To the Reef with Paddy

For those of you loosely following along on the OZ/NZ adventure, I just wrapped up five very relaxing days at Airlee Beach and the Whitsunday Islands. It was a perfect spot to use as a base for exploring the nearby islands, and ended up being a great spot from which to head out to the Great Barrier Reef.

I swear they add something to the water here to turn it that special glowing color of turquoise blue. You know those fountains you sometimes see at resorts or Vegas hotels where the water is died a certain color to make it look like certain tropical locations? This was one of the locations they were trying to immitate, and I kid you not… the water was a hundred times more intense in color than any fake fountain water I’ve seen.

Whitehaven Beach is billed as the star of the island beaches of the Whitsundays, with its 100% white silica sand. It’s beautiful and all, and not to belittle it, but if you’ve seen some of the beaches in South Florida, the Caribbean, or even some of those in Hawaii, you may want to skip Whitehaven and spend more of your time on the other islands, or out at the Reef. However, if you want to fit in Whitehaven and the Reef, I recommend doing them both by seaplane through Air Whitsunday. Seeing the islands and the Reef from the air provides a completely different perspective of their incredible size and beauty. Plus, it cuts off over two hours of traveling out to the Reef by boat.

Another advantage of going through someone like Air Whitsunday, is that you fly out to the Reef with a maximum of six passengers (yourself included — there were only four other passengers the day I went out). With five or six passengers, this generally means someone is riding directly beside the pilot. In this case, that was me, and I’ve got photos from where I sat, situated right beside Paddy the Pilot, to prove it.

Instead of going to an overly-trafficked area like ReefWorld where half the coral is already dead, we flew to a little stretch of the Outer Reef, landed right in the middle of it, and coasted up to our own private unmanned pontoon boat. There was room for maybe a maximum of eight people — but eight would have been crowded. Paddy jumped out of the plane first, and got the boat ready. We climbed down from the plane, and he cut us loose. Once we cruised a little distance away from the plane, Paddy handed us our gear, and said “Alright, time’s tickin. Jump in.” We then got hours of uninterrupted snorkeling time all to ourselves. I’ve been snorkeling off the coast of Maui before, but this time presented all kinds of new marine life and coral formations I’ve never seen before.

When we got back to the boat, Paddy had towels, a small lunch, and glasses of champagne ready for us. Nice. We cruised back to the plane not far away, climbed aboard, and took off in the middle of open water, without ever spotting another human or vessel, aside from the original five passengers with whom we left the mainland.

After leaving the Reef, we flew to Whitsunday Island (proper) and landed at Whitehaven Beach, coasting up to within 10 feet of the sand. A bit of time to relax on the sand, and we were off again, banking over the islands and basking in spectacular views as the sun hovered over the north-western Islands.

Wish I had some kind of nail-biting, life-threatening story about that day to relay, but it went along without a hitch. Each of the flights were smooth for a tiny little single-prop amphibeous seaplane — the roughest parts were after each landing while we were floating through water. Maybe a day like that isn’t for everyone, especially those not wanting to risk a little unpredictable adventure, or those not willing to wade out to the plane from the beach. But for those like me, short on time, and willing to try anything, it was more than worth it.

When going through Air Whitsunday, (and no they didn’t pay me or give me anything to mention them) if you’re lucky enough, you may end up with a crusty old pilot named Paddy, friendliest bloke around, who’ll fly you around and take care of you throughout the day. (Just don’t show up wearing ruby-red pumps with your bikini, as one of our female companions for the day did, which earned quite a stare of misbelief and a shaking head from Paddy as she clumsily climbed the tricky stairs into the plane for a day out at the Reef.)

I’m in Cairns tonight for a quick one-night stay. Tomorrow morning, I’m off to New Zealand (via Brisbane) for the fastest whirlwind tour of some of the finest landscapes in the world. Please don’t hate me. Let’s call it, uh… work-related research. To feel like I can create beauty, I have to get my fill of nature’s own once in a while…