Here at the University of Technology Sydney, they have this amazing thing called “stu-vac week.” It stands for “study vacation.” Right before the temperature starts to fall and the semester starts to get real (in terms of course work), students get one week off which is meant for studying and preparation for upcoming material. However, since it is at the end of the first full month of the semester (April), school not too many students really do the “study” part. So this is essentially just the perfect week to take an unforgettable vacation, which is exactly what I did.
Why the Great Barrier Reef?
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven wonders of the natural world (It is the largest living thing and you can see it from outer space!) and when I decided to come to Australia I knew I had to plan a trip to visit it. It stretches over 1,800 miles, contains 2,900 reefs, and is located almost parallel to the Queensland coast, which is a state in Australia northeast of New South Wales (where Sydney is located). The reef is a gathering of brilliant, vivid coral providing divers with the most spectacular underwater experience imaginable. Seriously, indescribable.
To visit the reef we stayed at Airlie Beach for five days. Airlie Beach is an Australian resort town on Queensland’s Whitsunday Coast and it’s a gateway to the Whitsunday Islands and the Great Barrier Reef. Cruises depart from the Port of Airlie to the Great Barrier Reef and Whitsunday Islands every day.
Four of my friends and I signed up for packages containing cruises, accommodations and a scenic flight. The first was to Whitehaven Beach. However, once we boarded the sailboat the weather became unpredictable. One thing I learned about Australia is that the weather can drastically change within 20 minutes. When we boarded the sailboat, it was pouring rain and once we began sailing, the sun made another appearance. The whole day ranged from sunny and cool temperatures to cold and slightly windy, but luckily the rain was pretty minimal. It didn’t matter though, we wouldn’t let this or anything ruin our trip.
Whitsunday Islands contains 74 of some of the most beautiful islands on the planet. No joke. There are few means of transportation between these islands so sailing is usually the way to go island-hopping. The most remarkable parts (in my opinion) were Whitehaven Beach, Hamilton Island and Hill Inlet.
Whitehaven Beach was voted the No. 1 beach in the world by Guinness Book of Records for “whitest sand on beach.” When I read this fact while looking into our trip, I knew we had to stop by. It took about 2 hours on the sailboat to get to Whitehaven Beach (with a snorkel trip in between). This was my first experience on a real sailboat. Since it was a rather windy day the sailboat was rocking back and fourth really aggressively and we got hit by waves plenty of times. I was a little worried and looked around in fear a couple of times, but everyone assured me that this was normal.
We finally landed on Whitehaven Beach and, although it was a cloudy day and it did not look exactly like it did on Google Images (most pictures where taken on super sunny days so the water was closer to an aqua shade), it was still so picturesque. It felt like I was at one of those beaches you only see in the movies. We spent about three hours on the beach, eating, playing beach volleyball, swimming (there were little to no waves) and the sun even made an appearance and stayed around for most of our time on the beach. This is what paradise felt like.
The Great Barrier Reef
It is safe to say, this is already the highlight of my whole trip. I have always loved the water. As a kid I used to always say that my eyes were round and large(er) because I was part fish. So the snorkeling and swimming in the Great Barrier Reef has always been on the top of my bucket list.
On day three on Airlie Beach, we boarded another cruise. This one however, was no sailboat. It was a huge boat carrying hundreds of people – tourists, locals,and children – ready to explore the Great Barrier Reef. This cruise took about three hours as well, however it felt like a breeze compared to the sailboat we endured the day before. When we woke up that day, it was pouring rain and we were all praying the sun would come out as we knew we would be spending all day in the water. And it did! It was the most perfect weather once we arrived to the reef and dived in the warm ocean water.
My friends and I bought packages on the cruise for activities at the reef. Included in the cruise is snorkel gear to snorkel the reef independently. However, my friends and I bought a package that included a snorkel tour of the reefs and a scuba dive. (A little much for one day, I know, but when were we going to be back here?) This was the most beautiful sight/experience. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. When recording my snorkel, I used the GOPRO headpiece and didn’t realize the snorkel was in the way most of the time 😦 but I still captured some clips and pictures of the coral and fishes!
Snorkeling and SCUBA diving
We had a tour guide who took us to some of the outer corals and gave us so much insight and history about the corals and fishes. As fishes swam all around us and next to us, our tour guide named them and gave us various facts on them. There is a multitude of different kinds of coral on the Great Barrier Reef. These include species of both hexacorals (hard corals) and octocorals (sea pens, blue corals, soft corals and sea fans). As for the fishes, we saw a very very large variety. These include angel fish, butterflyfish, cardinal fish and trigger fish. And yes, we saw Nemo (clownfish) and Dory (surgeonfish). All my younger cousins asked this. It was nothing short of amazing.
On Day 4 – a day before our flight back to Sydney – my friends and I had an itch to do something else before we left. We all agreed that we needed a break from being in the water as we spent all our off time on Airlie Beach. So we bought a scenic flight trip that starts at Airlie and flies over Whitsunday Islands and The Great Barrier Reef. It was amazing seeing it from a different view since we’d spent all our time on the reef or underwater. There is also a “heart shaped reef” that is amazing from above. We boarded a small plane and were ready to take the most spectacular flight of our lives.
Random amazing food
Food options are very important to me when on vacation and traveling. It is a great way to learn about different cultures and a quick way to experience life as a local. I have quickly learned Australia seems to be the home of very extravagant desserts. It is home to the gelato burger, con-nut (icecream cone shaped donut with actual ice-cream filled to the top), and extravagant milkshakes in mason jars. I am already obsessed with a famous chain here called Donut Time. Since I have the biggest sweet tooth, this is perfect me, but also pretty dangerous. I recently tried one of their famous milkshakes. It was a red velvet milkshake, with cream cheese icing, topped with a red velvet donut, a red velvet cronut, and a Nutella syringe. Happiness in a jar. Luckily, Australia has a vast variety of vegetarian and vegan options for myself, and the prettiest and tastiest acai bowls. I’m trying my hardest to balance guys.
If you are ever in Australia, make sure to visit Whitsundays Islands and The Great Barrier Reef. If you love the water and exploring sea life, this is the perfect destination for you. I underestimated how great it would be. This five-day trip in itself is already the highlight of my trip abroad and might be my best experience to date. It was worth every single penny. Trying to explain in words is tough, as it is something you just have to experience and feel. I felt so grateful and blessed to have the opportunity to do this while studying abroad. If you happen to have to chance to do it, do it.
And to the students who are considering studying abroad in Australia (or any destination for that matter), but may be doubting your decision (it is ok, I did this as well), I hope this blog helps you see all the beautiful things studying abroad really has to offer – both on dry land and undersea. Thanks for reading!
Ruta Gebreyesus is earning a bachelor’s degree in Foods and Nutrition at San Diego State University. She is blogging from Sydney, Australia during spring semester 2016.