From living abroad for months on end to receiving heavily discounted (and even free) travel opportunities, working in the tourism industry has granted me unparalleled access to destinations that I could have only dreamed of before starting my travel business.
Want to turn your life into a series of incredible, bucket list experiences?
For as far back as I could remember, I always wanted to visit the Great Barrier Reef.
Australia's Great Natural Wonder... the largest living thing on Earth!
With 1,500 different types of fish and more than 600 varieties of coral species, it's the most extensive reef system in the world...
So large, it's even visible from outer space!
It topped my bucket list.
So when I decided to visit Australia, diving the Great Barrier Reef was a must-do.
I'd never been scuba diving before, but my brother was a PADI certified diver, so I convinced myself that I had to get him to come with.
I started asking him daily if he could join me.
He said there was a slight chance he could take the time off from work, but he wouldn't know until last minute.
I decided not to book any hotels or tours until he gave me his decision, but I began researching like crazy and everything I found said that Cairns was the gateway into the Great Barrier Reef.
So that's where we'd go.
I booked my plane ticket and eagerly awaited my brother's answer.
Finally, about three weeks before the date I was to arrive in Cairns, my brother told me he didn't think he could take the time off.
I was devastated!
I'd waited years for this trip and months on my brother's answer... and for what!?
Frantically, I called the tour operator that topped my research list to book my scuba diving tour.
By that time, the tour I wanted to take had already sold out, but I managed to book the last seat on a combination helicopter-diving tour.
I hung up the phone with equal parts relief and excitement for the adventure in store...
A life-long dream was about to come true!
Three weeks later and my travel day to Cairns had arrived.
I woke up at 3:30am, checked out of my hotel (still half asleep), and hopped into a cab to catch my flight to Cairns.
Once on the ground in North Queensland, I immediately noticed the lush, tropical landscape.
The air was markedly warmer -- and much more humid -- than the southern parts of Australia I had explored the weeks earlier.
I only had two days in Cairns and I wanted to make the most of them.
So with several hours to kill before I could check into my room, I decided to take the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway through the Daintree Rainforest to visit Kuranda Village.
Kuranda is a quaint village surrounded by World Heritage Rainforest.
The town is centered around an artisan market, full of museums, restaurants, and art & craft galleries offering goods from the indigenous Djabugay people, who have made Kuranda their home for thousands of years.
The wares were interesting, to say the least...
Crocodile belts, toad wallets, and some really unique, Aboriginal artwork.
But the coolest part, in my opinion, was the Kuranda Scenic Railway, a train system that runs through the rainforest, directly into Kuranda.
The entire station had a retro aesthetic -- giving one the impression that he's gone back in time -- with lush tropical plants sprout alongside the stone and steel of the railway.
The whole experience is an exhibition in contrast.
After perusing the village and indulging in some local coffee (Aussies know how to do coffee), I made my way back down through the rainforest, stopping along the way to enjoy the views of the mighty Barron Falls.
Back in downtown Cairns, I checked into my hotel and then set out to find a suitable spot for dinner.
I found the town to be rather touristy -- as most gateways to major bucket-list destinations tend to be -- and decided to make it an early night.
It was a big day tomorrow.
Despite my best efforts, I tossed and turned all night in eager anticipation.
Tomorrow would bring a moment I had been waiting years for! The anticipation of it all coming to fruition would not let me rest.
I arrived at the port early the next morning, eagerly checked into my ship, and proceeded to sign my life away as I completed the waiver forms.
On the 45-minute cruise out to the reef, I befriended a couple of Austrian girls and a guy from Florida, with whom I shared a table as the first mate ran thru the diving safety instructions.
Finally, we arrived at our destination: Hastings Reef.
I could barely contain my excitement as the crew divided into groups of five, in preparation for our first excursion: the helicopter tour.
As luck would have it, I was paired with a Japanese family of five, including two small boys, one of whom the crew seemed hesitate to put on the helicopter.
As we took a motor boat from the ship out to a lone helicopter pad in the middle of the Pacific ocean, one of the crew members argued in broken Japanese with the mother, who seemed insistent that the child was old enough.
Suddenly, the chopper was circling us above and I soon felt the downward force of the wind flying off of the spinning blades, as the helicopter landed on the pad.
Chaos ensued, as the crew members guided us in broken Japanese and frantic hand gestures from the boat into the buzzing helicopter.
Once seated (next to a window, fortunately), I put on my headset and waited eagerly as the young boys were strapped in and double checked to ensure their safety.
As the chopper took off, the glory of the Great Barrier Reef came into full view.
Deep, rich blues and bright, florescent turquoise danced atop the bobbing waves.
It was exhilarating to say the least, but also a bit maddening; a frenzy of alternating between taking videos with my phone and snapping pictures with my travel camera, while the family screamed back and forth over the audio system in unintelligible Japanese.
When we landed back on the helipad, I was dizzy.
I barely had time to enjoy the moment -- too distracted by taking photographs and the relentless screaming in my ears -- before it was over.
Back aboard the cruise ship, the madness continued.
The deck hands proceed to shuffle all 200 passengers like cattle into changing stations, where we suited up and got another quick de-brief on how the scuba gear worked.
I excitedly gathered with my group, pulled on my flippers, and then stepped out onto the ledge where a crew member checked my gear one more time before I fell backwards into the warm, 28 degree celsius water.
In that instant, now fully submerged below the surface, the foreignness of this underwater world hit me like a ton of bricks.
What I was blissfully unaware of just seconds ago became immediately apparent.
I was no longer in control... of anything!
My breathing relied on the oxygen tank strapped to my back... communication was downgraded to mere hand gestures... I didn't even have the autonomy to come up for air if and when I wanted to. Due to the water pressure, I would have to slowly rise back to the surface, about 5 meters or so per minute, so as to prevent my lungs from over-expanding.
Claustrophobia kicked in and I quickly re-emerged.
"I'm freaking out, man!" I explained to the crew member above.
"Don't worry. This happens often -- just take a deep breadth and go back down again, slow and steady."
I collected myself and re-submerged, this time swimming down a few feet deeper, where the rest of the group were getting ready to go.
Again, the claustrophobia rose up in my chest.
The instructor motioned that it was time to go, locked her arm with mine, and attempted to pull me away from the boat.
I shook my head 'No,' broke free, and then watched as the group swam away without me.
Humiliated, I rose to the surface, explained to the crew member that I was backing out, and thanked him for his encouraging words as I unloaded my gear.
For the rest of the afternoon, I was relegated to snorkeling in a roped off area behind the cruise ship.
As I dodged kicks and splashes from the hordes of other tourists snorkeling alongside me, I couldn't help but notice how freely the fish swayed back and forth with the current of the ocean below the surface...
Clearly, thewas not going with the flow so easily...
Despite the beauty of the marine life below, my entire experience was overshadowed by the deep shame and disappointment I felt.
I returned to Cairns that evening with my tail between my legs.
"There's no way this was the incredible experience I had so long envisioned," I thought to myself despondently, as I picked at my dinner.
That night, I tossed and turned again, this time due to frustration.
The next morning -- still feeling deflated from the day prior -- redemption arrived in the form of a text from my brother.
He had gotten approval to take the time off and had booked a last minute plane ticket.
He was coming to Australia!
I quickly scrolled back through my notes, to the name of another tour operator based out of Airlie Beach - the other gateway to the Great Barrier Reef - that had been recommended by a friendly local I had met in Sydney weeks prior.
The operator, SailingWhitsundays.com, specialized in small-group sailing charters that took a maximum of 10 guests and had no set itinerary, instead leaving the route up to the discretion of the captain, based on current conditions and the interests of the guests.
I booked us 2-nights a private cabin aboard a catamaran that would take us from Airlie Beach throughout the Whitsundays.
When the day finally arrived, a leathery skinned sailor with wild hair and an expressionless look on his face met us at the Port of Airlie.
"How ya goin' mate? I'm your new captain, Dave." He said unemotionally as he sized me up.
I shook his hand, grabbed my bags, and we walked silently down the pier.
"Where are you from, Dave?" I asked, breaking the silence.
"The little part."
"Tazzy!?" I asked enthusiastically.
"Yeaaaaahhh, mate!" he said, turning to me as he cracked a huge smile -- the first since we'd met.
From then on, I was alright in Dave's book.
He introduced us to the deck hand, Mitch, and the seven other guests we would share the boat with for the next two nights: a family of six on holiday from England and a Chinese girl who was paying her way through Australia by working in luxury hotels.
Dave went over a few brief safety instructions before we set off on a stunning, sun-soaked sail to our first destination: Tongue Bay.
About an hour and a half later, we anchored for the night just off of Whitehaven Beach.
"You see those other boats, mates!?" Dave asked loudly, pointing out across the horizon.
"I want us to beat all of them to Whitehaven Beach tomorrow, so that you can have the beach to yourselves before it gets filled with tourists. That means breakfast is at 6am and we're off to Whitehaven by 6:30am. Get some sleep!"
The next morning, we were up before dawn for a delicious meal prepared by Mitch.
True to his word, Dave got us to Whitehaven Beach before anyone else.
Known as having the whitest sand in the world, Whitehaven beach is a beautiful, uninhabited island in the middle of the Whitsundays.
Mitch led us on a hike, where he explained to us about the deadly jelly fish that inhabited the waters throughout Queensland and then stopped to point out a pile of edible, green ants covering a nearby tree.
"Tastes kind of like a sour Warhead lolly," he said as he popped another one into his mouth.
He was right -- they did.
After pausing for a quick photo opp, we hiked down, through the brush, and out to a stunning beach that was completely desolate.
We spent the next few hours hunting solider crabs and eagerly awaiting the rare sand shark sighting as the tide slowly drifted out, pulling the sharks and sting rays with it.
That afternoon, we anchored at Cockatoo Point for our first dive.
I held back while the rest of the group suited up and dove in.
"What're you waiting for, mate?" Dave asked, noticing my hesitation.
I bashfully explained what had happened in Cairns.
"Ahh, that happens to a lot of fist timers, mate. You have nothing to be ashamed of... you're just thinking too much!" Dave explained, as he slapped me on the back.
"You're allowing fear to build up in your mind, based on what you think may happen. You've got to let that go, mate, and just enjoy the beauty of nature!"
He then handed me an electric sea scooter, "let this do the work for you."
Relieved by Dave's encouragement, I suited up and slowly worked my way into the warm water.
With the sea scooter in hand -- and without the chaotic pressure from my first experience -- I was able to ease my way into this foreign world and joyfully buzzed around on the scooter, just inches above the dazzling reef.
It was a whole new world under there...
An hour or so later, having conquered my fear, I climbed back aboard the ship satisfied and proceeded to enjoy another one of Mitch's amazing home-cooked meals of gnocchi and local wine with our new friends.
After dinner, I laid down outside and started gazing up at the stars.
I had never seen so many stars in all my life...
Mitch came out after a bit.
“Good night for stargazing, eh?”
“Yea...” I replied, without taking my eyes off of the stars.
“There’s the southern cross," he said, pointing upward. "Those four stars with that faint fifth star in the center... those are the stars you see on the Australia flag”
“Oh yea... and is that the Milky Way?” I asked.
“Indeed that is the Milky Way which which we are apart of."
Pointing to the Milky Way, he continued, "that’s actually just one of the legs that swirls out from the center of the Milky Way. The darkness outside of that is just deep space. Our solar system is in the middle of the Milky Way and look out toward one of its legs. Australia is perfectly situated to see the Milky Way because of the tilt of our planet and where we are located down here on this corner of it.”
A moment later, Mitch then retreated into his cabin, once again leaving me to the vastness of space.
A few minutes later, the Chinese girl popped her head out from around the corner.
"Can I join you?” she asked.
She settled into a spot off to the left of the boat and we sat silently in awe for a while.
I then stood up to take in another view from the stern and when I turned back around, she had taken the prime viewing spot, flat on her back in the middle of the trampoline.
"It’s pretty great down there, huh?” I said with a smile.
"A moment you’ll remember for the rest of your life...” she replied.
We continued sitting together in silence for an good hour, looking out at starry heavens.
The next morning we were up early again and Dave took us to our final destination -- South Stonehaven Bay -- to stand up paddle board in search for string rays and elusive, black tipped reef sharks.
As we were coming back onboard after a morning on the water, Dave began screaming...
"Sea turtle! Sea turtle! Grab your gear!"
I hastily pulled on my mask and dove starboard into the water.
About 20 meters away was an old sea turtle, that slowly swam toward me to say hello.
This was the experience I had dreamed about for so many years!
As I swam back to the boat after my encounter with the sea turtle, a school of shiny, red bass sauntered in front of me, gently flowing with the current...
And as I climbed out of the sea for that last time, something told me that I had just experienced a truly special moment.
A moment that -- as my new Chinese friend so aptly stated the night before -- I'll never forget.
This is part of a blog series that explores the bucket list experiences that I have personally enjoyed since starting my travel business.
Do you want to turn your life into a series of incredible, bucket list experiences?