The inspiring story behind the most magical Airbnb in Australia
If you had the choice, where would you like to take your final breath? It’s a question most of us probably haven’t thought about, and if you have you probably brushed it aside pretty quickly. But when interior stylist Sarah Andrews was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in her eye, it was a question she pondered at length. “The doctors really wanted to take out a lot more of my face. I needed time to think about it because I didn’t really know if I was ready to live facially disfigured,” Sarah says. So she went back to Captain’s Rest, the place she’d been busy renovating, and turned inward. “I shut off the internet, shut out everything and finished the place as if it was going to be the last place I ever lived.”
Sarah is the owner and creative visionary behind Captain’s Rest, arguably the most Instagrammed Airbnb in Australia. The magical cabin in Strahan on the west coast of Tasmania has become legendary in the 12 months it’s been in operation, but few people know its story or the incredible journey of the woman behind it. The Wayward sat down with Sarah to discover how she found Captain’s Rest and how it changed her life forever.
“I missed that feeling of freedom and being in nature and the nothingness… that is everything.”
A SAILOR’S LIFE FOR ME
For as long as she can remember salt water has been a life force for Sarah Andrews. “I feel the most alive when I’m near water. It’s always felt like home to me, I think because the ocean is always changing – it’s up and down, it’s flat and stormy, it’s grey, it’s blue… I think as humans we do our best to sanitise life and control it but we’re just kidding ourselves.”
Growing up on a farm by the sea in Western Australia, Sarah was born with an appetite for adventure. “I’ve always been obsessed with maps and exploring things,” she says. Despite her creative tendencies, she initially pursued a career in science. “I kind of figured because I grew up in the bush and was basically a farm girl I didn’t have much to say creatively,” she says, “so I went down the track of maps and science.”
Her foray into the world of spatial science came to a sudden end when she was working for a consultancy in London in her early 20s. “I loved what I was doing but I just hated the routine… a job is kind of like a prison,” she laughs. “One day my boss said to me, ‘One day you’re going to be sitting in my office’… and I quit the next day.”
Lost & Found
Sarah then spent years exploring the world, living in Africa, the US and Europe. “I basically just travelled by falling in love with people and moving to their country and then breaking up and leaving the country,” she says. But eventually the siren song of the ocean called her name once more. “I travelled around the world one way, then decided I wanted to sail around the world the other way.”
Despite her best intentions, the trip felt doomed from the beginning. “As we were sailing out of the anchorage my deckhand started vomiting and got so sick he ended up below deck the whole trip,” Sarah recalls. And then, one fateful night somewhere off the coast of Mexico, the little boat hit rough weather. “My engine stopped working and I had some damage to the sails… then in the middle of the night two days in, I ended up hitting something,” says Sarah. Sarah managed to steer the rapidly disintegrating boat onto a rocky outcrop where the unlikely pair held tight until the Mexican navy came to the rescue.
With all her money gone and her boat destroyed, Sarah camped out in a little shack in Mexico for the next six months. “I just became part of the town. I had my own little house, a cat, and just foraged for food in the ocean and cooked it over the fire,” Sarah says. “Eventually I got back to Australia, but having gone through that, I thought, ‘well what do I really want to do?’. I knew I wanted to be in the design world so I went back to Uni to study that, eventually opening my own design studio.”
Back to Reality
Sarah’s past life wandering the world suddenly seemed a million miles from her new reality. She busied herself with grown-up pursuits like study, work, getting married and buying a house. “As soon as I got home it was kind of go go go with making money and projects and clients and then getting married and having my own kind of family… I never really got to have a rest,” she says.
Her design business was booming, but when her wife’s work saw them relocate from Perth to Alice Springs, a quiet restlessness began to grow. “I missed that feeling of being on my boat or in my shack in Mexico… of freedom and being in nature and that nothingness… that is everything,” she says. “I constantly searched for it but could never find it. As the years rolled on there was just more and more stuff. More mortgages and more cars and more houses and I was just filling my life with all these things and none of them were making me happy.”
Harbour in The Storm
Desperate to reconnect with a simpler way of life, Sarah began the search for a new sanctuary. “I just sort of thought ‘I need to be in the middle of nowhere on my own,’ I just needed to get away,” she says. “When I first saw Captain’s Rest, it just made sense. I thought, maybe I could spend part of my time down there and part of my time in Alice Springs with my wife, because I was so intensely miserable.”
Buoyed by her new project Sarah was feeling positive, but a few months in, she was dealt a life-shattering blow. “I found out that I had a very bad skin cancer – for the second time. The type of skin cancer it was, they don’t really ever see in young people, it doesn’t really exist, only people over 60 or 70 get it. But in young people it just moves at lightning speed so within a month you could be dead,” she says. “It was in and around my eye and the first time I had it, I had surgery and had it removed and got the all clear, but this time they kind of wanted to take out a lot more of my face.
“I didn’t know whether I wanted to go down this black hole of surgery and chemo and being sick. Like maybe if I was going to die I just wanted to die. I didn’t want to be a sick person.”
Surviving the Wreck
Hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst, Sarah threw herself into the renovation of Captain’s Rest, filling it with treasures and the stories of her life. “I made the house into what I really wanted the world to be for me. I filled it full of everything that I loved and made it exactly how I wanted to live the rest of my life - however long that was going to be,” says Sarah. “When I thought I might die, the thing I thought most about were the incredible sunsets I used to get across the Mexican deserts and just that profound joy at looking out at that.”
After a couple of months in hibernation, Sarah returned to her oncologist and miraculously was given the all clear. “You go to a different place when you think this might be it for you. You think about life and all the things that have happened, about how beautiful things are and how lovely birds sound in the morning,” she says. “I sat around in the trees and swam and thought about stuff.”
Sarah had survived the storm, but just as she was coming up for air, another one hit: She discovered her wife had been having an affair. Her marriage fell apart, and she was forced to face the daunting prospect of starting over once more. “While Australia was saying ‘yes’ [on the referendum for gay marriage] I was sitting in a lawyer’s office… it was a really bad experience, but changed me in a really good way which I’m very grateful for,” Sarah says. “What I’ve realised now that it’s all over is that I’m so glad things didn’t work out the way I wanted them to – happily married , really successful, have lots of beautiful things and beautiful homes - I’m so glad life didn’t turn out like that.”
Now Captain’s Rest, the little cabin that nursed Sarah back to health is booked out almost a year in advance and Sarah has set off on her next adventure – renovating a beautiful home in the south of France. “Having all these houses and all this stuff and my dream car and my dream job didn’t really bring any actual happiness,” Sarah says. “My biggest goal in life is to chase joy and beauty and sunsets and travel and good people.”
But wherever she may roam, she knows her little shack by the sea will be waiting. “By being close to the sea I’m constantly being reminded of the aliveness in me and the aliveness of the world and that’s when I’m kind of happiest.”