[As written for Travel Eye, hosted on The Huffington Post UK, May 2012]
Snorkelling and swimming around the Great Barrier Reef is an experience I’ll never, ever forget. Yes, it took me the best part of three days to get there and hell, yeah, it didn’t come cheap – but my goodness, it was worth it…
My adventure to one of Australia’s natural wonders (luckily them, they have two – the other is the Uluru rock) began last year when I decided I needed a holiday. I wanted to explore Aus’ anyway and had some friends living in Sydney, so I was attempting to combine boozy Sydney times with an incredibly, eye-opening experience. That’s when I discovered The Whitsunday Islands.
A four-hour flight from Sydney (or about 3200 miles by land), The Whitsundays are a group of islands with white sandy beaches and lush green jungle. A few have been transformed into exclusive spa resorts and some are home to local Aussies who have set up B&Bs and campsites for budding travellers. But the most significant thing about these islands are that they are the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef – a World Heritage Site that boasts 2,900 individual reefs stretching over 1,600 miles. It’s so big that it’s the only living organism on earth visible from space – and it’s larger than the Great Wall of China. Impressive, huh?
Once there, you can watch brightly colourful fish hide amongst pretty coral structures made of polyps, see sharks graze the sea bed, swim with turtles and even – at certain times of the year – watch whales breaching. It certainly sounded special.
So I made The Whitsundays my destination and after a rather long three days of travelling (and a stopover in Seoul, South Korea), I reached Hamilton Island – the bustling tourist-happy Whitsunday Island with an airport.
However ‘bustling’ wasn’t quite what I was after, so I jumped on a boat and headed to the mainland hub of Airlie Beach – which is more of a backpacker and local hangout than the islands and is somewhere you can find cheaper accommodation suited to all budgets. Here, I found a cute B&B to stay in for under half the price of most places on Hamilton Island. Plus, they had some brilliant options on how best to see the Reef itself.
The best way to do the Great Barrier Reef:
I was offered several options on how to get out to sea and see this amazing place –
Firstly (and most-cheaply), there was getting a catamaran out to some of the islands and the reef surrounding them for a day. Of course, you could snorkel around the bays, there’d be food and drink provided and there’d be music; with 30 people or more on board. This was the party boat, for those who fancied a rave around the reef.
Then there was sailing option number two – taking an old tall ship. The Solway Lass had already been recommended to me by friends and now there seem to be a whole range of tall ships to choose from – all of whom gave you a sunbathing deck, snorkelling option, even a rope to swing yourself off if you fancied an impromptu swim. Plus, the ships looked incredible! But you had to spend a minimum of two nights on board – and I had limited time.
So I settled on quite a unique option – taking a sea plane to the outer reef, 100kms out to sea! There, not only would we get a chance to see the Reef from the sky, but the company running the service even had a tiny glass bottomed boat out at the 100km mark where they could transfer us over for a little boat trip. About ten minutes away from where the seaplane lands, the coral is beautiful and the fish more abundant – so that’s where we stopped the boat for a snorkel. And, there, my dream came true – I was swimming the Great Barrier Reef and taking in the brightly-coloured marine life (including a gorgeous turtle who popped up to say hello). Someone even spotted a shark near the sea bed. ‘He’s strictly vegetarian!’ we were told.
The great thing with taking that sea plane was that nothing could have prepared me for how stunning the Reef looked from the sky. We already knew that you could see this Wonder of the World from space – but to see that sight through your own eyes; all the glorious formations of polyps-filled coral placed in a swirl of turquoise water, it was incredibly special. And for that reason alone, I’d recommend that seaplane experience to anyone thinking of heading out there.
Plus during the four-hour flight, we flew over many of the Whitsunday Islands and ended up having lunch at the area’s most famous white-sand beach, Whitehaven. I also discovered that the heart-shaped reef that you always find on the front of greeting cards really exists in the Coral Sea. Stunning!
It’s not easy to get out to Australia, let alone the Great Barrier Reef, but if you’re up for an adventure then I recommend it with all my heart.
I bought my flights through Korean Air – who, after much research, I found to be one of the cheapest carriers. Plus the service was brilliant, the staff friendly, the food varied and tasty and the plane wasn’t freezing cold. Flights start at around £870 from London Heathrow to Sydney with a stopover in Seoul depending on the time of year. Make sure you shop around before buying your flights. Internal flights with Jetstar Airways cost around £40.
Accommodation at Airlie Beach can range from £20 to £300 for a private room – depending on your tastes, but for those on an even tighter budget, you can share single sex dorms for as little as £10 a night. Magnums is the big Backpacker haunt in Airlie and Whitsunday Moorings is a cute B&B with rooms starting at around £100.
The seaplane experience: Yes, it was inevitably pricey (but not as pricey as some of the boat experiences). Flights range from £115 to £300 per person, depending on the time spent out there.
If I had had more time (i.e. if I was travelling properly rather than being on a holiday) I would have chosen one of the old tall ships for a sail around the area as well. Two nights on the Solway Lass costs £370 per person.
The verdict: If an Aussie adventure is what you want then you can’t get one much more special than this. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most thrilling and stunning sights you will ever see – in fact, it’s definitely one of those ‘once in a lifetime experiences’ people talk about. If you can do it then it’s worth the long trip and certainly worth the hardcore saving you’ll probably have to do beforehand.
PICTURE CREDIT: Karen Edwards