Our final destination was Hamilton Island in the Whitsunday Islands. Weary with walking in cities this was our rest and relaxation stop before we headed home. I had chosen qualia, an adults-only resort at the tip of the island, as it was important we had time to reflect on our Australian trip but also enjoy one of the natural wonders of the world; the Great Barrier Reef.
I knew it would be special when I handed over the luggage tickets to the resort staff at the airport and being whisked away, hoping that my luggage would reappear later in the day. I was anxious throughout our holiday that our luggage would get lost but nearly four weeks in and we still had it all.
Walking into the Long Pavilion and looking out across the Coral Sea is one of those unforgettable moments. A couple of glasses of champagne and we were given the keys to our transport for our stay – a golf buggy. Hamilton Island is quirky as the main form of transport is golf buggies with only a few cars and trades vehicles allowed. It is also very hilly so ascents are slow and overtaking is not allowed. With a demon driver for a husband this was going to be a stressful experience.
We were taken to our Windward Pavilion and walking through the doors we were met with floor to ceiling glass windows with views across the sea. Like the Wolgan Valley this was one of those moments that will stay with me forever. To say it was dreamlike is an understatement. Everything was perfect. The lounge, bedroom and bathroom all had stunning views across the sea. An outside terrace with our own plunge pool completed the picture. Below the pavilion, a family of wallabies was searching for food and they were regular visitors during our stay. Sulphur Crested Cockatoos flew from tree to tree and on one occasion one came to join us on the verandah.
The degustation menu in the Pebble Beach restaurant was our treat on the first night, paired with a wine flight. For those readers who know me, they will understand that drinking wine with each course is a recipe for disaster for this very lightweight drinker. The last occasion was at the House of Tides in Newcastle where I struggled to negotiate the stairs. Maybe it was the setting or the fact that I had become accustomed to alcohol during this holiday that I managed not to fall down or suffer from a hangover the following day.
On the island there is a small selection of restaurants; Italian, Fish and Chips, Pub Grub and Fine Dining. The one good thing is that you don’t need to take money with you. The island has a system where everything can be charged to your hotel room. While convenient, it is also dangerous as you can easily lose track of your spending. Oh how we dreaded the final bill!
Our travel agent had booked two boat trips for us; a full day trip to Hardy Reef to snorkel and see the marine life and a half-day trip to Whitehaven Beach, probably one of the most iconic beaches in the world.
Cruise Whitsundays run a range of boat trips and the full day one to the Reef is popular. The trip also comes with a warning. The sea can be rough and anyone who suffered from seasickness was advised to take tablets before we hit the turbulent waters. Fortunately we both have good sea legs but many of our fellow passengers did not. The crew were dishing out sick bags and ice cubes to a large proportion of the tourists on board. Oh how we laughed.
There are briefings for snorkelers and divers to ensure the safety of everyone and to protect the marine life. It was the start of the jelly fish season (in particular the Irukandji jellyfish) and everyone donned either wetsuits or stinger suits.
Nothing can prepare you for the beauty of the marine life in the Barrier Reef. Donning our snorkels, goggles and flippers we took the plunge onto the reef. The sheer volume of fish is staggering and the different species made this trip feel like you were in a giant tropical fish tank. There were Parrot Fish, Gold Barrel Coral Fish, Six Banded Angelfish, Pearly Monocled Bream and the Giant Maori Wrasse (who appeared in all the photographs). The coral is also really beautiful but the deeper you go the colour fades – there is a scientific explanation; basically as light passes through water the colour is absorbed by the water. Blues and purples were easier to see, the giant clams had purple edges but the bright pinks you see on television programmes are created using special cameras and only those near the surface were pink to the human eye.
Sound seemed to be accentuated and I observed fish rooting around the coral – I could hear them moving the coral and stones and there was a high pitched noise in the water which sounded like the noises you hear dolphins make. Strange and quite eerie.
After half an hour I began to feel the cold and it was time to return to the pontoon. A buffet lunch was served (not very appetising) and we headed back to Hamilton Island. This time the sea was even rougher and we were perched on the top deck, uncovered and open to the spray and waves. We were soaked by the time we got back to land and wished we had sat in our swimming gear.
The half-day trip to Whitehaven Beach was shorter and although there was a swell it wasn’t as bad as the previous day. We were dropped on the beach and had time to meander along the beach. The sand is unreal. Like a child I sat with handfuls of the stuff and let it fall through my fingers. It was the consistency of somewhere between icing and caster sugar. Made from 98% silica it is also good for cleaning jewellery and taken in by the hype I cleaned my rings. Gullible or what? We watched the seaplanes landing on the sea and spent time just marvelling at the sand and sea.
The Whitsundays were hit by Cyclone Debbie in March 2017 and this caused considerable damage to the islands and Whitehaven Beach. Considerable effort has been put in to restoring the beach to the way it was but you can still see the damage and the original treeline before the storm. Nature is also beginning to repair the damage and there are signs of new growth.
My image of Whitehaven Beach has always been the photographs showing the white sand and the turquoise sea. From the beach this is not the view you get. I had a dilemma. I didn’t have time left to take the full day boat trip to walk up to the lookout at Hill Inlet and if I went home without seeing this famous view I would regret it.
The hotel gave me some options; a speedboat trip but the sea was too choppy, a larger yacht but this was prohibitively expensive or a twenty minute helicopter ride. Later that afternoon we waited at the hotels heliport for our helicopter to arrive. I had been in a helicopter many years ago but it was a Sea King and the one we were about to board was like a little bubble with a rotor blade.
Once on board we had our safety briefing and we were off. The views going out towards the beach were jaw dropping. Going over the sea the pilot pointed out turtles and rays. It gave a totally different perspective. The white sand the different shades of blue was what I wanted to see and this helicopter trip delivered.
We were only at qualia for five nights but it felt like a lifetime. Qualia is Latin and in the hotel’s words means ‘a collection of deeper sensory experiences’. It certainly delivers on sensory experiences and that was without visiting the spa at qualia!
It was a sad moment when we had to leave. When I was a child before we went on holiday I used to wander around the garden observing what plants were growing, their colour and smell. It was a ritual and seemed to affirm my place in the world. I did something similar when leaving qualia – breathing in the air, listening to the birds and waves and committing to memory the vista of hills, trees, sand and sea. A tearful goodbye to the peace and tranquillity.