Backpackers heading to Australia aspire to conquer the three Rs; Reef, Rocks, and Rock. Admittedly, it gets a bit repetitive towards the end, but if you follow the three Rs you’ll get a basic understanding of the country’s vast and extreme landscape, namely the Great Barrier Reef, The Rocks in Sydney and Ayers Rock.
But there’s a little-known trip you can make to a private island off the coast of Queensland that’ll knock two off the list in just two weeks. Well, it’s not widely known to us Pommies, but to Australians it’s something of an institution. Sitting on the most northerly tip of The Whitsundays – a disparate collection of paradise islands named after the day Captain Cook “discovered” them – is Hayman Island. It’s one of eight inhabited islands among 74 that happen to reside next to one of the seven wonders of the natural world.
The Royal Hayman Hotel was first opened in 1950 by then Deputy Prime Minister Sir Arthur Fadden in anticipation of a royal visit, and the great and the good of Australia came out to this tiny island paradise to see what was widely-touted at the time as the foremost luxury resort in the country. For some reason (probably one that has a lot to do with distance), big luxury hotel franchises often overlook this part of the world, so Hayman was kind of a big deal. Ever since, it has occupied an elevated plane in the collective Australian mind; this was where Tony Blair made his infamous address to Rupert Murdoch and senior News Corporation execs to win their support for New Labour in 1995.
But Hayman has had its fair share of turmoil in recent years; between changing ownership and Cyclone Yasi in 2011, which left the resort badly damaged, it was definitely time for a revamp. Unusually for the continent, a big luxury hotel chain came to the rescue, One&Only, which only has seven other properties to its name, mostly in extravagant playgrounds for the wealthy like Dubai, the Bahamas and Mauritius.
Structurally, the rebranded Hayman Island has remained the same – poolside suites centred around its iconic hexagonal pool – but One&Only has certainly put its plush stamp on it. The number of poolside suites have been halved, for example, so they’re now double the size, new restaurants have been added and a family wing is yet to come – but more about that later.
First, you need to get to the island and, as with all Australian travel, it’s no picnic. You won’t find a direct flight from the UK, but you can catch a connection via Sydney or Brisbane – so what better opportunity to tick The Rocks off the list? The connecting flight to Hamilton Island takes about an hour and a half, then you can get a boat or sea plane to Hayman Island. Again, One&Only has upped the ante and the transport links are now via luxury yacht or helicopter. If you’re taking the trip between May and November, there’s a good chance you’ll spot a humpback whale pod on its seasonal trip back down to Antarctica, too.
When you step onto shore, you’re overwhelmed by sound; cockatoos squarking, kookaburras laughing, flying foxes screeching and wallabies hopping. As with other remote oceanic islands, it feels like you’re nature’s humble guest, only here everything about your natural surroundings feels amplified and surreal. The other thing you notice, but don’t really comprehend for a couple of days, is that you have the run of an entire island.
Reginald Ansett, an aviation pioneer who made his millions as head of now-defunct airline Ansett Australia, bought Hayman in 1947 and it has been leased to One&Only. While lounging by the pool or on the beach is all very well, the real advantage of being on a private island that’s open to the public is that you can stroll off and explore at your leisure. The resort organises hikes to Whitsunday lookout where you can park up on a stump and watch the sun setting over mainland Australia. This walk can also take in remote coves along the way, bursting with coral and rainbow streams of tropical fish.
Watersports are encouraged and the resort has even teamed up with A-list fitness guru James Duigan – last seen honing the taut bodies of supermodels Elle MacPherson and Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley – to drill you through his Bodyism workouts, complemented by Duigan-approved meals on the restaurants’ menus. I can’t say I benefitted as I tend to ignore healthy food options on an almost subconscious level, and my fitness session ended with me rolling around the studio in quad cramp hell after eight squats.
Luckily, there’s also a spa and the options are pretty spectacular. French foot genius Bastien Gonzalez has trained the pedicure department to hone, shave, buff, clip and grate away until your feet resemble a porcelain doll’s. And why would you even contemplate getting a massage in a room when you could have one in the ocean or rainforest? Spa therapists lead you out to a floating bed in the Pacific or into a wooden hut in the surrounding vegetation, then give you a choice of playlists for your massage, which is a nice touch, but frankly why would you want to drown out the natural orchestra playing around you? It was, however, rather too close to a main path to preserve what little diginity remained after my fitness session, and I definitely exposed myself to Elizabeth the swan, who wandered innocently in mid-session.
To avoid traumatising any more animals in the vicinity, I tried out a couple of excursions to nearby islands. Turtles are easy to spot basking in the shallows of Langford Island, a strip of sand a 20-minute boat ride away that is the closest thing you’ll get to being stranded in paradise. Next was a helicopter ride over the Reef, which doesn’t come cheap but surpasses all expectations. The sheer vastness of it has to be seen to be believed, and it’s no wonder that this Wonder brings in around $5bn in tourism a year.
Still reeling from the spectacle, the helicopter drops you off for champagne on Whitehaven Beach, where the 98 per cent silica sand gleams bright white in the sun.
The resort is unusual around the Reef as it’s one of the few that caters to families. It’s difficult to imagine honeymooning with children nearby, but One&Only may yet diffuse those tensions when it opens its new family-oriented pool area and restaurant Aquazure. This will take its total number of restaurants up to five, offering Asian fusion, steak, Italian and hearty Australian cuisines.
As our dark winter months set in, it’s comforting to know that halfway across the globe, the summer season is just beginning, and One&Only Hayman Island is preparing to impress a new generation.
Need to know: Sydney and One&Only Hayman Island nine night holiday from £3,199 per person.
Includes return flights from London to Sydney with Qantas, three nights at the Shangri-La Hotel Sydney, return flights from Sydney to Hamilton Island, onward boat transfers to Hayman Island, and six nights at One&Only Hayman Island with daily breakfast.
Valid for May 2015 departures. Call Trailfinders on 020 7368 1200 to book.
For more information on One&Only Hayman Island, visit oneandonlyresorts.com.
For more information from Tourism Australia, visit australia.com.