It’s the perfect summer escape if you’re after simple luxury – and no one knows it better than former Vogue Australia editor, Kirstie Clements
First impressions can shape an opinion for life, and in the case of qualia, it’s a series of breathtaking moments that remain indelible. I remember making an audible gasp when I first took in the view from the lobby.
The natural beauty of the landscape here is Australia at its glittering, tropical best. I am not traditionally someone who vacations in their own country, preferring a complete change of culture, but qualia makes you rethink the concept of holidaying at home.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit qualia on several occasions for the annual sailing regatta during Audi Hamilton Island Race Week. Each time I was plucked from a hectic Sydney office, stressed and on deadline. In the morning I’d be in traffic on the way to the airport; less than four hours later I’d be relaxing in my spacious Leeward Pavilion, nursing a chilled glass of Charles Heidsieck and soaking up one of the world’s best outlooks, with nothing but bird calls to interrupt the beautiful silence.
The arrival is a pleasure in itself: the views of the Whitsunday islands from the plane are spectacular. “Look, it’s so clear you can see the sea bed!” the American tourist sitting next to me gushed excitedly. From the airport you are efficiently whisked away in a van by friendly qualia staff; the tall and imposing electric gates to the resort opening Jurassic Park-style as you drive towards them. Nothing forbidding behind this entrance though – unless you’re terrified of impeccable five-star luxury and the odd wallaby.
No cars, no kids
There are no private cars allowed on the island, and no children in qualia, thus the sense of relaxation is immediate. Guests are presented with their own electric buggy at reception and our first stop was a long lunch at the resort’s more informal Pebble Beach restaurant, where we shared a tasty seafood platter and icy bottle of Robert Oatley Margaret River Chardonnay.
Considering the Oatley family are not only renowned winemakers but also the owners of Hamilton Island, it would be impolite not to (not to mention it’s one of my favourite whites). After a small après lunch dilemma (a swim in the heated horizon pool next to Pebble Beach? A nap in a cabana? A plunge in our private pool back in our pavilion?) we decided to squeeze in all three. There is also snorkelling, sailing and kayaking, but that could wait. There were ERES swimsuits in the boutique that had to be tried on first.
The pavilions are a lovely example of luxurious discretion, spacious and airy with a delicate colour wash of pale aqua and sea green, and the use of lightly scented Rose Oak timber. Designed by Australian architect Chris Beckingham, the real glamour is the sense of restraint in its design. The raw sensuality of the bush, the sea and sky is the real escape we are seeking; not material trappings.
It is the 180-degree view of the sparkling Whitsunday passage that dominates the room, you simply cannot drag your eyes away. The dense foliage is so close that you can reach your hand out to touch a bleached, fragrant gum. No wonder this is such a popular destination for couples and newlyweds – qualia provides a sense of raw, organic remoteness that is much better shared.
Dinner at the Long Pavilion, created by executive chef Alastair Waddell, is gourmet and complex, yet light. Even better, there is a grill menu for those who like to keep it simple – the peppery and delicious lamb ‘riblets’ are generous enough for two, and there is always a daily reef fish. Desserts are a stand-out – we chose to share a creamy white chocolate and salted caramel concoction that was the perfect finishing point.
It’s the serenity and simplicity of qualia, and indeed Hamilton Island, that provides the level of luxury that saw it voted Best Resort in The World by Conde Nast Traveller in 2012. The staff is laconic, Aussie-style friendly, without being too casual, and the service is fast. Nothing is overdone or forced – the rooms are not filled with superfluous knick-knacks, the mini bar is not stocked with gimmicks, the bathrooms are spare and gorgeous. The resort has decided to simply be, and let nature take centre stage.
Daily activity options include beach drop-offs, gourmet picnics, or scenic helicopter flights over the Great Barrier Reef. A visit to one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, Whitehaven, is minutes away. The wumurdaylin spa is top class, and vaguely oriental in feel with wooden paths surrounded by water and treatment rooms that open to the fresh salty air. Intuitive therapists will tailor massages, scrubs and facials using indigenous-inspired natural products.
Eagles circle the marina
A visit to the squeaky clean marina is a must, as too is dinner at coca chu (it seems Hamilton Island isn’t fond of capital letters!), a south-east Asian fusion restaurant overlooking Catseye Beach. On the Wednesday night we went, the restaurant was abuzz with young families and honeymooners; and the food was terrific. And to maximise the glorious views, take a short boat trip to the Golf Club for lunch (golf optional!) and watch the eagles soar overhead.
The utter stillness of qualia is intoxicating – the only sudden movement I witnessed was a stealth-eyed kookaburra who, after eyeing off a guest’s breakfast plate, swooped down, speared a sausage and took off. That wasn’t the only brush with the local flora and fauna. We also watched as a willowy Chinese supermodel posed for a photo just outside the lobby.
As she smiled at the camera, a wallaby emerged from the bushes and calmly took its place beside her – a casual phenomenon that garnered about one trillion likes from mainland China on her Facebook page. Like typical Aussies, we pretended that this was the sort of miraculous wildlife sighting that was just par for the course in Australia, but of course it was thrilling.
As an editor, I would often invite international celebrities to visit Sydney for a photo shoot, and add a holiday to qualia afterwards as the enticement that would seal the deal. It is so perfect that it is very difficult to leave. The tactful staff eventually found us at check-out time – we were hiding in our plunge pool. I imagine that happens a lot. But there is an upside for native Australians – it’s so close, there is really no excuse not to return.
MORE: All you need to know about The Whitsunday islands.