Swooping over the Coral Sea I peered out of the helicopter window, squinting as the sun bounced off the waves. It was so blue it didn’t look real and went on for as far as I could see, with just tiny specks of green and coral breaking the surface every now and then.
“It’s a little different from Dubai,” I thought, remembering that I hadn’t applied any lipstick since taking off. Normally I like to look polished all the time – who doesn’t among the skyscrapers nestled around the Marina or the myriad five-star hotels in Downtown Dubai?
But I was distracted – not only was this my first helicopter ride but I was flying over the Great Barrier Reef, just off the east coast of Australia. I was on my way to the One&Only Hayman Island resort, my home for the next three nights, and I couldn’t wait to get back to nature – as long as I could take my make-up bag.
There’s a one-hour boat transfer, but who could refuse the glamour of a 15-minute helicopter ride? “Look at how clear the ocean is,” the pilot said. “Take lots of photos.” I was already clicking away. “These will be all over Twitter and Facebook as soon as I get Wi-Fi,” I said, hoping the resort would have all the mod cons.
And then I saw it. There, set in the heart of the reef, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, was a green speck that grew bigger and bigger. In the middle was our resort, a series of white buildings that looked more and more luxurious the closer we got. “Wow!” I gasped as we landed. The hotel is stylish – with a chic Mediterranean vibe – and surrounded by palm trees and crystal-clear waters. It was opened in July this year on a private island at the northernmost tip of the Whitsundays Islands, off the coast of Queensland, and is the epitome of luxury. There are six restaurants, a spa, and loads of natural beauty. Activities on offer included diving, snorkelling, a bird walk and wallaby-spotting.
For now though, ducking under the helicopter blades, all I could think of was my hair getting messed up. But before I could reach for a brush I spotted our host, James Wyndham, vice-president of guest relations waiting to meet us. “Welcome to the One & Only,” he said. “How was the heli ride?” He laughed when he saw my bewildered look, explaining, “We Aussies shorten every word possible so get used to it.” Looking round the island, with the sea lapping the talcum powder beaches, in a reef that is home to 3,000 coral and 1,500 different kinds of fish, I smiled. I could certainly get used to this, if not his Australian twang.
I was staying in one of the resort’s suites – there are 160 rooms, suites, villas and penthouses – and James insisted on driving me there in a buggy. On the way we passed trees so tall I felt like I was in the middle of a jungle, and rocky inlets with the sea crashing into them. There was a cacophony of wildlife. “Cockatoos and rainbow lorikeets,” James said, reading the question on my mind as I listened to them flying through the trees. “After dusk you can also spot wallabies around the resort.” He explained that they’re like kangaroos, but smaller, adding, “We’ll go wallaby-spotting one night, so bring a torch!”
I hadn’t packed one of those in my suitcase along with my LBDs and heels, but now that I was here I was determined to eschew my city-life high-maintenance look for a while and try to get back to nature. I was already planning what to wear on the wallaby hunt – a jumpsuit with no make-up except for my lip gloss – as James stopped the buggy outside my villa.
Standing by my door was a beautiful swan. No, not the sort you see made out of towels lying on your bed – a real-life one! “The swans live on the island,” James said. Their pond was right next to my villa. What an amazing set of neighbours to have. James then left me to explore my room and make myself at home. The resort has four wings and I was staying in the Pool Wing in a one-bedroom suite. It was spectacular – bigger than by one-bedroom apartment in Dubai! If James had been with me I would have had to nod nonchalantly as he pointed out the features. Alone, I ran around squealing, I was so excited. There was a four-poster bed, a giant window with an ocean view, and designer, modern prints –uber stylish.
I loved the separate living and dining area plus the big outside deck with a shared wrap-around swimming pool. I wanted to jump straight in, but I had a facial booked at the One&Only Spa. Well a girl’s got to look her best, even as a castaway on a (five-star) island.
I could feel the stresses of my busy job and city life melt away as my therapist gave me the 60-minute purifying facial, finished off with a head and shoulder massage. Afterwards I was more than ready for lunch at On the Rocks – the resort’s poolside bar and restaurant. “What a view,” I thought, taking in the wonderful backdrop of the Whitsunday Islands.
The restaurant is known for its mouth-watering giant prawns, caught fresh each morning. “Would you like to try our catch of the day?” the waiter asked, as he brought over a platter of lobster and ceviche. “Get some burgers brought over for us too,” James requested, eager for me to try some real Aussie ‘tucker.’
Stuffed, the rest of the afternoon floated away in a blur of sunbathing by the saltwater pool. To cool off, I floated in the pool, looking towards the blue sea, and watching cockatoos fly overhead. This was the life.
Too soon, it was time to get ready for dinner at Bamboo, which serves Asian food from many different quarters including Thailand, Korea and China. I watched the chefs cooking live at the two teppanyaki tables, seating 12 each, and tasted a variety of delicious dishes, my favourite being the wok-seared Wagyu beef – we were in Australia after all, and this was from Queensland and incredibly tender.
After seven courses of a taster menu, I was ready to flop on to my four-poster bed. “We have a big day tomorrow, snorkelling in the Blue Pearl Bay,” James mentioned, as we finished up. I grimaced. I love snorkelling but had forgotten to pack a waterproof mascara. “Why didn’t I dye my eyelashes before I came?” I chastised myself.
Up early, I wolfed down breakfast, and headed to the dock. We had a 20-minute speedboat ride to Blue Pearl Bay, which is located on the north-western side of the Hayman Island in the Whitsundays.
This is the heart of the Great Barrier Reef and the group includes 74 tropical islands, only eight of which are inhabited, including Hayman Island. The Bay is very popular for snorkelling and scuba-diving because it’s the best coral cover to be seen in the shallow waters. I’ve been snorkelling before and – except for getting my hair wet – love it, but this was going to be extra special as it’s one of the most wonderful places to snorkel in the world.
We met a coral inspector who told us that it’s important not to step on the coral as we might damage it. The coral reefs have been around for 20,000 years and are known as ‘living museums’, plus sea creatures rely on them for survival as fish live in them. Putting on my goggles, I checked my snorkel was in place and began to wade out into the sea.
It was hard work – walking in flippers is virtually impossible and it took all my effort not to fall over. “Watch out for the coral,” the inspector yelled as I stumbled. “I’m trying to!” I yelled back. It was all I could do to stand upright on the uneven sea floor. “Not much further,” I told myself, trying to ignore the scrapes and scratches on my legs from brushing past clusters of the precious coral. I could see clear water ahead and just needed to take a few more steps to reach the right spot.
My legs were already scraped and bristling with small cuts from passing growths of the precious coral. Just a few more wobbly steps…
As soon as I put my face in the water, I forgot all about the struggle and scrapes – it was all worth it for the amazing marine life I saw, including a flurry of tropical fish of all different sizes and even a giant sea clam right in front of me.
A boat full of people nearby were feeding the fishes and I was close enough to peer underwater and see about 100 fish fighting for the bait in the shallow waters.
A couple of hours rushed by and then it was time to head back to the resort. James had a surprise for us as we stepped off the boat. “Who wants to feed Jacko?” he asked. We all nodded, unaware of who or what Jacko was, as it sounded like fun.
That’s when James explained Jacko is a 250kg giant grouper fish. “He is quite famous around here,” James said, telling us the grouper has a stout body and big mouth. For six months of the year Jacko disappears into a nearby blue lagoon to breed then returns. “He has done this for 25 years,” James continued. “He always sticks to this area.” Because they’re so big, grouper fish can’t swim far or very fast, which was a relief in case I fell in the sea!
“Why don’t you feed him?” James asked, holding out a big piece of frozen fish and looking straight at me. I looked down at Jacko. He looked harmless. “Why not?” I thought, taking the bait (literally). “Lean over into the water and wave the fish at him,” James instructed.
Trying desperately to keep my balance, I leant forward. I could see Jacko clearly now as he came to the surface, his giant eyes focused on the fish in my hand. “Come on Jacko,” I said, wiggling it nearer. Suddenly he leapt out of the sea, his mouth gaping wide – I could see tiny blades for teeth in his giant mouth. He looked big enough to bite off my hand as well as the bait. “Oh no,” I squealed.
Next thing there was a huge splash. I jumped, but too late – I was drenched. I could hear screaming, and it was only seconds later that I realised it was coming from me. The bait had vanished, along with Jacko. I was shaking as everyone around me laughed. “I knew you would be a good sport,” James chuckled. I guess the joke was on me!
After that I was ready for a late lunch – which I was hoping was not going to be seafood – I’d seen enough of giant fish for one day. We went to Amici, the resort’s Italian restaurant.
The chef encourages everyone to share dishes so everybody gets a taste of everything. “My kind of dining,” I thought as I tucked into a selection of antipasti, mozzarella and tomato salad and a simple but delicious margarita pizza. My encounter with Jacko must have made me hungry as I also tried the Spaghetti Al Granchio served with crab chilli and green peas, before tucking into tiramisu. “Must be the sea air,” I laughed, licking my spoon clean. I’d had enough excitement for one day, so relaxed and went to bed early.
I didn’t want to be tired as the next day we were going on a helicopter trip over the Great Barrier Reef to explore the famous Whitehaven Beach. Peering down during the flight, I spotted a humpback whale and its calf jumping out of the water. They were soon joined by more of the giant mammals – 16 in total – all jumping and twirling and slapping the water.
“I’ve never seen that many at once,” the pilot said. “You’re very lucky.” And just as I thought it couldn’t get any better we swooped lower and spotted a group of loggerhead sea turtles.
There was blue all around me – the sky and the sea blurred into one. The reefs were overwhelmingly beautiful – and vast. There are 2,900 reefs that make up the Great Barrier Reef and we saw four from the helicopter. “Is that its natural shape?” I asked as we flew over the Heart Reef, so perfectly formed it didn’t look real. The pilot nodded and went on to explain that it was discovered in 1975 by a Whitsunday pilot and is now internationally recognised, featuring on many postcards and brochures promoting the region.
Dipping down another 500 feet we flew past Hook Reef, Hardy Reef and Bait Reef on the way to Whitehaven beach – all truly breathtaking .
The beach itself is a 7km stretch of pure white sand. “It’s made of 98 per cent silica, which gives it a bright white colour,” James explained as we landed. Local rocks don’t contain silica so it’s believed that the sands were brought to the beach via prevailing sea currents over millions of years to build up a brilliant, iridescent beach.
My toes squished into the sand, it was so soft, and then I realised it would be great for making sandcastles. So, like a big kid, I sat down and made a huge castle.
James had brought a gourmet picnic from the One&Only, and we tucked into our sandwiches sitting on a blanket overlooking the beautiful ocean. It was so magical and picturesque I didn’t want to leave, but before we knew it we were getting whisked off in the helicopter as we had to get back before sunset.
That evening – my last night at the resort – we were going to dine at Fire, the One & Only’s chic signature restaurant. It meant I had an excuse at last to dress up. We’d been so busy snorkelling, flying around in helicopters and playing on the beach that I hadn’t been able to put on more than my maxi, sunnies and flip flops. Now I could get back to being me – with blow-dried hair, heels and my favourite lipstick. “Welcome back,” I said to my reflection, heading out to the restaurant, which was perched next to a river.
We sat watching the swans, dining on tender Wagyu beef and chatting. It was the perfect way to finish off my stay at one of the most beautiful places on the planet. It had been my first visit to Australia, and I vowed that it wouldn’t be my last. But I don’t know how anything could match the beauty and luxury of the Hayman Islands and the Great Barrier Reef.
It wasn’t quite back to earth with a bump quite yet, though, as I was flying home on Qantas in business class with only one stop in Sydney – pure luxury! As I boarded the flight I was handed a glass of fresh juice. “Welcome on board,” one of the cabin crew said. “Would you like some pyjamas for the flight?” I nodded and accepted a menu with gourmet choices. I finished my delicious lamb casserole and one of the cabin crew members turned down my bed for the evening.
The last thing I remember as I drifted off to sleep were the beautiful reefs and the heart island. I’d seen one of the Natural Wonders in total style. Only six more to go!