Australia’s Whitsundays

Two and a half centuries after James Cook dropped anchor in their crystalline seas, the Whitsundays are ripe for a new kind of exploration. Maria Shollenbarger goes island-hopping, and gets an exclusive first look at the rebirth of one of the country’s most storied resorts

Hayman Island
Hayman Island | Image: One&Only Resorts

Was James Cook as seduced by these waters as I am? When, in June 1770, England’s most prolific navigator sailed through this chain of lush, mountainous islands beyond the edge of the then-known world, did he marvel at the beguiling whirl of azure and turquoise, sapphire and ultramarine – blues so numerous and nuanced they defy the Pantone colour chart to contain them? “The aspect of these shores is very pleasing,” he conceded in a journal entry penned a few days after Pentecost – hence the name eventually given the Whitsundays, the 74-island archipelago in question (a spurious, pre-International Date Line name, it turns out, since unbeknownst to him, Cook actually arrived on the Monday). “The land [on the surrounding islands] is Tolerably high, and distinguished by Hills and Vallies, which are diversified with Woods and Lawns that look green and pleasant.” But just over 244 years after the HMS Endeavour dropped anchor in a cove somewhere in these parts, it is the Coral Sea, not the islands in it, that mesmerises me, as the four-seater helicopter I’m in spins and dips nimbly over the shallows of Deloraine Reef and Border Island, then finally settles on the salt-hued flats of Whitehaven Beach, on the east shores of Whitsunday Island. In the hard winter light, the powder-fine sand sifts and dazzles almost blindingly (unusually quartz-heavy, leached of impurities over centuries by a freshwater spring in the bay’s shallows, it’s about 99 per cent pure silica; locals will tell you that you can clean your fine jewellery with it). A few catamarans bob offshore; a lone runner treads by, his bare feet squeaking cleanly. Otherwise, we’re alone, with only the wind hissing through the hoop pines, the broken rhythm of the opalescent wavelets kissing the shore, and that incredible water.

A premium ocean-view room at the One&Only Hayman Island resort
A premium ocean-view room at the One&Only Hayman Island resort | Image: One&Only Resorts

Whatever Cook’s reaction so many ages ago, the Whitsunday Islands, off the central Queensland coast, have clearly lost none of their ability to enchant in the ensuing two and a half centuries. For years they have been a destination of national-treasure calibre, whose cachet for Australians transcends wealth and class: ferry boats depart Shute Harbour on the mainland to traverse the passages between Hook, Hamilton, Whitsunday and Hayman Islands with hundreds aboard, passing sleek private yachts owned by some of the richest men and women in this country of serious sailing aficionados. Strict building regulations (the entire archipelago is protected within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, and divided into six discrete national parks) mean the greenery will always prevail; even on Hamilton, the most commercial of the islands and home to the regional airport, development will never account for more than a third of the land area (indeed, Whitsunday Island, the archipelago’s largest, is to this day entirely uninhabited besides campers and those with residential yachts).

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These islands, as a primary gateway to some of the most photographed sections of the Great Barrier Reef, have for years been on the international radar as well. Though beach resorts of a truly luxury quality aren’t as numerous in Queensland as one might expect (and there are only eight resorts of any type across all of the Whitsundays), the ones that have made names for themselves have done so with uniquely Australian permutations on hospitality – a compelling blend of access to nature, lo-fi design and simple but superlative cuisine and wines.

Pool complex at the One&Only Hayman Island resort
Pool complex at the One&Only Hayman Island resort | Image: One&Only Resorts

Except one of them, that is. In 1947, the aviation magnate Sir Reginald “Reg” Ansett spotted Hayman Island on a routine flyover, just off the upward-reaching tip of Hook Island and the northernmost of the Whitsundays group, and fell for it hard. At the time, the island was virtually unchanged from when the Endeavour had passed. It was frequented only by the founder of a small biological research laboratory and members of the Great Barrier Reef Game Fish Angling Club, set up in 1935 by a pair of local fishermen (and patronised by, among others, the American adventure novelist Zane Grey, who in May 1936 arrived on the island with a 20-strong crew to film White Death). Ansett purchased Hayman and set about constructing what was to become one of the most expensive and luxurious resorts in the southern hemisphere, a paean in bricks and mortar to all that was top shelf. The Royal Hayman Hotel opened in 1950, in anticipation of a tour planned to be taken by King George VI (for which Ansett and his newly gilded island were swiftly granted a royal charter). With generous rooms and suites spread across two low-rise complexes, a knockout pool and a slim, curved band of white-sand beach, it faced a bay that emptied into picturesque shallows with the ebbing of the tide at sunset. The resort quickly became – and for several decades remained – the Great Barrier Reef go-to for Australia’s elite and globetrotters from farther afield.

A beach villa with pool at One&Only Hayman Island resort
A beach villa with pool at One&Only Hayman Island resort | Image: One&Only Resorts

By the early 1980s, though, the Whitsundays themselves were at the centre of a development buzz, entrepreneur Keith Williams having constructed Hamilton’s commercial airport and commenced development of a few hotels with a bigger audience in mind. And with the advent of the 21st century, Hayman Island was on the way to losing some of its initial lustre – a fact attributable as much to the rise of alternative destinations (Indonesia, for instance, offered Australians world-class hotels in ample numbers, relative accessibility, excellent service and a veneer of exoticism not quite matched by a Lucky Country home state) as to Hayman’s inevitable ageing, however graceful. In 2004, the Australian-Malaysian property developers Mulpha Australia purchased Hayman. Though they buffed up the offering (most notably with the addition, in 2010, of a few beach villas designed by Singapore-based Kerry Hill, author of some of the most aesthetically impressive resorts in Asia), there was still a sense of decline.

The Long Pavilion at Hamilton Island’s Qualia resort
The Long Pavilion at Hamilton Island’s Qualia resort

In late 2012, Mulpha’s razor-sharp chairman, Lee Seng Huang, had discussions with One&Only resorts about the prospect of taking over Hayman. It was a fairly bold decision, given the island’s pride of place in the Australian consciousness: so many honeymoons, weddings, anniversaries and birthdays celebrated over the years; so many traditions created, attachments formed, memories preserved in inviolate amber. One&Only had the delicate task of finding a way to graft its decidedly international brand of luxury onto what was, to some minds, a national institution in all but official designation.

Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island
Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island | Image: © 4Corners Images

Sceptics’ voices will likely be stilled, though, by the truly impressive job One&Only has done on Hayman, thanks in part to an estimated spend of A$80m (about £44m) on Mulpha’s part. It is a deft balancing act, one that many aspire to but few achieve in full, whereby the high glamour factor for which One&Only’s resorts in the UAE, the Maldives, Mexico and elsewhere are known is tempered by an essential easefulness that’s all Australia. It’s in that architectural design – the light, neutral palette painted across open spaces; the natural timbers; the sensual, deeply tactile materials of kidskin and polished marble, silk velvet and gauze linen. But it’s also in the lush, not hyper-manicured landscaping (Hayman has a botanical garden with about 550 species represented across its 726 acres); and, crucial to the balance, a youthful staff that radiate professionalism and fizz with enthusiasm.

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One&Only has maintained the shell of the original Hayman, retrofitting sleek one- and two-bedroom suites into the pool complexes, one of which is now outfitted for the kiddies and the other – augmented by an alfresco bar and sexy peek-a-boo cabanas, with a pronounced Balearics vibe – all about the grown-ups. Hill’s beach villas are a dream, their twin pavilions housing a sleeping area and a vast bath, with a private-pool courtyard, complete with day bed cantilevered over the water, and outdoor showers shaded by coco palms. In the Pacific restaurant, the banquettes are upholstered in turquoise leather, the buffet gleams and glitters with sculptural stacks of tropical fruits and neat rows of mason jars filled with parfaits in sorbet hues. There’s wonderful pan-Asian food at Bamboo, and a killer spaghetti with chilli crab and sharing pizzas at Amici. With its international clientele – and Australia’s congenitally body-con traveller – in mind, One&Only cannily enlisted Bodyism trainer Simon Mitchell, one of James Duigan’s original deputies at London’s Bodyism flagship, to preside over the state-of-the-art fitness centre (so stunningly kitted out, in plush finishes, that I’d have slept there without much grumbling). The spa is small, just five treatment suites, awash in silver and grey and adjacent to the yoga and Pilates studios, though therapists are legion for dispatching to rooms. Just visible up on the hill, to the eastern side of the island, are the One&Only residences. Also designed by Hill, they will eventually number 18 in total, and several will potentially come in to the hotel’s collection, available for use. Consummately private eyries overlooking the passage between Hayman and Hook islands, with vast proportions and Bond-villain-lair good looks, they are bound to be a hit with A-listers.

Hayman is only 22km from the outer Great Barrier Reef, and One&Only has, predictably, curated experiences that bring its guests right in, with exclusive access, comfort and privacy top of mind. My helicopter jaunt over to Whitehaven Beach, for instance: Barbara, One&Only’s Kiwi pilot, swooped thrillingly low over Heart Reef, expertly gauging my nerves for a second and third pass despite the wind. She dispensed a steady and engrossing stream of facts and figures about the reef’s ecology, and historical anecdotes about the islands, while simultaneously scanning the deep blue of the channel for migrating humpback whales. On Whitehaven Beach, a bottle of Perrier-Jouët, a picnic and shawls against the brisk breeze materialised. Hayman’s marina also boasts a selection of cruising boats and yachts, at guests’ disposal, along with a crack team of fishing and diving guides to accompany them.

Those same helicopters and yachts transport guests to and from the airport on Hamilton Island, to which Qantas, as of July, reinstituted thrice-weekly services from Sydney. This is a boon for those arriving from the UK, Europe and the US, and in no small part due to One&Only’s instalment on the scene. But Hamilton Island is itself home to another, very fine resort, though of an entirely different stripe to Hayman Island. Qualia, secluded among the secondary native bushland and eucalyptus groves of a long, slender peninsula, is owned by Robert Oatley and his family, who also own the island itself, as well as neighbouring Dent Island. Oatley is a keen competitive sailor – his Wild Oats XI has taken the famous Sydney-to-Hobart regatta trophy many times – and the founder of Rosemount wines, which he sold in 2001 for a sum reportedly in the region of £830m. In 2003, he invested some of the proceeds in Hamilton’s purchase, with the intention of nurturing it into the tourist nexus of the archipelago and one of the premier sailing centres of the southern hemisphere; Qualia was part of this plan.

The island, as a whole, is not a five-star destination – there is too much commerce and air and boat traffic for it to offer any real sense of private-island exclusivity – but Qualia succeeds in being a lovely little world unto itself. Its aesthetic, in contrast to that of One&Only’s, is entirely understated, contemporary but eminently comfortable. Its 60 pavilions have what Oatley has aptly described as “structural honesty”: designed simply in tropical specimen timbers and local sandstone, with corrugated metal roofs and a profusion of glass walls capitalising on sigh-provoking panoramic views of the sea, which surrounds the resort on three sides. Guests are given golf buggies to traverse Qualia’s 50 acres to reach the spa, the private beach – with its square infinity pool and croquet lawn – and the Long Pavilion restaurant, where the simple, open-air decor lets executive chef Alasdair Waddell’s remarkable talents take centre stage; wagyu raised just over on the mainland was seared table side on herb-seasoned lava stones. Wallabies hop to and fro in the late afternoons; cockatoos natter in the trees surrounding my villa’s plunge pool. The low-rise, low-key quiet is inevitably enhanced by Qualia’s no-children policy.

Oatley and his family’s investment in and commitment to the region has manifested in some nice perquisites for Qualia’s guests. They can take their buggies off-property and anywhere on the island, and charge anything back to their hotel tab – a drink at the simple but charming CocaChu Asian bistro on Catseye beach, say, or gourmet snacks from the general store in the marina. Out on Hardy Reef, the closest of the Great Barrier Reef formations, the resort maintains a private glass-bottomed boat just inside a marine-reserve area, reached by seaplane. Splits of Charles Heidsieck and charcuterie are laid out, while I snorkel amid stands of electric-blue antler coral and gardens replete with technicolour fish and massive clams. Oatley brokered the deal with the reserve years ago; the boat – winkingly christened Spiky, for the gull-deterring needles covering its roof – isn’t quite in the same class as One&Only’s gleaming power yachts, but her access to this part of Hardy Reef is unrivalled.

In the event, the vehicle you arrive in is arguably beside the point, and that is true throughout the Whitsundays. It’s the place itself – spectacular and still so close to pristine – that will continue to beguile and seduce. I imagine James Cook, considering all those blues, would have agreed.

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