SAILING THE WHITSUNDAYS

Apparently the Whitsundays have the best beaches in Australia and for many visitors to Queensland, a cruise out to the Whitsundays is up there with diving the Great Barrier Reef and visiting the Irwin’s at Australia Zoo. Despite coming from the side of Australia that actually has the best beaches in Australia (and I’m totally biased on that), I was prepared to put my beach snobbery to the test and settle this once and for all. Whitsundays, I’m coming at you!

Airlie Beach

The main jumping off point to the Whitsundays is Airlie Beach which is a 12 hour drive north of Brisbane, or a 7.5 hour drive south of Cairns. It’s a town that seems to have been built solely for the Whitsundays, as everything here is catered to tourists and at an exorbitant cost. To be honest Airlie Beach felt more like Kuta in Bali! And we didn’t spend too much time here anyway since we only had half a day and a night to explore before our cruise. With the short time that we did have here, we mainly just walked along the coastal boardwalk from our accommodation on the outskirts of town, checked in for our cruise and stocked up on sunscreen and mosquito repellant. Though we did spend a few hours watching the boats in the two harbours and treated ourselves to a sunset cocktail at one of the beach front bars. Other than that there really didn’t seem like much else to do unless in Airlie Beach unless you’re into partying and clubbing, which in that case there would probably be way more for you to do than in Airlie there was for us… Yes, we like our sleep and early starts!

The Whitsundays

This chain of 74 islands sits in the middle of the expansive Great Barrier Reef off the mid coast of Queensland. The most well known of the islands are also the largest islands where you’ll find lots of resorts and high end accomodation including Daydream Island, Hamilton Island and Hayman Island. There are some inhabited smaller islands such as Hook and Long island that have small villas and camping, though most of the islands are uninhabited and protected.

In April 2017 the area bore the brunt of category 4 Severe Tropical Cyclone Debbie, with wind gusts up to 260 kilometres per hour tearing through the reef and the town of Airlie Beach. Underwater coral was left snapped and rotting, as sea life disappeared or were caught up in the rough seas, and many areas once teeming with marine life was sad shadow of its former self.

By the time we visited in August, most of Airlie Beach had be rebuilt and was almost completely operational, though many of the large resort islands were closed for renovations including Hayman and Hamilton Island. We did witness a lot of the damaged reef and saw areas that were completely pulverised and devoid of any life, though in other areas the sea life were returning and we managed to swim with some schools of small fish. And as I write this now most of the islands are back to operating as per normal and most cruise companies are back to business taking tourists out to see the islands.

Flying through the Whitsundays with Wing

Our cruise was a last minute booking and that meant we were short on available options, so with only one other departure that fell within our date range, we took a gamble on Wings Whitsundays Adventures for two days and two nights. Our boat was the Wings 2, a smaller catamaran that slept 25 people, and we stayed in a shared berth with four single beds, sharing bathroom and toilet facilities.

The locations we visited were good considering just a few months earlier a major cyclone had blown through and almost obliterated the entire area, though the weather didn’t always cooperate and we did have some days that were gloomy and cold, making it pretty hard to put on the wet suit and jump in the water. Despite that we were blessed with the most beautiful sunny day to visit the famous Hill Inlet and the postcard perfect beaches nearby. Walking along Australia’s (apparently) best beach was a day I won’t be forgetting anytime soon, as it really did live up to expectation… and ok I will admit that it really is one of Australia’s best beaches…

There were some downsides to the Wings cruise such as the realisation that we were on budget cruise full of rowdy drunk backpackers: imagine loud, sunburnt, drunk European tourist who seemed to eat all the food and leave all their mess everywhere. We also found the staff to be unprofessional at times, and more interested in being on their phones and less interested in helping you out. The promise of nightly eco talks was nothing more than a painful slide show of the days photos in an effort to sell you a CD of terrible blurry images for $50, and despite one of the crew being a marine biologist, she didn’t seem to care to share any of her knowledge other than ‘oh that’s a fish, and that’s a blue fish, and that one is a yellow and white fish’. After the first night I opted to ‘pretend’ to sleep in my cabin to avoid this waste of time again.

For what we wanted out of the cruise, which was purely to visit the Whitsundays and see the beautiful changing sands of the Hill Inlet, we definitely got it. Any marine life we saw underwater was pure luck considering how damaging Cyclone Debbie was, and we did see some fish around which was great. The crew and other travellers… let’s just say that Siu On and I mostly kept to ourselves and did our own thing. We were just glad that we didn’t pay full price for the tour, and it did remind us to put a lot more effort into researching and booking the Great Barrier Reef tours that we were planning to do next.

Our Whitsunday Tips

  • Do your research: Make sure you read a lot of reviews and research the cruise companies first before booking. Had Siu On and I done that it would have been unlikely that we would have chosen to go with Wings Whitsundays Adventure, as later we read many unhappy reviews that mentioned the things that we experienced.
  • Be patient at the touristy spots: Hill Inlet lookout gets really packed but if you wait around you can get the entire lookout and view to yourself before the next tour group comes up. As many people are also on tours they have tight time constraints and will move on very quickly, so if you want to experience the view without the crowds, hang back and be patient.
  • Consider staying outside of Airlie Beach town to save money. We stayed on the outskirts of the town and were only a 25 minute walk along the scenic coastal walkway, which helped keep accomodation costs down.
  • Park your car early: If you’re driving in and want to leave your car at the dock, be sure to get there early to snag a spot. We noticed the day before that the carparks at the harbours were very full and realised that we needed to get in early to ensure a place to leave Bea, and you’ll also need a lot of coins for the parking meters as they didn’t accept credit card in August (hopefully that gets an upgrade soon!).

I would love to return to the Whitsundays in the future, this 2 day and 2 night cruise despite it’s short comings gave us a good taste for what there is to see in this beautiful part of the Great Barrier Reef. Though in the future I do hope that we would be able to charter our own boat and sail it ourselves. We have definitely moved on from the budget backpacker scene and prefer to do things at our own pace in our own way, though for the short notice and the inexpensive price it was still a great introduction to the Whitsundays.

Until next time, take care and travel widely.

Jelena & Siu On