Hamilton Island, Australia
After a busy week hitting Melbourne first and then Adelaide second, I was really ready to get to a beach and relax for a few days. I normally lean towards European city vacations because I tend to get bored at resorts, but for this Australian trip I decided to splurge for the best. I flew from Adelaide to Sydney and then connected in Sydney to Hamilton Island which is located in the Whitsundays by the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. I stayed at Qualia which is the one of the top luxury resorts in the world, and it sits on the northern part of Hamilton Island closed off by large doors and only accessible to guests of the hotel. Qualia exceeded my wildest expectations. The staff was incredible, the grounds are impeccable, and my pavilion overlooking the water was as luxurious as I could have imagined. Upon arriving on the island, the hotel collects your baggage for you and whisks you to the resort where you are met by an eager staff member who greets you with Champagne and sits with you while you map out all of your plans for the week. They take care of every reservation, and they even type up an itinerary for you so you don't have to remember a thing. Hamilton Island is one of the most beautiful places I have been, and if you ever get the chance to experience it I highly recommend you make it happen.
THINGS TO KNOW
- Qualia is a bit remote and removed from the rest of the island, but it's still only 10 minutes from the downtown marina. There are other accommodations such as The Reef View Hotel which are much larger and within walking distance to restaurants, but nothing else comes close to the luxury of Qualia.
- Everyone on the island gets around by buggy (golf cart). At Qualia every guest is provided with a buggy for their stay. At other hotels you have to pay to rent buggies. While some parts of the island are walkable, there are a lot of steep hills so buggy is the best option.
- Hamilton Island was purchased by an Australian winemaker named Robert Oatley in 2003. In addition to building the Yacht Club and a golf course, the entire island is connected and run through one system which means you can charge anything to your room (restaurants, stores) even when you're not at your hotel. It's nice to not have to bring a wallet around with you everywhere you go.
- Given that it is a small island and everyone is here to enjoy the beaches and the reef, I'd highly recommend booking your activities before you arrive on the island. A lot of the tours and cruises book up fast and you want to ensure you have a spot.
WHAT TO DO
- Great Barrier Reef Cruise: There are a few ways you can go see the Great Barrier Reef, but my travel agent signed me up on the full day trip to the Reefworld pontoon through Cruise Whitsundays. They picked us up at the marina downtown around 9 a.m. and we took a two hour boat out to the pontoon right by Hardy Reef. It's a bit of a long trek on the boat, but the staff is very helpful and friendly, and they provide you with a lot of options for activities once you arrive at the reef including scuba, snorkeling, helicopter rides, massages, and more. Most activities have additional costs, but if you are not interested in anything further you can just relax and enjoy the beautiful views when you arrive by lounging on the boat deck or on the top of the pontoon. I chose to splurge for the 10 minute helicopter ride over top of the heart shaped reef. When else am I going to be able to fly over the Great Barrier Reef? It seemed like the right thing to do, and boy am I glad that I did it. It is one of the most breathtaking things I have ever seen. The water is crystal blue and aqua, and the reef is massive. We even saw schools of sharks from up top and other creatures in the ocean. From 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. the boat offered a large buffet lunch which is included in the cost of the trip, and around 3 p.m. we began the journey back to Hamilton Island. It took close to three hours to get back and the water was quite rough, but overall it was a worthwhile experience. If I could do it again, I might have sprung for the helicopter ride all the way back to Hamilton Island which was one of the other available options and would have allowed me to skip the choppy water.
- Whitehaven Beach Cruise: The next day I joined a half day boat cruise to Whitehaven Beach also run by Cruise Whitsundays. This is widely thought of as one of the most beautiful and pristine beaches on the planet. The cruise only took about 45 minutes to get out to the beach and we then had about two and a half hours to relax and soak in the beauty. Whitehaven lived up to the hype-- the sand is perfectly white, and the water is the most dreamy color of blue. The sand is 98% silica which means it does not retain heat making it very comfortable to walk on no matter the temperature. The staff of Cruise Whitsundays provided us all with stinger suits to wear in the water for the afternoon. There are invisible jellyfish that you do not want to take a chance with, so it was comforting to have the suit on while in the water. My only complaint about this trip was they did not warn us in advance that there would be absolutely no cover or shade while on the island. The boat did not stay parked at the beach, and the beach offers no umbrellas or opportunities to get out of the oppressive heat. Thankfully I spent most of my time in the divine water which was the absolute perfect temperature, but I would have appreciated the opportunity to escape onto the air conditioned boat if possible when not in the water.
- Qualia Atomic Sunset Cruise: The resort offers an evening cruise to watch the sun go down over the Whitsunday Islands. We met at the Long Pavilion (lobby) of Qualia and they transported us down to the marina to board a luxury charter. It was a beautiful evening with about 15 total guests from the hotel and they provided us with cocktails, wine, Champagne, and a nice spread of canapes. I had a lovely time and enjoyed meeting the other people and sharing stories of our travels and our experiences so far on the island.
- Talk and Taste at Qualia: Qualia resort offers a culinary experience to their guests that either centers around "Sake and Sashimi", "Champagne and Oysters" or "Wine and Cheese". The classes are offered for an hour in the afternoons and you must sign up for them in advance to ensure you have a spot. The cost of the class is $125 AUD. I attended the Wine and Cheese class and loved it. I lucked out that it was just myself and a couple so we had a lot of one on one time with the sommelier Ben. We tasted four wines and four cheeses during the class including a Tempranillo from Spain paired with a Manchego and a Tasmanian Pinot Noir with a rich and earthy washed rind cows milk cheese from Tasmania. I was a good student and was sure to leave no wine or cheese crumble behind. This was well worth the cost.
WHERE TO EAT
I'll just start by saying that you do not come to Hamilton Island for the food. I had one great dining experience, but everything else was pretty mediocre. However, I wasn't disappointed because I had set my expectations properly. This is one of the most beautiful islands you will ever visit, so come soak up the views, sun, and sights. The food is almost an afterthought (I never thought I would say that).
- Coca Chu: If you have a hankering for South East Asian food, Coca Chu is the best option on Hamilton Island. The restaurant is pretty casual, and also a bit frantic with lots of families and children, but I found the food to be good. I enjoyed the wagyu beef stir-fry with Chinese broccoli and thought some of the starters like the scallop and ginger wontons were nice bites of food. Unfortunately, I waited around 20 minutes for my glass of wine due to haphazard service, but I tried to go with the flow and succumb to the vacation mindset. Coca Chu is located at the Hamilton Island Resort Centre on Resort Drive.
- Long Pavilion at Qualia: This was the best meal I had while visiting Hamilton Island. It is an eight course tasting menu offered at Qualia Resort and they provide a few beverage pairing options as well. I stuck to the Australian wine pairings (when in Rome), and thought they were carefully selected to go well with the flavors of the food. The fourth course was my favorite: the red claw yabbie with miso, kumura, and sesame paired with the Freycinet Pinot Noir from Tasmania. Long Pavilion will also offer an a la carte menu or fewer courses depending on your preference. Long Pavilion is located at Qualia Resort on 20 Whitsunday Boulevard.
- Manta Ray: I liked the laid back vibe of Manta Ray. They aren't trying to do anything too fancy, but it's a great place for a glass of wine and a pizza for lunch. It sits right on the Hamilton Island marina and has a nice mix of salads and Mediterranean small plates that makes for a satisfying meal. Manta Ray is located on Front Street in the marina.
- Pebble Beach: This is Qualia's answer to a casual poolside restaurant which is open for both lunch and dinner. I thought the food here was quite nice for lunch. I really enjoyed the prawn and mango salad with feta and pomegranate seeds. It was a light dish but the shrimp were generous and plentiful. I paired it with some delicious truffles fries and a refreshing glass of Australian Pinot Gris. Pebble Beach is located at Qualia Resort on 20 Whitsunday Boulevard.
- Romano's: This is the island's Italian restaurant and also has a pretty view of the marina. It's a good choice for dinner, and I thought the pasta with wild boar ragu was decent yet not great. The atmosphere makes the experience, and I had good service at Romano's which counts for something. Romano's is located on Front Street in the marina.
I also checked out the Marina Tavern one evening with some friends I made during the sunset cruise and we enjoyed the outdoor patio for casual drinks and a few bites. One Tree Hill is another recommendation for cocktails and a killer sunset view of the island. There were a few places I didn't get to try due to timing, but I did hear very good things about Bommie Restaurant in the Hamilton Island Yacht Club. I heard mixed things about TAKO which is Mexican and Japanese fusion, and the seafood restaurant Mariners in the marina is supposed to be nice as well.
Hamilton Island was such a wonderful stop in Australia, and for me it was a great place to relax and recharge. I saw some of the most beautiful places including the Great Barrier Reef and Whitehaven Beach, but also got the chance to stay at a stunning resort in the lap of luxury. While the food wasn't special, everything else about this island was. Now it's off to Sydney for six days for my last stop in Australia!