The Youthfulness of Airlie Beach

Airlie Beach lagoon

It was the last bar on the strip that made me realize I’d changed since my visit to Airlie Beach 11 years ago. Most of the men (boys?) inside were topless, shirts slung around their necks or missing altogether. The women nearly all wore sleeveless playsuits, but the super-skimpy versions that fluttered just below butt cheeks and scooped down to the smalls of backs.

Drink specials were splashed on posters around the bar and people spilled onto the wooden deck, saltwashed, suntanned, and three sheets to the wind.

“I can’t go in there,” I told Jared. “It’s way too young for me.”

Jared obviously thought this was the funniest thing he’d ever heard and proceeded to tease me about being old before my time.

But really, I couldn’t go in there. It was like walking back in time to high school spring break and I prefer to leave those days in the ‘fond memory’ pile.

Instead, we turned around and stopped at Magnums, where you can get pitchers of Carlton Dry for NINE DOLLARS. That’s absurdly cheap for Australia, cheap enough to make you feel young while remaining fully dressed.

Man and woman on boat
This is what boat clothing looks like in your 30s: sun safe > sunburnt.

I had been to Magnums before, straight off a sailboat, wearing a bikini and sarong, fully immersed in being a backpacker in Australia. I drank beer, ate pizza, carried a random cat into my hostel room (a story for another time), and spent most days incredulous that I was able to live this life.

This time we sat, sipping our crappy (but cheap!) beer, and I saw so many young people around me who were firmly ensconced in that time of their lives. The years between us were almost tangible, yet here we all were, enjoying the same place for (mostly) the same reasons. Minus the cat abduction, of course.

Airlie Beach city view
Views of Airlie from the boardwalk.

Airlie Beach is where people come to sail the Whitsunday Islands, so it’s packed with people who have just gotten off a boat or are just about to get on a boat. Everyone is typically having the time of their lives and it shows.

We booked a day trip on the SV Domino, a sailboat operated by an aging Dutchman who ran a tight ship – when I read a review that he’d yelled at people for damaging coral while snorkeling, I knew we’d found our boat.

There were eight of us on board: three couples and two crew members. One of the couples was on a two-week vacation from China; while chatting I found out that he’d gone to Purdue University for grad school – we were essentially college rivals! Trust me when I say it’s not everyday you meet someone who can identify Indiana on a map, much less say they’ve spent time there.

sailing whitsundays
SV Domino – unfurl the sails.

The other couple were traveling across Australia selling her father’s Western Australian wines to small bottleshops, sneaking in mini-holidays when they could. It sounded like a dream job me, until I remembered that I was on a pretty good wicket myself. Plus, I hate sales.

The Whitsundays haven’t gotten any younger, of course, but they’re just as beautiful – at least on the surface. Sadly I’d wager that the coral has suffered over the years but there were still fish darting beneath us.

Whitsunday black island
If you’re looking for a desert island I know where you can find one.

We snorkeled at Black Island, where I opted for the full stinger suit as stinger season had just kicked off. One great thing that comes with age – you care way more about your safety than whether or not you’re the only person in a stinger suit.

whitsunday stinger suit
Safety doesn’t take a holiday.

That night we met the Aussie couple for dinner at a Thai place, and they told us not to worry – they’d bring the wine, they had a boot full of it.

We feasted on a Thai banquet accompanied by James Halliday-rated wines, chatting about where we’d been and where we were going. I gauged that they were younger than we were, but it’s hard to tell how much, especially when you’re basically doing the same thing with your lives.

Black Island
Yes this is real.

“Wait, how old are you?” the woman asked.

I told her I was thirty-five, and her eyes bugged out.

“I’m 22,” she said.

When I was 22, backpacking through Oz, I met and hung out with a handful of people over the age of 30. I thought of them as older and wiser, but also assumed they were confused about the direction they wanted their lives to take.

Now that I am that person – the one who shocks the younger travelers with her age reveal – I have a new perspective on my friends from my backpacking days. Those travelers I met weren’t necessarily confused, they’d just figured out something that I needed a few more years to learn: Travel isn’t just for the young, and real life isn’t something that waits around the corner, ready to ambush you when your travels come to an end.

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  1. Such a good post! Loving your insights and also your caption that safety doesnt take a holiday is good giggle material 😊 I’ve been reflecting on past years as my 30th looms a week away but you put my thoughts into words beautifully. Enjoy your adventures!

    1. Thanks Katrien! Jared always says ‘safety doesn’t take a holiday’ and now I’ve started doing it too. Happy 30th, hope it is the start of a fantastic decade for you 🙂

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