Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Hamilton Island: Heart of the Whitsundays

As a writer, I always love to escape from everything. For that very reason, Hamilton Island would have to be one of my favourite holiday destinations. From the moment I step outside the doors of the island's airport terminal, I don't have to hurry past queues of taxis or get bombarded by hoardes of advertising billboards. In fact, there is nothing to do but slip into island time, relax and enjoy everything that this special place situated between the Queensland coast and Australia's world-famous Great Barrier Reef has to offer.

With my wife Denise during our first visit to Hamilton Island in 2007. Catseye Beach is in the background.

Hamilton Island is just 1 of 74 dots that that form The Whitsunday Islands. Only an hour and a half flight from the Queensland capital of Brisbane yet a world away from reality, a morning flight will see you checked-in and relaxing by the pool by lunchtime. I've been lucky enough to have visited Hamilton Island twice. Once with my wife Denise in 2007, and again 5 years later in 2012 when we returned with the whole family and some relatives in tow. To a first time visitor, the general lack of cars in the airport parking lot strikes you as bizarre. That is because the preferred mode of transport on Hamilton Island is by golf buggy, and the parking lot outside the terminal building is littered with them so you'd best get used to it. In front of the parking lot there are high-speed catamarans waiting to ferry connecting guests to the other island resorts located in The Whitsundays, like Hayman, Daydream or South Molle Islands. But for many arriving on the daily flights from Brisbane, Cairns, Melbourne and Sydney, including couples, young families and those with older teenagers like ourselves, Hamilton is what we've all come to see.

Our favourite point of call every afternoon on Hamilton Island was the Pool Bar at Happy Hour.

Just as my wife and I had done five years earlier, we stayed in one of the island's individual, palm fringed bungalows that gave us a sense of seclusion only a short stroll from the main resort centre. The air conditioned rooms nestled under the trees provided a shady retreat from the midday heat, if we weren't already seeking shade at the pool bar in the resort pool. With breathtaking views over Catseye Beach, the pool became our main point of stay. Especially at happy hour where the kids could easily find Mum and Dad with a cocktail in hand. With our children at an age where they were old enough to explore the island on their own, and a wealth of free activities at their disposal, it provided a laid back way for the parents and teenagers to each enjoy everything that the island had to offer at their own pace. So while the young at heart immersed themselves in wind-sailing  kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding, the parents set their watches to island time and simply enjoyed watching the day pass by at a much slower pace. The only problem we faced while relaxing in the pool each day was deciding where to dine that evening.

Denise and I back again 5 years later in 2012, this time sharing a drink at Hamilton Island's Pub.

We tried to make a point of eating somewhere different each evening. I counted 17 different eateries and restaurants on the island, most with picture perfect postcard views, so it wasn't that hard to find something we all liked. But with a herd of hungry teenagers in tow, the over-sized steaks served under the stars on the deck of the Marina Tavern was enough to entice us back for a second evening. We made a point of getting there early to admire the expensive yachts and pleasure craft as they returned from a day of sailing in The Whitsunday passage just as the sun began to set over the boat harbour. This is after all a yachtsman's paradise, and home each August to the annual Audi Hamilton Island Race Week.

Up close with the cheeky wildlife by Hamilton Island Boat Harbour. The cockatoos aren't shy and the water is naturally a brilliant aqua all year round.

By the end of the day however, the only sound I wanted to hear was the sound of a cork popping and the water gently lapping on the shore only a few metres from our feet. With my kids off enjoying the evening playing Kegel 9-pin bowling with their cousins, the reality of our jobs, parenthood and all that is associated with a busy life seemed a world away. To sip on some sparkling wine under the stars in a deck chair on the sand was pure heaven. By the time we all met up back at our bungalows before bedtime, each group had in their own way enjoyed their own magical evening.

We started each day with a full buffet breakfast from a choice of locations at the resort, often at Sails restaurant overlooking Catseye Beach and often being the first patrons to arrive, before deciding what activities we would do for the day. However, whether you are an Aussie holidaymaker or an international tourist, be sure to leave one morning aside to enjoy a breakfast with the koalas at Hamilton Island's own Wildlife Park. It's not just the young kids that enjoy watching koalas munching on some eucalyptus leaves while they help themselves to the breakfast buffet. For some overseas visitors, this is as close as you can get to one of our fine furry friends. Unless of course you come back during the day to experience all the other Australian wildlife that the small park has on display. Check the times daily for their Cuddles with a Koala experience if you are after an even better photo opportunity.

With Denise in the front and me in the back, we prepare to head out of Hamilton Island's boat harbour for a sunset champagne kayak tour, 2007.

The choice of tours that is offered from Hamilton Island was no more evident than the day we each headed in different directions to experience all The Whitsunday's had to offer. Some chose a half-day cruise to see nearby Whitehaven Beach, the world-famous 7 km stretch of pure white silica sand beach. Others opted for a full-day beach safari that included visits to Whitehaven Beach, Hill Inlet and the opportunity to snorkel over the reef at nearby Chalkies Beach. My wife and I had enjoyed a sunset kayak tour on our previous visit, so we chose to spend the morning sailing one of the resort's catamarans in the pristine water off Catseye Beach, followed by some snorkelling over the reef at low tide. If you're a beginner, then this is the perfect place to put your head under water and get a taste of what the Great Barrier Reef is all about. At low tide, one can walk out almost half a kilometre from shore and experience snorkelling over a fringe reef at a point where the water becomes much deeper. Although the colours won't be as vibrant as what you will experience when you head out on a reef cruise with one of the many tour operators, if you are prone to seasickness then this is the place for you. You fly to the island, you stay on the island and all you have to do to see some of the Barrier Reef is wade out into the water. If you're lucky like we were, you may even come face to face with a giant loggerhead turtle.

This photo was taken by my daughter just off Catseye Beach, Hamilton Island while snorkeling in 2012.

To fully appreciate Catseye Beach, take the free island shuttle bus to the lookout at One Tree Hill. Here you can look down over the Whitsunday Passage and take in an almost 360 degree view. On the way back, the bus will stop at the lookout that overlooks the resort and the driver will point to the spot where many of the couples that get married on Hamilton Island chose to have their wedding photos taken. There are over 400 weddings per year that take place on Hamilton Island, and only 365 days to fit them all in. The water off Catseye Beach changes colour throughout the day. From the magnificent clear blue of high tide when the beach is a sea of catamarans and first time sailboarders, to the stunning turquoise and sapphire colours that appear at low tide when the water transforms into a snorkelling wonderland. Best of all, if you choose to get off the bus and stay a little longer, the walk back to the resort is all down hill.

Before you leave to head back to the land of reality, there is one thing you simply must do on your last night on Hamilton Island. Take the free island shuttle bus to One Tree Hill and plan to be there by 4.30pm. Each day a large crowd gathers for Sunset Cocktails at One Tree Hill. There is no better way to begin your last evening on the island with a loved one than by watching the sunset over the Whitsunday Passage while sipping a cocktail or a glass of champagne. While we all stood there watching that big golden ball sink slowly into the sky, there was no mistaking the thought that although our brief getaway was coming to an end, the memory of this moment would stick in our minds for a lifetime. And as the words of my brother-in-law who has travelled all around Australia echoed once the last slither of orange had disappeared somewhere over the horizon; 'Of all the places I've been to, I've never seen anything as good as that.'

Perfect ending to a perfect holiday, sunset cocktails at One Tree Hill, Hamilton Island, 2012.

What I liked: The variety of things on offer, from all day reef cruises to free activities like bush walking and lazing by the pool. Just heaven.

What I didn't like: There's not much I could fault, the food and drinks may be a little pricey, but try to remember that everything has to come from the mainland and then you can get on with enjoying yourself.

No comments: