It was a good couple of days in Sydney. I visited family. Met up with old friends, made new ones as well. But my main reason for returning so soon were the beaches. It was about time I headed up north. The beaches in Sydney were great. The views were beautiful and I loved the crowd. Those beaches are not the best in the country though. The really good ones were up north in tropical Queensland— at least that’s what I’ve been told. The common backpacking route starts in Sydney and many backpackers slowly make their way up north. In Queensland, the major Southernmost stop is the Gold Coast. The Northernmost one is Cairns, which I’ve already been to last year. Since a lot of travelers go to both places, there are lots of daily flights to both Cairns and the Gold Coast. If you buy early enough, you can easily score cheap flight tickets. It doesn’t have to be months in advance— I was able to buy a ticket from Proserpine to Brisbane for only 29 AUD 10 days before the flight! I’d actually recommend flying if you can buy tickets early enough because public transport is expensive in Australia. Often times, it can be as expensive or more expensive than flying!
So there are two budget airlines in Australia— TigerAir and Jetstar. Both airlines have weekly sales. TigerAir holds sales from 12PM on Tuesdays (Australia time) up to 12PM on Wednesdays. They also hold sales every Saturday from 12PM to 4PM— though in my experience, the tickets they’re selling on Tuesdays are always much cheaper. Jetstar on the other hand holds sales every Friday from 4PM- 8PM. So if you’re planning on heading to Australia, make sure to check out the websites of both airlines during their scheduled weekly sales! On the downside, you won’t have much flexibility since flight changes are not allowed. But even just keeping the start, the end, or some part of the middle of your trip fixed may save you a lot of money. So if you’re a traveler on a tight budget, I suggest you make a compromise and just make your itinerary semi- flexible.
If you’re not keen on visiting towns in between Sydney and Gold Coast, taking a flight would save a lot of time. I found Gold Coast really touristy and it didn’t have much of a backpacker vibe. The vibe I got was similar to Atlantic City due to the numerous hotels and casinos. There are theme parks too, so it also attracts families who are on a short vacation. From Gold Coast, you can travel by land to the other famous beaches. Next stop would be Byron Bay, a haven for backpackers and surfers. Then when you continue heading north you’re gonna reach the capital, Brisbane. There’s nothing much to see or do in the capital. Too me it’s just a generic city so I suggest not spending a lot of time in Brisbane unless you have friends or family who live there. But yeah, there’s that lagoon…
After Brisbane, you can head to the Sunshine Coast and then Noosa, a place I actually liked. Then head to Hervey Bay, the perfect place to base yourself if you plan on heading to Fraser Island. The next major stops would be Bundaberg, Rockhampton and Mackay. Continue heading north and you’ll reach Airlie Beach— the jump off point to the amazing Whitsunday Islands. Further north would be Townsville. You can make a detour to Magnetic Island from here. There are still a lot of beautiful spots along the east coast like Mission Beach. Continue heading north and you’ll eventually reach Cairns, the last stop for most backpackers. It’s only about 4 hours by land from Townsville so bus tickets won’t be too expensive.
If it seemed like I was eventually just enumerating the beaches as I went on, well it kinda got tiring trying to differentiate each beach as I went along. This is exactly how I felt as I was traversing the east coast. Don’t get me wrong. All the beaches in Queensland are spectacular no doubt. Definitely among the best you’ll see in the entire world. But as you continue your way up north, everything just starts to blur and eventually the beaches start to look the same. One place stood out from the rest though— the Whitsundays. So for those who don’t have much time and can only visit a place or two, I’d say put The Whitsunday Islands on the top of your list. The next spot I’d recommend would be Cairns so you can go snorkeling or diving in the Great Barrier Reef. Then just make a stop at the other beaches if you have time to spare.
Since the Whitsunday Islands are very popular attractions, there are lots of daily flights available to nearby airports. You can either fly to Proserpine which is about 30 minutes from Airlie Beach, or to Hamilton Island. Hamilton Island has mostly luxury resorts, so flights are more expensive if you land there. This is why most backpackers who choose to fly would fly to Proserpine and base themselves at Airlie Beach where there are lots of budget accommodations. From the Proserpine Airport, you can easily take a public bus to Airlie Beach. Those are parked just outside the airport. A lot of folks book shuttles in advance, though you could ride in one if they aren’t full. I was lucky to find a shuttle with an empty seat, the driver only charged me 14 AUD. I asked someone who took the bus, he had to pay 22 AUD for a one way ride to Airlie! Apparently these bus drivers could charge any rate they want depending on the demand! He was unlucky because all the buses were almost full!
Some folks say there’s nothing to do in Airlie Beach, it’s just the jump off point to the Whitsundays. This isn’t really true. Thrill seekers who have extra money to spare would love to try popular activities such as skydiving. If you wanna hike, there are many hiking and walking trails in close proximity. Conway National Park is also quite close. Lots of people do a day trip to check out the waterfalls. You can also check out Hamilton Island (where the other airport is). A ferry to Hamilton Island from Airlie Beach costs 68 AUD each way. But even if there was nothing to do in Airlie Beach, I’d still spend a couple of days here. I just think it’s the perfect place to unwind for a couple of days. Most backpackers just spend the entire day by the lagoon doing nothing, and frankly i didn’t get tired of it. Not only is it the perfect place to chill, it’s easy to make new friends here too. And even though Airlie Beach in general is very touristy, there are lots of cheap places to eat. Here’s a travel hack: if you’re too lazy to cook your own meals but you still want to save money, head straight to Domino’s Pizza. An entire pizza only costs 5 AUD lol. The Nightlife in Airlie Beach is also pretty good. On weekdays there’s not much going on but there’s always a bar or two that’s full due to the after sailing parties. There are parties every night, though none of them lasts until sunrise. Quite understandable since a lot of folks have sailing trips scheduled the next day so many people don’t wanna get too hammered.
There are a lot of boats offering overnight sailing tours. There are even some that just offer day trips. Thus you don’t really have to book in advance unless you really want to sail with a specific boat which is in high demand. A lot of hostels even have deals with a couple of boats. If you book the tours with them, you’ll get a huge discount. Once I checked in I saw that the hostel had a promo for one of the boats leaving the next day. The price i paid was 100 AUD cheaper than the rate published online so immediately booked that sailing trip. Not only that, I also got 2 nights for free at the hostel. I thought that was a really great deal.
The most popular options for backpackers seem to be the one or two night sailing trips. The day trips seem to be popular with Chinese tourists only, except for that day trip booze cruise. The trips lasting for 3 nights or more are really expensive, I didn’t know of any backpacker who joined one of those. So if you’re traveling solo and you want to meet fellow backpackers and make new friends, book a one or two night sailing trip. If you wanna party, the Atlantic Clipper seems to be the most popular party boat. The stories I’ve heard about it were pretty wild. I was actually thinking of joining them because one of my friends was highly recommending it, but I thought it would be best if I didn’t get pissed drunk on a sailing trip.
So these one or two night sailing trips are basically the same. If you compare their itineraries, they all go to the same spots. The one day trips leave early in the morning and come back late in the afternoon the next day. While those two night sailing trips leave later in the afternoon and come back early after two days. So the only difference is the number of nights you need to sleep on a boat. If you get seasick, then those one night trips may be the safer option. Also if you’re one of those who need to take constant showers, maybe a single night is enough lol. All boats carry enough water for everyone to take short showers. But there would always be those passengers who take too long in the showers, or those who would take multiple showers a day— in spite of the fact that the crew kept reminding everyone that we can only take one short shower each day. This happened on my boat: we ran out of shower water on the second day. I never got to take a shower. It wasn’t a big deal for me, but I understand not being able to shower may be a huge deal for others.
The highlight of our sailing trip were the few hours spent on Whitehaven Beach. Man, I’ve set foot on a lot of beaches, and I used to think the beaches in Southeast Asia were the best in the world. Once I’ve seen Whitehaven Beach though, i didn’t know what to think anymore. It’s quite possibly the best beach I’ve ever set foot on. Just look at the pictures i took!
It had the whitest sand I’ve ever seen and it felt like powder. And the best part? It looked so isolated and pristine despite the huge influx of tourists. The Australian government deserves mad props for keeping it in great condition. I can’t say the same with other popular beaches in this world.
As for the snorkeling activities, don’t expect too much. The snorkeling sites they brought us to were supposed to be the best ones for snorkeling but they were all crappy. Even the tour operators and crew tell everyone to keep their expectations in check. Last year, a huge cyclone hit the area and pretty much destroyed much of the reefs. You’ll still see a few live corals but i doubt if you’ll be impressed. Go to the Whitsundays for the beaches. If you wanna do snorkeling, head to Cairns and book a tour to the Great Barrier Reef.
Visiting Australia during the summer season is noticeably more expensive. International flights cost more, and so do all those tours and activities since there would be a higher demand for them. Accommodations are more expensive too. But take my word for it. It’s worth spending all that extra money. Compared to my trip last year, it’s like being in an entirely different country, the warm weather and all that sunshine made all the difference. Even if you’re the type of person who just wants to relax and prefer to avoid the crowds, don’t sweat it. Australia is massive. Even during the summer, you’re bound to find a lot of isolated spots along the eastern coastline. I had so much fun this time around, I wouldn’t mind returning again next summer!