Whether you’re on a working holiday while backpacking or on a more tradition vacation, if you’re in Australia, you’ll want to make your way to the Great Barrier Reef. Being that it’s massive, there are several locations where you can go to explore the GBR, but perhaps the most beautiful is the Whitsunday Islands
. Home to 74 islands, crystal clear waters and some of the best sailing, snorkeling and SCUBA diving in the world, the Whitsundays alone may be reason enough to include Queensland on your itinerary in Oz.
Typically, upon hearing about SCUBA diving and, in particular, sailing, many people fear that they will be priced out of a destination. The Whitsundays, however, cater to everyone from the extravagantly wealthy boat owners to the backpackers looking to spend a few days at sea. A natural wonder like the Great Barrier Reef is often the great equalizer when it comes to prices, as businesses will seek to accommodate anyone looking to explore an environment this unique. That means that there is something for everyone in this beautiful corner of the world.
While in the Whitsundays, I was treated to a three-day/two-night sail in the Whitsundays on a catamaran named Whitsunday Getaway, which is operated by Islandive. Sailing out of Abel Point Marina in Airlie Beach, Islandive specializes in sailing and diving packages that allow visitors to explore the Great Barrier Reef and the beauty of the Whitsunday Islands while also getting in the water for some of the best snorkeling and SCUBA diving in the world.
The sleeping quarters on board may be small (as is the nature of any boat that is not a yacht or a luxury cruise ship), but the overall accommodations aboard the Whitsunday Getaway were stellar. We were served prawns, steak, chicken, tea and snacks throughout the excursion. Most of the boats in the Whitsundays are BYO, and Islandive’s vessels are no exception. So, if you want alcohol on your trip, grab some goon or cans of beer (glass is a bad idea on boats) before heading to the marina. You’ll find that, once you’ve finished a day of snorkeling and the sun is beginning to set, everyone will agree that it’s “beer o’clock.” (Aussies are fond of that phrase, and far be it from me to disagree with their nomenclature or logic.)
If you’re backpacking through Australia and want to save a bit of money while still treating yourself to a sail, you don’t need to compromise too much. In fact, you can hop aboard a former championship sailboat and feel the wind in your hair for a few days while not blowing your budget.
Through Explore Whitsundays, you can book various types of sailing packages, including many that are geared towards backpackers in both price and accommodations. One such boat, the Boomerang, was sailing while I was was on Whitsunday Getaway. While the sleeping accommodations were more open and shared by a larger group of people, the guests on board spoke highly of their time on the Boomerang, whose top speed far exceeded that of my catamaran. For a true sailing experience, a boat like the Boomerang can’t be beat. Passengers had ample opportunities to snorkel and see the reef while the boat had its sails down. The menu may be more limited, but if you’re looking to either save some money or simply enjoy the company of other backpackers and young travelers, this experience is the one for you.
One of the most iconic and oft-visited areas of the Whitsundays is Whitehaven Beach, which features some of the softest, most pristine sand of any beach in the world. As I spent a morning walking along the shore amongst the cliffs and breaking waves, I felt as if I was placing my feet into baby powder with each step. The scenic overlooks at Whitehaven Beach provide breathtaking views of the nearby islands and the changes in water color created by the reef below. It is nearly impossible to take a disappointing photograph in the Whitsundays, as the view in any direction appears as if its been created for the sole purpose of one day becoming a postcard image.
Most sailing companies include Whitehaven Beach in their packages, yet they manage to keep it from ever becoming over-crowded. As such, you can enjoy the soft sand, crashing waves and gorgeous views without bumping into too many fanny-packed travelers (or bum-bagged travelers, as the Aussies call them).
Know before you go
A trip to the Whitsundays does not require an extended stay. Airlie Beach provides a host of accommodations, but most people only spend a night before or after their sailing adventure. However, it’s definitely worth the trip to Queensland and the Whitsundays for the Great Barrier Reef alone. The experience of seeing the reef, the aquatic life and the seemingly boundless sky above makes it one of the most exquisite places in the world to sail, dive and snorkel. Even in the winter, this region of Australia stays relatively mild and comfortable. The rainy season (October through May – Australian summer) can make for some unpleasant sailing, so it’s often best to plan around that.
If you’re not certified to SCUBA, many companies will offer training dives that allow you dive down to 10 meters with a certified instructor. Training is handled on the boat and you’ll never be more than a few feet from your instructor once you’re in the water. If you are certified, be sure to bring your paperwork with you.
Don’t let the glamorous reputation of the Whitsundays convince you that you cannot afford it. It may be a vacation hot spot for Australia’s rich and famous, but it’s egalitarian when it comes to who can enjoy the seas. Whether you’re on a budget or looking to film an extravagant rap video, you can get yourself on a boat and close to the Great Barrier Reef. If you’ve traveled all the way to Australia, you owe it to yourself to make the trip up to the Whitsundays.
Mike Barish spent a week in Queensland, Australia on a trip sponsored by Backpacking Queensland to see how backpackers find employment and entertain themselves down under. He’ll be sharing what he learned about the logistics of working in Australia’s Sunshine State and the myriad activities that young travelers have at their disposal. Read other entries in his series HERE.