Tropical outlook... peak hour at Hamilton Island's Catseye Beach.

Tropical outlook... peak hour at Hamilton Island's Catseye Beach.

Max Anderson rekindles an old love affair with a new-look Hamilton Island resort.

When I landed on Hamilton Island in 1995, I caught my breath twice. Once, when the Ansett jet deployed reverse thrust (Hamilton's runway is frighteningly short). And again, when I saw someone had built tower blocks within a group of islands that were otherwise as damned near to perfection as you could wish for.

I landed on Hamilton four more times during the '90s, transiting to outer-Whitsunday resort islands - Hayman, Daydream and South Molle among them - and happily bypassing those ghastly towers.

A birdseye view of Catseye Bay.

A birdseye view of Catseye Bay. Photo: Alamy

Fifteen years later, I touch down on Hamilton (slam-WHOOSH!) to board the newly launched Descarada2, a 33-metre super yacht, for a three-day cruise among the Whitsundays.

I've forgotten just how dramatic these 74 islands are - not "isles" at all but muscular, forest-clad mountain ranges with their feet in turquoise water, white sand between their toes. The cruise is a smash hit: we're just five guests aboard the region's biggest, sleekest charter and we explore bays, inlets and beaches, occasionally breaking from the champagne service to snorkel with manta rays and maori wrasse.

When the cruise ends, we round the bottom of Whitsunday Island in soft morning light to see Hamilton's towers looming into view. They're like signal flags: "Leave - Wilderness - Return - Civilisation."

The Beach Club.

The Beach Club.

I take a breath. I have two nights on "Hammo".

SOME things I do remember from my previous visits as I step ashore from the Descarada2 tender. The golf buggies. Actually, I love the buggies! They're whimsical and quiet, lending a surreal Truman Show feel to the place.

I hop into the buggy being driven by the regional communications manager for Hamilton Island, Katie Cahill, who wants to tell me about Audi Race Week. She drives me along Front Street, a row of marina-side shops and cafes. This, too, used to feel like a film lot, but now it's different. "Surprisingly busy," I murmur. In fact, I'd wanted to say it feels surprisingly ... cool. People fill the shady courtyards of restaurants, breakfast is being served on the deck of the timber tavern, and rows of sharp new outlets are selling hot labels such as Tigerlily, Deus ex Machina and Henri Lloyd.

Smooth sailing... Audi Hamilton Island Race Week.

Smooth sailing... Audi Hamilton Island Race Week.

"We're having a great season," Cahill says. "But Hamilton also has a permanent population; when you count visitors there can be up to five and a half thousand people here. The marina's full, too."

Cruisers are lined up like white blades, the masts of yachts and big cats spike the blue sky. It's a handsome sight, evoking the Riviera or the Hamptons, but some wry Aussie laconicism means it never quite disappears up its own poop deck.

The Hamilton marina has doubled in size since the '90s and the eastern edge is marked by a new yacht club, a brazen statement with a rolling copper-coated roof designed to suggest the wings of a manta ray. I'm shown through its huge curved spaces: a conference area, a library and an a la carte restaurant named Bommie. The club overlooks a timber jetty (the manta's "tail"), which ends in a cocktail bar of polished steel.

Cahill paints a picture of race week, when 200 yachts compete for line honours and the island turns on its onshore charm. I'm no yachtie but I like the sound of waterside Moet lunches, masterclasses with chef Matt Moran, and the Henri Lloyd fashion show, in which clothes are modelled by elite beauties as well as grizzled sailors on a break from racing.

"You can imagine what that's like," she says. "Everyone's drinking champagne, the music is pumping, people are yelling out at the sailors ..."

I HEAR it repeatedly: the name Bob Oatley. He's the man who owned Rosemount Wines before selling it for $1.5 billion. Decades ago, he'd sailed past Hammo, admiring it as "a great project"; in 2003, he bought it from German bankers at receivership prices.

Oatley had the yacht club completed in 2009 - also the 35 four-room villas (private, beautifully appointed and suggesting fearsome good times), which rise up the steep flank behind. The complex has an ocean-side pool and landscaping by Jamie Durie.

In the same year, Oatley opened a Peter Thomson championship golf course across the passage on Dent Island, the long spine of land previously razed by decades of grazing.

And then there was Qualia. I've been hearing about Qualia since it opened in 2007 and, to be frank, can't see how it can live up to its reputation. For a start, it has 120 guests staying in 60 suites, which flies in the face of contemporary luxe wisdom that boutique is best.

After buggy-riding up the steep back of a prominent spur, I come to tall timber gates. They part slowly (people rightly invoke Jurassic Park) and the little golf cart whirs into a long corridor of stone walls topped by thick foliage. Nothing is given away as I approach the Long Pavilion.

The communal structure is blissfully simple: an open-fronted structure wider than the wingspan of a 747, offering soothing frames of Whitsunday water, bird life and treetops. The views are long, the music is mood and a series of still pools reflects the sky. The architecture is clean, strong and mostly wood - but still you fixate on the turquoise and green.

Qualia quickly begins delivering on its promise of a sensory experience. There's no check-in desk, only flutes of Veuve Clicquot and sofas (I swear the cushions give out slowly, sighing you into position).

Meanwhile, the staff pull off a sleight of hospitality, being quite invisible until you need them - when they present as comfortable, confident and good-spirited.

The simplicity/sensory effect is continued in the suites, which are also wing-length vista palaces. The Windward suites have plunge pools, whose spilling edges look down on the Whitsunday tableaus - as do the giant egg baths, the walloping beds, the day lounges, the double showers. Two cockatoos fly out of the view and into my $1525-a-night suite to have a crack at the fruit platter. It's gold.

Lunch is on the deck of the waterside Pebble Beach restaurant; I enjoy a brilliantly honest plate of grilled seafood and a bottle of pinot gris. Then it's a 90-minute session in the spa high on the ridge line for a salt scrub, mud wrap, "Kodo" massage, lots of tinkling music and sweet aromas. Dinner in the Long Pavilion is a seven-course degustation by chef Alastair Waddell; dishes such as air-dried duck, wild abalone and tea-smoked quail are dazzling little creations that make you feel as you should: indulged.

Most surprising of all, Qualia makes sense of its decidedly un-boutique size: the suites are havens of solitude yet the public areas have some proper joie de vivre (and indeed joie de bling) because there are guests enough to fill them. Can I find something wrong with Qualia? I can. At 11.30pm, when I climb under some acreage of linen in my suite to look lazily upon mooring lights twinkling in the blackness, I realise I can't see the TV from my bed because it's fixed in the lounge. I purse my lips and suck in a little air. It's supposed to sound disapproving.

A HELICOPTER puts me down on Dent Island next to the new golf club, designed by the Qualia architect who knows how to play second fiddle to scenery.

The club manager, Chris Bailey, shows me the 18 holes, most of them elevated 100 metres on the back of the island. It's a dramatic part of the world, and at $90 a round, probably offering more bang for your buck than anywhere in the Whitsundays.

How is it as a golf course? No idea. But the managing director of international tour company Golf Explorer, Shaun Green, describes it as a "challenging, course and possibly one of the most enjoyable golfing experiences in Australia".

After losing several balls to clumps of native bushland, I enjoy a glass of wine at the clubhouse, watching a Jetstar A320 come careening out of its final approach to thud onto the Hamilton tarmac (slam-WHOOSH!). My view of Hamilton is expansive, and I trace a line from the runway, over a forested spur to Front Street and one of Hamilton's signature towers. When those passengers collect their bags tagged with HTI, they're a five-minute buggy ride from their suites, their apartments, their boats, their pools - and the ferry to Dent Island, where they can watch green turtles swimming far below the fairways.

Where else does that happen?

THERE is another side to Hamilton Island and I visit it, buggying over a saddle, past Yacht Harbour Tower 6 (a column of unfeasibly expensive private apartments) to the resort side. It's a giant cusp of rock and forest facing Catseye Beach; it houses three more towers, including the largest, the 380-room hotel named Reef View.

Nothing can make this thing pretty. Nothing could make it pretty back in 1990 when the hotel's developer, Keith Williams, erected it (modus operandi: build first, field questions later), even if it did have "the tallest exposed glass elevators in the southern hemisphere".

Right now, Reef View still looks as if it belongs to the days of pack 'em and rack 'em, and I'd take the lovely Palm Bungalows in a heartbeat (they're scattered throughout thick groves of palms and actually cheaper than Reef View). I'd also jump at the Beach Club across the road from the tower, the 4½-star no-kids sanctuary, with a smart infinity pool overlooking palm-fringed beach and bar.

But the truth is, when you're on the island, Reef View is a minor distraction. It looks especially insignificant from the breezy peak near the house once occupied by Beatles guitarist George Harrison, and it's dwarfed by the wild peak to the west, criss-crossed by forest trails.

A little perversely, when you're in Reef View, you can enjoy some of the highest vantage points in the Whitsundays. The Oatleys sharpened the interior with a $30 million refurb in 2006; and if you have kids (who stay and eat free) the outlook is especially sunny.

But it still makes me draw breath. Through my teeth.

THE golf clubs are rebagged, the Jurassic Park gates have shut behind me and I've returned my buggy keys. So I kill some time on Front Street, watching holidaymakers and yachties.

I notice there are Hamilton employees among them. In fact, I've met a lot of staff during my two days here - people who clean and cater and pour - and to my surprise I learn that more than a few have been on the island for a year or longer. The Achilles heel of any resort is its staff, and if they're staying six months or less, it means they're blowing in, beginning their training, then blowing out again, leaving guests in a sort of P-plate hell where service is perennially average.

But the people I meet say they like the reasonably priced accommodation with million-dollar views, and they like online supermarket shopping, which keeps living costs down. And they like the fact that the Oatley family has real vision and a bucket of cash to make it happen.

Yes, the island is reinvented with an expanded marina, a flash new yacht club and sublime Qualia plunge pools. But the biggest change on Hamilton is the feel of the place. It's a genuinely happy isle in Oceania.

But it's time to fly, so I decide to make the 15-minute walk to the airport, wheeling my bag behind me. Only, the narrow road climbs a steep hill and the humidity makes for a steamy hike.

As I'm beginning to sweat and pant, a couple of young staff members from Reef View pass me in their buggy. They stop and call back: "Would you like a lift?"

I take a breath, to say, no, no, I'm nearly there. "Actually," I say, "I'd love a lift."

Max Anderson travelled courtesy of Tourism Queensland.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Jetstar flies to Hamilton Island from Sydney (from $89 one way) and Melbourne (from $164). Virgin Australia flies from Sydney (from $109) and Melbourne (from $244, via Sydney).

Staying there

Qualia costs from $975 a night, twin share, for a Leeward Pavilion; the Windward Pavilions with plunge pools cost from $1525. Rates include breakfast and a buggy; see qualia.com.au.

There are 13 four-room villas within the Yacht Club complex from $1200 a night — great value if you're in a party.

Beach Club suites cost from $570 a night; includes breakfast.

Reef View rooms cost from $350 a night; includes breakfast. Children stay and eat free.

Palm Bungalows cost from $270 a night.

More information

See hamiltonisland.com.au.

 

On tack in the Whitsundays

Billed as Australia's biggest offshore sailing regatta, Audi Race Week is seven days of sailing and socialising. About 200 craft participate, ranging in size from super yachts, such as New Zealand's Kokomo, to diminutive tubs such as the SB3. And they perform seven (slightly complicated) stages of wind- harvesting and rope-pulling.

Meanwhile, friends, families and landlubber associates are stranded on Hamilton Island to do the best they can on survival rations.

This year's schedule includes the "Stranded at Qualia" Paspaley luncheon (pearls for the girls and food by Alastair Waddell); a fashion show; a cook-off between Shannon Bennett and Matt Moran; an Adriano Zumbo champagne high tea and a Sangria Beachside Party. Car presentations feature high on the schedule, as do golf clinics, wine tastings, live music, well-heeled sponsors and glittery celebrities.

After each day's race is fought among the 74 islands, crews return for some extracurricular activities. How vigorously they indulge depends on how keen they are to secure the prize of a new Audi A4.

Audi Race Week is on Friday, August 17 to Saturday, August 25; see hamiltonislandraceweek.com.au.