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I swear I heard the sun hiss when it set on the water our first night at sea. A warm breeze blew through my hair as I inhaled the smell of salty air and admired the fuscia sky. It was a perfect beginning to a three day tour throughout the Whitsunday Islands.

Captain James Cook was the first European to discover the Islands of the Whitsundays, in 1770. They're located off the eastern coast of Australia in Northern Queensland. Airlie Beach is the mainland point of departure, roughly 1125km north of Brisbane and 725km south of Cairns. The islands are spectacular and have become one of the greatest tourist attractions on the Great Barrier Reef.

Sub-tropical Airlie Beach is a paradise reached by air, coach, rail, or road. Accommodation options range from backpacking hostels to five-star hotels, either on the mainland, or on the islands.

After two days exploring Airlie Beach, I booked a three-day sailing voyage on the "Anaconda" at one of the many, easy to find travel agencies or book the cruise online. You can also fly to the resorts on The Great Barrier Reef by seaplane.

Sailing adventures range from three to six days, depending on your schedule and personal preference. Most vessels are all-inclusive and vary in price from US$185 to US$350 per person. There are many island touring options, including diving and snorkeling day trips with fully equipped dive boats, with tanks, E-6 photo eguipment, lights, and fishing gear.

I personally wanted a few days to enjoy the islands and I found a package suiting my interests and my budget in Airlie Beach.

On the seventy-foot sloop Anaconda, fifteen strangers united for three days to absorb the sights and smells and experience an incredible sailing adventure. If we weren't basking in the sun up on deck,or enjoying the view, we were observing the captain and learning a few sailing techniques.

Sleeping comfortably and eating well was a brilliant and necessary asset. Our gracious shipboard hostess. Jo, filled our bellies all day long with homemade feasts, from Caesar salad and spicy BBQ chicken, to tasty lasagna, accompanied by warm garlic bread and blissful chocolate cake for dessert. Enroute the first day we sampled popular Australian beers, such as Foster's and Victoria Bitter. Afternoon treats of coffee, tea, biscuits, and fruit were gobbled quickly to satisfy midday hunger.

The crew consisted of Jo, the qualified skipper, Chirs, and his ship hand, Michael . Very quickly we all became acquainted and shared our travel tales and histories with each other. Our warm, welcoming bunks were then prepared for a good night's rest.

On one occasion I snuck away to the bow of the boat. It was a perfect spot to reflect alone on life and on my travels. Dangling my legs over the edge, I felt the warm ocean spray. Spinner dolphins swam playfully along side the boat, proving that they could cut through the water quicker than us. I watched the salt residue form on my tanned legs and knew I would never get that moment back.

During the sailing tour our rugged, yet experienced skipper, provided shore leave with typical Auzzie hospitality, with a day at both Hamilton and South Molle Island Resorts. There are a number of islands to visit in the Whitsundays and resorts are suited for all ages and lifestyles. As much as I loved swimming in the ocean, it was nice to relax on a raft in a resort pool. Rocks of salt stuck to our lips as we drank Margarita's and laid on the beach.

We dove the Great Barrier Reef,

Anaconda II and Anaconda III

feasting our hungry eyes upon the colours of the underwater world. Fish of all shapes and sizes, giant clams and rainbow coral kept us occupied for hours. To our advantage, (or disadvantage depending on how adventurous you are), we spotted baby reef sharks, harmlessly weaving in and out of the coral. They were at a safe enough distance for us to remain in our comfort zone, but close enough to respect their capabilities.

My most memorable day was anchoring at Whitehaven Beach. Six kilometres of sand stretched as far as the eyes could see. The crystal clear turquoise water washed up onto the island, creating picturesque swirls in the fine, white, powdery sand. This was truly a miracle of nature.

With only the sound of waves around us, a knowing glance was exchanged between me and my two best travelling companions, Carrie-ann and Christa. Without hesitation the three of us (along with our fourteen crew mates) charged into knee deep water. We felt like the lost boys from Never Never Land, who never grew up, throwing mud pies and carrying on as we did in our childhood. We scrambled and climbed up hills, sliding off rocks into warm lagoons. There was something liberating about that day of exploration for all of us. It's easy to promise yourself to live for the moment, but when you really do, all that's important to you takes on a whole new meaning. That night we rocked to sleep to clanking anchor lines, and our own distinct laughter.

Upon sailing back to Airlie Beach, our new found maties enjoyed the local nightlife for one final evening as a "crew". Airlie Beach has an eclectic mix of restaurants, bars, pubs, and clubs to choose from. We had no trouble finding a cuisine destination that suited everyone's palate. We ate, we drank and relived our past three days sailing on the Anaconda, until the early hours of the morning.

I catch myself now and then thinking back to my experience Downunder, usually when alone. Smiling with eyes shut, it all comes back to me; the smell of the salt air, the warm ocean spray. and Whitehaven Beach. And for that brief moment in time...I'm there again, sailing the Whitsunday Islands.

Joanna Niebler, Toronto, Canada Correspondent,

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