BEACH BABY GROWS UP TO BECOME SEASIDE STAR
Described as the “Heart of the Great Barrier Reef”, The Whitsundays is enjoying record visitor numbers. Traveltalk’s JON UNDERWOOD takes a trip to Airlie Beach and finds a town offering sophistication by the sea.
ONE OF the best things about an Aussie beachside town is the myriad ways you can get out and enjoy the wet stuff.
You can fly above it, glide across it or swim beneath it.
Airlie Beach has morphed from its earlier existence as a backpacker’s haven to offer a more sophisticated and slightly less grungy holiday option.
You’ll still see plenty of young things with straggly hair, inked-up limbs and wide-eyed enthusiasm, but now they’re alongside families and those looking for modern amenities and more upmarket facilities.
“Airlie Beach has grown up,” says Jeff Aquilina, owner of the boutique Heart Hotel, as we chat in the restaurant attached to the property (more on that later).
“There’s really good dining now, great retail and hotels that cater to the higher end. It’s morphing into a more cosmopolitan destination with a mix of younger people and the more affluent.”
My wife and I were delighted to be invited up to The Whitsundays for a short break as part of Bonza’s inaugural flight from Newcastle to Proserpine. While she first visited in the 80s, it was my first time in a region Jeff describes as “the Caribbean of Australia”.
Clearly, I’m late to the party, though, as latest figures from the National Visitor Survey show the Whitsundays enjoying record tourism numbers. The interstate market just clocked up an impressive 2,398,000 nights, an increase of 108 per cent on 2022 data.
Eager to get out and explore, we began our adventures in style aboard the 85ft ocean-going catamaran Camira. We drew envious glances from those packed onto smaller day cruisers as our sleek purple boat pulled out of harbour and headed out for a tour of the local islands.
Our first stop was Hook Passage for some snorkelling and with it my first experience of a “stinger suit”. For those who’ve never had to wear one, this is a skin-tight, space-age piece of clothing that prevents extremely unpleasant jellyfish stings.
I went through all kind of bodily contortions to get the thing on, but as the alternative would have been far more painful it was worth all the twisting and pulling.
Unfortunately, overnight rain hindered visibility somewhat and the stretch of reef we visited wasn’t at its colourful best. Undaunted, we climbed back aboard and sailed on to Whitehaven Beach, regularly voted one of the best in the world.
It was easy to see why with sand the consistency of talcum powder and the clear turquoise waters. If there’s a better spot in Australia to spend an hour or so just contemplating life and all it’s marvels, I’ve yet to find it.
Having circumnavigated Whitsunday Island, it was time to head home and my favourite part of the tour. Heading back to shore, sail up, adult beverage in hand as the sun was setting over the yardarm was just spectacular.
I’m a firm believer in the notion that if you’re going to do an adrenalin-inducing activity for the first time, it’s a good idea to do it with one of the best in the business.
And so it was I chose to break my jet ski cherry with a company that’s won numerous accolades, including Australia’s number one tourism experience in Tripadvisor’s 2022 Travellers Choice Awards.
Whitsunday Jetski Tours operate several tours and no licence or experience is necessary. You can ride solo or as a passenger (minimum age eight) but having now experienced the thrill of piloting one of these babies I thoroughly recommend solo as the way to go.
After an extensive safety briefing it was time to hit the water and hit it we did, often getting up to a respectable 60kph (they are speed limited for amateurs – the pros can go much quicker).
During the two hours or so you’re out on the water there’s the chance to spot dolphins and turtles, but truth be told I was having way too much fun to look anywhere else than straight ahead as we banked and bounced our way along.
I’m usually something of a ‘dry bob’ when it comes to activities but if you ever have a chance to jet ski, grab it with both hands…and hang on!
LIFE’S A BEACH
When we weren’t enjoying water sports or lazing by the lagoon, we spent our time shopping in the many boutique stores along the main street of Airlie Beach, delighting in the wide range of accents we heard as we went.
Dinner was enjoyed at a different restaurant every night and as usual, it’s always best to follow your nose (or instincts) when picking where to chow down. The variety and quality on offer were extremely impressive.
As mentioned earlier, my wife first visited Airlie Beach almost 40 years ago so noticed a huge amount of development had taken place in the intervening years. I asked Jeff if he was worried that the place would lose its original charm?
“Some of the older buildings might be redeveloped into more modern buildings but I don’t think we’ll ever lose that village atmosphere.”
Amen to that.
WHERE TO STAY
It’s not often that a hotel gets to live up to its name.
When our flight home was delayed, we were faced with the possibility of walking the streets of Airlie Beach for several hours.
The Heart not only extended our check out time until it was time to go to the airport – they did it for free. Now that’s what I call really looking after your guests.
The hotel opened in 2017 and is located right in the centre of town, just a stroll to the popular lagoon swimming pool, bars, restaurants and shops.
Owner Jeff Aquilina designed the interiors himself and has achieved his ambition to give the property a “beachside chic” feeling. There’s even a mini art gallery on the second floor for those of a creative bent.
Our designer queen room had a water view and a balcony, my favourite Appelles amenities, flat screen TV and all the mod cons you could want from such a boutique hotel. I found the whole place bright, fresh and comfortable.
One small piece of local knowledge: the hotel’s location has both advantages and disadvantages, as many of the neighbouring bars have live music into the late hours. If you like an early night you may want to pack earplugs.