Whitsundays rediscover their old energy - Wellness Haven

Call it the mother of all storms. When Cyclone Debbie hit Queensland in March 2017, the devastation stretched from Townsville all the way to Lismore in northern NSW. The Whitsunday coast, where the category four cyclone first struck, was left reeling, with 2300 homes damaged and losses to the tourism industry estimated at $150 million.

It was the sort of blow that can wipe out a destination for good. Up in the Whitsundays, however, they are made of sterner stuff. Within days, the repair effort was under way; some resorts were operating again within weeks.

Not everyone was willing or able to rebuild. A number of properties were put on the market by shell-shocked owners; some of them have now been reborn as all-new resorts. In other cases, owners decided to take the opportunity to do a total refurbishment. Daydream Island has just reopened after a $100 million redevelopment, while Hayman Island, which has also had a major makeover, will open on July 1 – and the entire community is celebrating,

"The one good thing about the cyclone was the way that the community all pulled together," says Sue Watson, the manager of Pinnacles Resort and Spa in Airlie Beach. "We all had to work together to get through it."

With so many properties (re)opening – not to mention an upgrade of one of the area's two airports, the Whitsunday Coast airport – the Whitsundays are regaining the energy they once had.

"The area has changed so much in the 15 years I've been here," says Joscelyn O'Keefe, marketing and business development manager for the Abell Point Marina at Airlie Beach. "When I arrived it felt like a sleepy seaside town, but now there is so much more going on. It still draws the backpackers and families, but we are making inroads with other markets, including as a port of call for superyachts."

O'Keefe points out that the islands are not the only destinations benefiting from reinvestment. "Here in Airlie Beach there is a new foreshore redevelopment happening, and at the marina we are planning a 2.5-hectare garden precinct, as well as an upgrade of the Coral Sea Resort," she says. "The future is looking bright."

THE FAMILY FAVOURITE

WHERE Daydream Island

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BEST FOR Underwater lovers

THE BACKSTORY

Daydream Island escaped the cyclone with little structural damage, but that doesn't mean the repair job was easy. "We got hit by 260-kilometres-a-hour winds and a huge tidal surge, so the water damage was immense," says Jayson Heron, the resort's director of sales and marketing. The owners decided to fast-track a planned refurbishment of the resort. Stage one of the newly-reborn Daydream Island opened in April after two years' work.

WHAT WE LOVE

The rooms and restaurants have all been upgraded, and the new lobby is a soaring space with an impressive screen of hanging greenery. The most exciting news, however, is that Daydream's Living Reef lagoon is bigger and better. The lagoon now stretches for 200 metres and contains more than 1000 fish and marine creatures in water that is pumped directly from the sea, allowing guests to explore the various ecosystems of the Whitsundays without leaving the resort. Lagoon-based activities include fish feeding and a guided snorkel that gets you up close to giant groupers and shovel-nosed rays. More amenities will be unveiled in the next few months, including the outdoor cinema and the tennis court.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

From $396 for a standard room including breakfast. Children under 12 eat free. Daydream can be reached by ferry transfer from Hamilton Island or Airlie Beach, from $37 for adults, $27 for children. See daydreamisland.com

THE WELLNESS HAVEN

WHERE Elysian Retreat, Long Island

BEST FOR Relaxing and recovering

THE BACKSTORY

Laureth and Wayne Rumble already had one Queensland island under their belt – they own Pumpkin Island, one of the Keppel Islands off Rockhampton – when they heard that the leasehold of the former Paradise Bay Eco Resort on Long Island was available. "The place had been totally smashed by the cyclone; when we went to have a look, we were shocked," says Wayne Rumble. Despite their initial misgivings, the pair decided to take the plunge and their solar-powered retreat opened last month.

WHAT WE LOVE

Elysian is all about intimacy, with a maximum of 20 guests at any one time. Yoga instructor Petri offers twice-daily alfresco yoga sessions (included in your room rate), while chef Josh delivers your meals when you want them and will even dish up a cooking class if asked. The organic spa has an impressive menu of Ayurveda-based treatments; sign up for one of the five-hour spa journeys for some serious spoiling. The team can also organise a range of water-based activities, including excursions to Whitehaven Beach, but staying put may be the most relaxing thing you can do.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

From $700 a person twin share including meals. Helicopter transfers from $330 a person one way. See elysianretreat.com.au

THE PRIVATE ISLAND

Aquazure Pool, Hayman Island by InterContinental. Photo: Supplied

WHERE Hayman Island by Intercontinental

BEST FOR Catering to families and couples, this resort offers one of the Whitsundays' most exclusive experiences

THE BACKSTORY

When Hayman Island reopens on July 1, it won't be back to its old self; it will be much better. So says general manager Mark Eletr. "There was a high level of damage, particularly the landscaping and vegetation, but the owners took the opportunity to do more than just repairs," he says. "This renovation has gone deeper than any other renovation that the hotel has seen, right down to the level of the copper pipes that carry the hot water."

WHAT WE LOVE

Hayman is designed to appeal to just about everyone. "We have an adult-focused zone and a zone focused on families with children, so you can enjoy very different experiences," Eletr says. The resort's newest offerings include the indulgent Beach House, which features three bedrooms and three pools, and family-friendly hilltop residences designed by Aman's favourite architect, Kerry Hill. Dining destinations include Aqua, a Southern California-style beach bar, and the pan-Asian Bam Bam. There will be guided kayak tours as well as a fleet of new boats available for fishing charters, reef excursions or simply to drop you off on a deserted beach with a picnic.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

Opening rates from $564 a room including daily buffet breakfast. Luxury boat transfers from Hamilton Island from $210 one way. See hayman.com.au

THE SHIPSHAPE RETREAT

Freedom Shores: The accommodation is shaped like boats. Photo: Justin Heitman

WHERE Freedom Shores, Pringle Road, Woodwark

BEST FOR Ocean lovers who sleep better on dry land

THE BACKSTORY

It's a quirky idea for a resort – a row of cabins shaped to look like boats, overlooking the ocean – but Freedom Shores works surprisingly well. Construction was well under way on the resort and the adjacent restaurant when the cyclone ripped through, but structural damage was minimal. "It did slow us down, however, because all the local tradesmen were so busy," says marketing manager Penny Smith. The resort opened late last year.

WHAT WE LOVE

Freedom Shores pitches itself as an island resort on the mainland, and its location, 10 minutes out of Airlie Beach, will suit travellers who want a bit of distance from the bustle of town. The friendly staff will deliver breakfast to your cabin, or you can enjoy it in the main lounge by the pool. For those who want a bit more space, the resort also has three more conventional suites in its main building. A shuttle bus service makes it easy to get into town, and one of the area's best restaurants, Northerlies, is a short walk away.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

From $249 a room per night including continental breakfast. See freedomshores.com.au

THE LUXURY RESORT

Qualia, SPA - Hamilton Island. Photo: Andrea Francolini

WHERE Qualia, Hamilton Island

BEST FOR Five-star pampering

THE BACKSTORY

It could have been worse. That's the verdict on Cyclone Debbie from Glenn Bourke, CEO of Hamilton Island. "We had to undertake extensive remediation works right across the island after the cyclone. At Qualia, the damage was largely confined to landscaping and vegetation. As the pavilions were almost unscathed, we were able to re-open the property within three months."

WHAT WE LOVE

Qualia is one of Australia's most glamorous resorts. Many of the private pavilions, nestled into the landscape, feature private pools and a bathtub with a view. It gets top marks not just for its design but also the food and the service (you don't even have to wait for your luggage at the airport; staff will do that for you). The resort's latest attraction is a James Bond-style private pontoon at Heart Island, a 30-minute helicopter flight away. Open to just six guests at a time, the pontoon has its own glass-bottom boat for snorkelling trips.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

From $1400 a night for a leeward pavilion, including transfers and breakfast. See qualia.com.au

THE ECO CABINS

WHERE Whitsundays Tropical Eco Resort

BEST FOR Families on a budget

THE BACKSTORY

Angie and Aaron Barton took over Flametree Tourist Village – now the Whitsundays Tropical Eco Resort – just months before Cyclone Debbie swept through. "We had to evacuate," Angie Barton recalls. "When we came driving back up the hill and saw that so many trees had come down, and that there was not a leaf left on any of the trees, I was in tears." The Bartons have soldiered on, however, and have unveiled the first stage of their upgrade, which sees 10 new eco lodges on site. "Even the trees have recovered; they are looking as good as they ever did," Barton says proudly.

WHAT WE LOVE

The resort lies just five minutes out of town, surrounded by the greenery of the Conway National Park. The Bartons have introduced two-bedroom, self-catering eco lodges, with sustainable features including effective insulation and energy-efficient appliances. Next up are new treehouse-style lodgings. The resort also offers other accommodations including powered sites, and guests can enjoy movie nights, sausage sizzles and live music as well as a kids' club.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

From $190 a night for an eco-lodge. See wter.com.au

THE ISLAND APARTMENTS

Whitsunday Apartments Hamilton Island. Photo: Ross Eason

WHERE Whitsunday Apartments Hamilton Island

BEST FOR Living the high life on Hamilton Island

THE BACKSTORY

There is no such thing as a good time to be hit by a cyclone, but we suspect it hurts a little more when you are in the middle of refurbishing your property. However, the resort manager at Whitsunday Towers Hamilton Island, John McFadden, is admirably restrained when he talks about the after-effects of Cyclone Debbie. "We had to redo the pool area entirely, and we had redo some of the rooms we had already refurbished, but the rooms are now 100 per cent done," he says.

WHAT WE LOVE

No doubt about it; staying in an apartment rather than a hotel room gives you more space to stretch out. Other big pluses of this property include its strategic location directly opposite Cats Eye Beach, and that every apartment from level four up has an ocean view. Apart from the downstairs coffee cart, there are no on-site eateries, but with a fully-equipped kitchen available and the island's many dining restaurants close at hand, guests still have plenty of options.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

From $350 a night for a garden view or $380 for an ocean view. See wahi.com.au

THE HEART OF THE ACTION

WHERE Airlie Beach Hotel, The Esplanade, Airlie Beach

BEST FOR Sufferers of FOMO (fear of missing out)

THE BACKSTORY

"It's always been there" is what the locals say about the Airlie Beach Hotel, which many consider to be the best-located hotel in town. For 14 months after the cyclone, however, the venerable hotel shut its doors while extensive repairs were undertaken. The rooms have all been refurbished, and the result is a hotel that has never looked better.

WHAT WE LOVE

This property is all about location, location, location. Sitting directly on the Esplanade, the Airlie Beach Hotel's prime perch can't be beaten. The refurbished rooms have a sleek, contemporary look; depending on the room type you choose, you may also enjoy some front-and-centre ocean views. As part of the refurbishment, an expansive new bar and dining area have been added, replacing the old Mangroves and Capers eateries. That is not your only dining option, of course; Airlie's many bars and eateries are all a quick stroll away. And if you are planning to head out to the reef on a day trip, the marina is also nearby.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

From $255 for an ocean view double. See airliebeachhotel.com.au

THE ROOMS WITH A VIEW

WHERE Pinnacles Resort & Spa, Airlie Beach

BEST FOR Getting the gang together

THE BACKSTORY

Manager Sue Watson had a full house when the cyclone struck. "Those guests were with us for almost two weeks; no one could get out of Airlie Beach," she says. Despite the lack of power and running water, Watson says, "We would get together around the barbecue every evening and actually have a great time." The repair bill was well into the millions, but the resort is now back to its best.

WHAT WE LOVE

With a convenient location on the hill overlooking town, and views that stretch forever, Pinnacles makes a great romantic getaway. However, its two and three-bedroom apartments – essentially, they are full-sized houses – are a great option if you want to grab a couple of friends for a seaside break. If you don't want to stroll into town for dinner, you can order up a range of platters. Schedule some time to lie by the resort's eye-catching infinity pool, cantilevered into the hillside.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

From $260 a night for a one-bedroom sea view apartment. See pinnaclesresort.com.au

THE BUSH SANCTUARY

WHERE The Feathered Nest Luxury Wildlife Retreat, Kuttabul

BEST FOR Wildlife lovers

THE BACKSTORY

It is a dilemma facing many parents: what to do once your children leave home? Carol Forbes and Gordon Lockie chose an unusual path: they decided to open a five-star wilderness retreat. They opened a luxury villa on their bush-fringed property outside Mackay four years ago, and were lucky that the cyclone barely impacted them. "We copped a bit of wind," Lockie says, but there was no lasting damage.

WHAT WE LOVE

As the name suggests, The Feathered Nest is heaven for bird lovers. The sleek villa, which has marble bathrooms and a cantilevered granite-clad fireplace, opens onto an aviary filled with colourful native parrots. Lockie's real passion, however, is the endangered black cockatoos that also live on the property; guests are invited to come and meet these cheeky birds. The Feathered Nest makes a great base from which to discover the area's other wilderness experiences, from the wallabies that graze on the beach at Cape Hillsborough at sunrise to stellar platypus sightings in Eungella National Park.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

From $430 a night for two including breakfast hamper. See thefeatherednest.com.au

Ute Junker was a guest of Tourism Whitsundays, Mackay Tourism, Qualia, Daydream Island, Freedom Shores, Elysian Retreat and The Feathered Nest.

ESSENTIAL WHITSUNDAYS EXPERIENCES

PLUNGE INTO THE REEF

Head out to Hardy Reef, where hundreds of fish species can be found flitting through the magnificent corals. You can even overnight on a pontoon as part of the Reefsleep experience. Not a fan of open water? At Bowen, coral gardens can be found right off the beach. See cruisewhitsundays.com

RISE ABOVE IT

The best views of the Whitsundays are those from above. Take a scenic flight to admire the gorgeous patterns made by the reefs and the 74 islands, surrounded by waters that shimmer in a dozen different shades of blue. See airwhitsunday.com.au

TAKE A BEACH BREAK

Yes, Whitehaven Beach, with its seven kilometres of pure white sand washed by crystal-clear waters, is a stunner. However, there are plenty of other inviting beaches to choose from, including Horseshoe Bay on the mainland, Butterfly Bay on Hook Island and Hayman Island's Blue Pearl Bay, where you can swim with giant Maori wrasse.

CHART YOUR OWN COURSE

Why make do with a day trip when you can skipper your own charter boat and explore the reef at your leisure? Choose your own adventure every day, cruising among the islands and exploring different snorkel spots. See gobareboating.com

GO BUSH

There is more to the Whitsundays than water; it is also home to some gorgeous bushwalks. Explore the tropical rainforest of the Conway National Park near Airlie Beach, hiking the Mount Rooper track or even joining a Segway tour through the park. See whitsundaysegwaytours.com.au

DON'T BE AT WHIT'S END

WHEN TO GO

The dry season, between April and October, sees the Whitsundays at its loveliest, with balmy days and water temperatures hovering about the same mark. There is also less chance of encountering stingers in the water at this time.

HOW TO GET THERE

Hamilton Island has its own airport, which is serviced by Virgin Australia, Qantas and Jetstar. Transfers to Hayman Island and Daydream Island are available from here. The Whitsunday Coast Airport at Proserpine is the closest airport to Airlie Beach, and is serviced by Tigerair, Jetstar and Virgin Australia, with shuttle buses transferring passengers to Airlie Beach. Flying time is about 2.5 hours from Sydney and three hours from Melbourne.

WHERE TO EAT

ON THE MAINLAND

FAT FROG BEACH CAFE

We love this hip cafe overlooking the Cannonvale beachfront for its excellent coffee, its laid-back vibe and for moreish meals. The steak sandwich is a winner.

44 Coral Esplanade, Cannonvale, phone 0417 979 960 or see facebook.com/fatfrogbeachcafe

NORTHERLIES BEACH BAR AND GRILL

Locals will tell you this is the best food in town, and we're not going to disagree. Northerlies is a 10-minute drive from Airlie Beach; hop on its shuttle bus and enjoy the sophisticated cuisine.

Lot 116 Pringle Road, Woodwark, phone 1800 682 277 or see northerlies.com.au

LA MARINA

This family-friendly favourite is the place to enjoy Italian-inspired classics, from gourmet pizzas to a pot of mussels.

1/33 Port Drive, Airlie Beach, phone (07) 4948 0052 or see lamarina.com.au

ON THE ISLANDS

INFINITY

Daydream Island's flagship restaurant offers an Asian fusion menu that features everything from wontons to okomiyaki and massaman lamb rump, as well as a dedicated teppanyaki table. See daydreamisland.com

BOMMIE

Tucked into the Hamilton Island Yacht Club, the stylish Bommie features floor-to-ceiling sculptures as well as sophisticated dishes such as partridge stuffed with quandong, macadamia, burnt onion and long pepper. See hamiltonisland.com.au

PIZZERIA AND GELATO BAR

Hamilton Island's newest eatery serves up 12 different gelato flavours and 20 different pizzas, which can even be delivered to your accommodation. See hamiltonisland.com.au



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