You don’t need a reason to visit the Whitsundays, a string of 74 volcanic islands dotting the Great Barrier Reef. But if you’re looking for one – or 10 – you’ll find plenty of inspiration here. Luxe lodgings, gourmet indulgences and sybaritic pursuits, anyone?
1. Chill Out at Qualia
Qualia may sprawl over 12 hectares at the northernmost tip of Hamilton Island but the adults-only retreat is all about intimacy and exclusivity. Sixty pavilions – impeccably crafted from timber, limestone and slate – nestle amid tall stands of eucalypt and wattle tiered down a gentle slope to the Coral Sea. Inside, floor-to-ceiling windows open out to private infinity-edged plunge pools (in the Windward Pavilions) and patios on which cockatoos and possums play. Jump in your electric golf buggy and zip over to the spa for an indigenous “Mala Mayi” massage or facial using Li’tya products, followed by a session of yoga in the garden. Then drive on to the Long Pavilion restaurant, the setting for chef Jane-Therese Mulry’s high-end mod-Oz cuisine – think crispy-skinned coral trout, Pyrenees lamb loin and belly, caramelised pineapple salmon. Perched over the resort’s small stretch of sand, Pebble Beach offers a more informal dining experience, with healthy breakfasts and light salads and gourmet sandwiches for lunch. There are plenty of diversions away from the table including all manner of watersports and, once a year, a visiting dance troupe – check in from November 16–18, 2012, and you’ll be treated to the Australian Ballet’s pas de deux in paradise.
2. Gain Culinary Inspiration
Australia’s finest chefs, superb local produce and a lot of wine, all mingling at one of the country’s top resorts – what’s not to like about the annual Great Barrier Feast food and wine series? This year’s event has already seen Peter Gilmore (of Sydney’s Quay) and Frank Camorra (of MoVida in Melbourne) take to the stoves at Qualia to prepare produce-inspired dinners. Gilmore won diners over with a superb dessert – wild-cherry compote with coconut cream, chuao chocolate crumble, cherry juice and chocolate sorbet – while Camorra’s tapas tasting plates were a huge hit. To complement the fine fare, both meals were accompanied by wines selected by grape-guru James Halliday. Still to come in 2011 is a dinner courtesy of Dan Hunter (December 2–4), the talent behind Dunkeld’s acclaimed Royal Mail Hotel. And like those who’ve been here before him, Hunter will keep guests drooling over the course of the weekend with cooking demonstrations, tastings and workshops. The best bit? When you’re done eating you can stroll back to your pavilion and crawl between ridiculously high-threadcount sheets.
3. Tee Off
Few golf courses can claim to occupy an entire island, but Hamilton Island Golf Club does just that. A 10-minute boat ride west of Hamilton, the Peter Thomson-designed course sprawls over much of Dent Island. It’s a challenging par-71, up hills so steep that even the electric buggies strain to reach the top. Still, the sting of lost balls and time spent in the trenches is more than compensated by the shimmering ocean views you’ll enjoy over the course: hole 14 is one of the most memorable. As is the 19th hole, a light-filled glass-and-timber pavilion where stories of triumph (or tribulation) can be shared over cold drinks and light meals.
4. Take to the Water
Cruising the Coral Sea, dropping anchor at deserted beaches and hopping overboard to snorkel and swim: Could there be a more idyllic way to enjoy the reef? Sailing around the Whitsunday Islands is fabulous year-round, especially if you have a gourmet picnic, a bottle of bubbly and a skipper to take you to deserted shores. One of the most opulent choices is the 80-foot (23-metre) maxi charter yacht Siska, retired from racing and refitted to hold up to 22 people on overnight sailings around the islands. Day sailing trips are a great option for those on tighter budgets – Sunsail takes groups of passengers to Whitehaven Beach and around the islands on luxe catamarans and yachts with plenty of deck-space available for lounging. And for those who prefer sailing as a spectator sport, the Whitsundays abounds with fast-paced events, including Airlie Beach Race Week (August 12–18), Hamilton Island Race Week (August 19–27) and the Great Whitsundays Fun Race (early September).
5. Join the Club
Qualia is not the only property on Hamilton Island making waves for its cutting-edge design – the new Yacht Club and its adjacent villas are as stylish as they are sustainable. From its dramatic mast-like tower to its sail-inspired rooftops, the Yacht Club was designed with the ocean in mind. The brainchild of celebrated Australian architect Walter Barda, the club is the first thing you’ll see when you arrive at the island, its patina copper roof and expansive cantilevered terraces stretching out over the marina and Dent Passage. Inside, you’ll find a bar and reading room, a lap pool, and a glass-encased restaurant sporting polished wood floors and serving modern Australian cuisine. The 35 Yacht Club villas, crafted from natural timbers and stone, sprawl over three or four storeys with open-plan spaces – including state-of-the-art kitchens – overlooking lush gardens designed by notable landscape artist Jamie Durie.
6. Airlie Ahoy!
The stepping-off point for most boat trips around the Whitsundays, Airlie Beach attracts droves of travellers, most of them backpackers, with its convivial pubs and no-frills accommodation. Until now. Brand-new accommodation The Boathouse Apartments by Outrigger is drawing well-heeled holidaymakers to the mainland town with its light-filled rooms, all overlooking a private marina. New waterside restaurants and cafés and yet another hotel are also on the agenda as part of the huge Port of Airlie project, due to be completed in 2015 and designed to ensure that the tourist spotlight remains firmly focused on this tropical getaway. Visit Airlie from October 20–23 to catch the hugely entertaining Whitsunday Reef Festival, a celebration of the region’s natural assets with live entertainment, sand-sculpting competitions, joy flights, street and fashion parades.
7. Say Hello to Hayman
Newly reopened after an extended facelift, Hayman retains all the verve that shot it to the top of Australia’s resort roster, adding a luxurious lustre with eight freshly minted beachfront villas. The 202 rooms, suites and penthouses are more than comfortable but the new accommodations stand out thanks to their large private pools, butler service and panoramic views of the Coral Sea. Hayman’s restaurants have also been given a fresh look and taste, with chef Glenn Bacon determined to put this produce-rich pocket of the country on the culinary map. Bacon’s meals are works of art – your kingfish tartar, for example, might come with apple-flavoured noodles while your French martini might arrive in the form of a gelato served inside an ice igloo. And if the restaurant settings don’t appeal, Bacon and his team can organise for your meal to be enjoyed on a deserted beach, amid the resort’s lush gardens or even on a yacht.
8. Have a Whale of a Time
The Great Barrier Reef is larger than life in many ways: Approximately 400 species of corals are found in the marine park in addition to some 1,500 types of fish and six of the world’s seven species of marine turtles. And then there are the humpback whales, flocking to the Whitsundays to calve (between May and September) and using the waters as a migratory channel; pods head north in late May, June and July and south between August and early October. During each season, Pacific Sunrise leads whale-watching excursions around the islands – book the sunset trip and you’ll be guaranteed a sighting, glass of bubbly in hand.
9. Get Some Perspective
While diving and sailing have their appeal, arguably the best way to explore the Great Barrier Reef is from above. Whether it’s an island transfer or a luxurious scenic tour, helicopter flights will have you gaping at stunning Heart Reef (hovering to see turtles, rays and sharks), Daydream Island and Whitehaven Beach in no time. Book a longer flight and you’ll have the option of touching down at these prime locations to swim, explore the beach, enjoy a picnic, snorkel or simply relax. It’s reassuring to know, as the rotors roar and you strap in, that the pilots employed by HeliReef Whitsunday are highly experienced and always make your safety a priority.
10. Walk This Way
You don’t have to go out of your way to find a deserted beach or forest track to explore in the Whitsundays – all 74 islands and the waters surrounding them are protected as part of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area; some have the additional status of being national parks. Whitsunday Island is a particularly good place for losing yourself in the wilderness. Boats and helicopters can get you to Whitehaven Beach, from where a number of tracks of varying lengths meander off through the native bushland. For those with limited time, a 30-minute loop track takes you to the top of a small hill offering fabulous views over the island and ocean and leaves you with plenty of time remaining to bliss out on Whitehaven’s blindingly white sand before returning to your hotel. •