A week on Fantasy Island: Hamilton Island for the (not-so) intrepid
On a clear day, the flight into Hamilton Island is as magical as it gets – flying north from Brisbane along the coastline of Queensland, the plane veers off over the ocean, where the pristine turquoise of the shimmering water is broken only by the frequent underwater reefs. That these reefs are submerged, yet almost perfectly visible, ringed by a glittering white outline, seems unfathomable – but after all, this is Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which, at 2300 kilometers long, is the world’s largest living organism.
The Great Barrier Reef is home to the Whitsunday Islands – seventy-four islands, which lie off the coast of Northern Queensland. Most of the islands are uninhabited by humans, leaving only four islands to house those wanting to explore the natural beauty of the reef. Foremost of these tourist islands is Hamilton Island. Once inhabited by the Ngaro indigenous peoples and home to an array of wildlife, flora and fauna, the island was purchased by developers in late 1970’s, who bought with them a new vision of island life.
The immediate question that was raised during our descent into Hamilton Island Airport was how to fit three plane-loads of people, two of which had arrived simultaneously with our small Qantas plane, onto a 1764 metres long runway. The second question was how might all these people, once unloaded, fit onto this five-square kilometre island?
Stepping out of the busy, small airport gave us a taste of Island life within seconds; the throng of people moving towards the baggage claim area – a small tin shed at the side of the airport – were dispersed only by the incoming and outgoing barrage of golf buggies. Buggies filled to the brim with luggage and people careened their way around the specially designed carpark, making any sudden pedestrian movements a moment of taking your life into your own hands.
Seemingly indistinguishable from each other, the buggies – although only capable of going about 24 kph – were a force to be reckoned with, and one of the things that make Hamilton Island what it is. Our buggy ride from the airport to our accommodation was relished by my daughter, who felt like we were legally riding a dodgem car around the windy streets, but made me feel like I had somehow entered a post-middle age twilight zone, where golf buggies had become the logical mode of transport.
The idea of a twilight zone kept haunting me throughout our week-long stay on the island, where the most stunning view outwards of the island towards the ocean was nature at its most sublime, while the infrastructure of the island itself – its buildings, businesses and services – was the complete antithesis to anything natural. The waterfront street with its picturesque harbour and quaint little restaurants, shops and tour booking venues, seemed like something modelled straight from a tourism design convention – it had all the elements and amenities that someone decided should be there. Not a hint of randomness, no quirky little misfits or niches that promised non-adherence to the bigger vision that is Hamilton Island, the vision that was created and is maintained by Hamilton Island Enterprises, who are the corporation responsible for the running of the island.
The corporation is also responsible for hiring the numerous staff that come to Hamilton Island expressly to make every tourist’s dream of ease and uniformity a reality. A large, seemingly interchangeable group of mostly young people, they are the ones that wait on the restaurant tables, serve the bread rolls at the bakery, and clean up what surely must be an inordinate amount of rubbish created by the never-ending convey-about of tourists. The staff are put up in small, multi-story apartment blocks that lack the glamour (and views) of the tourist apartments and hotels, in back streets that are distinguishable mostly by the fact that they are away from most of the main accommodation. They are required to work a minimum of 40 hours, and circulate around various of the businesses on the island, which means that you may encounter your waitress from the upscale restaurant from the night before making smoothies behind the counter of the small island café the next morning.
The fact that the staff are kept busy is probably exacerbated that on Hamilton Island cocktail hour comes early. If you want to eat and drink – not necessarily in that order – perhaps have a swim in one of the various resort pools, then drink some more, have your afternoon nap and wake up to the most stunning sunset you are likely to see that year, and which needs to be celebrated by yet another drink, then Hamilton Island will be your idea of complete heaven.
Even if you want to mix-up that schedule with some water sports (jet skiing, canoeing or yachting for instance) or that trip out to the actual reef, just to come back to ‘eat-drink and repeat’, then Hamilton Island is also for you. If, however, you are puzzled by how so much natural beauty can be manufactured down into bite-sized chunks of hedonistic comfort, and are looking for the unexpected, the more intrepid, then Hamilton Island is probably best avoided – unless maybe you come in cyclone season.