What a stroke of luck for holidaymakers that the late billionaire Bob Oatley was an avid sailor. The successful winemaker sailed past Hamilton Island in the '80s when Keith Williams was beginning to develop the then uninhabited paradise. Even then, he saw its potential. But it wasn't until almost 20 years later, after Oatley's son, Sandy, won the grand prix division of the island's annual race regatta, that the Oatleys bought the island, which had been languishing in receivership for eight years.
Since then the Oatleys have poured more than $350 million into the island; adding the yacht club with its billowing sail copper roof, the marina precinct, opening the superlative resort Qualia, with the stylish Yacht Club Villas. An 18-hole golf course on neighbouring Dent Island was built, the airport (the gateway to the Whitsunday islands) has been upgraded, while the adults-only Beach Club has been completely refurbished and offers stylish beachfront digs with terrific food, chic rooms and young, capable staff.
Tucked into the island's lush foliage, the more affordable Palm Bungalows, have also had a $4 million makeover, a day spa opened, and a further $250 million has been earmarked to ensure Hamilton Island continues to live up to holidaymakers' expectations. There are plans to build a new 100-room hotel on Dent Island (rumoured to be a five-star family resort) with 200 home sites. Today the island resort, is enjoying a completely new lease of life.
At the yacht club, dubbed "the Opera House of far north Queensland", Audi's Hamilton Island Race Week kicks off with great food, fine wines and impressive views of the Whitsunday Passage. Now in its 33rd year (11th with Audi as the main sponsor), race week has evolved to become an event that offers so much more than sailing for landlubbers. Last year onshore activities included a whirlwind of glamorous and fun events for foodies, fashionistas, social climbers and sailors alike. Even if you're not there for the sailing, the buzz that permeates the island during the regatta is infectious, making it a great time to holiday there.
For true sailors, race week has set new standards in the world of sailboat racing and remains Australia's premier regatta for offshore yachts. So those into sailing are certainly in their element. But for the novice seaman, race week offers two parallel programs – one on sea and one onshore – and that's what makes it such a terrific event.
It also makes a lot of sense. Most serious yachties (we're predominantly talking about males here, who make up most of the participants) have wives, girlfriends, daughters and mothers who want to do something more exciting than watch a billowing sail from a distance through a pair of binoculars. Turns out yachting isn't much of a spectator sport. One cloudless blue-sky day we searched for the boats and the most exciting thing we saw was a whale spectacularly breaching off the bow.
Hamilton Island chief executive Glenn Bourke says the regatta has evolved from a small group of salty sea dogs racing around the Whitsundays to an internationally acclaimed event on both the sailing and social calendar. "As a result, we've had to grow and evolve the event by creating new events and entertainment and new race courses for the expanded fleet numbers and types. Our ambition is to ensure this core sailing group and their entourage return year after year, while also being attractive to new audiences who enjoy the culinary and cultural delights of the island."
The initial idea for race week came in 1983 during the America's Cup match in Newport, Rhode Island, when Williams hit thought of staging a major annual yacht regatta. He approached yachtsman David Hutchen and outlined his idea for the event. Hutchen seized on the concept and the inaugural Hamilton Island Race Week was staged in April 1984 with 93 yachts.
Fast forward to 2003, and Bob Oatley and family, were regular competitors at race week. After Sandy took won the regatta's top class with his yacht, Another Duchess, Bob was asked if he might be interested in buying the island. He was, and within weeks the family owned the island.
Since then the Oatley family has taken not only Hamilton Island, but race week, to a new level. Bob Oatley has left a legacy the island can be proud of. "From its humble beginnings, Audi Hamilton Island Race Week is now an Australian bucket-list experience for both domestic and international travellers alike," Bourke says.
Last year there were 202 boats – the second largest number in the event's decade-long history – while a whopping 5000 people attended the event. How many actually saw a boat I can't say, but being on the island at the time was pure fun. Restaurants were full, bar patrons spilled out onto the street, celebrities were spotted all over the island being chauffeured around in silver Audis – and even the weather and scores of breaching whales turned on a spectacular show.
Eventually, I saw some racing too. On a stunning blue-sky day that only the Whitsundays can turn on, I took a helicopter flight over the reef. I can honestly say there's nothing more spectacular than seeing the Great Barrier Reef from above. Its astonishing beauty, with impossibly blue water, a mosaic of jewel-like reefs, islands, coral cays and atolls, brings tears to the eye. As we returned to the island, the billowing spinnakers streaked across the Coral Sea, buoyed by gusts. This land lubber is a race week convert.
Hamilton Island offers six types of accommodation from the luxury adults-only Qualia and boutique Beach Club, to the four-star Reef View Hotel, self-contained Palm Bungalows and a huge selection of holiday homes from $400 a night. See hamiltonisland.com.au
EAT AND PLAY
Audi Hamilton Island Race Week 2016 runs from August 20 to August 27. Book in advance to secure a room. Hamilton Island has lifted its game in recent years yet remains accessible for all budgets. There's everything from fine dining at Qualia, to fish and chips overlooking the marina. Coca Chu serves up delicious small plates of hawker-style food by executive chef Adam Woodfield. The Beach Club's intimate restaurant overlooking Catseye Beach offers well executed modern Australian cuisine, while you can't beat sundowners at the new bar on One Tree Hill with expansive vistas over the Whitsunday Passage. The Garden Bar on Front Street overlooking the marina plays host to the Tanqueray Garden Bar party during race week and is another terrific new offering.
Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Audi Hamilton Island Race Week.