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So far in my series on my trip to Australia with TPG Managing Editor Eric, I’ve covered how I used miles to book my award ticket, my flight from LAX-MEL in United GlobalFirst, the day I spent wine-tasting out in the Yarra Valley, a restaurant review roundup of all the fantastic places we ate in the city, my review of the Westin Melbourne and my thoughts on flying Jetstar to Hamilton Island. Once I arrived at this beautiful little gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, I stayed at the Reef View Hotel, and here is my review – stay tuned for what great activities and adventures Eric and I got up to while out on the Reef.
Of all the places we were going in Australia, one of those I was most looking forward to was Hamilton Island to go scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. I had originally booked myself at the Hilton Cairns farther north in Queensland, but Eric suggested we go to Hamilton Island in the Whitsunday Islands instead because it was a little bit closer to Melbourne and Sydney, had easy, packageable access to the Great Barrier Reef and adventure activities, and would be more like a vacation experience, so we decided to go there instead.
Hamilton Island is a small place – just about 650 hectares total – and is about 350 miles south of Cairns and 650 miles north of Brisbane. It was developed by an Australian billionaire named Bob Oatley and is kind of like an all-inclusive private island where one company manages most of the hotel and rental properties, you can pay for meals and activities by charging pretty much anything back to your room/residence, and most people get around the island on golf carts. In short, it’s an odd little place, but absolutely beautiful and an easy, manageable way to maximize your time out at the Great Barrier Reef.
While I would have loved to stay at the ultra-luxe hotel on the island, Qualia, villas were going for $1,500-$1,800 AUD ($1,340-$1,605) per night (which is pretty much typical here since it is one of Australia’s nicest resorts and rates include most meals, some activities, and some other perks. So instead we looked for other options. If it had been more than the two of us we might have rented one of the Yacht Club Villas, which are four-bedroom luxury homes with full kitchens and huge indoor-outdoor spaces, laundry machines, WiFi and other amenities. They were about $1,000 AUD a night ($890 USD) and would be a pretty good deal if you were going with a few couples or a whole family.
Instead we decided to stay at the mid-level hotel on the island, the Reef View. I say mid-level because it wasn’t exactly luxurious, but it wasn’t totally budget either – certainly not at high-season prices of $445 AUD ($400 USD) per night! That was high, but not too bad for booking last-minute at one of Australia’s most popular resort destinations, so we went ahead and booked it. The rate was a minimum four-night special and included:
Coral Sea View Room (one category above the entry level) with the following inclusions:
Full daily buffet breakfast for two
Complimentary Hamilton Island airport/marina to hotel transfers
Complimentary use of the gym, spa, sauna, squash and tennis court hire
Complimentary use of catamarans, paddle skis, windsurfers and snorkelling equipment
Unlimited use of the scheduled ‘Island Shuttle’ service
Kids Stay and Eat Free at selected restaurants (Conditions apply) – we found out this applied to kids under 12 at all but a couple of the fancier restaurants on the island.
And it was eligible to earn Virgin Australia Velocity Rewards points (though non-Australia/New Zealand residents can’t join the program).
I originally booked four nights for a total of $1,741.50 AUD ($1,550 USD) including taxes and fees, but I decided to continue to Sydney a day earlier than I had originally planned.
We called up the Hamilton Island accommodations line and asked if they could refund me the last night of my stay and they said no, the rate was prepaid and non-refundable. I asked if there was anything else they could do for me, and again was told no. So I got a little tough and said it was high season, they were sure to sell the room anyway (this was a week or two out from my dates, so there was plenty of time) and that surely they could give me some break. The agent put me on hold to talk to her supervisor and when she came back on the line, she said that they would give me a resort credit of the last night’s rate – so $445 – to use during my stay. Since you can charge pretty much anything to your room including meals and dive trips, I thanked her profusely and said I really appreciated it. After all, they really didn’t have to do anything for me, and at least I could put the money I’d already spent to use while we were there – and as it turned out, we basically used it all up on the first day booking a snorkel/scuba trip out on the Reef for Eric and me.
The whole Hamilton Island experience is rather contained since, well, it’s an island where everything is pretty much controlled by a single management company. We arrived and collected our luggage and then passengers from our flight were sorted into minibuses according to the hotels we were each staying at, so we piled into a bus with the other Reef View guests and were driven the 2 minutes (and given a tour of the island, its little marina and main town) to the hotel where we lined up to check in.
We arrived at about 9am, so neither of our rooms was ready, though there was a changing room we could have used if we wanted to walk the 300 feet or so to the Resort Centre building with its pools and the beach. We got a coffee instead and walked to the Marina to book our scuba/snorkel trip for the next day and grab a snack. There re regular shuttle services around the island, but for the most part we just ended up walking everywhere since it’s such a small place. By the time we got back around 11:30am, my room was ready, so we went up there and got a little work done. Use of WiFi up to 400MB was free, but you could also purchase faster-speed (though to be honest, it was still pretty slow) for $25 per 2GB, so we each did that so we wouldn’t have any issues.
As I mentioned, the room wasn’t luxurious, but it was nice enough. Including the balcony, it was a spacious 600 square feet or so and had two double beds…
A little breakfast table with chairs…
And a sitting area with two armchairs and an ottoman…
A flatscreen TV with a bunch of Australian channels and movies on demand and a small work desk.
A little minibar with chips, candy, sodas, beer, water and Oatley wines…
And a big balcony with chairs and great views out over Catseye Beach – this was probably my favorite feature of the room. The Coral Sea Rooms (of which there are 254) are located on floors 5-18 of the main tower, so the higher floors have some pretty great vistas. Both our rooms were on floor 11, so we could see clear across the bay to Whitsunday Island.
The bathroom was spacious with two vanities on separate walls.
There was also a walk-in shower and separate bathtub.
And a WC on its own.
All in all, it was spartan but clean and spacious – though the furniture and bathrooms were looking a little drab, so it might be time for a refresh. However, we didn’t end up being there much, so it was the right choice for our needs. Well, except for the super slow internet, but it is a vacation spot not a work destination (although there is a conference center there and I think a lot of businesses use the Reef View as their base for incentive trips and retreats).
The hotel also has guest laundry machines, a small gift shop selling sundries and souvenirs, a bar/cafe and a full-service restaurant by its small onsite pool where the daily buffet breakfast is served along with lunch and dinner till about 9:30pm. Breakfast was actually one of my least-favorite experiences since it was the most touristy with families and groups all lining up to get to lukewarm eggs and one of the two coffee machines. I don’t want to sound too harsh because there were a lot of options including cereal and yogurt, cold cuts, sausage, bacon (well, Canadian bacon), fruit and pastries, so it was a decent spread, but not worth the $30 AUD ($27) you would be charged a la carte.
Behind the hotel tower is a fitness center with tennis and squash courts, a small gym, and some hiking trails up into the island’s interior and smaller beaches on the other side. There is also a golf course on nearby Dent Island, but you have to take a ferry over there to play.
We spent a little while working then changed into our bathing suits and hit the beach, which was just a short walk down the road and through the Resort Centre, which had two pools, two restaurants – the Sails Steak & Seafood Grill, and Asian-themed Coca Chu right over the beach – a bowling alley, a beauty salon, a couple little stores and an activities desk where you could book paid excursions and get hiking trail maps.
Eric and I headed right to the beach and to the water sports center. Use of the equipment was included in our room rates so we could use the stand-up paddleboards, windsurfing boards, kayaks, snorkeling equipment and catamarans for free. It was nice and breezy, so we took out a catamaran for about an hour and just sailed back and forth across the bay, which was nice and relaxing.
When we got back mid-afternoon, we decided to have a bite to eat at Sails so we could sit on the patio with a view of the beach. They also serve the full buffet breakfast here. I got a pan-fried filet of barramundi with grilled veggies and Eric got a chicken Caesar salad, which were both pretty delicious, and we split some fried calamari.
I had injured my back before my trip so on our short walk back to the hotel, we stopped by the Wumurdaylin Spa, which was in a cute little bungalow, and I was able to book a relaxation massage on the spot. I would have preferred a deep tissue massage to try to work out the kinks from my back strain and all the travel, but there were no therapists around who were qualified for one, so I settled for the relaxation massage.
The facilities were…well, a bit limited. I’d asked for a shower and a robe since we had just come from the beach, and they suggested I shower then change back into my wet beach clothes and wait for my therapist in the little lounge area. However, they were able to locate a robe for me, so I didn’t have to do that. I know it sounds sort of high-maintenance and it’s a little thing, but hey, this is a full-service spa and the prices weren’t exactly cheap (my massage was $125 AUD), so I didn’t think a robe was too much to ask for. My massage was fine – nothing too special, but I did take a little nap on the table, so I guess it was relaxing! The spa uses Australian Li’tya products, which are made from indigenous Australian plants, which I thought was a nice touch.
All in all, the hotel was basic but nice. I still think the prices were high, but it was high season after all, and room availability anywhere on the island was really tight, so I’m just glad we were able to snag two rooms. Next time I think I’d stay at the smaller, adults-only Beach Club, which is across the little road from Reef View and right on the beach since I think you avoid some of that tourist-bus vibe, but it was undergoing renovation (it’s going to be done in phases over 2014), so that wasn’t an option this time.
Stay tuned for a quick roundup of some of the island restaurants we tried and all the fun stuff we got up to including a day-long scuba charter (I also went for a half-day), a chartered helicopter ride to world-famous Whitehaven Beach, which we had all to ourselves (except for the birds and the crabs), hiking and more.
Have any of you stayed on Hamilton Island? How was your experience? I’m curious to hear about the other properties on the island – and more importantly, if you found a way to avoid those shrieking cockatoos that have taken over the island!