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Airlie Beach Music Festival: The only place in Australia where you can still party

For anyone who’s been enjoying themselves in Sydney for the past seven years – after lockout laws dampened the city’s nightlife – Airlie Beach is a bit of a culture shock.

The once sleepy coastal town is largely known for its position as a major launchpad to the Great Barrier Reef and the spectacular Whitsunday Islands – but it hardly compares to a big city.

So when I arrived in town for the Airlie Beach Festival of Music in early November, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I knew the place relied on tourism and was hit hard by Covid lockdowns so I thought there might be some boarded up venues.

Well, I was wrong.

What I found instead was a thriving city bustling with music, activity and fresh energy – with no indication that the locals had struggled so hard a year earlier.

Pictured: Revelers dance in the mosh pit at the Airlie Beach Festival of Music in November

The high street in King Cross, which used to be bustling with music and activity, is pictured empty on a Saturday evening

The high street in King Cross, which used to be bustling with music and activity, is pictured empty on a Saturday evening

The high street in King Cross, which used to be bustling with music and activity, is pictured empty on a Saturday evening

The police are known to walk into pubs with sniffer dogs

The police are known to walk into pubs with sniffer dogs

A cop is pictured with a sniffer dog in a Sydney bar

A cop is pictured with a sniffer dog in a Sydney bar

The police are known to walk into pubs with sniffer dogs. Left and right: cops with dogs in bars in Sydney

The festival ran from 4 to 6 November and included bands Eskimo Joe, Jon Stevens, Bee Lee, Rogue Traders, Mi-Sex and The Badloves, with Sarah McLeod – the lead singer of Australian band Superjesus – the ambassador for the event.

The Animals, a 1960s band from the UK, were a standout – playing I Put A Spell On You, House Of The Rising Sun and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood on the festival’s main stage, which overlooked about the Whitsunday Islands.

Ben Lee played the hits Catch My Disease and Gamble Everything For Love before handing out Iced VoVos to the public and campaigning for the legalization of marijuana.

The crowd went wild when Eskimo Joe performed their 2006 hit, Black fingernails Red wine.

And that was just on the main stage of the festival – the real magic happened in town, where live music to spill out every bar and restaurant along the high street from lunchtime until well into the evening.

Airlie Beach is known for its position as a major launch pad to the Great Barrier Reef and the spectacular Whitsunday Islands.  In the photo: the main stage of the festival, under the tent

Airlie Beach is known for its position as a major launch pad to the Great Barrier Reef and the spectacular Whitsunday Islands.  In the photo: the main stage of the festival, under the tent

Airlie Beach is known for its position as a major launch pad to the Great Barrier Reef and the spectacular Whitsunday Islands. In the photo: the main stage of the festival, under the tent

The Rogue Traders, including lead singer Natalie Bassingthwaighte, perform at the festival

The Rogue Traders, including lead singer Natalie Bassingthwaighte, perform at the festival

The Rogue Traders, including lead singer Natalie Bassingthwaighte, perform at the festival

There was something new to discover around every corner – a new band, a new place to eat or (apparently) the world’s best mojitos at Fish D’Vine Restaurant and Rum Bar.

For anyone coming from Sydney, it was a stark reminder of what the country’s most populous city has lost – even in a city that has been really struggling to stay afloat amid lockdowns.

While Sydney has a few remaining night spots, they are few and far between and it’s incredibly rare to see revelers move as freely between venues as they do in Airlie Beach.

Not once have I seen police officers walking the streets in packs, or intimidating bouncers blocking the entrance to each venue – wearing so much safety gear you’d think it was a scene from a movie.

No one was outwardly violent or angry, and I have not seen anyone denied entry or kicked out of a venue for dancing too vigorously.

The crowd went crazy when Eskimo Joe performed their 2006 hit Black Fingernails Red Wine (pictured)

The crowd went crazy when Eskimo Joe performed their 2006 hit Black Fingernails Red Wine (pictured)

The crowd went crazy when Eskimo Joe performed their 2006 hit Black Fingernails Red Wine (pictured)

People of all ages attended the Airlie Beach Festival of Music in November.  The event will return to the city next year

People of all ages attended the Airlie Beach Festival of Music in November.  The event will return to the city next year

People of all ages attended the Airlie Beach Festival of Music in November. The event will return to the city next year

The mood was merry and there were revelers of all ages – the youngest was about 16 and the eldest would have been in his 70s.

Generation X was probably in the majority and no one shied away from the mosh pit on the festival’s main stage.

The fact that the festival starting on the main stage in the afternoon wasn’t a problem either – at least the late start just gave ticket holders time to take in all that Airlie Beach has to offer.

The festival

The festival is in its 10th year and was recently crowned the People’s Choice festival of the year at the Queensland Music Awards.

But it’s not like any other music festival – this festival has breathtaking sea views from the Whitsunday Sailing Club main tent.

There are so many bars, cafes and restaurants in the city, and during the festival it was all buzzing with music and activity – don’t you like the music in one pub? Come next door and see what’s going on.

Ben Lee is pictured performing at the Airlie Beach Festival of Music.  He handed out ice-cold vovos to members of the crows

Ben Lee is pictured performing at the Airlie Beach Festival of Music.  He handed out ice-cold vovos to members of the crows

Ben Lee is pictured performing at the Airlie Beach Festival of Music. He handed out ice-cold vovos to members of the crows

Sarah McLeod, the lead singer of Superjesus, was the ambassador for the event. She is pictured performing on the main stage

Venues around the city also gave up and coming local bands the chance to play to live audiences. Many performed in restaurants, such as the famous Fish D’Vine seafood restaurant, and in the foyers of local hotels.

Restaurants and cafes were usually packed, but owners kept doors and windows open so passersby could stop and listen to the music from the street.

In total, about 3,000 people flocked to the tent every night to listen to their favorite bands, and not just Generation Z.

In fact, I would say that the majority of people filling the halls and partying in the streets were in their 40s and 50s. Many were there to headline the festivals, but they were still happy to cheer on bands featuring musicians from younger generations.

There were security guards in larger venues, such as Magnums – the busiest bar in town, with an impressive beer garden and covered stage – but the bouncers didn’t have the Sydney-style aggression many have tragically become accustomed to.

They didn’t have walkie-talkies, they didn’t use computers to scan people’s faces, they didn’t make a habit of asking how many drinks someone had, they didn’t wear safety vests, and generally didn’t look for reasons to kick people out .

While this year’s event is over, early bird tickets are available for 2023. The event will run from November 9-12.

In total, about 3,000 people flocked to the tent every night to listen to their favorite bands, and not just Generation Z

In total, about 3,000 people flocked to the tent every night to listen to their favorite bands, and not just Generation Z

In total, about 3,000 people flocked to the tent every night to listen to their favorite bands, and not just Generation Z

From the sky

The best way to see the region’s 74 islands and the Great Barrier Reef is from above.

Ocean Rafting offers a 60 minute scenic flight around the Whitsunday Islands, over picturesque Whitehaven Beach and Hill Inlet before heading out to the reef.

During the flight, the pilot tells fun facts, including the fact that Captain James Cook thought he arrived at the islands on Easter Sunday, also known as Whit Sunday.

However, it was the 1700s and there was no International Date Line, so he actually got there on Easter Monday or Whit Monday.

The Great Barrier Reef is pictured from above.  Visitors to Airlie Beach can see the reef on a small plane from Ocean Rafting

The Great Barrier Reef is pictured from above.  Visitors to Airlie Beach can see the reef on a small plane from Ocean Rafting

The Great Barrier Reef is pictured from above. Visitors to Airlie Beach can see the reef on a small plane from Ocean Rafting

If you’re still following it, you’ve understood that the Whitsunday Islands should actually be called the Whitsunday Islands.

Either way, the views from this impossibly small plane are breathtaking, and you’ll forever show the photos and videos of white pebble sand swirling around the turquoise sea to your friends and family.

Another way to see the region from above is to jump out of a plane and ffalling off again 15,000 feet above sea level, also known as skydiving.

Skydiving Australia runs dives at Airlie Beach and Whitehaven Beach, and the views are breathtaking.

Skydiving Australia organizes dives in Airlie Beach and Whitehaven Beach (pictured)

Skydiving Australia organizes dives in Airlie Beach and Whitehaven Beach (pictured)

Skydiving Australia organizes dives in Airlie Beach and Whitehaven Beach (pictured)

Where to stay

The Waterview Apartments are fully furnished units with spectacular views over the Coral Sea.

It’s a very short walk into town and you can look over the high street from your private balcony.

Whispers Restaurant and Gin Bar is located in a quieter part of town.

It has great rooms, with an outdoor breakfast buffet.

From the sea

Snorkelling around the reef is a must if you go to Airlie Beach.

The Ocean Rafting team will take you and about 15 others on a 12m super fast inflatable craft, which basically means it won’t sink.

The crew blasts music from the speakers, snaps photos so you don’t have to hold your camera, and makes you laugh while making you feel safe.

Guests are provided with a stinger suit to ward off unwanted jellyfish encounters, before the boat stops at several snorkeling locations around the reef, allowing you to swim with fish and sea turtles.

You can also walk along Whitehaven’s famous beach and have lunch overlooking the reef.

Life jackets and pool noodles are given to anyone who isn’t confident in the water, so this is an experience everyone can enjoy.

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