Fall is the best time to visit the Whitsundays.
Virgin Australia flies from Los Angeles to
Queensland and on to Hamilton Island.
While circling Queensland’s Hamilton Island in a complete whiteout for what feels like hours, our deft Virgin Blue pilot suddenly announces, “We’re going for it.” Before we can reach for our seat backwater landing instructions, the plane skids onto the tarmac, the only flight to land or take off from the tony island all day.
It’s the closing of Audi Hamilton Island Race Week, and men in Versace suits and women in Chanel dresses toting designer trunks are demanding boats, helicopters or private jets to get them back to the mainland. From the looks of things, no amount of money in the world is going to change the unforgiving course of mother nature, so multiple Audis soon begin delivering frantic Race Week attendees to nearby hotels and resorts. We watch what looks like a reality TV show unfold before us until finally, we are whisked away in the rain on a crowded boat to a nearby island to wait out the storm (the boat is not named the Castaway, but I am squashed next to a professor and Gilligan’s Health Hut is waiting on the shore at Daydream Island).
This is supposed to be the season of sapphire seas around the Great Barrier Reef, but it is a few rainy days before we catch our first glimpse of the breathtaking jewel tones that dot the terrain like the contents of a pirate’s treasure chest. The bracelet of brilliant blues shimmers momentarily from the private Hayman Island, the northernmost island of the Whitsundays, as our luxurious catamaran pulls up to the docks.
Before we even unload our bags, we settle at a table at the Hayman Pool Bar, where decadent drinks served in what look like fishbowls come to the table from the open show kitchen, almost too beautiful to imbibe, as we look out to the Coral Sea. Bold Kookaburras, Yellow Crested Cockatoos and Lorikeets perch atop the modern pool umbrellas and nearby bushes waiting patiently for crumbs, or the careless guest who forgets to close their sliding balcony doors to keep these flying bandits from raiding their jewelry.
It’s hard to believe that six months earlier, in January and February of 2011, this five-star resort was in shambles, practically demolished by two violent cyclones that destroyed restaurants, guest rooms, pools, tennis courts, and 39 acres of the island’s lush botanic gardens, which alone cost $4 million to replace. The resort shut down for five months during the $66-million-dollar renovation, which included new beach villas already planned for completion, upgraded lagoon rooms, a refurbishment of penthouse and most guest rooms, restaurants redesigned to take advantage of waterfront views, and the resort’s centerpiece, a new botanical garden with 33,000 new plants and 327 new species. The new garden was designed by Australian horticulturalist and TV star Jamie Durie and planted by a team of devoted gardeners.
According to head landscaper Doug Van Wyk Smith, Hayman staff was just clearing debris from the first cyclone, Anthony, when Yasi blew in to wreak more havoc. Van Wyk Smith, whose tales of the cyclones and the renovations of the land, including the planting of hundreds of orchids and bromeliads in the trees, are riveting to hear (go to our ipad app to listen to him), recalls how in the final moments of evacuation, he swooped up the resort’s two resident swans in his arms (Barry and Elizabeth, named after loyal resort guests) and took them home with him until their habitat was restored. All 300 employees were kept on during the renovations and a further 350 contractors were brought in to finish the enormous job.
The stunning results were worth the six-month wait. Most notable are the eight new Hayman Island Beach Villas, designed by architect Kerry Hill, who is known for designing buildings that merge organically with their environments. Each 1,300-square-foot villa is beachfront, with floor to ceiling glass looking out to unencumbered views of the Coral Sea and Whitsundays. Guests can relax as crystal clear water gently laps at the shore of a palm fringed white sand beach, or enjoy the villa’s private plunge infinity pool in an open air gallery with a day bed. The spacious accommodations also boast Balinese-inspired private terraces, outdoor rockery showers, gorgeous bathrooms with island baths and frameless glass showers and 42-inch plasma screen TVS.
Also available amongst the 244 guest accommodations are 11 one-, two- and three-bedroom penthouses, each with its own blend of antiques and objects d’art such as Louis XV1 lamps (the French Provincial Penthouse), or rare 19th-century pieces from North Africa inlaid with mother-of-pearl, ebony, ivory and silver (the Moroccan Penthouse).
Families can book Hayman pool suites or rooms and relax on private balconies while kids splash in the pool, or enjoy five tennis courts, two squash courts, a driving range and nine-hole putting green, windsurfing and paddle skiing, cooking classes, marine tours and fishing. From September to November, big game fishermen arrive via seaplane, helicopter, or high-speed catamaran in pursuit of Black Marlin.
The resort, the only one on the island, hugs a sandy beach on its southwestern side and opens to a thick national park forest of flora and fauna which, at its 850-foot peak, offers a challenging hike with views of the surrounding islands. Hayman is home to a thriving, translocated colony of endangered Proserpine Rock wallabies, which can be seen if you’re willing to get up early enough. And at dusk, a colony of flying foxes who hang from the trees like bats soars amongst the palms like a horror movie that you want to watch again and again.
After long hikes, there’s nothing better than a visit to Spa Hayman. The spa is world class, with an extensive menu as well as a chance to consult with wellness experts who will perform a holistic analysis to individually design a program fit for your immediate needs. From outdoor cabana massages to a couples Aromatic Cocoon to an in-room, exotic candlelit Balneotherapy bath, each treatment on Hayman’s spa menu indulges all the senses.
As do the varied dining options. The most sought after is The Hayman Signature Experience, a Chef’s Table hosted by Executive Chef Glenn Bacon or one of Hayman’s premier chefs. Guests are taken behind the scenes into the main kitchen for a chandelier-lit, six-course degustation menu with matching wines from the resort’s cellar and a visit after dinner to the Hayman Chocolate Room. In the best of ways, the breakfast buffet at the oceanfront Azure is overwhelmingly indulgent, while La Trattoria, famous for its antipasto displays, offers an authentic Italian dining experience in an al fresco outdoor and indoor setting. Hayman’s Oriental restaurant presents the best of Thai, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian cuisine with a separate vegetarian menu, all prepared with innovative contemporary flare in the resort's water garden. The Hayman Pool Bar is perfect for lunch or cocktails by the pool, while the Club Lounge is where you’ll want to order a night cap and play a round of billiards after a day in the sun.
One of those sun days must be an excursion to nearby Whitehaven Beach. Considered one of the top 10 beaches in the world, ribbons of sand and green and sapphire blue water snake along over four miles of white silica sand shorelines and disappear into green bluffs. Even in cloudy weather, this natural outcrop appears from the green hills like a constantly shifting sand painting. Book a day trip with gourmet lunch through Hayman Resort, or try Cruise Whitsundays half-day experience, where you can play volleyball and cricket, stroll the shoreline, swim, snorkel, or lie back under sun shelters.
Most visitors do not come to the Whitsundays without an excursion or two to the Great Barrier Reef. The closest section of the Whitsundays lies just north of Hayman Island, Hardy and Hook Reefs, and forms a protected lagoon for large man-made pontoons and diving facilities.
We explored Hardy reef with Fantasea Cruises, a modern, air-conditioned catamaran that departed from Hamilton Island’s Shute Harbor in very high seas (warning – during these conditions, this is not for the weak of stomach). Once there, at Fantasea’s ReefWorld pontoon, you can snorkel, take in the undersea life in a semi submersible craft, or take a scenic helicopter ride, which is the best way to explore the area as it circles the iconic heart reef (best viewed from the air) and some of the Whitsundays 74 islands, only eight of which are inhabited.
Guests aboard the semi submersible craft will see everything from clownfish, parrotfish, coral rabbitfish, damselfish, and tuskfish to the stunning Spanish dancer nudibranch, giant clams, sea turtles, and soft-bodied squid. Brightly colored Stinger suits are available in the summer when box jellyfish, Irukandji and blue bottles are out – they also offer protection from the sun and keep sunscreen from getting on the coral.
Hardy Reef is a healthy growing reef with an established ecosystem and the longest snorkel and dive trails on the Great Barrier Reef. At Reefworld, you can spend the night if you’re interested in night dives, or explore the reef from a 50-seat underwater observatory. The Reefsleep experience is Australia’s only marine accommodation available on a permanent structure. Limited to six guests, the experience includes two days and one night. Once the day visitors depart, the pontoon and reef are exclusively yours until 11 am. King size rooms and bunk style quads for families are available. If you’re really prone to seasickness, which I am, for an outrageous fee, you can return to land by scenic helicopter ride.
Between May and September, the annual whale migration north from the Antarctic waters to the Great Barrier reef is spectacular as thousands of whales follow the Australian coastline up to their subtropical breeding grounds. Some 30 species of whale and dolphin can be observed from boats, helicopters and land. The view from those seaplanes was one of the reasons Australian aviation pioneer Reginald Ansett fell in love with and acquired Hayman in 1947. (It was a biological research laboratory in 1933). His Royal Hayman Hotel opened in 1950 in anticipation of a royal visit to Australia, for which Hayman was granted a Royal Charter.
Hayman soon earned the reputation as Australia’s foremost leisure and honeymoon destination and attracted widespread international attention. Arrival on Hayman was by “flying boat” as the majestic Catalina and Sandringham seaplanes were known. When the classic Australian television series “Barrier Reef” began filming there in 1969, a generation of Australians was introduced to the excitement of underwater adventure. In 1972, Sylvia Cook and John Fairfax also contributed to Hayman’s history when they became the first to row across the Pacific, landing on Hayman after 361 days at sea.
By July 1985, a two-year, $305 million project began to transform Hayman into a true luxury lifestyle destination and in 1987 Hayman was invited to join The Leading Hotels of the World. The resort undertook another significant renovation in 2001, which was when it installed many of its modern five-star amenities.
In June 2004, a new vision took shape as Mulpha Australia Limited acquired Hayman, and in January 2010, after almost six years of careful planning, design and environmental consultations, the final approvals were granted. When the cyclones struck, only some of the construction had begun, almost clearing the plate for its current spectacular incarnation.
Hamilton Island, one of the largest of the Whitsundays, is the country’s largest resort island, with hotels and private homes nestled among national parkland. Owned by the Oatlay family of sailing fame, Hamilton Island’s Race Week, with its serious offshore racing, fabulous super yachts and onshore glitz and glamour, attracts some 200 yachts and is a who’s who of Australia’s entertainment, business and sailing world. Its marinas, restaurants, shops and bars are packed that week (August 17-25 this year) with most people traveling by golf buggy from these high-end accommodations. Don’t miss cuddling a koala while you’re there.
Qualia: This exclusive, secluded, adults-only property, with its two infinity pools and 60 elegant pavilions, many with private plunge pools, is set amongst 30 acres of tropical landscaped gardens. Designed by Australian architect Chris Beckingham to stimulate the senses and draw the outside in, qualia’s design is set amongst native Eucalyptus trees, with each pavilion handcrafted from fine imported and local timber and stone. Two world-class restaurants, a luxurious spa with an open-air yoga and meditation pavilion, and spacious bedrooms and living areas make this the spot to explore the area. Guests have their own two-seater electric buggy, along with access to qualia’s VIP chauffeur service for transfers around the island. The concierge will arrange tours to the reef, scenic flights, cruising, diving, or snorkeling as well as exclusive Whitsunday tours.
Yacht Club Villas: The perfect retreat for groups, these new villas are nestled alongside the iconic new Walta Barda-designed Hamilton Island Yacht Club, a structure that offers a dramatic nod to the nautical, with an oxidized copper roof reminiscent of the full sails of the Sydney Opera House and its Bommie Restaurant, offering some of the best seafood in the islands. Each of the 35 luxuriously appointed four-bedroom villas here have breathtaking views over Dent Passage and the Whitsunday islands and span three or four levels. Each villa, some which lead on to the Yacht Club pool, has its own four-seater electric buggy as well as access to Executive Concierge transfers around the island. Guests also have privileged access to Spa qualia and qualia restaurants as well as priority tee times at the Hamilton Island Golf Club.
Hamilton Island Golf Club: This is the only 18-hole championship island golf club in Australia, and is located on Dent Island, a ferry ride (or helicopter ride from Hayman) away. The par 71 course was designed by five-time British Open winner Peter Thomson and boasts a gorgeous view of the islands rugged terrain across the Whitsundays and the mainland.
A Threatened Reef
While the Great Barrier reef is one of the world’s healthiest coral systems and is well managed, according to Fantasea marine biologists, stress factors such as decreased water quality, over-fishing or poaching and destruction of coral environments could change the reef from a coral-dominated environment to an algae-dominated one. Reef corals are highly sensitive to sea temperatures: When coral is exposed to prolonged temperatures one degree Celsius over normal highs, the symbiotic relationship between coral and zooxanthellae breaks down and coral bleaches and loses its healthy pigment. If stressful conditions continue, the coral may bleach and die.
According to research from the Cooperative Research Centre for the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, the earth is getting warmer, with temperatures now higher than they have been for 2,000 years. A large body of research suggests that this is due to greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere by human activities such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation. Even small changes in temperature can have a devastating effect on the natural environment. Sea temperature rises of just one or two degrees centigrade can cause coral bleaching and death on a worldwide scale.
In 1998 and 2002, mass bleaching occurred on the reef, though Hardy Reef has almost completely recovered. When temperatures return to normal range, algae returns to its host, allowing coral to regain its color. Other animals which have a symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae, such as giant clams, sea anemones, some sponges and soft coral, are also susceptible to bleaching. But the greatest threat to the reef is ocean acidification, which is caused by increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This occurs when carbon dioxide in the air dissolves in the ocean to produce carbonic acid, which then lowers the PH of the surrounding ocean. When this happens, limestone, one of the core ingredients of coral, is affected and so is corals ability to produce it.
The results cannot be easily reversed, according to Dr. J.E.N. Veron, former chief scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science. In Reefworld’s tome to the Great Barrier Reef, Reefworld, he is quoted as saying: “On our present trajectory,” he said, “we can expect acidification to start impacting the Great Barrier Reef around 2013. At that time, the cooler outer reef slopes which provide a safe haven for bleaching will be the very places most affected. The result will be that corals will no longer build reefs, nor maintain them against the forces of erosion. They will be nothing but mounds of bacterial slime and algae.”
Scientists believe atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide must be kept below 400 parts per million to ensure low or moderate levels of vulnerability to climate changer, in 2009 it reached 387 parts per million. A huge reduction – at least 25% – in greenhouse gas emissions is necessary to stop this from happening. For more information, go to greatbarrierreefs.com.au
A Swan Song
One of the things that make Hayman Lagoon one of the most romantic locations on the island is the presence of its two resident swans, Barry and Elizabeth.While swans are known for being monogamous creatures, in a strange twist of fate, Barry helped Elizabeth find love again. After Elizabeth lost her partner in a tragic incident, Barry was brought in to help keep this lonely swan company.
At first Elizabeth fought his affections. However, following the cyclone earlier this year, Elizabeth decided to give love another chance.
“They do everything together,” says Hayman Landscaping Manager Doug Van Wyk Smith, “eat, sleep and swim. They’re always within a couple of meters of each other. It’s a really lovely thing to see.”
White swans are hard to come by in Australia and it’s especially difficult to get a pair and very rare for swans to bond again with a new partner.
“We are so lucky to have them here… We have our fingers crossed that there will be some baby swans coming soon,” says Van Wyk Smith with a cheeky grin. One of the things that make Hayman Lagoon one of the most romantic locations on the island is the presence of its two resident swans. – From Hayman’s Blog posted on October 6, 2011, hayman.com.au/blog/page/10