Salty air, sandy toes and sundowners overlooking the Coral Sea. Here's the lowdown on a patch of paradise that takes simple pleasures to the extreme.
How to see the reef
Hamilton Island is the ultimate launching pad for exploring some of the Great Barrier Reef’s biggest drawcards – Hardy Reef, Heart Reef and Whitehaven Beach are all within easy reach. There’s no bad time to travel here so be guided by what you want to see: winter months are best for whale watching and avoiding “stingers” (harmful jellyfish), while green turtles come ashore to nest in summer (just be sure to wear a stinger suit in the warmer months). Now just choose your vantage point...
Fly over it
The sightseeing begins as soon as the helicopter takes off for the 30-minute trip to Hardy Reef, one of the most protected reefs in the area. Bubble- like windows allow for incredible views of the Whitsundays and make it easy to spot humpback whales and turtles. You’ll see coral- reef formations in the pristine sea, including the Instagram-friendly Heart Reef (pictured above). Seen from above, it looks like a perfectly formed heart and there are plenty of photo opps as the pilot circles around for another look. The return journey takes in Whitsunday Island, flying over the famed white silica sands of Whitehaven Beach and the stunning turquoise-blue water at Hill Inlet. There are additional tour options for those keen to get their feet in the sand.
Dive into it
Snorkelling at Reefworld, a large, permanently moored pontoon at Hardy Reef, is an ideal way to immerse yourself in the Great Barrier Reef. It’s equipped with showers, toilets and change rooms and caters to all levels of snorkelling experience, with submerged platforms that allow for easy access to the sea. Time your trip to avoid the midday rush – instead, go in the early morning when there’s generally just a handful of people around. For the inexperienced, there are ropes and buoys to guide you around the edge of the reef, where you’ll find giant trevally, a huge – and rather friendly – humphead Maori wrasse, striped sergeant majors, giant velvet-lipped clams, branches of neon-blue coral, parrot fish and, yes, Nemo among the anemones. For those who prefer to stay dry, there’s a glass viewing chamber on the underside of the pontoon (keep an eye out for the giant groper) and tours aboard a semi-submersible submarine.
Sleep on it
Wide open sky above, deep blue sea below… A night at Reefworld (pictured above) will give you the chance to encounter the Coral Sea after dark. Facilities are basic and the experience is akin to camping (think swags laid out on the upper deck and shared bathrooms) but numbers are capped at 30 so once the day-tripping throng has departed, the water is all yours. Reefsleep is fully catered, with breakfast, morning and afternoon teas and buffet lunches included, as well as dinner under the stars. And if you really want to splash out, book one of the two new underwater Reefsuites, with floor to ceiling windows looking out into the water.
Where to stay
Accommodation ranges from A-lister favourite Qualia to the family- and group-friendly Reef View Hotel. But with its 18-and-over policy, Beach Club (pictured above) is a hit with kid-free travellers. All 57 rooms have water views and while the resort is close to many of the island’s restaurants, it feels a world away, thanks to its oceanfront spot and private beach.
Recently refurbished, the suites at Beach Club have a welcoming Scandi/coastal aesthetic, all white and ecru with navy-blue and wooden accents. They’re kitted out with a freestanding tub and rain shower, as well as outdoor loungers that are ideal for watching the sunrise. Each room on the ground floor has a large private courtyard and direct access to the gardens, pool and beach, where you can kick back with a thatched umbrella overhead and staff on hand to deliver cocktails.
Being an adults-only resort, Beach Club is popular with expectant parents. Mums-to-be can order a crescent-shaped Cradletight maternity cushion from the pillow menu and book a 90-minute Maternal Blessing Body Wrap treatment at Spa Wumurdaylin. If you’re not up to the island’s main mode of transport – golf cart – there’s a free shuttle service that will drop you wherever you want to go. Bonus: the bar staff won’t bat an eye when you order a virgin decaf espresso martini.
Where to explore
Although it has the feel of a village, about three-quarters of Hamilton Island remains undeveloped and covered in rainforest, bushland and scrub. Those drawn to the shoreline will find quiet beaches to discover and water sports to master. Want to get close to nature? There are a number of walks that traverse the peaks and ridges at the island’s eastern end. Many trails provide incredible panoramas of surrounding isles and have picnic tables to help you make a day of it.
Cruise along Catseye
The sheltered Catseye Beach (pictured above) is the place for those who want to try their hand at water sports. Stroll along the shore to get to Hamilton Island Beach Sports shack, which hires out stand-up paddleboards, sailboards, kayaks and even catamarans. Staff are happy to help those struggling to find their sea legs and there are buoys to separate areas for sporty types from those reserved for snorkellers. The latter are best to wade out at low tide and watch for the turtles that graze on the seagrass here year-round.
Hit the tracks
The most challenging trail is the one-hour hike from the eastern end of Catseye Beach to Passage Peak (pictured above), the highest point on the island and a popular spot to watch the sunrise. It’s rocky and steep in parts (sturdy shoes are a must) but the pines, gums and eucalypts provide pleasant shade in the morning. Four trails meet at Saddle Junction, where a single path leads to Passage Peak. The last 200 metres are the hardest but the steps are well maintained and what awaits is worth the climb: 360-degree views of the Whitsundays, including Catseye and Whitehaven beaches, Hill Inlet and Dent, Long and Pentecost islands. Up for more? Continue on to South East Head, which offers views of Lindeman Island and takes a total of one hour and 45 minutes each way. A detour to the picture-perfect Escape Beach (romantic picnic territory) on your return is worth the extra effort.
Where to eat
The main strip near Hamilton Island Marina has all your holiday staples: there’s fish ’n’ chips at Popeye’s Takeaway, sundaes at the Ice Cream Parlour, egg and bacon rolls at Marina Café and meat pies at Bob’s Bakery. But to take things up a notch, try these spots. (Keep in mind that many of the island’s restaurants require a reservation; most eateries, hotels and activities can be booked at hamiltonisland.com.au or on the Hamilton Island App.)
Make an afternoon of it
Romano’s lounge bar is open from 3pm for aperitivi. Stop in for a refreshing limone sgroppino cocktail or a plate of lemon ricotta with burnt honey and crostini then stay for a bowl of housemade pasta – favourites include pappardelle with beef-cheek ragu and spanner crab with squid-ink spaghetti. Tables on the deck look out at the marina (for the best sunset view, request one at the far right).
Do the group thing
Occupying a lofty space with views of Catseye Beach, Coca Chu (pictured above) has a buzzy atmosphere that’s great for groups or a relaxed night out. The cocktails are delicious (the vodka-based Kama Sutra is a standout) and the menu features a concise edit of South East Asian-inspired share plates. Don’t miss the Sichuan half-duck and lobster with betel leaves. To finish, it has to be the banana spring rolls.
Dining à deux
Offering a choice of three courses or a tasting menu, Beach Club Restaurant marries Asian and European flavours (think crisp char-siu-marinated pork belly followed by a limoncello palate cleanser). But what makes this spot truly charming is the setting. Small by resort standards, Beach Club is an intimate indoor/outdoor space that overlooks the property’s beautifully lit gardens and the palm trees that front Catseye Beach. Get in early as tables are snapped up quickly – especially the four elevated spots by the pool.
Where to relax
Hole up in your hotel suite or hit a hole in one, claim a sunlounger on the beach or salute the sun, choose a treatment from the spa menu or several treats from the cocktail menu… Whatever your definition of relaxation, the island has you covered.
Stretch your legs
Rise before dawn for a sunrise hatha yoga session with a view that can’t be beat. The hour-long class (pictured above) costs $35 and takes place on the helipad at Dent Island, a short ferry trip from Hamilton Island Marina. Mats are provided, as is a healthy buffet breakfast, which includes avocado on rye, a non-dairy chia-seed smoothie and granola. Yoga not your thing? Have a hit at Dent Island’s 18-hole championship golf course or enjoy a leisurely lunch at the Clubhouse Restaurant.
Sink a sundowner
A few venues offer stellar sunset views but Bommie Deck is best in class. An elegant establishment with a great cocktail menu and waterfront deck, it’s easy to while away an evening here. If you stay for dinner, indulge in chef Trent Dawson’s tasting menu based on seasonal Australian produce, including Ranch Farm quail and Mandagery Creek venison. For a more lively scene, head to One Tree Hill. The open-air bar is popular with groups and when the crowd picks up, punters spill onto the palm- tree-studded traffic island over the road.
The only spa on the island that’s open to all visitors, Spa Wumurdaylin gets the setting right with flickering votive candles and rooms that look onto tropical gardens. The treatment menu also ticks all the boxes, featuring Vichy showers, body wraps, hot-stone therapies and facials. The Relaxation massage is a great way to start your getaway – firm enough to ease muscle tension, rhythmic enough that falling asleep is likely.
SEE ALSO: 14 Things to do on Hamilton Island