Situated just 20 degrees south of the equator lies Airlie Beach, a popular tourist town in North Queensland, Australia. Airlie Beach lies on the central coast of Queensland and is an entry point for people to visit the Great Barrier Reef. But what makes Airlie Beach a hot spot for tourists is its proximity to the Whitsunday Islands, a collection of 74 continental islands best known for their majestic beauty and relaxing beaches. Possibly one of the most well-known beaches is Whitehaven Beach located on Whitsunday Island, which is known for its bright white sand, composed of 98% pure silica. While formally inhabited by the Ngaro people, today this island is uninhabited; the only way of reaching this secluded paradise is by boat or plane.
While visiting Airlie Beach, I took a trip to Whitsunday Island with Ocean Rafting, a fantastic company that offers two exciting and fully guided tours of Airlie Beach – one called Northern Exposure, the other called Southern Lights. Both tours grant guests access to Whitsunday Island National Park, the Hill Inlet (famously pictured on postcards), Whitehaven Beach, and pristine coral reefs for snorkeling.
When I arrived for the Southern Lights tour, I was met by helpful Ocean Rafting hosts who assisted everyone when signing in for the trip as well as being fitted for a ‘Stinger Suit’ (a one-piece wetsuit that protects guests against potential stings from jellyfish). After all 30 guests had signed in, we boarded our vessel, a 12m semi-rigid inflatable boat originally designed as a rescue craft. With 500hp engines, these small but powerful boats easily zipped through the water, yet at the same time, we felt quite safe in the hands of our two crew members. As we slowly exited the marina, the crew detailed the safety features of the boat, explained what to do in case of emergency and went over a few rules that help to ensure all guests have a pleasant trip. After we left the marina, our crew took the raft up to full speed (65km/hr or 35knots) – sun shining, 33-degree heat, immaculate turquoise waters, wind rushing past – the 45min ride to our first stop set the stage for what turned out to be the highlight adventure of our trip.
On the way to our first stop, we sped past island after island, big, small, inhabited, secluded, all containing kilometers of beaches, separated by lush green vegetation. Our first stop was in a secluded inlet of one of the Whitsunday Islands.
The raft anchored in the inlet and our guide (a marine biologist) gave us a quick lesson on the surrounding coral reefs – their formation, inhabitants of the reefs and the importance of preservation. The crewmembers explained the features of the particular reef we were visiting, instructing us of the best places to swim, as well as going over safety precautions. Then we strapped on our snorkel masks, zipped up our protective stinger suits, and jumped into the water.
We were given an hour to swim and dive with the resident marine life, examining the beautiful colors of the coral and fish living on that reef. Unfortunately, due to high winds the week previous, the waves had unearthed much debris from the sea floor thus decreasing our visibility in the water. However, we were still able to see schools of fish and dive deep enough to view the beautiful colors of the coral. This was one of the major highlights of this tour. As we discovered, the Northern Exposure tour differs from the Southern Lights tour as it has more snorkel time at different reefs, while the Southern Lights tour has more relaxing beach time.
After swimming, we boarded the raft and were whisked off to Whitsunday Island for some hiking. We reached the island at Tongue Bay and took a guided bushwalk 15 minutes to Hill Inlet Lookout where we captured the breathing views of the white sand and blue hues of the Inlet bend. Our guide said no two photos are ever the same, as the level of the tide can change the appearance of the inlet dramatically.
From the lookout, we hiked down to meet the boat on the beach to continue on with our travels. Leaving Hill Inlet, we traveled to Whitehaven Beach, where we had lunch provided by Ocean Rafting. We had 1.5 hours to relax on the white silica sands, swim in the aqua water, and snorkel in a smaller nearby coral reef. We then headed back to Airlie Beach, passing through numerous islands each more majestic than the previous.
The Southern Lights tour offered by Ocean Rafting was honestly one of the best excursions I took while visiting Airlie Beach. I opted for the Southern Lights tour because I waS interested in relaxing on Whitehaven Beach as opposed to having an additional hour of snorkeling at a different reef with the Northern Exposure Tour. The two guides were wonderful, very friendly, professional, and always available to answer questions about the region.
Rates for both tours are identical with adults priced at $155, Children at $99 and a Family Package $464 in Australian Dollars. For an additional charge of 10$ Ocean Rafting provides a buffet lunch consisting of cold pasta salads, potato salad, noodles, deli meats, chicken, and fruit. The lunch was tasty and more was than enough to feed the 20 odd passengers on the boat who purchased the meal. Other extras available for purchase include soft drinks, beer, and chocolate.
I highly recommend this tour for anyone visiting Queensland, Australia. I experienced an amazing carefree day trip that enabled us to try our hand at snorkeling, have an up-close experience with the brilliance of a living coral reef, and see some of the most scenic beaches in the region. It doesn’t get better than that!