12 days of Christmas: day 8

This photo  was taken during our plane ride over the Whitsundays and Great Barrier Reef while we were staying in Airlie Beach. It was one of those unforgettable experiences and one of the highlights of our vacation. You can clearly see the heart ❣ in the picture and while I’m not sure my photo does the amazing colours justice, it’s not bad!

Heart Reef, in the Great Barrier Reef of the Whitsundays, is a stunning composition of coral that has naturally formed into the shape of a heart. Discovered in 1975 by one of Air Whitsunday’s pilots, it’s now an internationally-recognised attraction which features on many postcards and brochures promoting the Whitsunday region and the Great Barrier Reef.

 

Road trippin’ Down Under Part II

Driving around Australia has often turned into much more than driving from A to B as quickly as possible. It’s given us a fine appreciation of the varied and beautiful landscapes, land use and crop cultivation, the rigours of life in the Outback, distances, and how difficult it must have been for those early settlers – convicts or otherwise.

I spend hours researching where to stay and for how long and it was satisfying that as the trip unfolded I’d largely been proved correct. I say largely because there’s always places where we could have tarried longer or towns en route where I would have happily stopped and further investigated their charms.

In Airlie Beach we met a couple of retirees from Tasmania who were spending four months touring NSW and Queensland – now, that’s a holiday! I was suitably envious. What a great way to escape the rigours of a Tasmanian winter. In fact we met so many holiday makers from Tasmania that I suspected the island was closed for winter!

After two weeks in Brisbane, we were heading for possibly the most famous stretch of Australia, the north-eastern coast between Brisbane and Cairns, a must-see corner in the Land Down Under. From Brisbane in the South of Queensland right up to Cairns in the tropical North, we were advised that this mega road trip is a feast for beach lovers, sun worshippers, adrenaline seekers and adventurists. Mmmm, not sure we fit into any of those descriptions. We’ll just have to see!

This narrative covers our road trip spent partly on the M1 Motorway and thereafter on the A1, often referred to as the Bruce Highway, 1679 km (1,043 miles) via Cairns to Port Douglas. The highway was named after a popular former Queensland and federal politician, Harry Bruce who was the state Minister for Works, in the mid-1930s.

In some ways, the second half of our journey was more interesting as it wasn’t spent on a motorway with service stations. Instead we relied upon small restaurants, some little more than shacks beside the road, for snacks, lunches and comfort breaks. We’ve learned not to judge a book by its cover. On the drive to Rockhampton, we stopped at a particularly unprepossessing establishment which was run by an elderly couple. Inside was spotless and my beloved ate his best scone ever! Sadly, I couldn’t get her to part with the recipe which she said was a closely guarded family secret. I knew I should’ve gotten the pliers out – only joking!

As the map above shows, there’s plenty to see and do along the way and we’d certainly have liked to spend more time visiting and exploring this part of the coast – maybe next time!

Our first stop was just a couple of hours up the road from Brisbane in Mooloolaba though we probably spent more time in Noosa, another spot famous for surfing. We enjoyed its beaches, lunched there, wandered around its national park and perused its shops and open-air markets.

Two hours further on from Noosa is Hervey Bay, famous for whale watching and an ideal jumping off point for Fraser Island. An exceptional UNESCO-listed island formed by great wind and oceanic currents which carried a vast amount of sand from Antarctica. It’s now home to diverse natural vegetation and wildlife which we didn’t have time to see.

Next up is Bundaberg home for over 100 years of the legendary Bundaberg Rum – gotta find another use for all that sugar cane! It’s only an hour’s drive from Hervey Bay and is the southernmost gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. The town is flanked by captivating lagoons, coral cays and white beaches. Close by is Mon Repos Park, the largest home for nesting sea turtles on the Australian mainland.

En route to our overnight stop in the cattle town of Rockhampton, we swept through the beautiful historic town of Childers. Then we swooshed past Yeppoon, another coastal town known for its peaceful tropical vibe, near to Great Keppel Island renowned for its wildlife and magical sunsets. It’s nearby Cooberrie Park Wildlife Sanctuary takes care of orphaned, injured and sick wildlife. Sadly, most of the wildlife we saw on the side of the road was beyond caring for. It was roadkill.

As we drove further south, the vivid green sub-tropical became lush, dense totally tropical countryside. This included substantial tracts of cattle country with plenty of verdant green pastures though the earth frequently changed colour from a rich red to a sandy yellow-ochre.

We were heading for a few days in Airlie Beach, the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, and the Great Barrier Reef. No road trip from Brisbane would be complete if you didn’t stop in this picture perfect spot.

 

We saw plenty of sugar cane fields being burnt prior to harvest and massive long trains carrying the harvested cane to the refineries as the railway often runs alongside and criss-crosses the Highway. The scenery was now totally tropical with avocados, mangoes, peanuts, afore-mentioned sugar cane, sweet corn and still more cattle as we headed to Townsville, an army town and the largest city in north Queensland. Townsville has always been a military town due to its strategic coastal position but it has a delightful old town to walk around, particularly along the Strand.

All too soon we were onto our last port of call, Port Douglas, an hour’s drive from Cairns. We hit the coast at Caldwell, famed for its crabs and lunched at the charming Art Deco town of Innisfail before turning off the highway and driving the last stretch alongside the ocean.

Port Douglas offers plenty of fun-filled activities and opportunities to relax thanks to its bustling beach life and the Great Barrier Reef. The nearby Daintree rainforest is arguably the oldest and one of the most scenic rainforests on earth where you can swim in mint green waters. Just watch out for the crocs – only kidding!

Hard to imagine that our six week #adventuredownunder was over. The time had just flown past but I now had time to reflect on all that we’d seen and done. Plenty of fodder for further posts!

Airborne in Airlie Beach

Facing a long drive to our next stop in Airlie Beach, we left early and breakfasted en route. As we drove away from Rockhampton, we saw fewer cattle but more and more tropical crops. There wasn’t much traffic on the road and we made good time, arriving in Airlie just after lunch at our home for the next four nights, a resort perched on a steep hill overlooking the beach. Again, we had a spacious one-bedroomed apartment, with balcony, spa bath – what is it with Aussies and spa baths? – and a well-equipped kitchen.

We dumped our luggage and headed out for a fishy lunch – what else? Airlie itself isn’t particularly large but it has a lively esplanade with plenty of shops and restaurants and an onshore beach and swimming pool. But we weren’t in Airlie to enjoy its beach, we were here because it’s an ideal jumping off point to experience the Whitsundays, discovered by Captain Cook on Whit Sunday (the seventh Sunday after Easter) in 1770, the 74 Whitsunday Islands lie between the mainland and the Great Barrier Reef and offer a sailing paradise.  Yes, Airlie Beach is also just one of many departure points for the Great Barrier Reef.

It’s highly likely that the town was named after the parish of the same name in Scotland. Throughout our drive from Sydney, there were many Scottish place names showing the influence of Scottish immigrants.

We planned our three full days in Airlie Beach with the assistance of the resort manager and opted for a flight over the Whitsundays and Great Barrier Reef on the Sunday with a day-long boat trip to the Whitsundays, specifically Whitehaven Beach, and snorkeling on the reef, on Tuesday. This left us with Monday to thoroughly explore the area, particularly its lovely boardwalk to Coral Beach. I’m now going to let my photos do the talking!

Sunday’s Flight

Yes, that’s me in the (fashionable) leopard skin trousers near the steps of the plane.
And, we have take-off!

The flight takes just over an hour and everyone spent that time with their noses (and cameras) pressed to the nearest window while our (female) pilot explained what we were viewing.

Some of the islands had only recently re-opened, after being laid waste in a cyclone two years ago. A large number are uninhabited, others have wonderful luxury resorts and holiday homes.

It was a truly magical experience and one I’d happily recommend.

Monday’s Meander along the Boardwalk

Tuesday’s Boat Trip

There are lots of companies with different types of boats which offer this trip. We chose a sturdy boat with facilities manned by locals which left promptly from Coral Beach with the supplies for our lunchtime BBQ, including my veggie burger! We had a short cruise out to Whitsunday island and an easy stroll up to the infamous Hill Inlet lookout to see the signature swirling sandbars of Whitehaven Beach from above (header photo).

Back in the boat it was refreshment time before we then disembarked on Whitehaven Beach using the small inflatable motor boat. This was where I famously had to dip my toes into the water to wade ashore. We had several hours here to explore, soak up the sun or swim before a very generous BBQ lunch which attracted the interest of a few locals, clearly after my veggie burger!

The sand was the softest and whitest I’ve ever walked on. It’s 98 per cent pure silica and has a texture similar to flour. It’s so fine you could polish your jewellery with it  – I didn’t try – and it squeaks as you walk on it.

Finally and reluctantly we climbed back on board for a short trip out to Mantaray Bay to snorkel the clear waters and come face to face with colourful fish. My husband much enjoyed this but, without a wetsuit, you could really only spend 30 minutes in the water. You’ll be unsurprised to learn I remained on board. After we’d met all the local underwater residents, it was time to head back bouyed by further refreshments. We’d enjoyed another fabulous day out.

As the sun set on our short stay in Airlie Beach, we reflected that it had been truly magical.