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.
Not only did this Category 4 storm destroy 93 boats in Airlie Beach, it wrecked Daydream Island and Hayman Island, which are opening again this year.
And by the end of the year, an even newer Reefsleep pontoon, replete with several underwater bedrooms with windows looking out on the reef life, and en suites, are to open.
Late afternoon when the tide drops, I snorkel the reef, gliding around the coral drop off, delighting in snaring this spectacular spot all to myself.
Dinner is reef and beef, served with the local version of lobster – a Moreton Bay bug – while the noisy noddy terns are lined up along the pontoon railing like black-tie function waiters.
I drink a fine Australian red from the on-board bar, before retiring to the underwater observatory for some reef reality television.
There are grouper galore and I swap counting sheep with fish before I slink into my swag under the stars with a full moon to boot.
Eggs cooked to order, fruit, cereal, croissants and brewed coffee greet me in the morning out on this remote pontoon, where there’s time for more snorkelling before the day trippers return.
Back in Airlie Beach, things have changed too, with a little help from Cyclone Debbie.
The Airlie Beach Hotel suffered significant damage during the deluge but it’s back with a new dining establishment The Pub, boasting the type of pub grub you’d expect, such as schnitzels, parmas, pizzas, pastas and burgers, but with black and white wicker chairs more redolent of a pavement cafe in Europe.
But as always in Airlie, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Head to the Fat Frog Cafe at Cannonvale Beach and you’ll discover a gem that has been popular with locals since it opened six years ago.
It’s retro to the core, replete with the 1950s metal chairs you’d find in an old community hall and other memorabilia, but with a modern menu such as the Green Frog breakfast of pea, broadbean and mint fritter; poached eggs; grilled halloumi; labne; and sourdough.
Just around the corner sits Abell Point Marina and those cask-wine backpackers.
Yes, a new day has dawned in Airlie Beach but it’s not so much a case of spank me, rather pinch me, as the Whitsundays are back even more beautiful, bluer and better than before.
The easiest way to travel to Airlie Beach from New Zealand is to catch an international flight to Australia’s east coast capitals of Brisbane or Sydney. From here, there are regular domestic connections to Proserpine Airport with Jetstar Airways, Tiger Australia and Virgin Australia.
Cruise Whitsundays operates the Reefsleep experience.