Qualia, Hamilton Island: Celebrating a decade of pure luxury

The best way to start your day at Qualia, the luxury lodge on Hamilton Island, is with the freshly squeezed orange juice. That's the recommendation of Sandy Oatley, chairman of Hamilton Island and Balmoral Group and overall head honcho. He has a particular interest in the orange juice; he spent six months investigating juicers to find the one that would give the best result, becoming quite single-minded on the subject.

"It got to the point where, whenever he appeared, we were all ducking for cover," laughs Denny-Lyn Dixon, the island's general manager marketing.

It is not just the orange juice that Oatley obsesses over. There is also the way the floor towel is rolled up in front of the shower. "The way it's rolled, you can kick it with your foot and it rolls out," Oatley says. "The first time I stayed in a room, it was rolled the wrong way. We had to write the way it should be rolled into the specs."

Running a luxury lodge is not an easy business. An eye for detail is essential, as are deep pockets: Qualia cost $110 million to build. So the lodge's 10th anniversary this year is cause for celebration, and not just for the Oatley family that owns it. When Qualia launched in 2007, it kicked off a boom in Australia's luxury lodge industry. Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island opened in 2008, followed by Wolgan Valley in NSW's Blue Mountains in 2009 and Tasmania's Saffire Freycinet in 2010.

Only the well-heeled will ever get to experience these exclusive properties, where rates start at more than $1000 a night. However, their importance to the tourism industry as a whole should not be underestimated, says Tourism Australia chief executive John O'Sullivan.

"Our luxury lodges have really helped us reboot Australia [as a destination]," O'Sullivan says. "They have opened up a whole new channel for us as we have moved towards pitching ourselves as more of a high end and high yield destination.

"The lodges might be small and boutique in terms of capacity, but they are huge when it comes to destination talkability."

More than just indulgent retreats, Australia's luxury lodges are showcases for our unique landscapes, from the red deserts around Uluru to the rugged coast of Kangaroo Island. It is that which sets a lodge apart from a resort, according to Penny Rafferty, executive officer at Luxury Lodges of Australia.

"A resort is more a place to relax," she says. "Our definition of lodges is that they are about discovering why the lodge is there, and how the lodge actively connects you with the place."

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Rafferty says Australia's pristine landscapes are a huge draw for overseas visitors.

"We are around the same size as the US, but with roughly 8 per cent of the population," she says. "We have the extreme luxury of pure landscape, pure water, pure air. There is a wow factor about each of the lodge locations, whether that is the ancient grand-scale landscape of the Flinders Ranges at Arkaba, or the sense of privilege of place at somewhere like Sal Salis, which operates within a national park, on the extreme edge of the continent, just metres from World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef."

At Qualia, it is the glittering seascapes of the Whitsundays that are front and centre. Architect Chris Beckingham designed the pared-back interiors of the 60 pavilions, done in local wood and stone, to let the views take centre stage.

"I remember when we were positioning the villas, Chris would literally stand in each spot, turning and moving to place himself where the living room and the bedroom would be," Oatley says. "He was matching up the pavilions with the surrounding trees, to ensure each guest would have both vistas and privacy."

To Oatley, Qualia's biggest strength is its sense of tranquillity. "I was up there last week and the first thing I did was go and stand on Pebble Beach [the resort's beach], and I felt myself slowing down. My anxieties completely frittered away."

For Rafferty, it is the experience as a whole. "It ticks every box unequivocally," she says. "Every moment is sensorily rewarding: you eat well, drink well, sleep well. There is exclusivity of access to the reef and to remote beaches."

Perhaps surprisingly, the original inspiration for Qualia – courtesy of Sandy's father, Robert Oatley – came from the Italian island of Sardinia, where the Oatleys regularly holidayed.

"Dad loved the sunshine, the water, the food, the ambience, the people," Oatley says. "He wanted to bring a bit of that back here. We knew that people are always looking for more: a bit more space, a bit more luxury, a bit more time."

What was less certain was that a market existed for an Australian tropical getaway priced in the four figures. Even the Oatleys knew it was a risk. "We had a vision that Australia needed the sort of resort we were going to create, but there was uncertainty around that," Oatley says. However, the Oatleys got it right; today, 60 per cent of the lodge's guests are Australian.

The property's anniversary year has not been an unqualified celebration. Earlier this year, Cyclone Debbie wreaked havoc on Hamilton Island. The cost of replanting Qualia's gardens alone was $2.5 million, but Oatley says that the upside of the devastation was seeing everyone pull together.

"We had 1100 staff on the island – housekeepers, chefs, spa therapists, barmen, general managers – and they were all out there raking, picking up sticks, helping guests fly back home. It was absolutely amazing."

When Qualia recently reopened, in time for the annual Hamilton Island Race Week, guests had a new toy, the 45-foot luxury cruiser, Atomic. The Oatley family's passion for boats is well known, so it is no surprise that Qualia's brand manager, Nicky Oatley – daughter of Sandy – is excited about the new addition, which takes guests on day trips.

"It has a very elegant line and it moves through the water beautifully," she says. "We never felt we had a boat fitting for Qualia guests; this brings in another element for our guests. Luxury now is about experiences, so we have to be giving our guests the pinnacle experience on the reef."

Qualia may be back to its pre-cyclone best, but some have questioned whether the same can be said of luxury lodges as a whole. Although no new properties have opened in recent years, Rafferty says the sector is going strong.

"Occupancy continues to increase, as does the average daily spend per person, which is already in excess of $1000 per person," she says.

Developing new properties continues to be a challenge, with red tape and staff availability and costs the major hurdles to overcome. However, two new luxury lodges are set to open in Tasmania next year – one from Baillie Lodges, operators of Southern Ocean Lodge and Longitude 131, the other from Federal Group, which also owns Saffire Freycinet – and Rafferty says that investment continues right across the sector.

"Iconic properties such as Silky Oaks Lodge and Lizard Island have invested heavily and done a lot of work redefining their offer and experience," she says. "You have the Baillies, who have just invested $8 million in totally redefining the offering at Longitude 131 at Uluru, and you have Alla Wolf-Tasker at the Lake House, who has been operating for 32 years, constantly innovating, pre-empting what people want."

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/hamilton-island

qualia.com.au

FLY

Virgin Australia and Qantas and Jetstar all fly direct to Hamilton Island from major cities. See virginaustralia.com/au/en, qantas.com, jetstar.com.au

STAY

From $1300 a pavilion a night, including breakfast, all non-alcoholic beverages and 24-hour chauffeur service around the island.

FIVE THINGS TO DO ON HAMILTON ISLAND

SPEND A DAY ON THE REEF

There are some great snorkelling and dive spots nearby offering colourful corals and plentiful marine life. Try the coral wall at Hardy Reef, or Manta Bay Ray.

ENJOY A SUNDOWNER WITH A VIEW

Find your own favourite place to end the day, from One Tree Hill Lookout to the Bommie Bar at the yacht club.

PLAY A ROUND OF GOLF

Catch the ferry to Dent Island to play one of Australia's most striking 18-hole golf courses, designed by Peter Thomson.

RELAX ON AUSTRALIA'S MOST BEAUTIFUL BEACH

How many times can one beach be named Australia's Most Beautiful? With its white sands and turquoise waters, it's easy to see why Whitehaven Beach repeatedly scoops the pool.

EAT YOUR WAY AROUND THE WORLD

There are more than a dozen dining options on Hamilton, from Qualia's elegant Long Pavilion to Asian food at Coca Chu and Mexican favourites at Tako.

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