Airlie Beach is the gateway to reef royalty, writes Christine Retschlag.
The sailing vessel Spank Me is creeping into Abell Point Marina, almost as if it is performing the dirty walk of shame after a big night out.
It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon in the Whitsundays and from my perky perch overlooking the marina at the new Gardens Bar, I have pole position in which to survey the boatloads of backpackers clutching casks of fruity lexia wine as they saunter towards the slew of sailing boats at port.
I’m in Airlie Beach, home to affectionately-named grotty yachties, boisterous backpackers, and well-heeled reef and resort lovers all seeking the same thing: a slice of Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef and her 74 surrounding islands in this delicious destination.
But try as I may, it’s impossible to define eclectic Airlie Beach, which boasts sailing, skydiving, sushi, and shucking bars for oyster and champagne lovers.
It’s a tiny town built on backpackers and boho chic and cocktails and dreams, combined with five-star resorts and restaurants galore. And let’s not forget the locals swimming languid laps in the lagoon.
From high on the hill in the Italian-inspired Toscana Village Resort and later, in the luxury Pinnacles Resort, I can hear the hum of its heart, the buzz of the bars down below, throbbing almost like a dull headache.
But there is nothing dull about Airlie Beach, for this is the gateway to reef royalty.
Cruise Whitsundays ferries me to the outer reef, a three-hour boat ride out of Airlie Beach, pausing briefly at Hamilton Island and punching into to the open ocean beyond, before I arrive at the Reefsleep pontoon where I will spend the day snorkelling before remaining with just nine other guests to sleep on the reef in swags under the stars.
Early afternoon and I board a semi-submersible submarine which soars like a stingray over the coral gardens of Hardy Reef. There’s both soft and hard coral out here and a giant grouper called George, plus a massive Māori wrasse named Maggie, her much-loved predecessor Wally having finally succumbed to old age.
The original Reefsleep pontoon was damaged beyond repair two years ago when Cyclone Debbie struck the Whitsundays, in a 36-hour rampage that caused more than one billion dollars damage to the region.