The only tourist destination not full of Australians
Whitehaven Beach, Whitsundays, QLD. Photo: Getty Images
Lucio looks suspicious. "You're from where?"
"Like, Australia Sydney? Just below?"
"Yeah. Is that so weird?"
Lucio smiles. "A little bit, yes. Why are you here?"
Why not? His bewilderment is understandable, though. No one else here is from Sydney, or even NSW. There aren't any Queenslanders around, either. In fact, I think I've finally found the world's only tourist destination that's not full of Australians: Australia.
Lucio is Italian and there seems to be far more of his brethren here than there is of mine. Sitting at our table is Barbara, who's also Italian, a French guy called, well, Guy, an English couple, a French family and a few of the inevitable Irishmen.
The cook who made our meals is Canadian. Then there's me, the token Aussie.
"So this is your holiday?" Guy asks.
"Well, sort of - it's really my job."
"Oh," he nods, satisfied with that explanation.
It's funny that there aren't more Australians around, really. After all, this place has got everything we usually look for: dependable sun, nice beaches, water sports, decent bars filled with other travellers. But we've all gone elsewhere because, apparently, Airlie Beach isn't exotic enough for Australians.
So here I am, feeling like a foreigner in my own country. Lucio, Barbara and the gang are doing their best to make me feel welcome but it's still a little strange.
"Ben, what is your other language?" Barbara asks innocently.
"Um, just English," I reply, then try to explain. "A lot of Australians only speak one language."
There are a few frowns, some pitying looks. Nothing makes you feel dumber than hanging out with a bunch of multilingual Europeans.
At least they don't mind travel stories. We spend most of the evening swapping yarns about life on the road - mine from time in Europe, theirs from time in Australia. I'm as guilty of this aversion to domestic travel as anyone. My priorities have been to see the rest of the world before taking a tour of the backyard, which is a little strange in some ways. After all, many of the things people travel overseas for are also available right here.
Like sailing. I'm hanging out with Lucio, Barbara and the rest of the European delegation on a yacht, one of those old maxis that - probably similar to their former skippers - is enjoying retirement up in the Whitsundays.
We'd boarded earlier on for a two-day sail around the islands, something I'd done in Italy once with a whole lot of Australians and I was now doing in Australia with a whole lot of Italians.
There is an immediate culture clash. Adam, the Canadian cook, is attempting to make spaghetti bolognese. Big mistake.
"Why did he snap the spaghetti in half?" Barbara, clearly horrified, asks me behind cupped hands. "This makes no sense."
Later in the night I realise I might as well open my own little information booth. The French family ask about the best way to get down to Brisbane. The English couple want to know where to stay in Sydney. Another Italian guy has a plan to visit Mackay and wants to know if he'll like it. Tourism Australia, you're welcome.
The next two days are spent sailing through island paradise, some people lending a hand with the ropes, others just lying on the deck and doing what you're allowed to do when you're on holidays: nothing. We stop at Whitehaven beach, pictured, - tourist central but still amazing. We scuba-dive on a shallow reef, seeing things that it's easy to forget exist in Australia when you're stuck in the city.
Once we're back at port we head to a pub, where I get to explain what the hell a "schooner" is and why you'd want to drink out of one (and why it's OK in Queensland to go up to a bar and order a "pot of Gold"), while the Euros keep grilling me for information. The place is packed, of course, but not with locals. You could put together a boozy United Nations congress right here if you could get everyone's attention for long enough. But they're too busy trying to chuck bottle caps into a hat for free beer.
This is the kind of laid-back atmosphere people travel whole continents to seek out. We go to Thailand, or Spain, or even Italy, when it's all right here. Sure, Airlie Beach can't boast the same culture as those countries but, looking around, it seems it can definitely boast the same residents.
Most of them, of course, are still hitting me up for cultural explanations. What's a "sanger"? And what does one do with it?
It's actually nice being able to share your own country with other people. And it's nice to see it for yourself occasionally.