With Schoolies Week less than two months away, Jane Reddy counts down the options beyond the Gold Coast - from extreme adventures and fun in the sun to getaways with a good cause and holidays with heart.
When Sinead Coffey booked her Year 12 celebrations for 2012, a "real holiday" was on her mind so she and her friends headed overseas to Fiji's Beachcomber Island for a schoolies-only event. In Queenstown, the adventure capital of New Zealand, Elise Dunstan bungy jumped, parasailed and white-water rafted to celebrate the end of her secondary schooling.
And this year, Harriet Connor's transition from student to school leaver will be spent on a month-long volunteering trip in Thailand.
The three young women are part of a growing number heading offshore and away from the thousands who venture to domestic hubs such as the Gold Coast for the month-long festivities starting mid-November.
The South Pacific leads the rise in popularity for school leavers heading overseas, according to Philip Hancox of travel retailer Student Flights, part of Flight Centre, offering dedicated schoolie trips by various operators.
It's the party with the giving back.
"The Gold Coast will always be the Gold Coast but we're seeing a shift in the new schoolies experiences in a whole lot of other destinations for a variety of reasons," Hancox says.
"There's activity in the South Pacific, including Vanuatu [an alcohol-free event] but mainly Fiji where school leavers can go and be on their own island with no toolies."
One of those, Fiji Unleashed, a dedicated schoolies event, has experienced between 30 and 40 per cent year-on-year growth.
Its events this year include Plantation Island Resort (capacity 600), Beachcomber Island (220), Mana Island Resort (400) and Sonaisali Island Resort (350). Next year Naviti Resort, capacity 500, will be added.
"There's a whole sense of freedom because for schoolies [on the islands], there's security and support including chaplains and you have the place to yourself."
Factoring in accommodation bonds, linen and flights, Hancox says the price of an overseas trip can be competitive with domestic events.
"If you were comparing it to the Gold Coast a lot of overseas trips are that amount or a bit less. There are alternatives around the country such as Sunshine Coast or Airlie Beach but you can get one of those overseas experiences for a comparable sum."
For parents of students marking the rite of passage from secondary education to new-found freedom it's a time of hand-wringing worry in which the best possible outcome is the safe return of your tired and grumpy child.
Unleashed Travel says this year it has increased its staff-to-guest ratio to one to seven, which includes security, police, senior first aid certified Unleashed Crew and Redfrog volunteers, a chaplaincy support group.
Just as the destinations are changing, so too is the type of activity school leavers are pursuing, with a growing interest in volunteering.
"You could be going off and doing your Fiji trip and then adding voluntourism, so staying on a bit longer and helping out with turtles or land conservation, which are the most popular activities. It's the party with the giving back," says Hancox.
Community and service oriented schoolies trips also rate highly for Rustic Adventures, according to its Victorian-based manager Evan Wells, which operates adventure-based schoolies trips to Fiji, New Zealand and Thailand.
"Building a school in Fiji is the most popular activity. Students are not just wanting to celebrate but wanting to give something back, which at that young age is pretty admirable," Wells says.
Brad Atwal, of World Youth Adventures, a division of World Expeditions, knows there is demand for something other than the traditional schoolies events, with the top 10 Google search terms used to get to its website variations on the words "alternative" and "schoolies".
"We've got to appeal to two markets - the parent and the student," he says of the group that this year offers trips to Nepal, Thailand and Tasmania, all with local guides.
Schoolies trips follow the same philosophy as the World Youth Adventure brand, says Atwal.
"The idea of overseas travel is to provide some traits for kids, such as confidence and resilience. Should they go to university they should be able to tackle the whole change of environment, having been overseas.
"This is obviously a holiday. But it's also about overcoming basic hurdles early in life and doing it in a supported environment with a reputable organisation."
Another growth area is parents taking their children schoolies on an overseas trip.
"Parents are saying, instead of schoolies, I'll take you to New York or London, which can be something quite exciting," says Hancox . "There is pulling power from the parents and their wallets and putting up the cash for a trip that will lure them away from the Gold Coast."
Adolescent psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg urges parents to set reasonable boundaries, even for students attending schoolies events.
"Psychologically these kids have been sitting on it for over a year. They have worked incredibly hard and they see it as a chance to let their hair down and just go wild, and there is a very tangible change in the mindset."
He also sees value in trips that are service-oriented.
"My preference is that kids will start to do something different, such as working in underprivileged Aboriginal communities, because the good stuff makes such a big difference to their lives."
For parents and school leavers pondering their schoolies options, here are some trips with available spaces, for 2013.
The lowdown A schoolies-only event with nightly DJ sets. Maximum capacity on the island is 200 people a week, Unleashed crew available 24 hours. Activities include rugby with the Fijians, volleyball, Fiji baseball and schoolies Olympics. Optional activities include a sea-fari cruise from $79, jet skiing from $100, banana boat rides from $32 and water skiing from $95.
The deal Seven nights at the Beachcomber Island Fiji costs from $1399 a person departing from Sydney and $1499 from Melbourne. Price includes return economy Virgin airfares, return airport transfers, all meals and seven nights' accommodation in a grand dorm. Departs November 25 or December 2. See Student Flights, studentflights.com.au or 1300 019 130.
VANUATU UNLEASHED, HIDEAWAY ISLAND
The lowdown An alcohol-free, schoolies-only island with nightly DJ sets. Maximum capacity on the island is 130 people a week, Unleashed crew available 24 hours. Activities include volleyball, Vanuatu baseball, ball games and schoolies Olympics. Optional activities include a snorkel safari from $45, marine park adventure from $60, or a scuba diving excursions from $83.
The deal Seven nights at the Hideaway Island Resort Vanuatu costs $1399 departing Sydney and $1449 from Melbourne. Includes return economy Virgin airfares, return airport transfers, all meals and seven nights' multi share accommodation. Departs November 22. See studentflights. com.au or 1300 019 130.
CAMBODIA AND LAOS
The lowdown Siem Reap, Angkor Temples, Luang Prabang, Mekong River cruise to Pak Ou Caves.
The deal Seven nights from $1050. Includes accommodation in hotels/ lodge, some meals, daily drinking water, cold towels and snacks, sightseeing and entry fees, flight from Siem Reap to Luang Prabang, airport transfers, bilingual guides, private air-conditioned transport. Departs December 7. See worldyouthadventures.com.
The lowdown Daily activities include bungy jumping, sky diving, zip trekking, canyoning, paragliding, horse riding, paintball, river surfing and quad biking. Organised group dinners nightly. Accommodation within walking distance of local attractions. Open to participants of a minimum age of 16 years, nine months at the time of departure, allowing friends and partners that may have left school after Year 10 to attend. One male and one female host for 35 travellers, plus staff from each adventure operator.
The deal Seven days costs from $2095 and includes return flights from Sydney, coach transfers, five adventures, accommodation, breakfasts and travel insurance. Departs November 24.
The lowdown See mountain scenery and pristine wilderness on a six-day trek in the Walls of Jerusalem. There's the option to summit Mount Ragoona and Cathedral Mountain with views to the southern wilderness of the Overland Track.
The deal The six-day trip, departing Launceston, costs from $990 a person and includes five nights camping. Participants carry a full pack. Departs December 1.
The lowdown After a two-day stay in Bangkok, help build a new children's home and education centre for refugee children in the village of Sangklaburi with the Thailand Building Volunteers programme. No experience is required and full supervision is provided.
The deal The 14-night stay, including a two-night Bangkok city stay on arrival and 12 days in Sangklaburi, including the volunteering placement, costs from $1189 a person. It includes transfers, two nights' accommodation in Bangkok with breakfast, transfer to project location, 12 nights' twin-share accommodation in a shared volunteer house, 24-hour support and assistance from a local project co-ordinator. Departs November 22. See Student Flights studentflights.com.au or 1300 019 130.
The lowdown Working in a local community assisting with grass-roots farming enterprise, building construction on the village primary school or time in a kindergarten, with time for swimming underneath waterfalls, playing water rugby and spending time in a local village.
The deal Seven days from $995 plus international airfare. Includes all meals, accommodation, activities and transport. Departures on November 16, 23 and 30. rusticpathways.com.au.
Sinead Coffey opted for Fiji as her schoolies destination last year, travelling to Beachcomber Island with a group of 20 friends.
The former New South Wales St Ives High School student says her mother could not have been happier, knowing her daughter was travelling with a group of friends to a closed island reserved for schoolies.
"Just to be in a different environment, snorkelling around all day and taking trips to local community islands, was something really different.
"There was a lot of security there and our bags were searched for alcohol as we arrived at the island."
Finishing year 12 at Toogoolawah State High School in Queensland, Elise Dunstan was the only one in her peer group to join the Queenstown schoolies trip to New Zealand.
"I figured I could always go to the Gold Coast," Dunstan says. "Mum and dad were happy that I was doing something that I really enjoy and that all the activities were included [in the price] of the trip."
She says her male and female leaders were on hand the entire time.
Dunstan, who had not travelled internationally, was met at Sydney Airport and chaperoned to New Zealand.
"It was such a full on week doing paintballing, bungy jumping, skydiving and whitewater rafting, but there was such a great atmosphere."
SCHOOLIES WITH A HEART
Since 2006, students at De La Salle College in Malvern, Victoria, have been involved in the school's Coolie initiative. Year 12 students work for a month as unskilled labourers (coolies) in the construction of school buildings, family housing or some other worthwhile cause.
This year, the day after exams, 12 students and three teachers will be heading to Tuticorin about 650 kilometres south of Chennai in India. Once the project is complete, the students then spend another two weeks on a cultural tour of the country.
Teacher Larry Evans says the student who chooses to take on Coolies is typically socially aware and prepared to forego Schoolies week, family Christmas and the New Year.
"It speaks volumes of their character. It is a physically challenging environment as well as a culturally challenging one," Evans says.
"Working with and living among these lowest caste peoples, coming to understand their lot and their acceptance is a real eye-opener for our students.
"They may get a little sick, they may be in many uncomfortable situations but, without exception, they return saying it's the best thing they've ever done."
St Aloysius' College at Sydney's Milsons Point has also provided a post-school experience with a difference for its school leavers since 2009.
Initially in Vietnam, but now centred in Chiang Mai, Thailand, up to 10 recent school leavers spend six months living in a local community teaching English in the local schools.
"The students generally stay at an orphanage and provide valuable educational lessons for the locals and help raise money to provide basic necessities," says the school's Deputy Principal, Sam Di Sano.
"For young men who have participated, it has for many of them been a catalyst to change their university preferences."
Student Flights: studentflights.com.
Rustic Adventures rusticpathways.com.
World Youth Adventures worldyouthadventures.com.
Queenstown Schoolies queenstownschoolies.com.
Red Frogs will be in attendance this year in Australia (1500 nationwide), Bali (20) and Fiji (20).
Drugs and alcohol, the theothertalk.org.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Jane Reddy is a travel writer for Fairfax Media based in Melbourne and edits Traveller's Facebook site. She covers travel stories from treks in remote destinations to high-end hotels.