Aside from the days we dedicated to Sydney, the wedding, and wine country...we had time for one more stop. We narrowed our options to Melbourne or the Great Barrier Reef. Ultimately, we decided we couldn't go to Australia without visiting Queensland and seeing one of the world's seven natural wonders.
(And bonus points for those of you who noticed I jumped back to "G" for the purposes of keeping the posts chronological. ;))
The next order of business was choosing a base along the 1,250 mile stretch of coral reef. Several people I talked to recommended the Whitsunday Islands. Once committing to that, we had to narrow down where exactly in the Whitsundays we would be staying. Given our budget, it was between Hamilton Island (which is where you fly into), or Airlie Beach, which is actually on the mainland. Despite the fact we had to take a $43 ferry to get to Airlie Beach, we chose it based on the cheaper accommodations and having better and cheaper food options.
We again chose a B&B and again didn't regret it for a second. Whitsunday Moorings is perched atop the hill, with a gorgeous view overlooking the harbor and an easy walk into the little town. Peter and Glenn were perfect hosts. They left us fresh mangos from their tree each day, and the breakfasts were our favorite of the trip. We were greeted each morning with a beautiful plate of ten different tropical fruits, freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee and toast. For hot items, we could basically have whatever we wanted including poached eggs and omelettes. We ate out on the deck and watched the lorikeets while we enjoyed our delicious start to the day.
After our two hour plane ride, one hour ferry and our quick shuttle up the hill, we were hungry. (Or as Ben's groomsmen Steve accurately calls it..."hangry"...which is hungry + angry). Basically, we needed some food, stat! One of the first places we came across as we wandered into town was a place called Mr. Bones, and also came highly rated on Trip Advisor (which is where I did most of my research BTW). It looks out over Airlie Beach Lagoon, and was exactly what we needed. We ordered the prawns appetizer (shocker) and one of their delicious pizzas. We sipped on cold pear cider beer, enjoying the warm island breeze, eager for our adventure in the islands to begin.
Aside from their amazing breakfasts, Peter and Glenn were also very helpful in arranging our tours. There's only one company that goes all the way out to the reef (Cruise Whitsundays), and I think they did a solid job, despite holding a monopoly over that area (cost is $210, but includes lunch and snacks). A word of warning if you go...it's a loooooooong boat ride just to get out to the reef (especially if you're staying in Airlie). With that said, do yourself a favor and buy the motion sickness pills they sell on the boat. It will be the best $3 you will spend. I might have been OK without them, but I saw wayyyy too many people losing their lunch to chance it. (Speaking of the lunch provided on board, it was just OK).
The boat takes you out to pontoons, which are anchored on the reef, and even if you've never scuba dived before, you can do it here after a quick introductory lesson. (And if you don't want to dive, your can simply snorkel). Even though it was an added cost ($119), I knew for certain that diving at the reef was something I wanted to do. Mom, on the other hand, was a little hesitant. I thought for sure I was going this one alone, but was pleasantly surprised to hear she was going to give it a go as well. Although I think my right ear is *still* popping, it was an absolutely amazing experience and I feel so lucky to have shared it with my mom (and our instructor later told us we were his favorite and best group of the day...no big deal).
During your four hour stay at the reef, there are plenty of other activities on the pontoons to keep you busy, like: taking a semi-submersible boat out to the coral for even more viewing opportunities, tanning on the sun deck, snorkeling...and even massages (those were an additional cost). We both signed up for the massages right away. It doesn't get more relaxing than that looking out over beautiful turquoise waters while someone rubs your back.
For dinner that night, we tried Fish D'vine at Peter's suggestion. They don't really have waiters there (the price is slightly lower because of this)...but you actually get to pick out your fish at the seafood counter, which is pretty cool. They also feature a rum bar, with over 280 types of rum. The manager declared theirs the best mojito in the world, so I decided I had to try one. It was extremely refreshing...but I'd say the best part about it was getting carded when the drinking age in Australia is 18.
One of the can't-miss destinations in the Whitsunday Islands is Whitehaven Beach, which rivals Hyams for having some of the whitest (and softest) sand I've ever had between my toes. Another stellar Peter suggestion was Whitehaven Xpress. The tour ($160, includes lunch and snacks) not only takes you to Whitehaven Beach, but while there, they cook you a traditional Aussie BBQ. They also take you snorkeling and on a short bushwalk to Hill Inlet, which provided some of the most breathtaking views I've ever seen. One of the things I loved most about this tour was our crew. Brian, Asher and Rod were all friendly, knowledgeable and hilarious...which made the trip entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable.
The next day, we packed up our belongings and headed back to Sydney. Aside from making a few last-minute stops for souvenirs, our trip was basically over. We finished it off the same way we started it...with a great meal at Wine Odyssey. We toasted our shiraz and promised to return someday. Until then...Cheers mate! (And if you missed parts I or II, click here and here).