Spotting the aqua blue water from the plane window made it real… I was heading to paradise. Brooke, Meg, Alli and I landed safely at the tiny airport in the middle of the rainforest. We grabbed our luggage off a rusty cart before cabbing it in the rain to Airlie Beach about an hour away, taking
in views of green shrubbery and rainclouds hovering above volcanic mountains along the way. Upon arrival at the hostel, we didn’t know if we had entered a backpackers’ haven or summer camp. Rows of colorfully painted log cabins wound through the jungle – ours tucked deep into the trees boasting about eight bunks. We quickly met some international friends sharing our bungalow and headed off (after a much-needed shower) to explore the tiny beach town.
Airlie Beach is basically a resting point for backpackers about to sail the tropics and dive the famed Great Barrier Reef. It has all the essentials – lagoons and pools at which to chill during the day, restaurants and cheap bars, and some gorgeous views of the ocean. We explored, swam, laid out, met some friends, and booked our three day sailing trip which would commence the next day. We enjoyed some surprisingly yummy Chinese food at a
rooftop restaurant, followed by some surprisingly disgusting wine spoiled by the sun. That night, many pitchers of Snakebites later, (delicious red mix of lager
and cider), we were teaching foreigners drinking games parked on a picnic bench in a packed backpacker bar. The night concluded at a club Mama Africa where we
sipped fruity cocktails and showed off our moves on the zebra-striped dance floor.
The next morning Meg, Brooke and I, still not quite used to the time difference, woke at 7am and decided to go for a walk along the beach. We
were disappointed by some heavy rain, and prayed to the Aussie gods that this go away before our sailboat departed the harbor. Alli met up with us for some indulgence in a calorie-packed breakfast before some pool time/packing up for our trip and stocking up on cheap beer. 60 beers and some hard liquor should do the trick
right? Little did we know we’d have to take the shoelace express all the way to the harbor on the other side of town. (Lugging the many cases of beer in the hot sun is not my fondest memory of Airlie Beach.) There were no complaints,
however, as the sun had finally made its entrance – and at the perfect time.
Satisfying our inner wanderlust, we anxiously boarded our 83-foot vessel dubbed “The British Defender” where we would live the next few days. We and about 25 other backpackers from around the globe would embark on this sailing trip around the eighty-plus Whitsunday Islands. We made new friends from Ireland, England, France, Sweden, Scotland, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, and more… and made particularly close ties with UK mates Tom,
Ryan, and Neil who would keep us laughing the whole trip. The crew of three wasted no time leaving the harbor and setting sail towards, for me, the unknown. Our eclectic gang was instructed to sit port side, feet dangling off
the edge just inches from the blue water as we glided through the waves and passed gorgeous island after island. The jutting islands were endless… I could look at that view forever. We celebrated with some cold beers and even got a chance to help by raising the main sail and directed the schooner. After a few hours and about 50 photos, the sun began to drop and the sky began to change accordingly as though it were a choreographed performance. Our crew nestled
itself amidst a cove of picturesque islands and dropped anchor for the night. That evening under the stars is one I will never forget. We took turns playing our I-Pods and dancing to songs from everyone’s countries, and stayed up drinking and partying until our sleepy eyes forced us in the cabin to our pint-sized beds.
Waking the next morning to a sunrise on the Great Barrier Reef was definitively my favorite moment in Australia. I brushed my teeth with a water bottle and washed it down with a coffee. We were all peacefully euphoric
as we ate our gourmet breakfasts, (all of our delicious meals were cooked in the cabin by crew member, the fabulous Lou), and freed the anchor to explore some
beaches. First we sailed to the famed Whitehaven Beach, home of secluded white sand beach and amazing views. It is rated one of the top beaches in the world, and for good reason. Our crew were the only people on the beach that day, which made it feel like we were the only people in the world – in our very own slice of paradise. We took some of my all-time favorite photos, explored the long beach, and swam in the shallow blue waters in our embarrassing yet buoyant full-body wetsuits, (to protect from jellyfish season).
After a few hours and a short dingy ride back to the British Defender, we set sail for a scenic cove boasting lively coral home to thousands
of colorful fish… making it a perfect place to snorkel. Snorkel we did – and I couldn’t get enough! I followed around a giant Maori-head fish (named “Elvis”) that was honestly larger than the size of my body… and found myself venturing further and further from the crowd – in a moment of pure serenity in this amazing underwater world. I peeked my head up once to get my bearings and noted two things: 1) I was the only person still in the water; 2) my sailboat was much tinier than I had remembered. Shit. Thank goodness my crew didn’t forget me, so I paddled my way back to the boat to the laughs of my sun-bathing friends.
Another tasty dinner, impressive sunset, and drunken party night later, we sailed back towards land mid-day much to our dismay. After seriously considering quitting our jobs in America and becoming professional beach bums, we reluctantly bid adieu to our crew and had a last ocean side supper with our three English shipmates. Though we were less-than-thrilled to be leaving the
tropics, our trip was not over.
We headed to the airport to fly south into Queensland, home of the exciting city… Melbourne.