It’s a bit of a slog to reach Passage Peak, but the view from the top is worth it. For as far as the eye can see, the epic vista of turquoise sea and uninhabited isles is completely unsullied by any form of modern development.
In the foreground, the flowering spikes of native grass trees sway on a gentle breeze, while below me is the tropical forest through which I’ve just hiked up to get here. The only sounds I can hear are the harsh, raucous squawks of brilliant-white cockatoos and the musical notes of a currawong calling out its onomatopoeic name.
It’s a magical sight – but it’s something that most of my fellow guests won’t experience. I’m staying at Qualia, the legendary resort on Hamilton Island in Australia’s Whitsundays, whose cosseting comforts and upmarket ambiance are compelling reasons not to leave.
Even I almost bailed on this morning’s hike to the island’s highest point in favour of lazing on one of the resort’s poolside loungers, but there’s no excuse when I’ve got my own golf cart to drive myself to the trail head – and my efforts are more than rewarded by that mesmerising view.
But while this natural beauty may appear to be unspoiled, all is not as pristine as it seems. I’m visiting in April, almost a year to the day since Cyclone Debbie tore through the Whitsundays, trashing Hamilton Island and utterly devastating others in the archipelago. Bare branches and broken trunks reaching up through the re-growth are reminders of hurricane-force winds that toppled trees and whipped up a violent salt spray that stripped vegetation.
Qualia, too, took a battering, but the evidence is harder to spot. On Hamilton Island’s northern tip, the resort took a direct hit when Debbie (a Category 4 storm) swept in from the sea. “We were in the thick of it for a good 10 hours,” Qualia’s general manager, Kyle Lamonica, tells me later. “We recorded winds of up to 263kph but then our measuring equipment stopped working, so we’ll never know its full strength.”
The eye of the storm passed just to the north, destroying the luxury One&Only resort on Hayman Island (which was so badly damaged it won’t re-open until next year, and then under a different brand). In contrast, Qualia got away lightly: the resort was closed for just over three months.
“We were fortunate in being able to turn disaster into opportunity,” says Kyle. “We’d been planning to close for refurbishment anyway, so the storm expedited those plans. Our vision was to come back better than ever – and I think we’ve fulfilled that pledge. I honestly believe the resort has never looked so good.”
Much of the damage to Qualia’s buildings was cosmetic rather than structural, but the forest into which they were carefully carved was flattened overnight. Although a few big trees survived and re-planting and natural regeneration are redressing the balance, the resort lost much of its original character.
For Kyle there has been a silver lining of sorts, however: “Much of the landscaping had become quite overgrown, so this natural thinning of the canopy has reconnected the pavilions to their views.”
The pavilions are Qualia’s freestanding guestrooms, of which there are 60 scattered over the property. Though their sea views may have been improved, they remain well screened from one another and retain a welcome sense of seclusion. Each of the generous, free-flowing spaces is dressed in natural, earthy tones, while outdoor terraces (some with private plunge pools) and foldaway windows bring the scenery that bit closer.
By and large, the pavilions survived the cyclone surprisingly unscathed, as did the Pebble Beach pool and restaurant complex down on the shore. A full refit has seen this area restored to the resort’s main daytime hub: a place to relax by the pool, try some water sports or linger over lunch and look for humpback whales (in season) passing up the channel.
Things here get slightly more formal in the evenings, when Pebble Beach serves a six-course tasting menu that’s big on seasonal dishes with an Asian influence, such as scallop sashimi, Skull Island prawn dumplings or lamb served with locally foraged seaweed and beach banana.
There’s further fine dining (albeit more relaxed) at the resort’s other restaurant, Long Pavilion, which is in the main building at the top of the hill (along with the bar, a library and other guest services).
Its elevated position and linear design reveal a panorama of sea and sky, peppered with the National Park’s untamed isles. The modern Australian menu spans the continent, with highlights of barramundi, wagyu beef and Sydney rock oysters, plus more local flavours courtesy of reef fish and Whitsunday bugs (a type of lobster typical to this part of Queensland).
Service throughout is exemplary, with staff sourced from some of world’s best hotel brands, including Claridge’s, Rosewood, The Langham and The Connaught. The team’s attention to detail is reflected throughout the hotel, where the driving force is aimed at delivering the very best of everything. This translates into quality French champagne (the house pour is Charles Heidsieck), Riedel glassware and Cape Grim bottled water from Tasmania (said to be the world’s cleanest water source).
There are also multiple other dining options – the resort offers nine restaurants in total – and unfussy fare might include tacos, pizza and steak, plus excellent pan-Asian cuisine at Coca Chu.