You know you're in a different world before you get there. From the plane, there's an alluring vista of azure sea dotted with isles and the promise of what's to come.
Say goodbye to winter. The fantasy the brochures promised has arrived. For this warm island of palm fringed sea views and juice cocktails, doesn't seem quite real and can seem all too much like a dream after one has left. Remember, though, most dreams come at a price.
Hamilton Island is one of 74 islands in the Whitsunday area and one of several launching pads to see the World Heritage listed Barrier Reef. For those who don't know, the Whitsundays refers to the group of islands off the central coast of Queensland, some 900 kms north of Brisbane, concentrated around Whitsunday Island, the largest island of this archipelago.
Hamilton Island is the main commercial centre in the Whitsundays and considers itself the major events and activities site of the Barrier Reef. Sure, there is plenty to do on the isle. But, having said that, it's not for everyone. If you want a secluded island to yourself, choose somewhere else. Yet, to say that the place is crowded would be wrong. The reality is a mellow place with more than ample privacy. Don't worry, while this isn't Gilligan's Island it's far from Pitt Street. You will certainly find chill time on Hamilton Island. Stare into the living gem that is the Coral Sea and know you are in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
A good time is almost guaranteed on Hamilton Island - weather willing!!
Hamilton Island also has the distinction of being the most populated of the Whitsunday group of islands. But, with only 1,347 inhabitants (2006 census), don't be concerned about finding a space on the beach.
On the slightly negative side (although that depends on your taste) Hamilton Island is unofficially known as Gold Coast Island or Sydney on an Island – although, come on, as an ex-Sydneysider, I think that's pushing it. While the small yet grotesque group of high-rise buildings overlooking Catseye Beach ruin the island's beauty, they are not big enough to swamp it and you are still in for an ripper time.
Hamilton Island from Catseye Beach - also known as 'Gold Coast on an island'.
Natural Environment The island, which feels small when you are on it, covers 750 hectares and is 2 miles square. Eighty per cent is occupied by natural bushland.
The island is home to many native Australian animals including kangaroos, wallabies, goannas and birds. Watch out for the cheeky and clever cockatoos who have been known to break into hotel rooms and take off with tourists belongings. Keep your door closed.
Some of the wildlife on Hamilton Island making a getaway.
Now that you know a few generalities about the island and have settled into your room, what to do?
Things to do on Hamilton Island
By all means, get out of your hotel. Do anything - even if it's to sit on your butt on the deck chair - but get out. For the water is where all the action is.
Hamilton Island, with its plethora of activities, is set up as an adventure playground for tourists. The official Hamilton Island website contains an extensive list of things to do on the island, but doesn't divulge much information on prices. Be warned, everything on this prime tourist destination is highly expensive. Even if you don't have cash to burn, it's free to lie on the sand and soak up the sun.
Lazing around on the beach is free - that is, after you've paid for your flight and accommodation.
Activities on Hamilton Island include tours, snorkeling, boating, sailing, water sports, golf, massage and beauty treatments, bushwalking, catamaran hire, bowling, go-karting, sunset kayaking, turtle tours and more. In fact, the list of things set up for the tourist to do is mind-boggling.
Aboard the Denison Star Sunset Cruise of the Whitsundays
Some accommodations providers (such as Qualia, Beach Club, Reef View Hotel, Palm Bungalows and some holiday rentals) provide complimentary access to activities which might include wind-surfing, canoeing, kayaking, paddle boarding and so on. Just be aware that you may be required to participate in a quick lesson (which may only occur at scheduled times during the day) in order to partake in some of the more skilled water sports - like sailing a catamaran.
One of the many activities on offer at Hamilton Island
Golfing actually occurs on its' own separate island (Dent Island) nearby. Great as that sounds, I should point out that you can't go onto the island unless you are booked into a game, tour of the island or meal at the restaurant. Lunch at the golf club will set you back $65 a head. A nine hole game including clubs and required shoe hire costs a minimum of $150. That does include ferry to the island and back.
In terms of food the official website lists are over 20 options for dining on Hamilton Island (most of these at the various accommodation providers) along with 6 bars and nightclubs. There's even the afore mentioned grocery store and a kind of deli / takeaway shop selling ten dollar wraps for those who are budget conscious. Despite the advertising hype, don't expect King Street at Newtown. Dining options are limited, but adequate.
Getting off the Island
There are endless exciting options for getting off the island. These include taking a yacht charter, hiring a motorized dinghy, captained luxury boat or a skippered catamaran, undertaking a sailing course or booking a sunset cruise or trip to the reef. You can also take the ferry to the mainland or other islands or a seaplane to beautiful Whitehaven beach (very popular) or general aerial flight over the Whitsunday passage. For more on these activities see the Hamilton Island website.
Cruise Indigo runs regular cruises including day or sunset cruises along the Whitsundays passage. They have two vessels to choose from. Take a journey aboard the Denison Star or 'On the Edge' catamaran. I personally found the Denison Star sunset cruise very pleasant and the included dinner of a very high standard for 'boat' food. There is a chance to sit inside in comfort or hang on the open deck of the boat. Be aware in winter you will need to bring a jacket.
Many nearby islands are suitable for camping if you want to combine that with your boating expedition for your own Gilligan's island style adventure.
Getting about Hamilton Island
Except for those used by maintenance and rescue workers and for public transportation, all vehicles are prohibited on Hamilton Island. This does give it a special charm and sense that you are not on the mainland.
There are three options for getting around the island: the public Shuttle Bus, golf buggy or your own legs. Resort stayers may have a fourth option of having a staff member pick them up or drop them off.
Golf Buggy - the main means of transport on Hamilton Island
Hiring a buggy costs $45 for the first hour, then, fortunately, reduces considerably after that. Despite the expense, I highly recommend it. From this vantage you get to see many great views you wouldn't see from your hotel, and feel the magnitude of being on an island as you look down into the expansive and bluer than blue Coral sea.
The island isn't huge so it is possible to walk it, but that depends on how much time you have (or haven't).
Check out the luxury pads of the island, the occasional wildlife and make sure you stop at the little island church. It's picture card cute.
If you do opt for a buggy ride, take it easy and do be careful on the hills. I have read of several cases of people tipping over or even of tumbling over cliffs in these unstable vehicles. But, don't let me put you off.
The well maintained and sign-posted road is as neat and tidy as a pin, which leads me to the thought that at times Hamilton Island does not seem real, but a construct from the set of the TV adventure movie Lost. Even the unfailingly polite hospitality staff seem lost in their roles and never err into anything informal. I guess, with the kind of prices Hamilton Island asks of the tourist, the place suffers from a kind of nervousness lest it disappoint.
Hospitality Hamilton Island style includes the Juice Cocktail.
Seeing the Reef
Seeing the reef for the first time in my life was the fulfillment of a dream.
If you haven't previously seen the Great Barrier Reef, this is a must, unless you're a quadriplegic. Even then, I recommend you move heaven and earth to go. Not called 'Great' for any small reason, this unique wonder is the largest reef system in the world and can actually be viewed from outer space. The reef is not one continuous structure but rather 2900 separate reefs and 900 islands. The Whitsundays constitutes only one component of the Great Barrier Reef which in its entirety covers approximately 344,400 square kilometres of the Coral Sea.
Some of the Whitsunday Islands as viewed from the air
Day trips out to the reef are provided exclusively by adventure cruise company Fantasea. You can read more about this Whitsunday tourism award winning company here.
The team of professionals (including marine biologist) put together for the cruise are patient and helpful. The buffet lunch wasn't anything to write home about. But, hey, you can eat anytime, whereas seeing the Barrier Reef at close quarters isn't generally on the daily agenda. As I told my companion, even a dry bread roll would taste great after chasing parrot fish through frigid water.
Be aware that the high-speed catamaran ride out to the reef takes about two hours. Please take travel sickness pills. Let's just say, the crew don't hand out vomit bags for nothing. While I don't consider myself a seasickness type, I succumbed to severe nausea and dizziness on the fast and bumpy ride out onto the reef, while my companion vomited despite the fact he'd taken his pills. During winter, this trip can be cold so bring warm clothes. The air conditioning is deliberately kept cold to reduce seasickness.
Fantasea Catamaran - fast ride out to the reef. You'll be in the hands of the professionals, but don't forget the travel sickness pills.
The Fantasea trip will take you out to see ReefWorld, a floating pontoon that includes a submersible boat from which you can view the reef, underwater viewing room and top deck sunroom. From Reefworld, it is a mere splash in the water to snorkel the beautiful underground garden of the reef, see parrot fish and giant clams.
The staff aboard Reefworld are exceptionally helpful and patient with the variety of issues tourists present them with, ranging from seasickness to fear of the water. All activities aboard Reefworld are closely supervised by staff. The underwater photographer who took our pics gets my vote for one of the best jobs in the world.
On that note, I need to point out that in winter the water is cold. I can still recall a male Asian tourist racing out of the water, yelling the word 'cold' in his own language as he went running for the change room, shivering and hugging himself. Despite the language barrier, it was clear to all what he meant. Wear the wetsuit, the pink body-suit and anything else the tour operator throws at you. It's all in the aid of seeing the miracle that is the Barrier Reef.
From Reefworld, you can book a helicopter flight over the reef, a dive, guided snorkel tour or massage.
For more on Reefworld, see my upcoming article on it. Meanwhile, you can read more on Reefworld on the Fantasea website.
Our resort has a weekly weather report stuck on the front desk. On Hamilton Island, you get the impression that weather means everything – and so it is. While the sun shines you will find paradise on earth at Hamilton Island. But on cloudy days during winter the island loses its' sparkle. To get the best out of your experience (and hard-earned cash), try to time your holiday with good weather. Not always possible, I know.
Mean rainfall days over winter ranges between 8 days in August, 12 in June and 9 in July. In winter, temperatures hover at a mean of between 21-22 degrees, which ain't bad. Having said that, once the sun disappears it's distinctly on the chilly side. Despite the brochures and the fantasy, you won't be wearing a bikini and shorts. Bring a jumper or don't say I didn't warn you.
Getting to Hamilton Island.
Unless you're Superman, there are only two ways to arrive: boat and plane.
Hamilton Island has its own airport, the only commercial aircraft airport in the Whitsunday Islands. You can catch a flight via Jetstar (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane), Qantas (from Cairns) and Virgin Blue (from Brisbane). Alternatively, catch a Fantasea cruise to the island from Shute Harbour on the mainland.
Hamilton is also serviced by several ferry services.
Hamilton Island has a range of accommodation options from resorts to villas and holiday homes. See the Hamilton Island website for more info.
Many of the resorts, such as Beach Club, front onto Catseye Beach, the resort side of Hamilton Island
For people coming to Hamilton Island in winter, you need five things: camera, decent company, travel sickness pills, swimmers and something warm. Sun-block is recommended as an essential requisite, but I personally found no need for it. A hat and sunglasses sufficed. Do your research into what you want to do while you're here to make the most of your time on the island.