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

For anyone who has been trying to have a good time 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 has largely been known for its position as a major launchpad to the Great Barrier Reef and the spectacular Whitsunday islands – but it’s hardly been comparable to a major city.

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

Well, I was wrong.

What I found instead was a thriving town heaving with music, activity, and fresh energy – with no indication that locals had been struggling so hard just a year earlier.

Pictured: Revellers dancing in the moshpit at Airlie Beach Festival of Music in November

Pictured: Revellers dancing in the moshpit at Airlie Beach Festival of Music in November

The main street in King Cross, which used to be brimming with music and activity, is pictured empty on a Saturday night

The main street in King Cross, which used to be brimming with music and activity, is pictured empty on a Saturday night

Police are known to walk into pubs with sniffer dogs

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

Police are known to walk into pubs with sniffer dogs. Left and right: Cops with dogs at Sydney bars

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

The Animals, a ’60s band from the UK, were a standout – belting 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 the Whitsunday islands.

Ben Lee performed hits Catch My Disease and Gamble Everything For Love, before handing out Iced VoVos to the audience and campaigning for the legalisation of marijuana.

The crowd went mad when Eskimo Joe performed their 2006 hit, Black Fingernails Red Wine.

And that was just on the festival’s main stage – the real magic happened in town, where live music to spilled from every bar and restaurant along the main strip from lunchtime until well into the evening.

Airlie Beachis  known for its position as a major launchpad to the Great Barrier Reef and the spectacular Whitsunday islands. Pictured: The festival's mainstage, underneath the tent

Airlie Beachis  known for its position as a major launchpad to the Great Barrier Reef and the spectacular Whitsunday islands. Pictured: The festival’s mainstage, underneath the tent

The Rogue Traders, including lead singer Natalie Bassingthwaighte, are pictured performing at the festival

The Rogue Traders, including lead singer Natalie Bassingthwaighte, are pictured performing 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 nation’s most populated city has lost – even in a town that genuinely struggled to stay afloat amid lockdowns.

While Sydney does have a few surviving nightspots, they’re few and far between and it’s incredibly rare to see revellers moving as freely between venues as they were in Airlie Beach.

Not once did I see police officers walking the streets in packs, or intimidating bouncers blocking the entrance to every venue – donning so much security gear you’d think it was scene from film.

No one was outwardly violent or angry, and I didn’t see anyone get refused entry to a venue or kicked out of one for dancing too vigorously.

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

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

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

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

The mood was joyous, and there were revellers of all ages – the youngest were about 16 and the oldest would have been in their 70s.

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

The fact that the festival only kicked off at the main stage in the afternoon wasn’t an issue either – if anything, the late start only gave ticket-holders time partake in everything 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 one comes with jaw-dropping sea views from the main tent at the Whitsunday Sailing Club. 

There are so many bars, cafes and restaurants in town, and each one was pumping with music and activity during the festival – don’t like the music at one pub? Pop next door and see what’s going at the next.

Ben Lee is pictured performing at the Airlie Beach Festival of Music. He handed iced vovos out to members oft he crows

Ben Lee is pictured performing at the Airlie Beach Festival of Music. He handed iced vovos out to members oft he crows

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

Venues in town also gave emerging local bands the opportunity to play in front of a live audience. Many performed in restaurants, like famed seafood restaurant Fish D’Vine, and in the foyers of local hotels.

Restaurants and cafes were packed most of the time, but owners kept the doors and windows open so people walking by could stop and listen to the music from the street.

In total, around 3,000 people flocked to the tent each night to listen to their favourite bands, and it wasn’t only Generation Z.

In fact, I’d say the majority of people who filled the venues and partied on the streets were in their 40s and 50s. Many were there for the festivals’ headline acts, but they were still happy to cheer on bands comprising musicians from younger generations.

There were security guards at larger nightspots, like Magnums – the busiest bar in town, with an impressive beer garden and an indoor stage – but the bouncers didn’t have the Sydney-style aggression many have tragically grown accustomed to.

They didn’t have walkie talkies, they weren’t using computers to scan people’s faces, they didn’t make a habit of asking how many drinks anyone had consumed, they weren’t wearing high-vis vests, or generally looking 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 to 12.

In total, around 3,000 people flocked to the tent each night to listen to their favourite bands, and it wasn't only Generation Z

In total, around 3,000 people flocked to the tent each night to listen to their favourite bands, and it wasn’t only Generation Z

From the sky

The very 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 the picturesque Whitehaven beach and Hill Inlet before heading out to the reef.

During the flight, the pilot relays fun facts – including the fact that Captain James Cook thought he arrived at the islands 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 during a  a small plane, operated by Ocean Rafting

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

If you’re still following along, you’ll have worked out that essentially means the Whitsunday islands should actually be called the Whitmonday islands.

In any case, the views are breathtaking from this impossibly tiny plane and you’ll be showing the photos and videos of white silica sand swirling around the turquoise sea to your friends and family forevermore.

Another way to see the region from above is by jumping out of a plane and free-falling from 15,000 feet above sea level, otherwise known as skydiving.

Skydiving Australia organises dives in Airlie Beach and Whitehaven Beach, and the views are stunning.

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

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

Where to stay

The Waterview Apartments are fully furnished units with spectacular view overlooking the Coral Sea.

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

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

It has great rooms, with an alfresco buffet breakfast option.

From the sea 

Snorkelling around the reef is a must if you’re going to Airlie Beach.

The team at Ocean Rafting take you and about 15 others onto a super-fast 12-metre inflatable vessel, which basically means it won’t sink.

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

Guests are supplied with a stinger suit to ward off unwanted jellyfish encounters, before the boat stops at various snorkelling locations around the reef so you can swim with fish and sea turtles.

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

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


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