities individually in case you don’t have the whole day. With that said, I highly recommend the Platinum Adventure!
After meeting the tiger, we toured the animal hospital. It is the only hospital of its kind in the area and I was told that all of the money I spent on the tour would be going to help the hospital continue its work. People are constantly bringing in wildlife that they find injured, usually koalas that have been hit by cars.
My guide showed me the list of new admissions from that morning alone (and it was before 8 AM), with the most recent being a snake with a deformed spine. The veterinarians concluded that she must have been run over at some point, and they took X-rays to see how serious the internal damage was. It was very intriguing seeing the scans and meeting the snake while it was under anesthesia. However, they feared the deformation would complicate the egg-laying process, so they were pondering what to do about the injury as we went outside to tour the koala enclosures.
They had row after row of koala enclosures, most housing koalas who were being treated for Chlamydia. Apparently, that’s a major issue in Australia. Locals can recognize infected koalas by their brown bottoms and they bring them in for treatment. They also have various enclosures that can house everything from frogs to turtles to birds and all other Australian wildlife.
Following the hospital tour, I got to meet all sorts of wonderful animals. One of my favorite hangouts was the meerkat habitat. I got to feed them as they continuously climbed onto my head and shoulders, using me as a sentry post. Another favorite hangout was the dingo enclosure, with the cuddly pups reminding me of my dogs back at home.
I had a great time sitting in the enclosure and speaking to the three handlers, who told me about Fraser Island where the dingoes run wild and often amuse campers. Later in my trip, I actually heard from some tourists who camped there and they told me some dingoes stole their frisbee one night. Surprisingly, I was informed that dingoes are actually more cat-like than dog-like. Even still, they were well-trained and posed for multiple photos. I adored every single moment at the zoo.
I could fill a book with all of the memories I made that day alone and I have far too many photos to include here. The photographer even professionally edited and developed them at the end of the day as part of the package. Oh, and did I mention that lunch was delicious, too? All in all, I would 100% recommend the zoo for any animal lover. It’s so different from other zoos I have been to. The animals have so much space to roam, which is why my guide pointed out that many wild animals come to call the zoo home as well. If you’re anywhere near it, pay it a visit!
After concluding my zoo tour and telling my private shuttle driver all about it (the Platinum Zoo Tour is definitely the VIP treatment!), I arrived back at the Q1. After taking the elevator up to my floor, which always made my ears pop, I decided that I needed to get out of town and perhaps avoid changes in elevation for the next few days. My tandem dive master had told me about Byron, and so had many people before him.
The town of Byron was described to me in a very unique way. One Uber driver told me it’s extremely vibrant, what with “hippies and rich people” living side by side. He said you’d see celebrities walking amongst “absolute nobodies” and tried his best to get his point across that the resulting culture was interesting, to say the least.
While that description didn’t necessarily appeal to me, I decided to go and check it out. It sounded like a quiet town to wind down in, and that’s what I felt I needed in hopes of finally recovering from the temporary deafness and scratchy throat that had been plaguing me. At this point, I had admitted to myself that the problem needed to be remedied. After all, when the handler had given me a snake to hold the day prior, it appeared as though my left eye had burst into tears as it started to water from me trying to hold back the coughing fit of the hour.
Victoria’s at Wategos
Deciding to ditch the Q1, I booked into the most gorgeous hotel that I have ever stayed at. Victoria’s represents truly luxury accommodations, set in the hills overlooking the famous Wategos beach (and just a minute walk from the same). It was the perfect place to rest and recover as I enjoyed the beauty of my surroundings.
I arrived a little while before checkin and the girl gave me a tour of the grounds. There was a shared kitchen in the other portion of the hotel with my room being just above the pool. I had no ocean view, but I could watch the giant wild lizards on the ground below and look out over the tree tops at all of the gorgeous homes perched along the coast. Before my room was ready, she offered me tea or coffee and I politely accepted the former due to my throat hurting. I expected a cup of tea, but was instead met with a full tea service. As soon as I had my room key, I collapsed onto the insanely comfortable bed and was quickly met with new “friends.”
In Byron, I grew accustomed to small lizards welcoming themselves into any hotel, home, or place of business I found myself in. I would turn and see one hanging out on the wall a foot from my head where it would briefly startle me before scurrying up to the ceiling (or behind my mattress, as one particularly large one chose to do). They were harmless, but I didn’t quite get used to them in the week I spent with them.
Of course, there were far too many positives about the area and Victoria’s itself. For instance, the mini bar had the most delicious macadamias I have ever tasted. Turns out, the area is known for growing them fresh, and that’s something I’d like to go back and purchase by the crate full. The macadamias we get here in American pale in comparison. With these, the nutty flavor still shined truly, even under the delicious chili coating.
Being a solo traveler who values experience over anything, that stay was priceless. I woke up each morning and descended the spiral staircase to the common area where I sat down to a champagne breakfast by the pool and listened to the fountains as I ate cheeses (and some fruits) I couldn’t identify. I felt like I had stepped into a storybook and I relished every moment since I had only booked into Victoria’s for a few nights. I would definitely go back, lizards or not.
Oh, and if you’re wondering how I got to Byron, I took an Uber. At that time, I was unaware that Uber drivers apparently can’t see where you’re going until after they accept the job. Knowing that now, I feel bad that the guy wasn’t expecting to go so far out. It was a 1-hour and 15-minute minute drive for me and a 3-hour round trip for him. On another note, although tipping is not custom in Australia, I tipped every driver I had. That was a point of confusion for me because every one I tried to tip in person politely refused and said I didn’t have to in Australia. Yet, the Uber app always gives you the option to tip after a ride is completed so I tipped anyway to be safe. I felt it would be rude to just ask an Uber driver if I should or not, so I will try to find an answer about what’s “proper” before I return to Australia later this year.
The great thing about Victoria’s is that it’s 60 seconds from Wategos Beach. You can just spend hours sitting at the beach, like I did, or you can climb up to the famous lighthouse, which I actually didn’t do. I did walk one of the trails, though. It leads out to Cape Byron, which is the most easterly part of mainland Australia that my helicopter pilot identified earlier in the trip.
The views are phenomenal and the beach was surprisingly quiet. If I went back to Byron, I might try the hang gliding tour that allows you to circle the light house, but I was committed to taking at least a few days off and trying to let my ear heal.
After a few days at Victoria’s, I said a bittersweet goodbye to the hotel and checked into an Airbnb instead. I was nearing the end of my trip and I couldn’t find another town to visit that was within polite Uber distance from Byron. So, I decided to just stick around. I accepted the fact that the end of my trip might just be calm and relaxing, and I set out to find some things to do in Byron. That ended up being the right choice because, as it turns out, my trip wasn’t over after all.
I chose an Airbnb because I wanted a place all to myself so that I could spread out and maybe listen to music or watch a movie. There were very few options last minute, but I narrowed it down to two homes in the area. I decided on this house because, not only did it have a pool, but it was a short walk from the beach. Actually, it was an extremely short walk from the beach–the beach just on the other side of the light house! But, while Wategos was super calm and famous for surfing, this beach was wild and powerful with signs warning of its strong undertow.
Of course, that didn’t stop people from surfing, fishing, or even wind surfing, but it was interesting to see the difference between the two. I spent many more hours on this beach, sitting in the sand and watching the hang gliders circle the lighthouse–now to my left–with what appeared to be an endless stretch of sand to my right.
However, my time here was limited, too. Having already extended my trip once in hopes of squeezing something more in, I was counting the hours until I had to catch a ride back up to Coolangatta and board my flight home. So, I enjoyed each day in that oversized house. It featured five bedrooms spread across three stories, with the ground level bedroom overlooking the large (and deep) pool. The water was quite chilly, but I did brave it a few days out of my week-long stay.
I received a grocery delivery so I could make some real food and then chilled on the sofa at night, re-watching That 70s Shows for the upteenth time. In fact, I heard many complaints while I was there that they don’t have many original shows in Australia, unless you’re counting Bondi Beach, which I did watch once. Netflix felt like ours back home, just with fewer options. That was really the first time during my trip that I watched television, but just as my ear was starting to clear up, it seemed like I had run out of things to do. So, I began preparing to return home.
Having accumulated some trinkets and new clothes during my stay, I needed to go to the post office and mail some things back. Airlines in Australia limit your luggage by size and weight, making you check anything that is oversized. They weigh your bags at the checkin counter and even at the gate, with JetStar and other budget airlines doing so religiously. I was flying Qantas on my way home, and I didn’t know how much my bags weighed with all of the new additions, so I played it safe.
After leaving the post office, I decided to walk around Byron for a while. I noticed on Google Maps that a bookstore was somewhere nearby, so I picked a direction at random and hoped to find it. As I was walking, I passed a travel center. Noticing all of the magazines and brochures on the wall, I decided to enter and see if just maybe I could find an activity for the final few days of my trip.I ended up sitting down and getting a complete walkthrough of what I could do up the coast. Having told the guy that I had limited time and had already been through the Surfers/Gold Coast area, he skipped straight up to the Great Barrier Reef region. He told me about bungee jumping and scuba diving and all sorts of adventures I could get into up there. He also told me about the Greyhound Bus Pass, which would allow me to travel all over on a budget.
For the first few minutes I was listening to him, I was trying to come up with an appropriate apology before I wasted too much of his time. He misunderstood how long I had left for my trip and began planning a full-out itinerary that would take me all the way up the coast from Byron to Cairns, with multiple stops along the way, including Fraser Island. Sure, I’d love to do that, but there was no way I could fit all of it into 72 hours (although I might try one day).
I was planning my exit when he briefly mentioned Airlie, a small sailing town. He said most people stop there on their way to Cairns to take one of the charters, but he quickly brushed past it to talk about more “adrenaline pumping” activities, including a place where you can Bungee Jump all day long and even do so naked while pounding Coronas, but I interrupted him. With my mind already drifting off to images of the open sea, I asked for more details on the sailing trips.
He was actually a little hesitant to tell me how much these trips cost, but they were surprisingly inexpensive. For a 3-day, 2-night trip (which was the absolute longest I could squeeze in), I paid less than $400. That’s for food, accommodations, activities, and priceless memories. Of course, it meant I had to extend my trip just once more. I would have extended it for far longer and taken the longest possible sailing trip I could buy, but I wanted to be home in time for my dad’s birthday.
So, to make it work, I left my Airbnb the next day to catch a flight to PPP, which is the Whitsunday Coast Airport. I had to take a private car because I needed to leave for the Gold Coast Airport at roughly three in the morning, and then prepare for a connection in Sydney before eventually flying all the way up to Airlie (which is just south of Cairns).
As the captain pointed out, there seems to be a misunderstanding that the Great Barrier Reef is somehow “in” Cairns. As in, if you want to go see the Great Barrier Reef, people will probably direct you to Cairns. However, while Cairns does front the Great Barrier Reef, so do a bunch of other areas. After all, the conservation area stretches over 1,400 miles along the coastline. Airlie Beach is another town that fronts the reef, and it’s also the gateway to the famous Whitsunday Islands.
The sailing trip took us on an adventure through the famous Whitsunday Islands. There are over 74 islands in total, but what I found equally as beautiful was Airlie Beach itself, which I feel is terribly underrated. I stayed in Airlie Beach the night before my sailing trip and the night after, choosing Coral Sea Resort as my basecamp. It was a good choice, too, because it’s in between the town of Airlie itself and the marina where I had to board the sailboat for the trip.
There is no Uber in Airlie Beach. It’s a tiny little town and I love it for that. They have a “lagoon” by the beach, which is a collection of pools that are completely free and public–something unheard of here in the states. During the day, the town pays for lifeguards. At night, they pay for security to make sure no one goes in after dark, which is when most people opt to go to a bar or club. While I’m not into bars or clubs, this town will always hold a special place in my heart. It was so perfectly picturesque and, despite the thousands of backpackers that come through every month, it hardly felt touristy. There were some shops and restaurants, but the area itself was clean and quiet. I wish I had headed up there sooner.
Coral Sea Resort
I booked into the Coral Sea Resort for a four-night stay, even though I was only there the first and last night. In between, I left my luggage since I wasn’t able to bring any zippered bags on to the sailboats. Apparently, bed bugs like to hide in zippers, and if bed bugs get onto a sailboat, they are nearly impossible to extinguish (at least, that’s what the girl at the trip check-in counter told me). So, I opted for a reusable shopping bag, which wasn’t hard to find since hardly any store in Australia uses plastic. I had shopped at Lorna Jane (my new favorite activewear brand) while I was down in Byron, so I just used the bag given to me then to pack my bathing suit and a couple comfortable outfits.
Before I left, I took in the gorgeous views from my Bayview suite. I didn’t pay a lot to stay at the resort, but I would have. Hotels are surprisingly affordable in Australia, and it also helped that I was traveling during the “off-season.” Of course, as I was soon told by the sailing crew, winter is the best time to visit. During the summer, it’s far too hot and humid–you’d stick to your mattress at night and feel absolutely miserable all day since there is hardly any wind to sail in. As it turns out, my lack of planning had turned out pretty perfect.
When I booked my sailing trip, I was given the option between an “adventure boat” or a “party boat.” The latter holds about 60 people, while the former holds about 30. Obviously, I chose the adventure boat–which mean lots of sailing, snorkeling, and exploring the islands. I was told to meet at the marina where everyone met for their sailing trip. I passed lots of groups on the way to our meeting spot, and I could tell a lot of boats were leaving that same day. Eventually, six other people about my age joined me at the meeting spot.
When booking, the travel guy had jokingly warned me that I’d be the only American there. In fact, many people had pointed out that they didn’t see many Americans in Australia. I was even told by a few that I was the first American they had ever met, which surprised me. I informed each of them that the plane was full when I landed, so I’m not sure where all the others ran off to. Regardless, I was the only American on the boat, all the other guests were from Europe.
While the boat holds up to 29 guests, there were only 7 of us in total, plus 3 crew members. They told us it was actually the smallest group they had ever taken out, and the only other girl on the boat told me that her original sailing trip had been cancelled due to low attendance. I found that surprising, and a little bit sad, considering how much fun we all had. Of course, I think another 22 guests would have taken away from that fun, as we continuously pondered how all those people could possibly pile into the small sleeping area, which featured double beds along the wall, with a single bed above each of them, and sleeping nets on top of that row. There were also two private suites, one of which was assigned to me since we had plenty of space to spread out.
I had never been on a sailing vessel before. In fact, my boating experience was limited to lakes. We motored out of the marina before sailing into the wind and out towards the islands. They had us sit on the “high side” of the boat and dangle our legs off so we could take in the views. We were all surprised by just how much the monohull tilted as we sailed, and I instantly fell in love with the sport. It’s one of those things you just have to experience, perhaps serendipitously, to really appreciate it. With only a 3-person crew, we all had to help raise and lower the sails. They informed us that there were usually so many guests that they’d simply take volunteers, but I’m sort of glad they gave us all a post because I would have been too shy to volunteer otherwise. It definitely added to the excitement of the trip.
We spent the days sailing from one island to the next, listening to music and just enjoying the scenery. They’d stop mid-day and let us get off to walk around and explore famous sights, like Whitehaven Beach. We went to snorkel along various spots of the Great Barrier Reef. We sailed through some light rain, all donning bright yellow coats, and spent the nights stargazing. With no lights for miles, I took in some of the best views of the Milky Way that I’m sure I’ll ever see.
Best of all, there were no cell phones. We just sat around and chatted for hours in between staring up at the sky or looking out at the islands. We spent a bit of time telling jokes and heard lots of stories (and language) you’d expect from true sailors. I won’t ever forget those few days spent “out at sea” and I talk about it often just hoping that I’ll be able to get the joy across to at least one person. So, I implore you to go sailing somewhere and I hope that you love it as much as I did.
The Flight Home
After concluding the sailing trip, I returned to the Coral Sea Resort for one final night in Australia. I raided the mini bar once again and called room service, with the kitchen making no argument against delivering a nice hot meal. I savored the chocolate cheesecake and considered packing my things before I chose to venture outside instead. I stayed out late enjoying the sailing trip’s tiny “after party” and then crawled into bed with such a carefree spirit that I knew I must have learned something from my recent travels. Sailing somehow gave me a new take on life. It’s like my worries and nerves blew away in the wind somewhere out in the Whitsundays, so I didn’t bother packing until the very next morning and I didn’t leave extra early for the airport, either.
With no Uber, I decided against calling a taxi or private car. Instead, I opted for the shuttle, which pulled up to the small, single-gate airport shortly before my flight was set to depart. There was no online checkin, so I headed to the counter with a new sense of confidence. Like a seasoned traveller, I was happy to check my bag (which was apparently over JetStar’s weight limit) and casually made my way to baggage claim once in Melbourne, where I met it with perfect timing just as it was coming out onto the carousel. I then waited at a pre-security restaurant, for a few hours, because my flight back to San Francisco didn’t board for a long time apparently. I eventually was able to checkin and get through security before waiting some more, and then I finally boarded the Qantas plane to head back home.
Having changed my flight over the phone, I had no way to choose seats or do anything else. I had asked at the counter, but the return flight was full so there was no chance of scoring an upgrade. So, I sat in economy, which was surprisingly comfortable. Qantas has a “foot sling,” which is a net under the seat in front of you that helps to elevate your legs so you can get into a more comfortable sleeping position. While I wished the sling was higher, it was a nice addition.
The plane also had those auto-darkening windows, so I had no sense of time as we flew across the Pacific. That’s why I was awfully confused when I was awoken to a slice of deep dish pizza in the dark, quiet cabin. With them having already fed us dinner and the map on the seat back screen showing us only halfway to our destination, I wondered if a midnight snack was typically part of Qantas’ meal lineup and I went back to sleep, once again amused by quirky Australian customs. However, when morning came and I woke up to breakfast, I realized the midnight snack was not so strange after all. That’s because it was not midnight nor was it a snack–it was simply lunch.
Having been too laidback to look at any itinerary or schedule, the auto-darkening windows had tricked me into thinking it was night out and my half-asleep brain didn’t feel like working out the pesky time zones we were traveling through. As the saying goes, “Going east is a beast, west is best.” We left Melbourne at 9:08 PM on May 25 and we landed in San Francisco at approximately 8:37 PM, also on May 25. It worked out perfectly, because it meant I got back to Spokane and was able to drive back to Idaho just as the clock struck midnight. I caught up on sleep the following day and then celebrated my dad’s birthday with the family just as I had hoped. Plus, I had plenty of souvenirs and stories to share.
So, would I go back? Absolutely! I’m already planning a return trip through Australia and New Zealand this October. Needless to say, I’ve caught the travel bug and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get rid of it. I’ve already been on another trip since I returned in May and I’m going on another in a couple weeks, and yet another right after that. This is the first year I’ve been traveling, and I’ve already learned and grown so much. If you are in the position to go some place–any place–I would most certainly recommend it. Oh, and hop on a sailboat, too.