Luxury hotel review: Qualia Hamilton Island and Saffire Tasmania

I step ashore at Whitehaven Beach, drinking in the magnificent sweep of one of the world's best beaches. It's a cloudless day with an onshore breeze. Dressed smartly in black, barefoot staff stand to attention, offering me a glass of French champagne the moment my feet sink into the powder-soft silica sand. We are directed to sit beneath one of four black umbrellas lined up on the startlingly bright shoreline. Offshore sits Sir Thomas Sopwith, the elegant 72-foot ketch which has sailed us here. I untie my sarong, letting it slip onto the sand, and plunge into the languid Coral Sea.

Two days later, and three thousand kilometres south, my feet sink into entirely different, but equally beautiful sand – of the quartz variety – at another of Australia's, if not the world's, best beaches. We've just hiked to the Wineglass Bay lookout, flanked by lichen boulders, where we catch our first glimpse of the striking crescent inlet – one of Tasmania's most celebrated locations. As we descend to the beach, we leave the crowds behind. Again I discard my clothes and dive into water so clear, it feels like I'm swimming in gin. Bracingly cold, a top of around 12C, it feels baptismal. From north to south; Far North Queensland to Tasmania, I've cleansed my soul at two of the country's iconic beaches. 

If the leap from one end of Australia's east coast to practically its southern most reaches seems crazy, I'd have to agree with you. But once you understand the premise it makes perfect sense. The two beaches star in a brand new Whitehaven Beach to Wineglass Bay (W2W) experience, which makes it entirely plausible to taste the best of Australia's tropical north and the wild and remote south in one incredible week. The experience brings together for the first time two of Australia's most exclusive lodges: Qualia on Hamilton Island and Saffire Freycinet, midway along Tasmania's glorious East Coast. 

At Qualia, our few short days are a like a movie trailer, allowing us to experience the highlights of what this luxury resort has to offer. We enjoy a Whitehaven signature ceremony at Spa Qualia, cuddle a koala in the Long Pavilion, Qualia's main hub, before sitting down to a degustation dinner matched with Australian wines selected from the Robert Oatley Vineyards collection. The Oatley family own Hamilton Island and since taking over in 2003 have transformed this Whitsunday island into a bustling holiday mecca with something for everyone. 

Affectionately known as Popeye to his family and friends, the late Robert Oatley started Rosemount Estate in NSW's Hunter Valley, and it went on to become one of the wine industry's legendary family-owned labels. His earlier experience growing coffee and cocoa beans in Papua New Guinea later morphed into an interest in wine. But despite his firm roots on the land – growing grapes, running a horse stud and raising cattle – sailing was his big passion which is how he came to own Wild Oats XI (eight time Sydney to Hobart winner) and, later, Hamilton Island. 

We set sail ourselves the following day to Whitehaven Beach, one of Qualia's signature experiences. First stop is Chalkies Beach, which sits directly opposite Whitehaven Beach and is a favourite with the locals. Pristine and remote, the beach lies on the western side of Haslewood Island. It's home to a resident hawksbill turtle, which we see surface several times after anchoring just offshore. As popular as Whitehaven is, it's Chalkies I'm most enamoured with. I skim over the cobalt waters on a stand-up paddleboard, cruising over colourful coral gardens with schools of angel and butterfly fish swimming beneath me. Unlike Whitehaven across the way, there's not a soul in sight. 

Back at Qualia, we are treated to a sake and sashimi masterclass with sommelier Ben Cabangun tasting the very brand of sake given to President Obama during a diplomatic trip to Japan. Executive chef Doug Innes-Will slices freshly caught coral trout to pair with each tasting as Cabangun helps us identify the lychee, honeydew and apple aroma notes found in the different sakes. 

There are other "Oh, my God" moments during our time at Qualia but one that leaves the biggest impression on me is my pavilion – one of the most-sought-after rooms on Qualia's leeward side. Later I hear Australian actor Chris Hemsworth stayed in the same pavilion, executing some nifty kung fu moves on the edge of the infinity pool with its mind-blowing vista over the Whitsunday passage. I sleep smug in the knowledge that Chris and I have shared the same bed (OK, not at the same time but you know what I mean).

General manager Kyle LaMonica tells me the new Qualia-Saffire package is unique in Australia. "Linking Hamilton Island's Qualia and Saffire Freycinet is a great way for luxury-seekers to experience the absolute highlights of two of Australia's best high-end resorts in one seamless booking." What makes it particularly appealing, he says, is both experiences are island-based but offer the contrast between the north's balmy subtropical climate and proximity to the Great Barrier Reef and Tasmania's temperate southern climate and coastal woodlands. "All the research has been done for you with the pick of the experiences at both properties consolidated into one unforgettable itinerary."

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And unforgettable it truly is. We arrive for the southern part of the W2W itinerary in rock-star style, flying over Tasmania's East Coast. Our helicopter pilot points out the town of Swansea, Nine Mile Beach, and Spikey Beach below, tucked away near the convict-built bridge of the same name. After circling Wineglass Bay, we land, and minutes later arrive at the incredible Saffire Freycinet, overlooking Great Oyster Bay. Here, migrating whales and dolphins frolic; local farms produce fresh, succulent oysters in some of the world's cleanest waters; and fishing boats bring in their daily catch of crayfish, scallops and deep sea fish, dripping and salty-sweet. While Qualia is the ultimate in tropical chic; Saffire offers the best of cool climate Australia – and feels in many ways similar to New Zealand's renowned super-lodges. 

Now it's Saffire's turn to show off. We don waders and down freshly shucked oysters while standing in waist-deep water at a table in the estuary, dine on magnificent Tasmanian produce and wines and meet Saffire's resident Tasmanian devils. 

I wake early, the rugged Hazards mountain range blushing pink in the morning light, and take a walk along Saffire's secluded beach. A Pacific gull soars in the sky above, and mine are the only footprints to be seen along the long stretch of sand.

On our second day we're collected from Wineglass Bay and taken on a tour of the Freycinet Coastline, which boasts some of the cleanest air and water in the inhabited world. We see a humpback whale and her calf breaching and slapping the water at Broken Lemon Rock, and watch kelp dance ghoulishly on the lichen covered rocks close to shore. An albatross rises majestically on the wind; seals laze on rocks along the shoreline.  

Rounding the headland from Wineglass Bay, tables dressed in white linen await on the little-known Bryan's Beach, surely Tasmania's very own Whitehaven. The sand is white and powdery; the water literally the colour of sapphires (hence how Saffire got its name). "This is exactly how it would have looked to the first settlers," our boat captain Stephen Fahey tells me, "and how it always will." 

We feast on a seven-course lunch that includes smoked chicken, heirloom carrot salad, Moreton Bay bugs and frangipani tart. As we tuck in, pied oystercatchers help themselves to their own lunch, plucked straight from boulders using their long red beaks. 

I take a walk alone along the beach, which to my eye, is easily the most beguiling stretch of coastline in Australia – wanting to commit this incredible day to memory. Despite the chilly temperature, the water's irresistible beauty lures me in for one last swim. Floating on my back, I turn my face to the sky, never wanting this moment to end. 

TRIP NOTES

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whitehaventowineglass.com.au

STAY

The Whitehaven Beach to Wineglass Bay package includes two nights at Qualia in a Windward Pavilion, breakfast and dinner both nights, including an eight-course tasting menu with matching wines; a Whitehaven signature spa treatment; a Talk and Taste event; a helicopter flight over the Great Barrier Reef's Heart Reef; and a picnic on Whitehaven Beach. 

In Tasmania, the experience includes a one-night stay at The Henry Jones Art Hotel in Hobart, and two nights in a Signature Suite at Saffire Freycinet, including all meals, an oyster tasting at the Freycinet Marine Farm, a Tasmanian devil encounter, Wineglass Lookout Walk, picnic and more. From $6636 per person twin share. The experience for travel from April 1, 2017, to March 31, 2018, excludes flights; option to upgrade to heli transfers to Saffire are an additional cost. For full details, inclusions and bookings, see whitehaventowineglass.com.au  

Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Qualia, Hamilton Island and Saffire Freycinet.

FIVE WHITEHAVEN TO WINEGLASS HIGHLIGHTS

Take to the skies with a phenomenal scenic helicopter flight over the Great Barrier Reef, including Heart Reef, followed by a picnic accompanied by Charles Heidsieck champagne on the renowned Whitehaven Beach. 

Enjoy a private talk and taste session with Qualia sommelier Ben Cabangun. Learn the art of sake and sashimi, or oyster and champagne pairing. 

History and art tours are held weekly of the 500 plus artworks on sale at the Henry Jones Hotel, Australia's first dedicated art hotel (check ahead for the schedule). Be sure and dine at the hotel's new Landscape restaurant headed up by chef Oli Mellers.

Explore beautiful Wineglass Bay on a guided five-kilometre walk to South Hazards beach where a Saffire guide awaits with a picnic of charcuterie, local oysters, barbecued seafood, petit desserts and more. Afterwards be "chauffeured" back in style aboard Saffire's vessel via the peninsula's spectacular fiery red coastline. 

Saffire boasts one of the best Tasmanian whiskey collections in the world, which guests can sample (some at a cost). A dedicated Whiskey Business weekend is held in August. 

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