Great Barrier Reef Festival & Airlie Beach getaway

It’s our first time at Airlie Beach. Mr G & I are headed there for a number of reasons; escaping the cold in Sydney, exploring the stunning Whitsundays and an all access pass to four days of action packed festival. 

I have to share at this point that the weather gods were not kind to us during our stay, with winds, rain and unusually low temperatures which have the locals scratching their heads and offering sympathetic phrases like “it’s never like this…”. The backpackers have returned in force pulling the pints and the town is pumping with a great party vibe. There is not an unsold hotel room for miles…

Day One Friday – Arrival at Airlie Beach

Getting there We arrive on Friday after a four hour flight (thanks Virgin) stopping at Brissy and onwards to Proserpine airport. Unlike many regional airports it’s not close to Airlie. We have fun with our transfer driver when I ask if we are there? ‘Oh no that’s Proserpine town centre, we have another 30 mins before we get there.” Ok, Nuff said. 

Heart Hotel & Gallery – Room 204, Designer King Suite Waterview

One of Whitsundays most famous photos from the air is of the ‘Heart Reef’. So it’s apt that we are staying at the Heart Hotel. 

It’s at the start of what I call ‘The Vegas strip’ affectionately known as Main Street. It’s a small boutique hotel set on two levels with 40 rooms. We are on the top floor which has a curated art gallery from local artists. Our room does look onto the water in the distance (and also the main car park for Airlie Beach). Tonight and for the next few nights it’s turned into a neon lit, soundscape of screams, fun, hustling announcements and music with a James Brown caption thrown in every 15 mins.

The room is furnished with a king size bed, large screen Samsung TV, a divine replica Eames chair which over our stay I become very fond of. There’s no internet working (the lovely reception team apologise for this), nor table to work from – Airlie is telling me to put my laptop down, go out and have fun! There is a large bathroom with a fab spa bath (no bath amenities) but a great rain shower and L’Occitane minis. We have a small balcony with some functional chairs, but why bother when you have the comfort of an Eames?

It’s in a cracking location which means we hop from bed, to coffee, to room to beach, to shower, to lunch to shopping in a way a boomerang always comes home. The front desk team are lovely with smiles and always a time to chat. It does feel like our home from home.

Great Barrier Reef Festival – Where the Reef Meets Rave

Now, let’s dive into the main event – the Great Barrier Reef Festival. It’s an aquatic extravaganza bringing together locals, tourists, and marine enthusiasts from around the world. This weekend is a cracking lineup of bands, funfairs, street parades and even local raft making competitions. It’s a beach bash that even the seagulls are raving about and yes there are food trucks stalls galore!

It’s 6pm and we head down to the main stage. It’s free to everyone but a $50 per personticket gives us wristband access to the VIP bar area. We have a cocktail on arrival and a mighty fine cheese plate plus our own bar. Considering how much you would pay in other places for this the GBR Festival is cracking good value. Wristbands on – we assume a very comfy sofa which is literally metres from the stage, with no mosh pit or squishing. What a deal. A warm up band with a 10 year old on guitar then plays a solo set egged on by the crowd – a performance which would make Metallica’s Kirk Hammett proud. Towards the end of the night headliner Reece Mastin has everyone on their feet, including us, followed by dynamic female duo Salt. Mr G loves them so much he is now following on Spotify.

At 8pm the music is halted – everyone oohs and aahs at the firework display which illuminates the foreshore. We rock on into the night.

Day Two – ‘Master Guided Experience’ & Reefworld

Ahoy, adventurers. It’s a15 minute walk to Cruise Whitsundays boat terminal. Our host named ‘Little Fish’ shares a moving tribute to how special this day is. Today we are going out with ten Master Reef Guides which are the aquatic equivalent of “Top Gun”pilots, the best of the best. There are only 102 in the world and many have been brought in from places like the Galapagos. There are 25 Master Guides in the Whitsundays. It’s a rare day as a special indigenous and smoking ceremony commences as we board.

After 45 mins of rough weather our captain shares we have entered open water “please remain seated and as we are entering choppy conditions” ..mmm I thought the last 45 min was bad??  

Rough seas aside, after 2 hours at sea we land at ‘Reefworld’ a huge moored pontoon on the Great Barrier Reef.  We race aboard having filled out our preferences for our day of adventure –  scuba diving, snorkel safaris, semi-submersible, eye on the reef monitoring or in-water photography and videography sessions. Even though I am a Padi Rescue diver, given the conditions I chose to do up close and personal experiences.

Snorkeling on the GBR

The underwater viewing platform is beautiful with kids totally in awe. We see angelfish, trevally, grouper and so much more. The submarine trip takes us out to the reef. So much wonderment and pinch yourself moments. Cyclone Debbie has left her mark here, there are rubble beds of coral skeletons, however new life is growing which is heart warmingly beautiful. Whilst many might see this as climate change bleaching, it’s actually mother nature’s impact from years ago. I retire upstairs to the upper deck as people are recovering from their watery experiences.  A buffet lunch is served on board our boat which allows us all to come, go and eat as we please. For a lucky few couples there are two ‘reef suites’ on board Reefworld for overnight stays. I check out the ‘Reef Sleep’ area which is decked out like Avatar-style sleep chambers on the top deck. This area is reserved for ‘sleep guests’. After four hours on the reef we say good bye to the fishes and head back.

Main Street Parade

I make it back in time to see a Ninja turtle hugging kids, floats consisting of everything from a huge octopus, orange drag queens, mermaids, sea creatures on stilts and a race car at the front doing massive revs every few minutes. The crowds are cheering and even the dogs are having fun barking at the weird and wonderful potential playmates.

Day Three – Fish D’Vine Restaurant, ‘Bait to Plate’

Chef and owner of Fish D’Vine is somewhat of a fishery hero with appearances on TV (much like his idol British chef Keith Floyd). Kevin has decades working with local fishermen and is an advocate for sustainable fishing. His bubbly wife Caitlin affectionately calls herself the ‘crab lady’, today she’s charming us all in her white & orange crab dress as she hands out cocktails to a packed crowd. 

The restaurant is buzzing and I’m seated with three women who instantly make me feel part of the community, they have been friends for decades. Kevin cooks up front for us –  Bugs, a 3kg Red Emporer which only yields 1.5kg of flesh due its very big head! Threadfin Salmon which is #$% of a fish to fillet due to its many bony nodules on the spine which Kevin artfully carves out and hurls onto the bench. This is a rare fish to eat due to it’s difficulty to fillet and immense wastage. He shares that lightly frying is the way to go as its so delicate. I say thanks to the fish gods.. It’s buttery flesh is unrivalled and I know it’s unlikely I will ever taste this fish again. There is a lot of conversation about how fishery licences are being withdrawn. So it’s over to their huge rum bar to celebrate an amazing afternoon of friendship, sublime cooking and the respect of the seas.

Whitsunday Escape Recyclable Regatta 

Go go go!!!

By the afternoon things get even more entertaining. It’s amazing what you can do with tyres, inner tubes, cans and all manner of recycled products and some twine. The teams are lined up with homemade rafts and outfits. I’m roaring with laughter as many bob, breakup and challenge the elements as to how long they can stay upright and dry.

Day Four – Whitehaven Beach &  Inlet on the Camira

Yeah…we know…ridiculously gorgeous

Mr G heads out on his adventure today whilst I enjoy hanging out in Airlie.

After a ham & cheese croissant breakfast on board the Camira Catamaran the first stop is snorkelling at a beach side reef. The area has made a remarkable comeback from Cyclone Debbie with staghorn, brain corals and sea anemone  providing a playground for parrot fish and the occasional Mr & Mrs nemo. 

It’s flippers and snorkels off as we sail into a small inlet on Whitsunday Island. We start the leisurely trek to a lookout which is the first glimpse of the infamous Whitehaven Beach which stretches out tantilisingly only 7 km in front of us. With waters so clear they practically double as mirrors we can see schools of fish and stingrays. We make our way down to greet them. The beach is silica white and squeaky. Every step feels like walking on talcum powder.  We pose for photos on what is one of Australia’s largest pieces of driftwood – a washed up tree is an opportunistic climbing frame for kids and instagram fodder.  

View from the look out

We get back on board for a BBQ lunch of chicken, beef, chorizo and of course QLD prawns! Cruising back, beers are cracked open as we sprawl out on the catamaran’s trampoline upfront. “Hey! Over there!!!” We spot a mother whale teaching its calf the graceful ballet of the Whitsundays with a belly flop, breaching, twisting and blowing water into the air. What a show off, what a memory.

Dinner at The Deck Airlie Beach  

Just a few doors down from the Heart Hotel is a three-in-one venue; restaurant, pizza bar and lounge. In the morning locals sit outside on high tables drinking coffee as dogs get the odd pat from passers by (well me!) By night there is a warm glow and hum from the kitchen and bar. The service is knowledgable. “Loving these kilpatrick oysters. Where are they from?”, “They’re great aren’t they? – Coffin Bay”.  Now it’s not that common for serving staff to know things like this, believe it or not. However, this attention to detail from which wine region our glass of Chardonnay is from, to the origin of the Fish of the Day – service is consistent, professional and familial. Goats cheese croquettes are three crunchy oozy spheres of richness balanced by a nest of pickled beetroot, topped with crunchy walnuts and honey mustard. The calamari is a tumble of slices all crispy n’ warm lounging on puffed rice, pickles and lime remoulade. Mains of Barra are perfectly cooked, while Mr G’s lamb ballotine is a creative dish plated with a Cypriot grain salad, labne, and pine nuts. A side of broccolini rounds out a fantastic night.

We head to The Pub to watch the Matildas game with some of Mr G’s new Camira friends!

The Verdict

Airlie Beach is a cute little town, with almost more tattoo parlours than people. It’s got a hippie, Byron-esque vibe going on and Main Steet acts as it’s heartbeat with restaurants, grill bars, pubs and shops. The commitment to live music, even outside of the music festival is fantastic. This town embraces artists in so many ways. Yes, it’s famous for being the gateway to the Whitsundays, the first Hogs Breath Cafe but it’s also unpretentiously authentic and fun.

I will leave you with the comments from a couple of local retirees I overhead one morning having coffee…

“Hey John, not seen you for a while what are you up to?”, “I’m an underwater ceramic technician”, “Eh? Oh! the Mrs is making you wash up a lot?”, “Well I’m not so bad for a man with no purpose and direction…”, “Why is that?”, “Geez, I can’t go fishin”…

About the author

Karen’s corporate job back in the UK had included entertaining clients in some of the best restaurants. This ultimately sparked a curiosity 'Just how do they do that?' (she confesses she was brought up on meat and vegetables, so this was all very exciting). Currently a Mr & Mrs Smith 'Tastemaker', she’s flashpacked around the world, learning about wine, experiencing different cultures and cuisines and had a two- year love affair with it all. Originally from England, she finally settled in Australia and continues to be besotted by food, wine and travel preferring to focus on the luxury end of town (thread count does matter).


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