Brisbane and Hamilton Island, Australia

Last week I left off just after going through customs in Brisbane after a dreamy13 and a half hour flight from Los Angeles. Since I was connecting to Hamilton Island, I followed the signs for transiting passengers (not transmitting, like my sick seatmate). I went to the Virgin Blue recheck-in counter but unfortunately, since I hadn’t booked my tickets at the same time, I had to check-in at the domestic terminal with my luggage and didn’t qualify for the free transfer. TIP: Purchase your tickets together and on the same carrier.

CURRENCY
The first thing I did was hit the ATM. The current exchange rate is $1 AUD = 0.81 USD. So that means everything is 20% off for Americans. Gotta love that! Note: All prices below are listed in Australian dollars, unless noted otherwise.

FREE TRANSFER TIP

The distance between the international and domestic terminals at Brisbane Airport is about three kilometers. There are three ways to get between the two: a bus ($5), a taxi ($9) or on the train ($4). The latter is the most cost effective and requires little schlepping, no stairs and not a lot of walking. Just to be clear, to qualify for the free train transfer, be sure to book your international and domestic tickets at the same time on the same airline, either Virgin or Qantas. You will need to show your airline boarding pass or ticket when you arrive at the terminal.

DOMESTIC TERMINAL

Since the agent was nice and I was booked on V Australia’s mother airline, she gave me a complimentary ticket anyway. The ride takes four minutes and they depart often (every 20 minutes, I think). From the train, it was just a 100-yard walk to the check-in. There was no line. Maybe that’s because it was 7am. Like most Australians, the ticket agent was friendly and there was no getting around checking a bag. I prepaid the $10 fee when I purchased the ticket. The security check was a 20-yard walk and no line – probably because they are more efficient than the TSA. Just take laptops and metal out of pockets. Same liquid rules apply but you can keep your jacket and shoes on.

VIRGIN BLUE LOUNGE

If I hadn’t been to Brisbane or not traveling alone, I would have gone into the city to pass the time. But it was a cold, rainy (Brisbane weather forecast), winter Sunday morning and nothing really opens until10am and by that time, I would need to start heading back (via train) to the airport anyway. Instead, I went to the Virgin Blue lounge. It’s on the second floor and day passes are available for $30, which is a bargain for a six-hour layover. The gatekeeper was a beautiful and friendly Australian, who offered me a towel and a disposable shaving kit (I guess I was looking kind of ratty). They have one unimpressive shower, which they don’t clean after each use. That kind of grossed me out but I was so desperate for a shower, I waited 15 minutes while two other passengers washed up. Since I didn’t have flip-flops I put a couple of paper towels down on the shower floor, just to prevent athlete’s foot.

SNACK TIME

The lounge is a quiet haven from the busy gate area. It’s a good size, with plenty of semi-comfortable chairs, four or more TVs (including a big screen with Fox News Channel), full-service complimentary bar, food (for breakfast, they have toast, deli meats, cheese, cereal and juices, including apple blackcurrant). Besides the shower, the most appealing part was the free Wi-Fi and the fact that there were plenty of electrical outlets.

GOING TO CBD

By the way: If I were going Central Brisbane, I would have taken the Airtrain from the domestic airport to Central Station. The fare for adults is $14.50 (free for children). The ride takes 25 minutes and a great spot to go is the Riverside Markets, about a 10-minute walk from Central Station, walking down towards the Brisbane River. I heard breakfast at Boardwalk Bar & Bistro is excellent or take the train 10 minutes further to Southbank, which I spent time in last year.

BRISBANE TO HAMILTON ISLAND

I bought my ticket to Hamilton Island a week before my trip, using JohnnyJet.com’s search engines, of course! I found an incredible deal on Virgin Blue for just $70 one-way. When I re-checked in, I asked the agent if an exit row aisle seat was available and it was; they won’t let you book this in advance but they don’t charge extra for it … yet. They do charge for premium economy, which are the first few rows in the front of the plane. The seats are the same but they leave a seat open in between and I imagine give complimentary drinks. They boarded the 737-800 quickly from both doors and we pushed back five minutes before the 11:45am departure time. We were airborne at 11:50am and flight time for the 552 miles was one hour and 27 minutes.

IN-FLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT

I sat next to a cool couple from Sydney who were going on holiday. We chatted most of the way, which was a lot more interesting than watching any of the 28 channels of live TV. I think the system is the same as jetBlue, except they charge for it. They tease passengers with a free preview but right after takeoff, you need to slide your credit card to pay the $4.90 fee. They also have jetBlue’s not so eye-pleasing flight tracker, which is available throughout the flight. They charge for everything including bottled water ($2.50) but take cash or credit. I chatted with the friendly flight attendants and what struck me the most about how they differ from the competition is what one of the flight attendants said: “Virgin Blue (and V Australia) is all about the people.” And judging from my last two flights, she’s right. The crew is incredibly hard working and proud.

HAMILTON ISLAND
Hamilton Island is in the heart of the Whitsundays. There are 74 tropical Whitsunday islands that are situated in the Coral Sea between the Queensland Coast and The Great Barrier Reef. Hamilton Island stretches 3.1 miles from north to south and 2.1 miles from east to west. It’s a year-round tropical climate as it’s situated at the same latitude as Honolulu. The average temperature is 81°F or 27.4°C. The rainy season is from January through March and the best months to visit, in terms of weather, are September through December. Here’s the link for Hamilton Island weather forecast.

THE NAME
James Cook supposedly discovered this place while traveling through this area on his journey on June 4, 1770. That day just happened to fall on a Sunday, the seventh Sunday after Easter, which is known as White Sunday. Thus, the name Whitsundays. I have never heard of White Sunday either, but that’s what the history books say.

WHITSUNDAYS
Hamilton Island is the second largest inhabited island out of all the Whitsundays (after Whitsunday Island). It’s home to around 800 residents and also the only one with an airport. Getting here is easy because Virgin Blue and JetStar have direct flights from Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Cairns. Seven of the islands have resorts on them, another five are habited and the rest, including the Great Barrier Reef, are protected by the National Parks and Wildlife. What you will like about Hamilton is that over 70 percent of the island has been preserved in its natural state, so visitors can enjoy the beauty of the island including the beaches, nature trails and secluded hideaways.

DID YOU KNOW? Since 2004, Hamilton Island has been privately owned by the Oatley family.



LODGING
There are a wide variety of lodgings. There are five-star hotels (including Australia’s newest uber-resort, Qualia), the four-star Reef View, the three-and-half-star Whitsunday Apartments, the three-star Palm Bungalows and Palm Terrace, and the Island Apartments & Villas which have one-, two-, three-, and four-bedroom apartments and range from three to five-stars. There are also plenty of houses for rent.

TOUCHDOWN
The views of the Whitsunday Islands were amazing on descent. If it had been a clearer day, I would have begged my new friends to let me sit by the window to get some spectacular photos. We landed a few minutes early around 1:30pm. Stepping off the plane brought back so many good memories. My first trip here was in 1995 with my college girlfriend Sally (she is the princess who awakened the travel bug within me). We only spent a few minutes on Hamilton Island because her parents, who were living in Sydney at the time, treated us to a luxurious excursion at Hayman Island (Hayman used to be Australia’s nicest and most expensive resort, but it’s still the closest Whitsunday Island to the Great Barrier Reef). The last time I was here was in 2003 with my ex Amber Airplane and my brother. We stayed in a one-room apartment at the Whitsunday Apartments and fell in love with the island.

FRED AND MERILESE
Coincidentally, my childhood friends from Connecticut, Fred and Merilese, moved here for a couple of years for work and their stay is almost up so I figured I might as well take advantage of their generous hospitality and make a side trip.

GOLF BUGGIES
Baggage claim was packed. A JetStar flight from Sydney had arrived just before us but to alleviate the congestion, the ground crew pulled the luggage carts up to the side so we could fetch them right off the trolleys. It was well organized and civilized. Fred and Merilese picked me up at the airport in their electric golf cart (they can be rented for about $80 a day but if you rent a house they’re free). The buggies are the main mode of transportation and the only gas-powered vehicles you’ll see are work trucks. A lot has changed since my previous visits and real estate prices have skyrocketed. I’m not going to go into too much detail about Hamilton Island since I didn’t make it out the Great Barrier Reef or partake in a lot of activities; I was here to relax and hang out with my friends. However, I promise to come back and do a full story on this dream destination.

RENTAL HOUSES
My first stop was Fred and Merilese’s amazing rental house. One thing that has changed here is the increase in new deluxe houses, many of which are for rent, which provides a more economical way to stay. Fred and Merilese’s PHAT four-bedroom pad goes for $1,500 a night. Not bad since it sleeps 10 and considering that’s how much one night at the nicest hotel on the island goes for and it sleeps just two. They were in Point Henning, which is where the nightly sunset party takes place. The island sets up a cash bar and everyone comes to stare out at the heavens. We spent most of our sunsets on their back deck, my head spinning in amazement. Not only were the sunsets breathtaking but the wildlife is, too. To see cockatoos, Rainbow lorikeets, Pied Currawong and even an owl fly freely and onto the deck every night was mind-boggling.

MONSTER SPIDER
One uninvited guest I came face to face with was a Huntsman spider. Although the Huntsman is scary looking, they won’t kill you. Actually, they are good to have around because they eat the other poisonous insects. However, I just have a tough time sleeping with a hairy spider the size of a softball lurking above my head. Fred and Merilese were quick to say that in the year they’d lived there, this was only the second time they’d seen one. If I hadn’t learned about Huntsmans a couple of years ago when I was up in the Daintree Rainforest (here’s that story), I seriously would have freaked. Merilese and I still wanted it out of the house but we were unsuccessful in trapping it. But the next morning, we found it had moved to the bathroom and Freddy was quick (and brave) enough to capture it. We released it outside. Never kill a Huntsman.

FYI: Hamilton Island doesn’t have the same amount of snakes, bugs or insects as the mainland. There are not that many mosquitoes either.



FOOD
This was the perfect place for me to recharge my batteries and get adjusted to the time change before I had to work in Sydney. Every day, I would go for an early morning walk/run with Merilese and then we would have breakfast at the house and lunch or dinner in town or at a friend’s house. This place is so peaceful and riding around in the buggies really helps. The island is like a village. All the locals know one another, there’s a grocery store, bakery and post office. There are about 20 restaurants and there’s a wide range of options from Italian to Japanese and of course, fresh seafood.

FYI: Everything on the island is about 30% more expensive than on the mainland, which is understandable considering the cost of shipping things here.



DID YOU KNOW? At least two major films have been shot on location at Hamilton Island: Muriel’s Wedding and Fool’s Gold.



BEST JOB IN THE WORLD CONTEST
The only thing I don’t like about this island is that they don’t recycle. But hopefully, that will all change since Ben Southall, the island’s new caretaker, just began his new job. I’m sure you’ve heard about the Best Job in the World contest, which was created by the genius marketers at Tourism Queensland to get some free press, which, incidentally, has generated more than $200 million so far in publicity value. Ben beat out over 34,000 applicants to earn the highly coveted six-month gig with a salary of about $100,000 USD. I drove by Ben’s new, luxurious, three-bedroom villa, complete with sweeping views and got jealous. I might have to apply next year – assuming the campaign runs again. You can keep up with Ben’s adventures as he explores the islands of the Great Barrier Reef through his blog and video diaries.

THE HAMILTON ISLAND GOLF CLUB
One thing that’s new is The Hamilton Island Golf Club on Dent Island. It’s a 10- to 15-minute boat ride away and I was able to get a preview since it won’t be open until August. Before getting on the boat, the Golf Club director told me it’s going to be Australia’s nicest golf course and I thought, “Yeah right! How many times have I heard that before?” But after visiting the 18-hole, par 71 course, I couldn’t agree more. Oh my gosh is this place special, with the natural and rugged beauty of Dent Island. It was designed by champion golfer Peter Thomson and measures 6,704 yards (6,130 meters) so you’re going to get a workout if you walk it (I don’t even know if it’s possible). It’s not like one of those courses that overlaps its holes. They are spread out all around and their state of the art buggies recharge the battery when going downhill so no worries about running out of juice. Play is available seven days a week from 7am to 6pm. The Green fees are: $150 for 18 holes and $100 for nine holes. Both include return transfers from Hamilton Island and use of a two-seater electric golf buggy. Holes 4 and 18 have the best views.

OFF TO WHITEHAVEN BEACH
Hamilton Island offers countless excursions and activities from holding a koala to diving the Great Barrier Reef. One of the most popular side trips is to nearby Whitehaven Beach. Whitehaven is on Whitsunday Island, which is the largest island in the Whitsunday group. The beach got its name because the white sand is from the coral that broke off in storms from the Great Barrier Reef. The coral turned white when it died and over millions of years, as more dead coral piled up and was crushed by the wind and waves, it turned into some of the purest white sand around. It’s like talcum powder and by far the softest sand I’ve ever touched! It’s so cold, soft and clean it squeaks when you walk on it. The sand is made up of a high percentage of silica so it doesn’t get hot.

HELICOPTER IN
This trip was a far cry from when I was here in 2004 when my brother arranged for a bumpy 40-minute Zodiac ride, which I thought was going to sink. This time we went in style in a four-seater helicopter ($389 pp) that we arranged through HeliReef. We arrived at the Hamilton Island helipad (it’s next to the airport) around 11:40am to check-in, get weighed (total weight between the three passengers can’t exceed 550 lbs) and watched a brief safety video before putting on our life preservers.

WHAT TO BRING
Chris, our young pilot, had been flying two years to the day and he was great. We took off exactly at 12 noon and the 15-minute ride wasn’t bumpy at all. The only time I felt a tad queasy was when we went high up above the northern end of Hill Inlet to get a better view and I was just moving my head around to get a better view. This cove looked make believe but the beautiful fusion of colors takes place where the tide shifts and the sand and water collide. The whole excursion was two hours and the only thing we brought was some food for the picnic lunch (Chris brought juice, water and champagne), sunscreen, hat, bathing suit, towels, sunscreen and snorkel gear.

BON VOYAGE
We touched down on a remote part of the beach away from all the tour boats and beach goers. As soon as you step off, you can see why it is the most photographed beach in Australia even on a not-so-pleasant day like when we were there. While Chris puts down blankets and makes your picnic spot, you can go for a walk, swim or snorkel. It was unseasonably chilly so I passed but the highlight for me was when Chris and Fred grabbed some driftwood and carved out JohnnyJet.com in the sand so they could take pictures from high above. Too cool – just like my trip.

TO BOOK A TRIP TO HAMILTON ISLAND
Reservations: Hamilton Island Holidays P: 13 7333 or +61 2 9433 0444 outside Australia. Email: vacation@hamiltonisland.com.au or see your local Travel Agent.

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