On the northeastern coast of Australia, there are several islands that lie closest to the Great Barrier Reef. These islands, known as the Whitsunday Islands, consist of around 74 islands with subtropical weather. The largest inhabited Whitsunday Island is Hamilton Island. This island acts as the hub of all the Whitsundays Islands due to its location, amenities, and population of 1200 full-time residents.
Hamilton Island has always been a privately owned island, but it’s now currently owned by the family of late Australian winemaker, Bob Oatley. The Oatley family leased the land from the Australian government, developed it, and created an island retreat. The family’s company also runs almost all of the hotels, restaurants, and tourism businesses on the island. Lucky for us, it’s their investment in the island that has made it into the ultimate beach and resort destination that it is today.
Visitors to Hamilton Island can either fly in, sail their own boat, or take a passenger ferry from Airlie Beach, although most choose to fly. Upon arriving, depending on your choice of accommodation, you’ll likely be shuttled by bus or golf cart to your destination. What’s so unique about Hamilton Island is that cars are not permitted on the island. Of course, there are some service vehicles and the island shuttle bus, but no other cars are allowed. Instead, golf carts (Aussies call them “buggies”) are the preferred choice of vehicle. Because we had booked a condo rental for our stay, a porter met us at the airport and assisted us with our luggage before escorting us to our condo. (Included in our condo rental was the porter assistance/escort and one buggy rental for our stay.)
It was actually quite charming to see all of the golf carts buzzing around the island. Why mess with cars, gas, and emissions on such a beautiful, tropical island? The quiet golf carts got a big thumbs up from me!
While driving around town (on the LEFT side of the road), we got acquainted with the location of the shops, restaurants, hotels, and activities the island offers. In addition to the marina and airport, there is a grocery store, a bakery, casual and fine dining restaurants, the resort center (see below), a few shops, a dive and snorkel shop, a wildlife center, a sports center, tennis courts, mini-golf, an 18 hole golf course (on neighboring Dent Island), a go-cart track, and more.
To meet any family’s needs or budget, Hamilton Island offers a few different types of lodging on the island. Accommodations include: qualia; Beach Club Resort; Reef View Hotel; Palm Bungalows; Yacht Club Villas; and Holiday Homes to rent. Click here to learn more about the various types of lodging available.
During our stay, my family and I chose to rent a Holiday Home. We stayed in a three bedroom apartment on the west side of the island. Our rental included one buggy/golf cart, valet service from the airport to our rental, wifi, and everything we needed in the home to have an enjoyable stay. When you book a Holiday Home, you also receive free access to all non-motorized water sports (stand up paddle boards, kayaks, snorkeling gear, and more) on Catseye Beach. However, note that Holiday Homes do not get daily maid service. Kids up to age 12 also eat and stay free when selecting a Holiday Home for your vacation lodging. (Kids eat free from a children’s menu with an accompanying adult when dining in at participating restaurants)
Since all lodging is controlled by Hamilton Island, their prices are tend to be a bit higher, but the level of quality in their accommodations is much higher as well. Overall, we were extremely pleased by our apartment rental, what was included, and the level of service from some employees we encountered.
Something to note: You can buy food and drinks at the island’s grocery store and liquor store (bring your own bags!), or you can have food shipped in from the mainland. Whitsunday Provisioning offers meal plan packages (to take the hassle out of meal planning), packaged holiday meals, individual foods, as well as all beverages (including alcohol). Click here for more info on food delivery to Hamilton Island.
The Hamilton Island Resort Center is the hub for all activities on the island. It’s here that you can get information on anything, akin to a hotel lobby desk and concierge. This spacious resort center has ping-pong tables in the lobby, contains a few shops, a bowling alley, bars/restaurants, and the island’s pools for all visitors to use. The resort center also provides access to Catseye Beach, in addition to various water activities and rentals like SUP, kayaking, and more.
At the front of the resort center, you can rent additional buggies/golf carts. They range around $100 AUD a day. (Remember you can also walk or use the island’s shuttle service for transport.) The island’s childcare center (Clownfish Club), a movie rental store, and spa are also near the resort center.
There are two pools at the Hamilton Island Resort Center. One of them is called the Dolphin Pool and actually used to be a pool that housed dolphins in the late 80’s, early 90’s. (I was very happy to know that they got rid of housing dolphins here many years ago. The area was much too small for them!) However, now it’s just another pool on the resort, albeit a deep one. It’s not the pool most people take a dip in, since it’s not quite constructed like a regular swimming pool. With its depth, limited number of ladders, and only one small shelf area to sit on, it’s not the pool most people use.
The main pool at the resort center is a large, shallow pool, with a swim-up bar in the middle of it. There are plenty of lounge chairs that surround the pool and there is even a playground nearby. When I visited in June, it was winter in Australia, but it was still in the 80’s on Hamilton Island. However, the pool water was quite cold and seemed colder than the ocean water. You can see in my photos that there weren’t many people getting into the cold pool water. I presume there is no heater to warm the pool, which was kind of a letdown since we weren’t able to thoroughly enjoy our experience at the pool.
Overall, despite the chilly water, the pools were clean and tidy. Be sure to bring your own towels as the resort center does not provide any (although our Holiday Home did).
The Hamilton Island Resort Center is the gateway to Catseye Beach, the only accessible beach for visitors. Nearly a half mile long, this beach is the site for many water activities, as well as leisure. The northerly end of the beach has kayaks, stand up paddle boards, snorkel gear and had more activity while the other end is much more quiet and calm.
A few umbrellas and lounge chairs were placed on the beach for visitors to use (first come, first served). There is no bar or restaurant on the beach, but there are a few in the resort center, only steps away. (Restrooms are also inside the resort center.) There are quite a few rocks and dried coral on the beach, but only near the water line; so watch your step when getting in. Just off the beach, there is a water wash off station for rinsing off sand and salt water.
Interestingly enough, there is a very strong tide in this part of the Coral Sea. During my visit, when low tide occurred, the water pulled back so far that we could walk about 700 feet into the bay before needing to swim! It completely transformed the beach by mid-afternoon. Many visitors were seen walking out into the dry bay to explore the new landscape. See the photos above to compare.
During this low tide, it’s a good idea to head out and snorkel Hamilton Island Reef. I only had to swim a bit before reaching the deeper waters where the reef is. Despite not seeing as many fish as I would have liked, there were three large sea turtles on top of the reef, basking in the sun. It was incredibly surreal!
I think what surprised me the most about Hamilton Island was the amount of wildlife that live there. Little did I know that wild wallabies hop around the island! Initially we thought they were kangaroos, but they were agile wallabies. Keep an eye out while driving in your buggy. You might spot one in the bushes!
Hamilton Island also has an established wildlife center called WILD LIFE Hamilton Island. Located further inland and right next to the resort center, WILD LIFE offers visitors the chance to closely observe many Australian animals, including marsupials, koalas, kangaroos, snakes and a crocodile. You can take a guided tour to see the animals or WILD LIFE also offers animal encounters. For a fee, you can get a photo with a koala, kangaroo, dingo, or reptile. My daughters and I opted for their koala encounter AND cuddle which gives visitors a chance to hold a koala and a have a free photo taken. Unfortunately, the cuddle (for most people) only lasted 30 seconds; you can only hope for extra time if the photographer has an issue with her camera (which happened to my daughter)! It was a bit pricey for the koala cuddle (around $40 AUD per person), but as it is definitely a unique experience, for us it was worth the cost.
You can also enjoy breakfast at WILD LIFE while the koalas lounge in the trees around you. For more information on WILD LIFE Hamilton Island, click here.
If you spend any time outdoors on a patio or balcony at your accommodations, it’s likely you’ll encounter a sulphur crested cockatoo. Known to be a bit of a pest, these birds are not afraid of anyone. In fact, they’ll likely take any and all food left outside or even fly in through a window if they spot a meal. Owners of apartment rentals warn guests to keep all windows closed and not to leave food outside on balconies. We had one cockatoo knock a bowl full of rocks off a ledge on our balcony, while it was looking for food. If you’re lucky, you’ll see many at once, as we had four cockatoos perched on our balcony long enough to snap a photo.
In addition to the sulphur crested cockatoo, you’re likely to hear the songs of the Pied Currawong, a black bird that sings pretty songs on Hamilton Island. The amazingly colorful Rainbow Lorikeet is also found on the island, but I only saw them high up in the tree tops. When they open their wings, they offer a spectacular array of colors and it’s quite amazing to see. Keep an eye and ear out for these chattery, unique birds!
I cannot say enough amazing things about the beauty of Hamilton Island. It’s enjoyable to see so many areas here that have not been altered by man and have been left in its natural state.
Part of the thrill of coming to place like Hamilton Island is the beauty, the isolation, and the escape from reality that it can provide. Vacationing on an island that is so remote and for me, so far from home, really allows a person to forget about the chores and struggles of daily life and to focus on what’s really important in life: family, adventures, and making memories. It forces us to slow down and enjoy each day to its fullest.
Every view from the island was an amazing one. Sunsets were so stunning that we planned meal times, ensuring we would not miss the sunset during cooking or cleanup. While facing west, we could sit on our balcony and watch the boats go by, view the adventurous few in kayaks, or gaze upon Dent Island. Usually only one plane landed here a day so the skies were clear and quiet.
All in all, I can’t recommend Hamilton Island enough. Yes, it is half a world away for those of us in the states, but tack a few extra days here during a trip to Australia, and it’ll be the highlight of your trip. When will you ever get the chance to be so close to the Great Barrier Reef and live on an idyllic tropical island? Hamilton Island has the characteristics of a slower paced Hawaii (think Kauai) but on a much smaller island and with much fewer people. For those looking for a unique and spectacular vacation destination, be sure to check out Hamilton Island!