As soon as you get to Airlie Beach, people will start telling you what a goon old Captain Cook was. Long story short, he named them the Whitsundays because he thought it was Whitsunday when he saied past, but actually it wasn't. Interesting fact, but it kind of distracts you from gawping at these jaw-droppingly beautiful little islands.
Most backpackers will do a one or two night sailing trip, but unfortunately our schedule and the boats' schedules didn't quite match, so we didn't get to sleep aboard a ship. Instead we took two day trips, one aboard a huge racing yacht called the Ragamuffin and one on an Ocean Raft.
The two experiences are quite different; as different as a horse-drawn carriage and a drag racer. The first day we cruised around under sail, pausing to snorkel on a bit of fringing reef and have a bit of lunch. Most of the time is spent sailing though. It's a great way to experience the area, and with a bit of a breeze, can go from stately to white-knuckle with one flick of the thing the boat driver guy used to steer. Highlight for me was spotting a green turtle. They're much bigger than you'd think. Unless you think they're the size of a football pitch, with eyes of flame and teeth like knives. In which case, they're smaller and you're mental.
The second day was 'Ocean Rafting', which I hadn't been looking forward to as much. Mainly because one passed us on the previous day and the ship's crew started muttering about arming the torpedos. I couldn't help thinking it was going to be like turning up at a funeral in a tank. A tank with massive subs and something by Nelly on the stereo.
What d'ya know though, I was wrong. Again. They've even got some sort of eco-tourism award.
The actual water borne experience isn't really comparable. There are some good rollercoaster moments on the waves, but the best thing is that it gets you there quicker, so you can do more.
First off, we walked up to a lookout over Whitehaven Beach, then down onto the beach below. I can't upload photos at the moment, so you'll have to trust me when I say that it's one of the most breath-takingly beautiful places on Earth. Pristine white sand, rainforest surronding it and seas that are a completely unique mix of greens and blues. Warm, inviting, crystal clear waters that you can't go in or you'll die in indescribable pain. Well you can go in it a bit, then get the fear and come out again, put on a stinger suit, go back in, feel a bit silly and actually still have the fear a bit.
Stingers are complete bastards.
After that we went to a few more snorkelling spots. A particularly memorable one was Manta Ray Bay, where I saw no manta rays, but I did see a humpheaded maori wrasse. Now to you and me, this is a freakishly large fish, but tell any local what you've seen and you'll get the standard Aussie: 'That's not a fish, this is a fish' as they disinterestedly point to a picture of a grouper. Suspicious that they always seem to have one close to hand.
Straight back on the bus the next morning for a 12 hour journey into the outback, where I'd been promised Goat Wrestling. Or something like that. I spent the evening ironing the creases out of my spandex costume.