Sailing the Whitsundays was one of my most anticipated activities in Australia – sailing through paradise islands just invokes romantic pictures, doesn’t it? Not to mention the unbelievably picturesque Whitehaven Beach that’s become an icon of Australia.
The biggest problem with the Whitsundays is there are just SO many options for who to sail with. Do you want 2 days 2 nights? 2 days 1 night? A catamaran? A racing yacht? Do you want to spend the night on an island? Or sleep on the boat? And which is going to be the best boat? Which ones are geared up for partying and which ones are more chilled?
I was quite glad when bookme.com.au took this choice out of my hands (though there were still two choices – Mandrake and Freight Train. Freight Train was slightly cheaper so we opted for that one).
After our Fraser Island tour ended, we had a few days before getting to Airlie Beach. We took a detour from our coastal route three hours inland to Cracow, where I previously worked at a country pub, and caught up with friends there. They were short staffed and I ended up being roped in to help, which meant we stayed an extra day! (this is what my life is like!)
We also had a very brief stop in Rockhampton (known as the “beef capital of Australia”, although other than that there was a cathedral and that was about it) and, a four hour drive later, an afternoon around Mackay and Cape Hillsborough (more on Cape Hillsborough later, because we had an awesome wildlife experience there on the way back down!!). That four hour drive was the worst part of the entire east coast, because there is NOTHING. Nothing! For four hours!
We camped that night just south of Airlie Beach (in a BP car park! It was more glamorous than it sounds; we even had access to a hot shower!) and early the next morning, we headed up to the town to sort our parking and have a look around.
With nothing open and no one really around, there wasn’t much to form a first impression of Airlie Beach with. But I already liked something about it; there was a chilled but fun vibe.
With our car parking sorted, we took the path round to the marina to meet our tour – it was a pretty walk and I was already looking forward to coming back. We were met by a French woman and her young daughter, which we found a little strange considering this was a backpacker tour and, well, you don’t want a five-year-old around too many backpackers.
Then Desiree, our actual guide, arrived, along with an older gentleman who would be our captain. The French mother and daughter left us (I must admit the daughter was super cute and kept handing everyone pens to fill in the forms even once everyone had one!) and we were put into the capable hands of Desiree, one of the crew and our main guide.
There were about 20 of us on the tour altogether; not too crowded which was ideal. We set off shortly after the meet-up… and then our boat’s engine cut out.
Freight Train is not exactly the newest boat for the Whitsundays tours, but it does the job – except when it doesn’t. Luckily all was fixed fairly quickly, the captain tried to explain what had gone wrong but I think it went over all our heads, so goodness knows. What mattered was that we were moving again – and we had no problems for the rest of the tour.
Everyone sat on the deck for the journey towards the islands, and even though the weather was glorious, the sea was not. Ash sat near the front and quickly retreated back when he got soaked! (pictured above with the towel)
Our first stop was somewhere around Hook Island for some snorkelling. After beating my mild water phobia in Thailand, I was pretty excited to give it another go. Unfortunately, the water was pretty murky and the coral was dull. We didn’t see a lot, and a few people returned to the boat disappointed, although I was glad I did it. If you want a good snorkelling experience, make sure you do it around Cairns.
Over lunch, the captain asked us if we wanted to go and see some Aboriginal art instead of doing more snorkelling. Here’s the thing with Whitsundays tours: they change all the time! This can be down to weather, but it can also be down to the people, which is awesome but means you don’t always know exactly what you’ll see.
On the way in to Nara Inlet, we were invited to watch out for a different type of artwork.
Several of the rocks lining the water have been tagged by people who visited, with their boat name and the year. Since it’s now a national park, it’s illegal to add any more to these, however because they came with the national park, these now cannot be removed. It’s a bit of interesting history, and makes you wonder what your parents might have been up to! Most of them are from the ’70s but as you can see from this, there was one from 1968!
I have to say, I think I found this more interesting than the actual Aboriginal art, at N’garo cave.
Some steps led up to a small cave with these simple drawings. I believe one of them is a jellyfish and the other is a turtle, although we came up with many other ideas like hot air balloons and other (un)likely answers.
One of the crew had never been here and joined us on the walk – I chatted to him and discovered that he’s from Shetland!! A tiny dot right next to my tiny dot on the map. He told me that he met one other Orcadian in Australia, and at the time I didn’t ask who; after all, there are 20,000+ of us. Well would you believe it, who do I see commenting on a friend’s Facebook status a week later but this guy! And it turns out that’s who he was talking about!
As we were about to leave the inlet, a cockatoo landed close to our heads and the next thing we knew, the Shetlander was feeding it crackers. We spent far too long photographing the bird and laughing as Desiree tried to catch its attention after it landed on Jonno’s arm! Just look at its cheeky face.
However it was time to find somewhere to stop for the night, and I was distraught when we stopped in the middle of a rough sea. The captain apologised in advance that it was probably not going to be a great night – where they normally stopped overnight in an inlet was apparently even worse.
For someone who doesn’t get seasick, I wasn’t too worried about being on open water (after all, how many rough journeys have I had in Scotland?! Australia couldn’t be that bad!), and we had dinner upstairs as we watched the sunset.
Then we gathered around downstairs for a chat, and it all went downhill from there. Eventually I had to excuse myself and went to lie down, and I never did get back up. I don’t know how well others fared, but that was NOT a good night for me!
The next morning, our first stop would be Whitehaven Beach. You have to get here early before the tides change, as it makes the beach trail harder to access by boat – unfortunately this means it can get pretty crowded because all the tours have to do the same thing.
After the short trail to the lookout, you can go down onto the beach itself.
Which is stunning.
The beach is unique in that it’s made up purely of silica instead of sand (like Lake McKenzie on Fraser Island). This means it’s incredibly soft sand and was kind of hard to walk through!
Also the water is so clear here, it’s unbelievable! (ignore my lion’s mane though, Jesus! What happened there?!) We even saw a little shark, although stupidly I had left my underwater camera at the other end of the beach and I didn’t manage to get a good picture of it.
The only problem with the tides here is that you don’t get all that long on the beach. And, in a total travel fail, can you believe I forgot to wear my bikini?! So I couldn’t even swim!
Around mid-morning, we had to leave and even then, we had to push the little dinghy boat out quite some way to be able to get back to the main boat.
It was time to do some more snorkelling before lunch. After the previous experience, I wasn’t too sure if it was worth it, but there was no point not doing it.
It was much better than the first attempt. Still not quite the clear waters you expect from the Great Barrier Reef (I know, this is technically not the GBR, it’s the fringing reef) but you could actually see some colour in the coral and there were lots and lots of fish. We even saw a sea turtle from the boat which got us very excited, but no one found it while snorkelling!
After lunch, it was time to start heading back to the mainland, although we went the long way round to see as much scenery as possible. People started driving the boat, and were given five or ten minutes each, but only a few of us went for it and it took me a while to pluck up the courage.
By the time I decided to go for it, I thought I’d missed my chance.
Instead, I had everyone’s lives put into my hands as we were heading through the main water back to shore, and after about ten minutes I asked if anyone else wanted a go. No one seemed to, so I went to hand the wheel back to the captain.
“Oh no,” he said. “You’re doing a really good job, keep going!”
Well… this was interesting. What was even more interesting was when we reached the marina (I literally drove from the islands to the marina – that’s a long way!!) with its maze of breeze blocks, and I HAD TO NAVIGATE THROUGH IT WITHOUT CRASHING. I only handed the wheel back to the captain when it came time to park the boat.
Not gonna lie though – it was one of my favourite experiences on our travels, and I got one of my favourite pictures out of it too!
Even in my starry leggings!
So – would I recommend Freight Train? Absolutely! If you fancy a racing yacht, that is. If you’re more of a catamaran kind of person, I always, ALWAYS hear good things about Wings.
The crew we had were all lovely, and that night a few of us went out for some drinks in Airlie Beach. We were planning to only stay for a couple – those plans were long lost at 3am after karaoke!
So the Whitsundays was a lot of fun. But it wasn’t my highlight of the east coast – by quite some distance. But being the absolute must-do activity on the backpacker trail, you shouldn’t give it a miss.
As mentioned previously, we booked our Fraser and Whitsundays tours together on bookme.com.au for a blinding $434. The Freight Train tour alone is worth $389. However on doing more research, they release two spots for each tour for even cheaper – I found Freight Train for $195 and Fraser Dingo for $175: an unbelievable $370 for both tours. This means you’ll have specific dates for both tours, whereas if you book the package, the second tour will be open-dated. Also if you don’t get those two deals, it’ll still be cheaper to do the package. (ALL PRICES LISTED IN $AUD NOT $USD)