Here’s how to enjoy The Whitsundays with someone who might not have the same holiday vision as you.
Flying into Proserpine – the gateway airport to Airlie Beach and The Whitsundays – I squint into the morning sun and peer down into the dazzling vista of blues and greens that vividly speak of Queensland. Endless patches of sugar cane sway lazily in the sea breeze. Farming fields are dotted with homesteads, sheds, cattle and tractors. Trains laden with goods speed through paddocks, industrial hubs and outlying villages.
There’s the Great Barrier Reef, the inner reef, and Airlie’s frenetic rock-walled marinas bursting at the seams with boats, yachts, dinghies, ships, fishing gear. I can see people heading in and out of shops and businesses dotted along the working harbour’s paths.
I look down at the thousands of houses peppering the sides of hills, jostling for ocean and inlet views. Soon the motels, hotels, caravan parks, cafes and pubs with umbrellas offering shade appear. It’s all as busy as ant’s nests before the rain.
Driving along the water’s edge in Airlie Beach, my partner Jeff laughs as I excitedly point out people jet-packing. Their bodies shoot out of the water and into the air like Superman taking off, water cascading like yellow diamonds flung from the sun. “All yours,” he shakes his head as he drives. He’s tapping his fingers along to the 70s and 80s tunes on the radio – The Eagles, Cold Chisel and Def Leopard. Beer and BBQ songs suit this place.
I’m excited, thinking of the adrenaline-pumping action and snorkelling out there on and in the water. Jeff, on the other hand, is here for a flop-and-drop holiday. He’s expecting oodles of relaxation, sun-bathing and a little low-key exploration on the side.
Michelle: The Thundercat and sailing The Whitsundays
My first day out in the Whitsundays started out with a dreadlocked rasta-looking dude pulling up to reception at Airlie Beach Discovery Park. He drove a red bus with Red Cat Adventures painted in bright yellow across the side. “Don’t Worry be Happy” was blasting from the radio.
Jeff waved goodbye from the palm-tree surrounding pool as I climbed aboard to everyone’s jubilant good mornings. At Coral Sea Marina we all slapped on hats, sunnies and sunscreen and tried on wetsuits. Then, we boarded one of the fastest catamarans in the Whitsundays – The Thundercat. The big red beast is designed for stability and speed, so it’s perfect for those prone to seasickness, our loud and jovial guide who calls everyone “My Friend!” tells us. “Let’s do it!”
It’s a 9-to-5 day out, but the hours fly by as there is so much to see and do. We visit Whitehaven Beach, which lives up to its name as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. We spend a couple of hours exploring, wandering across sand so white it’s hard to look at for too long. If heaven was a beach, this would be it. Sting rays glide past our legs in the shallows, people float by, gazing at the sky, smiling. Tiny little figures swim further out into the reef, snorting and crying with delight into their snorkels as myriad of fish, turtles, reef and leopard sharks make sporadic appearances.
For lunch, dine on Asian-style noodle salad, sliced meats and cheese, quiche, bread rolls and green garden salads. The, we zoom off back into the inner reef where we find two spots on the way home to snorkel. There’s such an abundant variety of marine life it’s like leaping into a billionaire’s gigantic fish tank. The water is a lovely temperature and no one wants to leave, especially when a few giant sea turtles appear. They cruise around with everyone, as curious and as happy to see us as we are to see them.
Heading home, the Thundercat smashed through set after set of waves. With each new leap, we’re all in awe, holding our breath as it rises up, the water sprays us all, and then somehow it comes back down, not too hard, and comfortably settles back into its two sturdy hulls. It’s like a theme park thrill ride.
Jeff : Airlie Beach Lagoon and lunch at The Pub
Meanwhile, Jeff took his first day in paradise at a much slower pace. He settled himself on to a beach towel by one of the region’s signature (and free!) attractions: Airlie Beach Lagoon. It was busy enough to be entertaining, with plenty of room to swim, float, sit and enjoy, but quiet enough to still hear the wind in the palm trees and the cries of sea birds.
The 4,000 square meter saltwater lagoon, located right on Airlie’s foreshore, was a big deal for the town. In this part of the world, you can’t swim in the waterholes or the ocean, unless you want to be eaten a crocodile or attacked by stingers. After a few hours of relaxing, Jeff takes the advice of locals and heads to The Pub for lunch.
The Pub (formerly known as the Airlie Beach Hotel) opened its doors on the Esplanade in 1968. It recently had a $10 million dollar refurb and now has a huge outdoor seating area with smart black and white wicker seating, green walls, an outdoor stage for bands complete with its own bar. It’s right on the water’s edge with stunning view of Airlie Beach. With a craft beer, a burger ‘with the lot’ and a live band playing, Jeff’s happy. Afterwards he takes another stroll down the esplanade then walks into town to go shopping for new boardshorts. The choices are mind-boggling, but its not the worst problem in the world to have.
Michelle: Skydiving and scenic flights over The Whitsundays
It’s not for everyone, but for many adrenaline-seekers, nothing beats jumping out of a plane at 15,000 feet. There’s no feeling like freefalling at 220km an hour for a heart-hammering 60 seconds, with the earth so far away that it looks like part of a school-room’s world globe. Before you know it, you’re floating under a canopy for another five to seven minutes. You finally catch your breath, excitedly sucking in views of the Great Barrier Reef that are seen by so few.
Those minutes of floating seem to stretch on and on. I believe it’s one of the most peaceful things that you can ever experience. It’s as close as you can be to understanding how a bird might feel, soaring through the sky with no worries weighing you down. I was so excited I almost leapt out of the open door before my instructor made it to the end of 3, 2 1 and GO! My smile was so wide that it hurt. By the time we hit the beach, I was so full of adrenaline that I felt weightless. As Skydive Australia’s staff say: “Beat your fears, push your boundaries and step outside your comfort zone; once you’ve taken the plunge you’ll feel like you can achieve anything.”
Back on the ground, I treated myself to some downtime at The Garden Bar Bistro on Abell Point Marina. This place offers awe-inspiring views of the Whitsunday Islands and the Coral Sea. Light-filled and beautifully designed, with lots of greenery, chunky wooden stools and a beer garden to lounge in, it’s also great for fancy yacht- and people-watching over a cocktail or two. I treated myself to a Pinot Grigio and Cuban Fish Tacos with coriander Cabbage Slaw with a side of salad and chips. I was looking forward to telling Jeff about my culinary find when we met up.
It’s hard to believe that I managed to up the ante even further. After lunch, I booked in for a scenic flight with GSL Aviation over the Whitsundays and the Great Barrier Reef. The exhilarating flight (definitely not scary as there are no loops or crazy dips in the sky) lasts for 60 minutes. We glide peacefully over the region’s iconic sights, including Airlie Beach, national parks, river systems, the Whitsundays and, of course, the Great Barrier Reef. The highlight for many people, including myself, is seeing the famous Heart Reef, which is only visible from the air. It’s like seeing a postcard come to life beneath you.
Jeff: Snorkling on Hardy Reef with a Whitsundays day cruise
Sleeping in on a getaway is a major goal for most people. For Jeff, it’s up there with the priorities of enjoying a beer and BBQ by the pool. So we checked into the Mantra Club Croc, which locals and tourists flock to when seeking a family-friendly niche of Airlie Beach. It’s also a hotspot for couples and groups of friends. The restaurant offers freshly made café/pub style food in a light and airy open-plan space. It also has a poolside bar, ensconced in dense tropical garden complete with palm trees and mountains towering behind the vista. Kids love the pool as there are shallow parts like little low-tide beaches to paddle in. Adults can recline in the shade or lie in the sun.
Speaking of pools, Toscana Village Resort is an expansive offering of fully equipped Tuscan-styled apartments gracefully staggered down the side of a hill overlooking the Whitsundays. And the four pools are a dream for water-lovers not keen on hotels. Cascading waterfalls and a BBQ area means you don’t really have to head into town or down to the beach.
However Jeff did go out to explore The Whitsundays. And he did so at a speed much more relaxing that the Thundercat, with Cruise Whitsundays.
This award-winning cruise out to the enormous Heart Pontoon on Hardy Reef has you out on the water from 9-to-5. It offers something for everybody: lie about on the sun decks, check out the sea life from a semi-submarine aquarium, snorkel, scuba dive and dine on an impressive buffet heartily stocked with seafood, meats, salads. There’s even a bar so you can have a few drinks on the rooftop, or in air-conditioned comfort inside.
The marine life at Hardy Reef steal the show. One creature in particular – the massive, big-lipped friendly Maori Wrasse called Maggie – seems to be everyone’s favourite. You can even swim with her and have your photo taken. She might be close to 200 kilos but she’s as friendly as a Labrador pup and thrives on the attention. Maggie was once a she but is now a he. Her breed is a protogynous hermaphrodite – a fish that has the ability to transition from female to male. He’s a lot larger than ‘she’ once was, and now sports a lump on his head. Luckily, he’s kept his glorious instagram-awesome colours.
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