Friday, April 3, 2009

Sailing the Whitsundays on a purple catamaran (Mar. 31/09 - Airlie Beach, Australia)

The ocean was beautifully calm as we boarded "Camira" this morning, our sailboat for the day. It's a gorgeous boat - 85 feet long, 30 feet wide, built with sleek curving lines, and painted a strange but oddly fitting shade of vibrant purple! She definitely stands out in a crowd. There were about 40 people on board, which didn't seem at all crowded with so many places to sit at the stern, on both pontoons, and on the huge trampolines at the bow. There wasn't much wind so early in the morning, so we motored out around the headland at Airlie Beach and past Daydream and Long Islands. Most of the islands relatively close to Airlie Beach like these have resorts and all kinds of tourist facilities on them, while the larger islands like Whitsunday and Hook Island are mostly national parks with nothing more than campgrounds. The rest of the 74 islands in the archipelago are uninhabited and completely natural. Hamilton Island is the polar opposite of this, as we first recognized it by the highrises and clearcuts visible from a distance. Parts of the island are packed with luxury resorts and private expensive houses, complete with its own airport. Thankfully, there aren't too many islands with that much development. Dolphins leaped off to our port side as we rounded the south point of Whitsunday Island and we were soon getting our first glimpses of Whitehaven Beach. It really is stunning - flat turquoise water merging with blindingly white sand, backed by green forest and extending for miles. The sand is 98% pure silica, which is more than pure enough to make optical glass and fine stemware out of it! It's so powdery soft between your toes that you have to scrub it off since it's too fine to rinse! The boat anchored offshore while we went ashore in the dinghy, everyone matching in thin black wetsuits to protect from marine stingers. We walked and swam our way down the beach and even saw a couple we had just taken a picture of get engaged, as he got down on one knee in the sand. It was so sweet, and she was clearly surprised! After a while, we made our way back to where everyone else was swimming and playing football, just in time to see a little black tip shark swim slowly through the group in three feet of water. It was hilarious to watch people freak out at a tiny shark that's a lot less dangerous than the sun tan they're working so hard to get.

After a couple hours on the beach, we went back to the boat and had some lunch, then enjoyed the quiet and the breeze as they raised the sails and killed the engine. Island after island passed by, and eventually we stopped at a spot off Hook Island to do some snorkelling on the fringing reef. Unfortunately, the visibility was so poor that you could barely make out the coral and fish six feet below you, so it turned into a nice swim but not much else. The cruise back to Airlie Beach was lovely and relaxing, as we enjoyed the scenery and a pretty sunset to finish off the day. It was a short but sweet visit to the Whitsundays, and it has definitely been flagged as a spot to return to with lots of time to sail or paddle our way through the islands.

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