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Most romantic spots on the Great Barrier Reef and the ultimate escape to Qualia Resort

Forbes logo Forbes Jim Dobson
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As my private helicopter touched down on Queensland’s spectacular Whitsunday Island, a bottle of champagne and picnic basket in hand, I was left to experience one of the most romantic sandy beach locations in the world. 

The changing influences of hot and cool currents contributed to the huge range of tropical species in these waters and the dramatic white sands of Whitehaven Beach was only the beginning of my adventure on the Great Barrier Reef.

I had arrived earlier at Hamilton Island at their efficient airport, and was immediately met by a private driver and VIP guide from qualia Resort.

Part of the Whitsundays, and in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef, Hamilton Island is one of Australia’s most sought-after holiday destinations with direct flights available from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Cairns.

Do not expect a small empty island on Hamilton, this is a bustling paradise filled with yacht club, resorts and high-end villas, while the main mode of transportation on the island is by private golf carts.

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This location was made famous for its Audi Hamilton Island Race Week, the largest offshore yacht regatta in the southern hemisphere.

Started in 1984, the race first promoted tourism to the private island. Owned by Australian winemakers and real estate family the Oatleys, the islands is now run by son Sandy Oatley, and is also the island escape for numerous movie stars and billionaires, including Oprah Winfrey and Taylor Swift.

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I decided to stay at the ultra-luxurious qualia Resort located on the secluded northern-most point of Hamilton Island and far from any crowds. The resort has 60 one bedroom pavilions and a superstar Beach House, all situated among eucalyptus trees with dramatic views of the blue and green waters and the Whitsundays.

The Beach House is the top option at the resort, and is where recent celebrity visitors like Chris Hemsworth enjoy the ultimate in privacy.

In fact, when Taylor Swift stayed there, the resort went to extreme measures to protect her from water-born paparazzi. They really do go all out for their guests. Starting at $4,000 per night, the Beach House offers a master bedroom and spacious 10-person dining area with a huge swimming pool and separate guest house.

There are also unique design touches in the villas including custom windowed walls that lower into the floor rather than sliding and natural wood elements that instantly comfort you.

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My day began at the exclusive and tranquil Spa qualia, a dramatic sanctuary where they offer amazing Men’s treatments like the Wild Oats package.

A place to unwind with a sea salt scrub body scrub, a spa facial especially tailored to men’s skin including a cleansing and relaxing scalp treatment and finally the hands and feet are tidied up with an express buff, file and massage.

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You never want to leave your villa here, jumping in the private pool with dramatic views or sunbathing with a good book, but I really wanted to explore the resort and the island, and was set up for a private sunset sail aboard the resorts Ricochet, a space age style 47-foot state of the art catamaran.

I was treated to a decadent sail around the islands with crew members serving me seafood platters and champagne. I was able to captain the boat on my own as well, which was such a treat as the sun made its dramatic exit.

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I finished out my first evening with a gourmet dinner at the resorts Long Pavilion and was joined by qualia’s truly amazing young General Manager Kyle LaMonica. This is the GM all resorts should aspire to have, a kind, resourceful and respected man who knows how to run a smooth operation and make sure guests are top priority.

The meal was truly hearty Australian fare including a mouth-watering Wagyu Main Course presented on coals.

Late that night, driving back to my villa in one of the properties golf carts I came across a bevy of wildlife, from wallabies to flying foxes, every curve in the dark illuminating another amazing creature. This is what island living is all about.

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After a restful night sleep listening to a tropical rain storm I was excited for my adventure ahead touring the Great Barrier Reef via private helicopter.

The helicopter takes off from qualia’s own helipad, and I was taken on a journey I will never forget. Flying close to the Great Barrier Reef, over the ultra-romantic Heart Reef, and finally dropped off for my isolated retreat on the sandy Whitehaven Beach.  My pilot set up a picnic brunch with champagne and left me for two hours to enjoy the most private and exclusive island escape ever.

Even the sand is different here, coarser sand that includes fragments of shell and coral. This is what it was like to be Robinson Crusoe, although my champagne and gourmet food quickly brought me back to reality.

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Another romantic option is to overnight on Reefworld. Situated directly within the Great Barrier Reef, it is a massive floating pontoon facility adjacent to Hardy Reef. Travel to Reefworld from Hamilton Island and experience an underwater adventure during the day, and after 3pm you can relax all to yourself with massages and night diving. I prefer to land by helicopter rather than take the boat with a lot of tourists.

There is one King bed private suite on the pontoon, not luxurious by normal standards, but having an air conditioned suite in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef is pretty indulgent. A lot of guests prefer to sleep under the stars in swag tents and enjoy scuba diving at night where the reef come alive and is a gulp inducing feast for the senses. 

Diving at night forces you to focus on just the area being lit up by your torch, giving you an intimate experience of the reef.  Night time also allows you to see many different creatures as they creep out of their crevices and become active.

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Back on land, I was lucky to be joined for a meal with the owner of Hamilton Island, Sandy Oatley along with CEO Glenn Bourke at the Island’s Pebble Beach restaurant.

From its original settlement by the Ngaro Aboriginal tribe, to its visit by Captain Cook in 1770, Hamilton Island has had a long and interesting history. The island was purchased by Australian tycoon Robert Oatley, best known for his Rosemount Estates wine, who died earlier this year at age 87. Oatley got his start in Papua New Guinea exporting coffee and cocoa.

He went on to make two fortunes from his Rosemount Estates wine company. At the time of his death, he owned boutique label Robert Oatley Vineyards, Hamilton Island on Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef, retirement homes and a clifftop villa in Sardinia. His son Sandy had already been involved for several years with running his father’s business.

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“When Dad first sailed past here in 1983 as part of a Whitsundays charter he fell in love with it and eventually built the family estate Balmoral Villa, which has not been used since his death. He has a home in Sardinia also named Balmoral.” he tells me. 

“My brother and sister are also interested in this business but Dad always had the philosophy that there is only one boss and I am the Chairman while my brother and sister are on the Boards and we sort things out in board meetings. Our focus is this property at the moment since our occupancy is sitting at 92%. The staff is for the most part very young since we have our learning college here and our training here and they are doing a fantastic job with our food and beverage service, housekeeping, etc.”

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I asked about further development with the properties including the neighboring Dent Island.

“Dent was included in our acquisition of Hamilton Island and it was an abandoned island. My mother is a golfer and we are sailors so she enjoys golfing while we sail. We knew a true resort needs a golf course, so we developed a golf course and will eventually be developing a hotel and 200 home sites on Dent Island. All of the infrastructures have already been put in.”

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Oatley’s private life is equally as elegant as his properties. The family owns a bevy of yachts and boats including; the 100 foot Wild Oats, a 66 foot Wild Oats and also a 95 foot trimaran that the amateur inventor created with hydrofoils between each hull. It was a boat that Sandy created because his wife wanted a stable ride that doesn’t rock.

They also use the family jet to get to easily to their vineyards and back and forth from Sydney to Hamilton.

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While there is an abundance of restaurants, bars and resorts on Hamilton Island, only a third of the island is developed – meaning the rest remains in its pristine, natural state. 

As the sun set, I enjoyed a private Talk and Taste of Champagne and Oysters at the Long Pavilion with the Sommelier Ben Cabangun with my final dinner at Bommie Restaurant at the Hamilton Island Yacht Club. I was hard pressed to find better quality food anywhere in Australia, let alone on an island.

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Before I departed for Sydney, I had to visit the very popular Koala Cuddle Experience at the Wildlife Hamilton Island, which is perfect for families with its crocodiles and kangaroos in a natural setting and it was very difficult to leave the brilliant sunshine, fine, white, silica sands and tradewinds of this island paradise.

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