I am always looking out for new experiences, wherever I may find myself.
Published November 28th 2014
There are two reasons to visit Airlie Beach and neither of them involve actually staying in the town. The first is the Whitsunday Islands, a chain of mainly uninhabited islands that offers one of the best yachting destinations in the Southern Hemisphere. The second is of course the Great Barrier Reef.
Ocean Rafting is the tour operator I recommend if you want to get a feel of both of them in a short space of time. It's trips are affordable, only go for one day, and as an added bonus it has an advanced Eco Certified Accreditation, which is something you start to think about with all the distance covered around here (and it allows access to exclusive spots).
Tours take place daily and typically begin with the snorkeling portion. No, you don't get to go out to the outer Great Barrier Reef, but you will be taken to great locations around the local islands (while brochures may indicate you'll end up at a specific location, the final site is very flexible and depends on who else is around and whether the water is calm or not).
This snorkeling experience was my first ever and I'm not sure if I'll be able to settle for a local beach now. I must have gone over the same patch of coral countless times, but never tired of it; there were too many types to remember and plenty of fish as well. I even forgot about the particularly cold water, despite my wetsuit's inability to keep me warm (I was using one of the ones provided, an optional inclusion in the tour price, and they're not really worth it, but were the only complaint I had all day).
The second part of any Ocean Rafting tour is a stop at Whitsunday Island. Here you take a walk up to the lookout over Hill Inlet, one of Queensland's most photographed sites. The white sand in front of you is so pure that it was used to make the glass for NASA's Hubble telescope and being so white it's always cold, even on a hot day (which my day certainly wasn't). These were just some of the facts I learn from a very enthusiastic and charismatic 'Eco Host'.
The Ocean Rafting boats are the only tour boats allowed into the inlet, partly due to their eco-accreditation. It also gets them access to their special snorkeling sites
The rest of Hill Inlet
Once on the boat again it's time to head up to the other end of Whitehaven Beach for a buffet lunch, which is another inclusion in the 'Ultimate Package' deal, but one that I thought was worthwhile. Don't spend your whole time eating though; there is another lookout accessible from a track at the back of the beach.
The beach can get busy as the Ocean Rafting boats aren't the only ones stopping on the famous beach, which is considered one of the best in Australia, if not the world (I visited on a rainy day however)
If you feel up for it, a walk to another lookout is possible and highly recommended
Not every tour is the same--sometimes you get to see a lot of sea life, for example--but in this case there are two different types of Ocean Rafting tours you have to choose from right from the start. On one, you spend longer at Whitehaven Beach, while on the other you visit two snorkeling sites. At first I had been leaning towards snorkeling, as I wanted to see as much as could in short space of time and what was I going to do on the beach for so long? However, I ended up on the other one and since I was tired after just one snorkeling session and discovered the second lookout, I'm glad I did.
On the way back things got a little crazy as the boats got as close as they could to each other and rode in each other's wakes
Ocean Rafting is a fast-paced way to see the sights on offer near Airlie Beach quickly, but if you want to savour them a bit more, you can pay for the Ultimate Experience Package ($181.00) which includes the Memories Media Pack and gets you a video and photos of your experience. Another way to see more of the area is to view it from above; Ocean Rafting tours can be easily combined with scenic flights run by GSL Aviation.