The Whitsundays are eastern Australia's must-do destination – and sailing is the only way to see them. These islands, halfway between Cairns and Brisbane, are picture-perfect and pristine
“We can’t fit you on your cruise," they said, wrecking our plan to spend three days lazing and snorkelling in the Whitsunday Islands, halfway between Cairns and Brisbane. Backing on to the Great Barrier Reef, nearly all the islands with their white sand beaches and crystal blue waters are protected national parkland – and the only way to see them, and stay there, is on a boat.
But our agency has screwed up. Yes, they booked us on the cruise. They booked us five times. They booked us so many times, the boat wrote us off as a technical glitch! So, are there any boats in town at all?
Well, there is one – the unromantically named Ron, Ron of Argyll. They can’t tell us much but apparently the skipper is hot. Nothing about the itinerary, the boat, the number of berths. Just that it leaves tomorrow and the skipper is hot. Hey, I’m sold.
We grab a room at Beaches Backpackers on Shute Street in Airlie Beach, a short walk to the ocean. Clean and airy, with the all-important air conditioning, it’s comfy and a quick stumble from the best-known drinking den, Magnums (www.magnumshotel.com.au) at 366 Shute Harbour Road. This behemoth of an outdoor bar has cheap food, cheaper drinks and a party atmosphere… and our “one drink” rapidly becomes about 10.
When we arrive at the boat next day, hungover, my first thought is that it’s small. A tiny streak of brown teak, low in the water. If I squint, it looks like a gone-off banana. Where are we going to fit?
Luckily, she’s bigger on the inside. Ron was built in 1928 and – like us – she spent some time in Cork, Ireland, albeit in the 1950s. She has been everywhere, and was so loved in Antigua that she has had her image placed on a stamp. She’s been home to royalty, including King George V, and guested stars such as Marilyn Monroe.
Ron is made of Burmese teak, her inner cabins fitted out in green leather and brass. We’re sleeping in the front of the boat, staying in a tiny tapering cabin with a hatchway that opens straight up on to deck, reducing the claustrophobia and ensuring a steady passage of dripping wet burly men though my bedroom.
There are 14 of us, and three crew. Ben is the skipper, and he really is as hot as promised, all bleached blonde hair and an awesome tan. We get the drill. Showers, should be feel we need them (and Ben obviously thinks we won’t), are a minute long, tops. No shoes onboard, and only one small bag each. In fact, pretty much all acts of girly fussiness are out.
Cat grins. I gulp. And off we go.
We have been given various hand signals for snorkelling, to alert the nearby boat if we get into trouble. “Help, help, I’m going to die” is waving your hands over your head in a panicked fashion. The “okay” sign is your arm curled over to place your fist on your head. The “I need a pick-up” signal is your arm raised high and fist clenched. I resolve to practise this in the pub later.
And, while the fish and coral are pretty, we have been warned that if the coral scratches us, it could get infected. And I’m scared of seaweed. And sharks. And it’s nearly stinger season, where tiny thumb-sized jellyfish can kill you with a brush of their tentacles.
What am I doing in the water again?
We sail to Whitehaven Bay the first day, a stretch of pure white silica sand that never heats up. It’s deliriously beautiful – but it’s been a long day, and we’re all hungry. Everyone else is alternating between staring at the beach in awe and staring at the boat, wondering when they’ll come to pick us up for dinner.
Dinner is fun and a bit of a free-for-all. Lots of fresh food and salad, and seagulls bobbing in the air a few feet away, hoping for scraps.
We pass out early. The boat rocks gently and the night is silent apart from waves on timber. The stars are so bright and numerous through the hatchway they look unreal. The Southern Cross dominates the sky, with Scorpio wheeling towards the horizon. I drift to sleep, letting shooting stars do a choreographed show over my head. I honestly can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.
Everyone is awake at seven. The sun is beaming in through the hatchway, and it’s a gorgeous blue-sky day. I have no excuse to oversleep. I get up, and hurl myself off the boat to wake up. Covered in seawater, we eat breakfast. No make-up, no showers.
It’s impossible to care or be vain, though. Clothes and jewellery become a bit meaningless after 24 hours in a boat. Hair styles are pointless, a swimming costume and shorts becomes the only sensible outfit.
The trick with snorkelling turns out to be just relaxing and letting your body go with it. Rays circle far below, wider than I am tall. Blue, pink and yellow fish dart in the water, and the sky is sun-bleached to almost white with the sea so hysterically blue it looks as if it has been dyed.
We’re in and out of the water like fish. Very like a fish, in my case, with a lot of thrashing and gasping involved. Heading out on the dinghy to go snorkelling, leaping off the prow of the boat, walking the beaches of the Islands, I just can't resist the urge to dive in.
It’s stunning. I am highly cheered up to discover that Ron is actually the Scots Gaelic for seal, and that this beautiful boat with her white sails and dark teak cabins is not named after some fat banker. She is starting to feel like home.
It wouldn’t be such a bad life. We could catch fish, bask in the sun and swim to the mainland occasionally to get booze and other essentials. I could wrap all my electronics in clingfilm to stop them dying. I wonder, can you get broadband on the reef?
After two nights, our trip is over. The Ron slides into port and it’s time to get back to the real world. One of our fellow guests has decided she’ll volunteer to crew and has another three days of sailing ahead. I’m envious, but strapped for time. Still, it’s an idea.
As we sit in the beer garden, enjoying the sun and comparing tans, I give it real consideration. Could I be happy living on a boat? Maybe not, but it’s very close to perfect spending the weekend on this one.