In June last year we spent a week on Hamilton Island. In many respects it was a unique trip. For one thing, it was our first beach holiday in Australia, the kind when after breakfast you ask yourself what you are going to do all this time before lunch. In contrast, our previous holiday trips were thoroughly planned affairs which involved booked motels (a different one each day), long hours behind the steering wheel and, the worst of it, early wake-ups, because you only had so much time before the sunset.
Having a beach holiday in June, even in Australia, sounded like a radical idea first, but having checked the forecast for the island I found it quite agreeable. It’s amazing how raising the air temperature by just 5 degrees, namely from +17°C to +22°C, makes all the difference between wearing a sweater and a T-shirt. Moreover, weather-wise we couldn’t have chosen a better week for the holiday, because not only we escaped Sydney wild storms on 5th June, but we also arrived to the island after a particularly cold and wet week and right at the beginning of a 6-day sunny spell.
You can tell it’s low season when at check-in you are offered a complimentary upgrade from a booked 3-star bungalow to a 4-star hotel room. Despite being 25% less starry the word “bungalow” has a romantic appeal which simply can’t be beaten by something as prosaic as “hotel room”. I couldn’t come up with such smooth explanation on the spot, so I just flatly rejected that kind offer to a visible astonishment of the hotel worker.
Having dropped our luggage in the bungalow, we didn’t waste time and dashed straight to the beach (beach holiday, remember?) There we had a nasty surprise… The beach was there, the water was there too, but they were separated by a wide stretch of dirty land. Later I learned it was called reef and Olga spent many a joyous hour walking between corals and crabs, but at that first moment we were thoroughly disappointed. Of course, we came there at the peak of low tide and it wasn’t long before proper connection between sand and water had been restored. However, for Sydneysiders an ocean beach with Moon-dependent working hours was a novel concept which took some getting used to.
Although we passed up the room upgrade opportunity, we quite enjoyed another advantage of the low season, namely the absence of crowds. There were enough people to keep most shops and attractions staffed but not enough to form a queue longer than one person. The only place where we had to wait in line for a cocktail was One Tree Hill – the best place to watch sunset. A makeshift bar was operating there from about 2 hours before the sunset and people arrived in droves on buggies and buses to enjoy the view and, possibly, a cocktail. I say “possibly” because of all cocktail-serving locations that one was the worst. My personal ranking of the cocktail bars that we visited, starting from best , is:
- Reef Lounge
- Bommie Deck
- Verandah Bar
- Sunset Cocktails on One Tree Hill
I’d like to give credit to barman Bailey in Reef Lounge for his absolutely delightful Margarita cocktail. The guy managed to strike a fine balance between lime juice and other ingredients so that the drink was fresh and zesty without being excessively sour. Later I tried to make Margarita at home – it took some trial and error to get that taste and I am not sure I can easily repeat it. Just goes to show that there is more to cocktails than a list of ingredients mixed according to instructions.
Bommie Deck took the second places in both cocktail and sunset categories. West-oriented, it provided a quiet sunset-viewing alternative to crowded One Tree Hill. That bar is part of Hamilton Island Yacht Club building which looks like a distant cousin of Sydney Opera House. In fact, after writing the previous sentence I checked the Club website and found this in Design Inspiration section:
A design masterpiece, the shape of the roof is inspired by soaring silhouettes of full sails and is a celebration of marine lifestyle.
No wonder it reminded me of the Sydney icon – all sailing ships look similar, be they disguised as an opera house or a yacht club.
The Yacht Club grounds also provided a good location for observing Milky Way. It’s amazing how all those millions of stars can easily fade in the presence of a single street light. Therefore it is imperative to find a rather dark place to enjoy the view of our home galaxy. We were pleasantly surprised to find such place next to the Yacht Club swimming pool. The only significant source of light was the pool itself, but shielding the eyes from its glare with a palm of a hand was sufficient to expose the hidden stars.
Beach holiday on a small island meant that we were safe from such temptations as going to some local attraction which was mere 2 hours away by car. However, there was one trip which we just had to make – a visit to the Great Barrier Reef. We chose to get there by helicopter and back by sea. The helicopter flight turned out to be the greatest Olga’s disappointment of the whole holiday. We booked two seats in a four-passenger chopper which meant we would get at least one window seat for two of us. Olga looked forward to taking photos and I was happy to let her sit near a window. Unfortunately, after another pair occupied two window seats it appeared that we had no choice. The pilot told me that, as the heaviest passenger, I had to sit near the window. That came as a shock because no one told us about it before. The booking agent did say that she could not guarantee any particular seats, but I assumed that between us we could choose which of the remaining two seats we would take. The assumption was wrong and it rather spoiled Olga’s flight experience.
For me the flight was the best part of the trip to the Reef. It was my first ever helicopter flight and initially I was quite apprehensive because the machine looked rather fragile and unstable. To my relief, the flight was quite comfortable and the chopper confidently moved through the air without any stomach-wrenching jerks. Also, for this kind of sightseeing trip it was better than a plane because lower speed gave enough time to enjoy the view. The irregular shapes of the reef put me in mind of fractals and I couldn’t recall any other natural phenomenon which looked like that.
When we arrived to a platform on the reef a crew member explained to us that there were basically three types of entertainment: semi-submarine trips along the reef edge, snorkeling/diving and lunch. As we arrived at lunch time, we firstly helped ourselves to generous amounts of freshly cooked food. After that I was ready for snorkeling. In addition to a wet suite I was required to wear a stinger suit – a thin overall which covered all body except face and protected from unwanted contacts with local marine wildlife. Given the ever-present sword of Damocles known
locally as irukandji, it was not a vain precaution, although it would hardly be a choice of a vain person. The first thing that one noticed about the stinger suits was their colour – they came as either ghastly blue or cringeworthy pink
which was in a stark contrast with calm grays and blacks of wetsuits. I don’t know who and why selected those hues, but I have a theory which is not as crazy as it sounds if you know Aussie Greens. I believe that the eye-hurting colour of the suits serves a purpose similar to road workers’ high-visibility vests – to give an advance warning to the local wildlife so that no snorkeler could creep up inconspicuously to an endangered fish and say “Boo!” giving it a heart attack. I can testify that it worked pretty well – I had quite a workout chasing a groper which was not keen on making an acquaintance of a member of species that had the word “seafood” in their vocabulary.
I can’t say that I was much impressed by the underwater views of the reef. The fish were colourful but not breathtakingly so. The corals had fancy shapes, but were rather bleached. An hour in the water quite satisfied my curiosity and I went to the semi-submarine which moved along the edge of the reef. I didn’t see anything new there and the water was rather murky so it was just something to pass the time before returning to the island. Overall the trip to the reef was worth it, with the helicopter flight being the best part. However, the value of that experience lay mostly in its novelty so I am not looking forward to repeating it anytime soon.
An island is a somewhat mystical place which begs to be explored. In case of Hamilton Island, what with all the maps and guides, there weren’t any opportunities of Livingstone-style pioneering, but I had made a few discoveries of non-geographical nature. Firstly, I found Robert Oatley’s wines. Oatley family own the island and their wines were displayed prominently in the bottle shop and on menus. I took that opportunity to taste Wild Oats series and was pleasantly surprised with the quality of Shiraz Viognier, Tempranillo and, best of all, 2009 Cabernet Merlot. The last one was exceptionally good for just about $16 a bottle and later I bought a case of it.
Another nice discovery was my ability to make waves on a windsurfing board without breaking my back. I tried windsurfing now and then and generally was doing well until wind picked up after which I found myself in the water or, even worse, bending towards the escaping mast and having nasty lower back pain afterwards. On Hamilton Island windsurfing hire was included into the price of accommodation and I used every opportunity to practice. The first few days were pretty calm which gave me a chance to remember how to handle that unstable contraption. On our last day on the island the wind became stronger and I managed to make some white foam while keeping the proper windsurfer’s pose. Now that I know I can do it I just need another lucky combination of free time, weather and availability of a windsurfing board to repeat that wonderful experience of riding the harnessed wind.
In general, Hamilton Island left a very positive impression not the least part of which I credit to Island’s staff who were always helpful and courteous. The staff, the beauty of the place, that special feeling of the low season – all this contributed to the perfect relaxed beach holiday which I would like to repeat some time.