Among all the recommendations people have given about my time in Australia, the recurring one has been to stay and sail in Queensland’s Whitsunday islands.
The only problem is, it’s a friggin expensive trip. Return airfare for one person alone can cost $500. Staying on any boat that isn’t a backpacker-type, multiple-person dorm with lots of goon flowing will run you about the same cost of the airfare per night. This doesn’t account for accommodation in Airlie Beach, from which most boat trips depart, meals in town or the ferry from Hamilton Island if you fly into that airport.
It makes sense, then, that it took me almost three years to get up to the Whitsundays, for only a four-day trip at that. But the trip is definitely worth the money and effort — it just might require some finesse with scheduling to make sure you can get in all you want to do without paying an arm and a leg.
Choose your dates wisely
It cost several hundred dollars less to fly home from the Whitsundays on Christmas Day. After Christmas, the fares shot up for basically the rest of the Australian summer season. However, Christmas time is also when the wet season starts — something we learned as we sat in rain jackets in the back of the boat as it poured for hours on the last day of our sail. You’ll also see backpackers out in full-force in Airlie during this time of year. If you’re a backpacker yourself, this is great — if you’re an older couple or a family, it might not be ideal.
If you’re looking for a mid-year holiday instead, numerous airlines are having Boxing Day sales till New Year’s Eve that include cheap flights to the Whitsundays between May and September 2013. Remember, even though this is during Australian “winter,” it really doesn’t get cold up in Queensland, so you should still be fine for a beachy holiday. It also seems to be consistently cheaper to fly into Hamilton airport over Proserpine, which is on the mainland and closer to Airlie Beach.
Give yourself a day before your sailing trip
The boats leave and return on certain days of the week. From our research, Saturday was a popular day for departures — usually in the afternoon. Our two-night trip returned on Monday afternoon. It all depends on the length of the sail you want, but I recommend arriving into Airlie the day or night before you are due to leave. While you would avoid having to book a hotel for a night if you arrive the same day as your sailing trip, the possibility of flights delays and the 60-minute-plus ferry ride from the Hamilton airport to the mainland will likely make it too-tight a squeeze.
Really read the full description of the boats
We researched for days before choosing our ideal boat. No only are there different types of boats you can take — tall ships or fast yachts, for instance –, there are also trips that cater to scuba diving while others focus on snorkeling or stand-up paddle boarding or fishing. Some boats can hold 35 people while others will only take 10 passengers. It’s not always immediately clear what type of environment the boat offers, and the name of the boat alone won’t reveal much (ours was called “On Ice,” which might sound a bit wild, but it was a small boat that held 10 people, and most of us were in our 30s and coupled-up). You can go for just a night or a whole week, and most boats have at least one private room option, though this will cost more than a shared dorm.
Final tip: Pack light. Most boats won’t let you bring large pieces of luggage or backpacks on board. Bring a small backpack or other soft bag.
Look for hotels with no minimum stay
We had our work cut out for us. We were staying in Airlie for one night before going on a two-day sail and then staying another night in a hotel — all in the days leading up to Christmas. Most hotels will require minimum stays of two consecutive days around this time of year. Thankfully, the Airlie Beach Hotel let us book on two non-consecutive nights. If you can’t find hotels that waive the minimum stay requirement, there are several hostels in the area that you can book into. Wotif is a good option for searching.
Get off the main strip
Airlie Beach’s main drag is Shute Harbour Road, and there is a walkway along the water you can take from Able Point Marina, where both your airport ferry and sail boat will drop you off, all the way into town. At the Marina beyond the curve of the main part of Shute Harbour, there’s the Denman Cellars beer cafe with brews from around the world (I’m talking beyond Belgium and Germany — think Lebanon, India, Morocco) and a Turkish restaurant with an inviting atmosphere of colorful seat cushions and foliage. Just around the corner from the end of the main street is Fish D’vine, which has fresh, locally-caught seafood and a rum bar. And facing the lagoon is Mr Bones, a gourmet pizza and beer joint with excellent (and large) pies.
Don’t swim in the water
Brendan and I thought it odd when we arrived on our ferry and saw no one in the water at the beach. That’s because the jellyfish are rampant there, not to mention the crocodiles that have been sighted in the mangrove trees gathered in certain areas of the shore. Even on our trip, everyone who went in the water had to wear a stinger suit. Most people swim in the lagoon, a patrolled pool along the beach, set up similarly to Brisbane’s man-made lagoon.
Have you been to the Whitsundays? What are your tips for a great stay?