Taking their cue from the eponymous clownfish and blue tang from the Disney Pixar movies Finding Nemo and the recently released Finding Dory, the residents of the Whitsunday Islands section of the Great Barrier Reef are going about their business, unfussed about coral bleaching. The reef here is "super-healthy", according to Josh Harrington, operations manager with reef tour operator Explore Hamilton Island.
The "super healthy" description comes from Reef Check Australia, and is backed by a recent report from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. The authority and the Australian Institute of Marine Science concluded there is no discernible bleaching in the Whitsundays. The report says that while there is a problem to the north around Cairns, there has been no coral loss on the outer reefs of the Whitsundays.
"A lot of people get in the water expecting to see a dead reef and are surprised when they see a healthy environment," Harrington says. "It doesn't look dead, they say, shocked. Others find a small damaged patch and leap to the wrong conclusion. There has always been natural loss and regeneration."
Explore Hamilton Island is also part of the "Eye on the Reef" initiative for the authority. The program is open to anyone from marine scientists to day-trippers who want to help the reef by reporting what they've seen. And there's an app for that. We are asked to keep our eyes open for various things as we dive and snorkel around Bait Reef, which Harrington describes as a 12 out of 10 experience. And he's right. We spend the day aboard Explore's 24-metre catamaran Reef Explorer, and while most are happy to snorkel, there is also a SCUBA option that first-timers can join after a brief introduction.
From the moment we hit the water, the majesty is apparent. Monumental coral formations stand like Frank Gehry-designed residential estates for fish, turtles, sharks and rays. Anemones replete with Nemos sway in the current like wind-blown grass, vertical drop-offs plunge into murky depths where reef sharks are silhouetted far below, shoals of blue bait fish change direction as one, a massed meal for prowling trevallies and other predators. Maori wrasse – big green fish with blue lips that Harrington describes as the puppy dogs of the reef – and giant trevallies, aka GTs, "fly" around us at high speed. A sea turtle languidly patrols its domain and watches us for a few minutes before a swish of flippers sends it scurrying off, scattering a school of yellow-tailed fusiliers.
This spectacular five-star reef encounter is matched star for star by Hamilton Island's premier resort, Qualia, which is also in pristine condition. Situated on the northern tip of the island, Qualia is the primo accommodation on the island. It has regularly featured in hot lists of Australia's finest resorts since its 2007 rebuild, the pinnacle of which was being named Best Resort in the World in the 2012 Conde Nast Traveler Readers' Choice Awards.
It's luxe all the way at Qualia. Forget waiting at the baggage carousel at the airport. The next time you see your suitcase will be in your self-contained, stand-alone bungalow, which are – not unreasonably – called pavilions. The friendly, seamless check-in is lubricated by a glass – or two - of very good sparkling wine in Long Pavilion, overlooking the sapphire Whitsunday Passage and adjacent khaki islands. Matt checks us in and is the third staffer in the past 20 minutes to pretend to complain about the weather and the view. It's an endearing shtick. Matt tops up our flutes and talks us through the resort's layout, activities, spa and restaurants, as well as what we can do on the rest of the island.
Each pavilion comes with a personal golf cart, a must to negotiate the hilly, sprawling resort. You can drive your cart down to the marina and shops too, where you'll find everyone has one; their simple, one-paced traction a metaphor for the easy-going nature of the island. Qualia runs a free shuttle service around the island too.
Long Pavilion doubles as Qualia's signature restaurant and provides a sumptuous, modern Australian fine-dining encounter. Four, six or eight course tasting menus are available in addition to a la carte and we enjoy a superb degustation and ideally paired wines. In a feast of extraordinary culinary highlights, the sashimi is the standout – a brilliant concoction of tuna and uni with pine mushroom and egg yolk, plated up inside a hollowed out Tasmanian sea urchin and paired with Asahi Dassai 39 Junmai Daiginjo sake.
You can expect more gastronomic delights at Pebble Beach, Qualia's more casual dining option. Lavish hot and cold seafood platters for two at lunch, a prime sirloin with truffled potatoes and onion rings for dinner. And so it goes. The a la carte breakfast menu is also excellent.
A sanctuary within a sanctuary, Spa Qualia bestows an additional layer of luxe. The treatments capture the natural and indigenous heritage of the surrounds. "Signature Ceremonies" include the Heart Reef Ritual, Kumali Ritual and White Haven – named for the snow-coloured (not bleached) Whitehaven Beach on nearby Whitsunday Island. The Spa is also the venue for morning yoga classes.
Bob Oatley, who passed away earlier this year and who drove the renovation of Hamilton Island – and built Qualia from the ground up – must be looking down from his heaven to this one, satisfied with a job well done.
See also: Traveller's review of Qualia
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO ON OR NEAR HAMILTON ISLAND
PLAY GOLF ON NEIGHBOURING DENT ISLAND
The 18-hole Peter Thomson-designed Hamilton Island Golf Course is strung along the ridges and through the valleys of the island and could be the most picturesque place in the world to spoil a good walk. The 14th is called "Valley of Death". Bring lots of balls.
FLY OVER THE REEF
Hamilton Island Air runs various tours of the reef by helicopter or seaplane, taking in passes over the unique Heart Reef and stunning Whitehaven Beach, as well as other islands. Sharks and turtles are easily spotted from on high and whales are a common sight between June and October.
SUNSET AT ONE TREE HILL
Many people gather for the nightly show at the top of the hill, just a five minute cart ride from Qualia. Instagram-worthy orange and red ochres spread around the horizon like oozing paint, complementing the already sublime 360 degree views. Qualia's luxury cruiser Atomic hosts evening cruises if you prefer your sunsets with canapes and drinks.
EXPLORE AND SHOP AT MARINA VILLAGE
There are quite a few up-market boutiques here as well as an art gallery, general store, restaurants and cafes, and as much boat porn as you can handle. Relax with a cold one and watch the million dollar vessels come and go at the Marina Tavern, built in the shape of a manta ray.
Take a picnic lunch and explore some of the walking trails, many leading to secluded coves. Or you could trek up to the top of Passage Peak, the highest point on the island. Along the way you may come across wallabies, goannas, sea eagles, kites, ospreys, sulphur-crested cockatoos and kookaburras. Drop in to WILD LIFE Hamilton Island for more reptilian and marsupial encounters. Yes, of course they have a crocodile – this is tropical Queensland.
Qantas flies direct to Hamilton Island from Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Cairns, with connections from other Australian capital cities. qantas.com
Two main levels of accommodation are available. Windward Pavilions (with Whitsunday Passage and Coral Sea views and a private infinity pool) start at $1700 per night and Leeward Pavilions (with Coral Sea views) start at $1100 per night. There is also a much larger and even more luxurious and secluded Beach House with a 12-metre private lap pool for $4000 per night. A minimum two-night stay applies to all options. All excursions can be arranged by Qualia's concierges. qualia.com.au
Mal Chenu was a guest of Qualia and Qantas.