Bedarra Island Resort's stunning setting.
Ute Junker finds that less is more at a revamped island that has just become even more intimate.
Anyone who counts a travel writer among their nearest and dearest develops a certain unflappability in the face of regular bombshells. "Off to Tahiti? Have fun, dear.""Namibia next month? I hear it's nice this time of year."
Yet when I casually mention over the dinner table that I'm going to Bedarra Island, forks clatter onto plates. The name "Bedarra" is murmured in the worshipful tone Homer Simpson uses for the word "Doughnuts".
If you're old enough to remember the Bicentennial, you're probably hearing the same tone inside your head right now. Long before the current crop of luxury lodges came online, Bedarra Island Resort was the favoured hideaway for the rich and famous. Seclusion, privacy and indulgence attracted the likes of Russell Crowe and Fergie (the Duchess of York, not the singer). With an all-inclusive price that let you guzzle as much French champagne as you could handle, it was to many the ultimate Fantasy Island.
Of late, however, Bedarra has weathered some storms, both metaphoric and literal. The most devastating was 2011's Cyclone Yasi, which destroyed many of the structures on the island. New owners bought what remained and got stuck into a two-year clean-up, removing almost 30 tonnes of debris from the reef in the process.
The new Bedarra Island Resort, unveiled at the beginning of July, has ditched the 1980s-style excess for a more sustainable concept of luxury. The diesel generators and desalination plant have been replaced by solar power and rainwater, which has put a limit on the number of guests. Formerly exclusive with 16 villas, the resort is now intimate, with just seven.
Pavilions separated by a plunge pool.
So colour me confused when I learn I'm staying in Villa 15. Turns out that the original villa numbers have been retained for the sake of former guests, many of whom had a soft spot for their favourite villa.
Certainly I can see why you'd want to come back to 15. It's one of two villas split into two pavilions - one for sleeping, one for lounging - with a plunge pool in between. It's luxury, but pared back. Rooms are serviced once a day: if you're waiting for a turndown service, or a private butler to draw a bath for you, you'll be waiting a long time. My sleeping pavilion includes an oversize bath tub with Aveda toiletries, but no TV. For that, you need to head over to the lounging pavilion, where you'll also find an iPad complete with Wi-Fi.
The set-up suits me just fine: I don't need a TV in my bedroom, particularly when the glass walls offer a magnificent view over a bush-fringed bay. The vivid greens and blues, and the sound of the waves washing the shore, seem to flick the unwind switch in my head, though deadlines loom.
Intimate resort: one of seven villas.
"It's almost like a glorified holiday house," says owner Sam Charlton of the resort's new help-yourself approach. You're quickly on first-name terms with the small front-of-house staff - Jimmy in the kitchen, Eliza and Keenan fetching and carrying plates, Steve the marine biologist and Ken and Don, who fill in the blanks - and are encouraged to help yourself to snacks and drinks from the resort's famous circular bar. Almost everything is on the house, except for a clearly marked selection of top drops (Billecart-Salmon, Louis Roederer, a rather nice Dom Perignon Vintage 2003) available on an honesty system.
There's not that much to do on Bedarra Island, which is precisely why it is such a relaxing getaway. There's a tennis court that nobody uses, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards, and dinghies that guests can use to putter over to one of the nearby islands to enjoy a picnic lunch on a deserted beach.
I take out a kayak one morning intending to have a quick paddle around the bay but end up spending several hours drifting along the shore, savouring the serenity. There's a soothing soundtrack of waves susurrating on the sand, crabs scratching along the rocks, and the occasional splash of tiny fish skipping like well-thrown stones across the waves. Once I'm startled by a gasping sound, worryingly close. It turns out to be the granddaddy of all turtles, coming up for air - and, I suspect, to check me out.
Privacy is assured.
Much of the rest of the time is spent just chilling out: on your own deck, by the bar, or in one of the private hideaways dotted around the grounds. In the unstructured days, meals become a regular highlight, so it's lucky Chef Jimmy is at work in the open kitchen. Jimmy worked on the island before the cyclone, and is accustomed to catering for finicky guests.
While he posts a breakfast special each morning, he's happy to cook up your favourite on demand. (Have some bacon on the side - Jimmy's bacon press makes it wonderfully crispy.) A guest expresses a hankering for pasta one evening after dinner; the next morning, strips of hand-made pasta are hanging out to dry. Lunches are simple, dinners usually three courses, but there's no menu - just whatever has taken Jimmy's fancy.
Many of the guests greet Jimmy like an old friend. During my visit the resort is at capacity, and almost all the guests are repeat visitors. One couple are on their sixth visit, another their seventh. All the guests I speak to say they prefer the resort's new incarnation, particularly the friendly approach that encourages guests to talk to each other rather than pretending not to see each other, as once happened.
Bedarra is not for everyone. If you're planning to party, or if you have a family, you'll give it a miss (children under 16 are not allowed). Likewise if you're worried about getting your feet wet: the water taxi is a wet landing on both shores, so you're best off wearing shorts or a short skirt and shoes you can slip off.
If what you're really keen on, however, is an escape - away from the crowds, in a stunning setting, with the time and the freedom to do absolutely nothing - then Bedarra will bliss you out.
The writer travelled courtesy of Bedarra Island Resort.
Bedarra Island is off Mission Beach, two hours south of Cairns. Qantas fares from Melbourne to Cairns are about $265 one way including taxes for the three-hour, 20-minute flight and $232 from Sydney for the 3hr flight; see qantas.com.au. The boat transfer from Mission Beach to Bedarra costs $295 return a couple.
Villa rates from $990 a couple a night to $1490 and include all meals, an open bar and activities. The resort is open from April until early January.
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