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  • Writer's pictureEllen Frazer-Jameson

Whitsunday Islands, Airlie Beach

DAY 57 - 07 MARCH 2023


Queen Mary 2 World Centenary Voyage

102 days, 31 ports, 18 countries.

Ellen Frazer-Jameson reporting from Queen Mary 2


Airlie Beach, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia

Airlie Beach is the gateway to the east coast of Queensland’s Whitsunday Islands.

Explorer James Cook named the islands in 1770 as he believed he passed through the area on Whit Sunday, though it is widely accepted that he didn’t pass through on this date. Every year the residents of Airlie Beach celebrate The Blessing of the Fleet on Whit Sunday or Pentecost Sunday.

QM2 anchored offshore tendering guests on a 15-20 minute trip to Airlie Beach. The sea is calm and the temperature a comfortable 30 degrees. The busy harbour, filled with catamarans and medium-sized yachts is a commercial and private centre for visitors arriving by boat and transferring to the Great Barrier Reef, island-hopping ferry or making their way into the resort town.

The waterfront is overlooked by villas and apartments, highly desired in this prime location which is increasingly becoming over-crowded as new pastel colour coordinated developments climb higher and higher up the mountainside. One white house perched all alone at the highest point of the forested area looks like a castle in the sky. Word is that the owner is planning to turn his property with 360-degree views into a wedding venue.

Airlie Beach is a boom town with restaurants, bars, hotels, airbnb’s and water sports businesses. The new Whitsunday Maritime Terminal welcomes visitors who come in by boat to this not so small, walkable town with its picturesque boardwalk and an artificial swimming lagoon. A precaution to keep swimmers safe and away from more dangerous waters.

During covid the population of the town almost doubled from 6,000 to 11,000 residents with incomers from Sydney and Victoria who moved up the coast. No international visitors. Known as a back-packers town, there are upwards of 10-15,000 young travellers, mainly Australians, who check into the YHA (Youth Hostel) and 100's of other student-like accommodation in town every night. Add to that the almost 10,000 cruise ship passengers in a week, who regularly sail in for the day and move purposefully through the one main street buying up local souveniers, beach clothes, hats and suntan lotion.

Popular bars and restaurants are lively places with music, karaoke, and fast food including Beach Pizza, McDonalds and Hungry Jacks (think KFC).

Youth orientated businesses include a Tattoo and Body Piercing Parlour, Reef Goddess skimpy sun dresses and bikinis, nails, tanning and waxing studios and hand-made jewellery and craft shops. For the cost of a tour ticket, anyone can learn to dive, bungee jump, take a croc tour or get a close up look at the local marine life from a glass bottomed boat. Airlie Beach is built for fun days and into the night with a lively club and bar scene.

The expansion and continuing popularity of the town does not meet with everyone’s approval though many business owners are glad to cater for the crowds of tourists and eager first-time residents. Save our Foreshore is a coordinated protest and poster campaign to stop developers building high rise apartments on Airlie Beach waterfront. One business owner I spoke to, who did not want to be named, stated her case. “We don’t want high rises on the waterfront. We have adapted and are glad of the increase in visitor numbers and understand the need for extra accommodation, in the summer you can’t get a room anywhere in this town. But there has to be a compromise, how high do they need to go?

"Twelve stories should be enough or we’ll end up like some other waterfront towns where you can’t see the waterfront for buildings.”

Australia’s borders were closed for so long during covid that many businesses catering to tourists went bankrupt. Now the townsfolk are trying to strike a balance between welcoming an increased numbers of visitors while maintaining their own quality of life.

A short drive out of town, the other beach of note at Shute Harbour is still relatively unspoilt. Our tour guide, Steve, an Australian who lived in Japan for many years, took a malicious delight in sharing stories of the killer crocodiles who populate the waterways. Claiming that crocodiles regularly grow up to 24 feet long, he issued warnings.

“Do not swim in the rivers or harbours,” he cautioned. “Only four days ago, a man who was walking by the river had his dog snatched and eaten by a crocodile. The man survived. The evening news delivers a Croc Watch every night, people get killed or injured with alarming frequency,” Crocodiles are a protected species and only aborigines are allowed to kill the mammoth creatures. The other sea creature to avoid at all costs, jelly fish.

Steve drove our tour party to a number of his favourite, lesser known look-out spots. Manoeuvring his luxury tourist coach around winding and narrow country roads in forest areas overflowing with eucalyptus trees, he pointed out Lion’s Lookout and guided us down to a secluded beach from which we could see Queen Mary 2 at anchor out on the sea.

The walk there and back along a narrow concrete pathway was less than 20 minutes but felt longer as a monsoon rainfall drenched all who dared to go out without hat or raincoat. “I should have mentioned,” said Steve, “its monsoon season. The rains come and go all day,” Now we know.

Steve, a fountain of knowledge, was eager that we should not miss some of the lesser known food delicacies on offer in his part of the world. Crocodile meat seemingly tastes like chicken and tastes even better with the speciality flavouring of a handful of live green ants.

The contrast between the Queensland Wildlife Park area high up in the forest and the bustling town centre is immense. Traffic appears to be limited to tourist coaches and the locals claim that some visitors are so shocked by how high they will have to climb to reach their holiday homes or chalets, they try to pedal up to the highest peaks on electric bicycles.

Steve has one more secret location up his sleeve. He points out the house where George Clooney and Julia Roberts stayed during the pandemic while Hollywood was shut down. The pair star in a romantic-comedy Ticket toParadise in a storyline where a divorced couple join forces to stop their daughter marrying a seaweed farmer. Romance blossoms – for the divorcees. The film was set in Bali but filming took place in and around the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland.

That film alone could generate an even greater influx of tourists – if only people knew exactly where to book their Ticket to Paradise. Airlie Beach, the Whitsunday Islands, Great Barrier Reef, it comes close.

Back to our mother ship...for a serene departure from this wonderful port of call...

A fond farewell to Airlie Beach

* * * * *

Happy Sailing... Ellen




Current position of Queen Mary 2: Under way from Airlie Beach to Brisbane

  • Departure was 1 d 3 hrs 35 min ago. (at 18:00 h local time)

  • Arrival will be in 9 hrs 25 min. (at 07:00 h local time)

  • Traveled distance since Airlie Beach: 401.73 nm (744.01 km)

  • Remaining distance to Brisbane: 154.96 nm (286.99 km)

  • Traveled distance since Singapore: 3,999.22 nm (7,406.55 km)


Photo of the day (from the archives of JD Schwartz)


Further updates will be posted as soon as we get them from Ellen onboard Queen Mary 2.

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