How one family wrested a Whitsundays haven from havoc

The answer was no. Definitely, positively no. When Laureth and Wayne Rumble first heard that the leasehold for Paradise Bay Eco Resort in the Whitsundays was up for grabs after the devastating passage of 2017’s Cyclone Debbie, they were intrigued enough to travel to Long Island for a site inspection. Even before they set foot on the island, however, they realised that this was not a task they wanted to tackle.

“We could not believe how bad the damage was. It was heartbreaking,” Laureth remembers. “We had driven for seven hours with the kids in the car, then our boat was so slow that it took us two hours to get there. When we got to the island, we spent barely any time ashore before heading back in the boat. We all realised this was not something that we wanted to do.”

Wayne and Laureth Rumble opened the Elysian Retreat within two years of first seeing the site. Supplied

By the next morning, however, Laureth had changed her mind. This storm-wrecked island, she decided, was a place where she could launch her dream project. “I have long wanted to create a place where people come and rejuvenate, a place of healing where you can connect to nature and restore your equilibrium,” she says.

Rumble persuaded her fellow investors – her husband and her brother – that this would work. Less than two years after that first inspection, Elysian Retreat opened its doors this April, part of a string of Whitsundays openings that also includes the relaunch of Daydream and Hayman Islands (see box).

The adults-only Elysian Retreat offers a more intimate alternative to those sprawling resorts. With accommodation limited to 10 simple but stylish villas, guests quickly find themselves on first-name terms with staff including Laureth’s softly-spoken brother, Charlie, who manages the resort and is clearly a man not easily fazed. “I love the raw outdoors,” he says. “I once spent 66 days with 19 guys in a truck travelling 19,000km across Africa; it was probably the best time in my life.”

The other staffers include Petri, who offers twice-daily al fresco yoga (covered under the all-inclusive rate); and Laura, who provides Ayurvedic spa treatments.

Then there is Josh, who serves up delicious meals three times a day. His elegantly presented dishes, such as kingfish tataki served with bush tomato seasoning, brittle purple yam and trout caviar, team Asian flavours with bush ingredients. However, he is happy to rustle up a grilled cheese sandwich if that’s what a guest really wants. “I love having the interaction with guests, being able to personalise things,” he says.

Fresh and healthy food is a key element of the resort.  Supplied

Getting the food right is essential on an island that is all about slowing down. While the Elysian team will organise snorkelling excursions or trips to Whitehaven Beach, and a roll-out of additional amenities such as a Zen garden and an infra-red sauna is planned, the Rumbles see Elysian as a place where guests will come to stop and breathe deep.

“If you want to do loads of activities, you can stay in Airlie [Beach] or Hamilton Island,” Laureth says. “There are not many places that you can go to really get away.”

Elysian Retreat is the second island property in the Rumbles’ Sojourn Retreats collection, which also includes two luxury houses on the Queensland coast. The couple, still in their 30s and juggling three children under four, were not planning to launch themselves into the world of tropical islands. Neither partner has a conventional hospitality background; Wayne has worked in property development while Laureth did stints working on superyachts and as a nanny.

The Rumbles took over Pumpkin Island in 2008. Supplied

The Rumbles launched their first property – Pumpkin Island, part of the Keppel group of islands – in 2008, taking over from Wayne’s parents. The collection of seven self-catering cottages and bungalows was haemorrhaging money, so the couple undertook a major upgrade.

“We put in new kitchens, new hot-water systems, everything,” says Wayne. “Of course we had to put up the costs as well, and we fielded a lot of upset calls from old guests, but the occupancy rate went from 16 per cent to 84 per cent.” The island was later leased by Lion Nathan for three years, the centrepiece of their XXXX Island promotion.

Sustainability is at the core of Pumpkin Island – it was named most sustainable hotel in Australasia at the 2018 World Boutique Hotel Awards – and Elysian is equally eco-friendly, powered by its own solar farm. “We save thousands of litres of diesel a year – not just the diesel you would use to fuel the resort, but the diesel you need to transport it here,” Wayne says. “That’s good for the environment, and it’s good for our pockets."

The main thing we have learnt is that on an island, so many situations are out of our control.

— Laureth Rumble

While the wellness-focused Elysian is a big step up from the more low-key Pumpkin Island, the Rumbles are confident that some of their success strategies can be applied to the new property. That includes making the whole island available for group bookings.

“On Pumpkin, 50 per cent of our bookings are whole-island bookings,” Laureth explains. Having already fielded her first enquiry about a whole-island booking for Elysian, she suspects that the new retreat may prove equally popular for big celebrations or family get-togethers, and has established a three-year advance calendar for group bookings.

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“The main thing we have learnt, however, is that on an island, so many situations are out of our control,” she says. “You are reliant on the weather and the tides, and you also have to expect the unexpected from guests. You have to be flexible enough to adapt to anything that is thrown at you.”

Elysian is a place of healing, which is expected to evolve over the years. Supplied

Laureth says that Elysian will evolve over the years, and its guests will too. “I think the island will find its audience,” she says. “That is what happened with Pumpkin. For the first few years we had all sorts of people coming but after two or three years we found our rhythm. What happens is that the island becomes known for a certain experience, and the guests who come are the ones that will really enjoy it.”

The writer visited courtesy of Elysian Retreat and Tourism Whitsundays.

NEED TO KNOW
Rates at Elysian Retreat start from $700 a person a night twin share including meals. Helicopter transfers from $330 a person one way. See elysianretreat.com.au

Laureth Rumble