Boat Charter in Australia
Whitsunday Islands, AustraliaBy Bernadette Bernon
Photos: Douglas Bernon, Laurence Buckingham
Published: December 2012
Photos taken from outer space, looking back to the Earth, reveal a stunningly distinct portrait of the 3,000-plus reefs and islands of Australia's Great Barrier Reef: shallow greens and turquoises twisting and curling into magical paisley patterns off the Queensland coast. The 1,250-mile Great Barrier Reef is the living organism seen from space, and one of the seven natural wonders of the world. I've always longed to see it up close, with a mask and snorkel on my face, and time on my hands.
"Oh, but it's such a long flight," our friends all said when my husband Douglas and I mentioned we were headed to Australia to go sailing.
"Well, true enough," Douglas finally answered. "But think of it this way: In one day, we'll wake up there, and you'll still be here!"
We'd been talking about going to Oz for years. I have an uncle and a bunch of cousins there whom I wanted to visit, and none of us were getting younger. We have a dear friend, Paul, who was going to be in Sydney in February. We'd met new Aussie friends on our travels over the years, and all stayed in touch. How many more enticements did we need? We called Paul, he was game to go sailing, and the three of us decided to charter a boat together in the Whitsunday Islands. Making the decision to go, finally, had been the hard part. Getting there turned out to be easy. Wheels were up at Boston's Logan Airport at 6:00 a.m., and within 24 hours — literally the same day — we found ourselves sitting with our friend Harvey at the Sydney Theatre Company, right next to Cate Blanchett! Day one? Awesome!
OK, it pays to have local knowledge. But even if you don't, Australians are the friendliest, most hospitable people you'll encounter anywhere, and they all seem to love boating. Everyone we met in Sydney, where we spent a week before our charter, even Aussies we met for the first time, invited us over for drinks or dinner, eager to share details about Australia, and their favorite islands in the Whitsundays — where the best snorkeling is, the best anchorages, the most beautiful beaches. One couple even insisted we take their carefully annotated cruising guide and charts. Fully armed, and quite excited, Douglas, Paul, and I flew out to Hamilton Island, picked up our new Sunsail 36, stocked with the precise provisioning we'd purchased online a few weeks before — there's nowhere to shop once you cast off — and we were away!
The Whitsundays demand only eyeball navigation; they're well-charted, and the buoy system is first-rate. Within three hours, we were anchored in spectacular Sawmill Bay, had stripped off, and jumped into liquid turquoise. The first surprise was finding the water to be perfectly balmy, that luxurious temperature between warm and just cool enough to feel refreshing. From then on, we'd be in the water, face down, snorkels in gobs, half of every day.
The largely uninhabited islands of the Whitsundays are pyramids of lush green hills and high peaks that paw down to the warm Coral Sea, each fringed by white-silica beaches. Geologically, they're a "drowned mountain range," cut off from the mainland during the Ice Age. There are protected anchorages everywhere, and the park service has provided mooring balls in the most vulnerable areas, protecting the hundreds of species of delicate coral fringing the coves from the destruction that anchors can cause.
Our days took on a pattern. We'd wake up to exotic bird songs, and after breakfast go snorkeling in the still-calm water. Then we'd sail from one postcard place to another, over waters teeming with life. There are 30 species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises, six species of sea turtles, a couple of hundred varieties of birds, and what seemed like countless kinds of fish and coral. Even here, barely touching the Great Barrier Reef, was so much biodiversity. We sailed to Nara Inlet, to find its Aboriginal cave paintings; anchored off Whitehaven, where we played on the longest and most stunning white-powder beach in the world; we swam among turtles in Butterfly Bay at Harmon Island; and weathered a 30-knot blow tucked behind a headland in the aptly named Tongue Bay. In the evenings after dinner, we sat under a sky splashed with Milky Way, and found Orion looking all topsy-turvy in the Southern Hemisphere.
When I think back on this trip to Australia, I'll always remember the emotional reunion we had with my family, the stupendous sailing we had in the Whitsundays, and the generous people we met in bustling Sydney — a tropical city pulsing with fun and life. I'll also remember the mind-bending four-day scuba-diving trip we'd take later, into the heart of the Great Barrier Reef. But probably one of my most precious memories are two quiet days from our Sunsail sailing charter, anchored alone at Cateran Bay at Border Island, in the exact spot Jerald and Jan had marked in our cruising guide. Just as they'd promised, on the east-to-northeast side of the bay, we found a vast coral garden teeming with healthy life. There were purple-lipped clams, swaying yellow feather boas, kaleidoscopic tropical fish gliding by like geishas, and giant lacy coral plates that fanned out over dark drop-offs. There were corals that looked like broccoli, Chihuly glass, white asparagus, Chinese cabbage, and sugar donuts. My imagination rejoiced in playfulness as I hovered, trying to absorb the sweet visions offered by the Drowned Mountains and hold them close.
Online ExtraBe sure to see the continuation of this story, "Scuba Diving On Australia's Great Barrier Reef", along with more great underwater photography!
Bernadette is editorial director of BoatUS Magazine.
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Know Before You Go
Australia is in the Southern Hemisphere, so seasons are opposite to those in the U.S., making it a perfect getaway when it's cold up north. Consider spending time in Sydney, surrounded by beaches and cultural highlights — Sydney Opera House, Botanical Gardens, zoo, museums, and galleries. Public transportation is superior, with buses running all over the city and out to the beaches, all day. Take a car trip through the Hunter Valley wine country. If you have time, visit the world-famous artists of the Aboriginal region. To get out to the Sunsail charter base, you can fly or take a ferry to Hamilton Island.
No trip to Australia is complete without seeing the Great Barrier Reef up close. Award-winning Mike Ball Expeditions offers excellent three- to seven-day trips to the reef on their purpose-built liveaboard dive boats, appropriate for snorkelers and certified divers. These impressive boats have beautiful accommodations and great food, operate out of Cairns, and include a breathtaking low-altitude flight over the Great Barrier Reef.
Cost: The Sunsail fleet at Hamilton Island is the biggest in the Whitsundays; it has a beautiful full-service base, knowledgeable and friendly staff, pristine new sailboats and catamarans, superbly organized provisioning, and a location near light shopping, restaurants, and a bakery. A one-week bareboat charter of a Sunsail 36 in February is $2,961, plus provisioning. Airport and ferry transfers are handled by Sunsail staff.