With a second day disappointingly unfit for our seaplane tour, we decided to make the most of our now-extended time at Airlie Beach and booked a last-minute boat tour of the Whitsundays with Ocean Rafting (at the recommendation of our lovely Air BnB hosts). The company uses rigid-hulled inflatable boats, commonly used as rescue vessels, to make the 65-mile tour around Whitsunday Island. Driven by 500 hp, it was immediately obvious what a high-performance craft it was; the boat could turn on a dime and just glide over the waves. Our vessel, the Joyride, spent a portion of the ride wake-jumping with a second Ocean Rafting boat and playfully spinning circles outside the marina.
The tour first took us to a small cove off of Hook Island for some snorkeling along one the inner, fringing reefs of the Great Barrier. After donning our stinger suits and jumping into the incredibly warm water, we were immediately awestruck with the abundance of coral – vibrant shades of blue, orange, purple, yellow and white… some forming large, flat plates, others with spiked arms, and many with delicate, lacy or scalloped edges. Small yellow and turquoise fish darted in and out of the reef, while conspicuous giant clams with iridescent blue and green hues opened and closed their frilled shells as they sit nestled amongst the rocks and corals. I seriously could have just stayed in the water all day! We excitedly attempted to take our first underwater footage with the GoPro, but as it was just a snorkel and we inconveniently had to continually return to the surface for air after diving down, the video’s a little erratic. If you are prone to motion sickness, you may want to stick to viewing the stills… or pop a couple Dramamine first… whatever suits your fancy.
After the morning snorkel, we headed to Whitehaven Beach for some lunch and an afternoon of relaxing on the famous white sands. One of the reasons we ultimately selected Ocean Rafting was that the semi-rigid inflatables allowed exclusive access to landing on the sandbar at Hill Inlet, one of the most photographed spots in Australia and one that was high atop my must-see list. As the first person to disembark our pontoon boat, I sunk my feet into the soft, silky sand at Hill Inlet and enjoyed the brief moment of solitude standing at the special spot. From the sandbar, we headed up a small, forested hill to the overlook, which peered out over the swirling sands and turquoise ripples of Hill Inlet. The view was just incredible, and we were fortunate to have the sun emerge and illuminate the wispy waters below.
We descended the other side of the inlet to Tongue Bay, where we reboarded our boat and cruised slowly along Whitehaven Beach, a 7-km strip of stark white sand along Whitsunday Island, the largest of the 74 islands in the archipelago. The sand here is among the purest in the world, comprised of 98% silica. We landed at Whitehaven’s southern tip and spent the next couple of hours marveling at the pristine sand, undoubtedly the softest I’ve ever felt. Moreover, the sand doesn’t retain heat; even though it was well into the upper 90s, the sand remained astonishingly cool. Stephan further noticed that as we walked along, the sand made an interesting swishing sound, like sweeping your hand back and forth across nylon. Thus, he proceeded to amble up and down the beach, deliberately skimming his feet over the surface of the sand to make fun noises (as heard in the audio he recorded below).
Just before boarding the Joyride for one last zip back to Airlie Beach, we stumbled upon a goanna, a colloquial term for Australia’s monitor lizards. The beautifully-patterned lace monitor, the second largest in the country, was curiously wandering around at the edge of the forest and the sand, and decided to pose quite handsomely for a few quick shots. Eventually, we bid farewell to our lizard pal and enjoyed one last rush of the wind in our hair as we cruised back to port, satisfied that we made the decision to see the islands and inner reef from an additional perspective.
The sun here is incredibly fierce, so I decided to purchase some shades and a beach hat for added UV protection. These were the best purchases ever, and from the K-mart in Cairns nonetheless (far superior to the stores in the U.S.):
Sunglasses, kids’ department = $3 USD
Bucket hat, women’s department = $2.50 USD (on sale)