Exploring The Whitsundays and Great Barrier Reef
Having accumulated some trinkets and new clothes during the first few weeks of my stay in Australia, I needed to go to the post office and mail some things back. Airlines in Australia limit your luggage by size and weight, checking 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.
To make this final excursion 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).
I was told that 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, it 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.
However, 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.
The Sailing Trip
When I booked my sailing trip, I was given the option between an “adventure boat” or a “party boat.” The latter holds up to 60 people, while the former holds 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 about 30 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 23 guests would have taken away from that fun, as we continuously pondered how all those people could possible 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 many hours 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 setback 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 wer 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.
Being a professional writer and editor means I can work from anywhere there’s WiFi, and that freedom has enabled me to go to some incredible places. When I’m not writing for clients, I’m generally writing posts for my blog–like the one you just read. You can learn more about my work and adventures here.