Ghost resorts are scattered through the Whitsundays — tropical island equivalents of the Marie Celeste. Deck chairs lie where they fell. Tropical plants crawl through abandoned hotel rooms and bars. Rain pours through gashes ripped in roofs. Palm fronds rot in stagnant green swimming pools.
Half of the 30 resorts in this once-bustling 74-island group are still closed after a run of misfortune in the past decade or two — tourism downturns, financial difficulties and two massive cyclones (Yasi in 2011 and Debbie in 2017).
But on an autumn evening, as I sit on a rope and wood swing on the deck of a beachfront villa, the only signs of troubled recent history are skeletal white tree trunks among the eucalyptus and hoop pines of Conway National Park on the mainland, across the water.
This being the tropics, the sun sets early. As I watch, the cobalt leaches from the sky, and fluffy clouds glow pale gold, flare to fiery orange, and fade to blue-grey. The last embers of pale amber extinguish in the rainforest valleys until only the ghostly stripped trees are visible against the darkness.
The address of this 10-villa resort tells you everything you need to know: Elysian Retreat, Paradise Bay, Long Island, the Whitsundays, Tropical North Queensland. It's a 3ha private cove surrounded by rainforest where the whole point is to sit still — or gently swing — and appreciate things like sunsets and birdlife and eating and drinking. (Especially eating and drinking — the food and wine are divine.)
Elysian is one of several resorts in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park that have risen from the debris in the past year — thanks to a combination of insurance, investment and nerve — along with its more famous contemporaries Hayman Island and Daydream Island, and the luxurious new Qualia on Hamilton Island.
"A year ago, it looked like a bomb went off here," says Charlton Craggs, the resort's general manager, a former city boy who left a career in IT to rebuild and run the resort after his sister and her husband bought the remains of its predecessor, Paradise Bay Eco Resort. "It was very badly damaged."
Cyclone Debbie, which struck a death blow to many tourism ventures, smashed the resort's common area — an open-air restaurant, bar and kitchen — drove rocks up under the floors of the villas, and washed the sand from the cove.
But from disaster comes opportunity, and the family saw the potential to create something unique — a pared-back, boutique luxury eco-retreat run on sunlight and rainwater, where nothing is discharged into the ocean, Kiwi chef Josh Beckett creates masterpieces from local produce according to guest preferences and seasonal produce rather than a menu, and guests are encouraged to do as little as possible.
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And what a treat it is to do nothing. There's a TV in my villa — an airy thatched-roof space with a chic beachy feel — and there's patchy mobile reception, but really, why would you? Breakfast, lunch, pre-dinner drinks and dinner (served early, to save on electricity) establish the shape of the day, and all we lucky guests need to think about is how to fill the gaps in between.
A swim in the magnesium infinity pool? A massage or beauty treatment in the spa? Early morning yoga on the deck? Exploring the cove in reef shoes (the sand is still coming back, post-cyclone), or the bay on a kayak or paddleboard, or the rainforest on foot? A couple of fellow guests spend several days contemplating a helicopter tour to the Great Barrier Reef or a trip to one of the region's famed snorkelling spots, but they never quite manage to tear themselves from their daybed and swing. "Why would we leave?" asks one of them, a Sydneysider. (Chef Josh reckons every guest ends up on the swings, no matter their age.)
In the two days I'm there, it turns unseasonably rainy and cold (by Queensland standards), so one afternoon I have the perfect excuse to grab a book from the wee library, and get comfortable under a rug on the daybed on the deck of my villa.
The rain mutes the birdsong and the silence grows blessedly heavy, interrupted only by the rush of the tide over the stones, the odd caw of a crow and peep from an oystercatcher, a massive bumblebee humming past, and the occasional dribble of rain sluicing off the roof into the water tank behind my villa. Passing showers blot out the mainland, and the channel in between turns an intense aqua.
As I idly watch, Charlton motors into the bay on the little resort boat, returning from a shopping trip to the mainland, and the staff, including Josh, Charlton's visiting mother, and Bree the yoga teacher roll up their trousers and wade out into the rain to carry in groceries, boxes, beach lounger mats and even a tyre. Apart from produce from the vege and herb garden Josh has planted out the back, everything must be brought in from the mainland. Before he left, Charlton had strolled along the villas, wearing a dry bag on his back. "Any requests from town?" he says. It's that kind of place.
The book from the resort collection ends up remaining largely unread. Who needs to escape into a fictional world when this one is the stuff of fantasies? Instead, I am inspired to scribble down notes for my own next novel, which I've set on a fictional island in the Whitsundays. This was my excuse to return to these islands, 15 years after I first explored them by rented yacht.
The islands have been through a dramatic journey since then, and their comeback is still a work in progress, but they're just as magical as I remembered, and no cyclone or downturn can permanently dim their turquoise waters.
It may be the islands that are going through a period of renewal, but after two days at this Elysian beach, it's me who feels renewed and revived. Paradise Bay, indeed.
From New Zealand, fly to Sydney or Brisbane, and catch a domestic flight to Proserpine on the Whitsunday Coast or Hamilton Island. From there, it's a short helicopter flight or boat ride to the resort (plus a shuttle into Airlie Beach, if you land at Proserpine).
Elysian Retreat starts at AU$1400 per night for two, including all meals with wine matches.