“One of us is going to die”. It’s a morbid thought to have upon arriving at an astonishingly gorgeous 5-star resort on a private island but allow me to explain.
It’s a typical afternoon in Queensland (which is to say, marvellously warm and sunny) and our group of seven is seated on the upper deck of a 69-foot launch. With glasses of Champagne in hand, we gaze out at the photoshop-blue ocean while richly forested islands pass by. We’re together on this boat with a dozen other passengers but out there, for endless miles, there is not a building or person in sight. Already, our flight from Brisbane to Hamilton Island an hour ago feels like a faded memory.
Then, Hayman Island comes into view. Around 30km off the east coast of Queensland, it’s one of the more northern islands in the Whitsundays. It’s also one of the most exclusive. Only guests of the 293-hectare island’s one resort, The InterContinental, can visit, via a $220 transfer on the launch, of course.
Sailing closer, we can eventually make out the brilliantly white hotel on the beachfront, with a line of postcard palm trees along the front and a lush green mountain rising up behind. Between the bubbles, the yacht, and the remote resort island, I feel like Alice but instead of Wonderland, I’ve tumbled into the hit television series The White Lotus, a show that explores the fascinating power dynamics between staff and guests at high-end hotels.
The likeness continues when we pull into the dock and see four staff members waving cheerily to us. It’s a hallmark scene in both seasons one and two of the HBO series. As is (spoiler ahead) one character meeting an ill-fated end. In season one, it’s the hotel manager, Armond; a fact that prompts the aforementioned morbid thought as we’re given a tour of the palatial grounds by an ever-smiling manager named Ben.
Renovated to the tune of US$135 million (NZ$222 million) after a cyclone wreaked havoc in 2017, the resort reopened in 2019 and clearly aimed to fit seamlessly into the tropical surroundings, which it does. Every palm and bush was planned and planted by a celebrity landscaper (Jamie Durie). Split into three wings (beach, lagoon, pool), the style is a contemporary-meets-island with vibrant greenery, tan sandstone tiles, warm wooden furniture, and white walls. It feels secluded and remote (the hallmark of any luxury experience).
Continuing the tour, we pass by one of the world’s largest pools, which boasts 6.5 million litres, and we’re shown our rooms. On the third floor, mine is an Ocean View Pool Suite and I’m thrilled to say it’s in keeping with the White Lotus vibe. A white, cushy double canopy bed hides around the corner of the small lounge area, with a bathroom (featuring a bath, two vanities, full-length mirror and shower) to the right and a balcony on the left. Although, it’s discovering I could open and close the curtains via a bedside button that felt like peak opulence.
In the evening, we check out one of the island’s five restaurants, the Italian-inspired Amici. The night passes in a deliciously cosy blur of red wine and sourdough pizza, salmon tartare and thick chunks of toasted focaccia until, a few hours later, we sleepily stumble back to our rooms in the warm May air.
Heading back to my room (one of 182 at the resort), I pass a hair salon and cocktail bar, 24-hour gym and gift shop. Wandering further, I’d also find a golf simulator and library, day spa and courts for tennis, table tennis and squash. If you wanted to live here and never, ever leave, you comfortably could. Some people do, we’re told; one staff member has allegedly worked and lived here for 50 years.
But most staff stay for anywhere between two months and two years and come from all over the world. A Pasifika woman checks us in, an Italian man serves us dinner, an Aussie drives our buggy and a Kiwi runs the snorkel tour.
The Kiwi in question is Jackson, a mid-20s Hamiltonian, here as part of a university internship, who runs our morning hike and snorkel tour. Frothing with a Labrador-like enthusiasm, Jackson swiftly sets us up with flippers and snorkels before leading the charge towards a path up the mountainside, feeding us outrageous anecdotes and wildlife facts to distract us from the steady climb.
We learn about the recent floods and the area’s history of cyclones, the hermit who cares for the nearby Hook Island with some alpacas and how to lick the rear end of a green ant for a small but zingy boost of Vitamin C.
After reaching the peak, a dusty red rock track hugs the mountainside down towards Blue Pearl Beach, offering up a dizzying view of the deep blue ocean to our left. Reaching the water’s edge, we take in the bay before donning our snorkel gear. It is, unfortunately, a little anticlimactic. While the water itself is clear and spatial, the coral is dusty and dull. Not for any problematic reason, Jackson assures us: it’s simply between cycles of regeneration.
Back in time for lunch, we head to Bam Bam, a relaxed restaurant next to the infinity pool. After a hike and a feast, the logical next step is to grab one of the many vacant poolside loungers and bake in the afternoon sun with a book. A small handful of couples do the same alongside one or two families making use of the pool.
As resorts go, it’s undeniably gorgeous but not quite flawless. The cockatoos are nasty little pests, especially at breakfast. Within seconds of leaving a freshly assembled breakfast on the table, to grab a coffee or a piece of toast, they descend, like white feathered ninjas, and make away with fresh pastries and entire waffles, sliced fruit and even sugar sachets. Nothing is left behind aside from, for some unknown reason, pineapple. During the first morning, I see at least a dozen people fall for the trap, making me wonder why staff don’t warn people who choose an outside table.
An eye for detail will catch signs of wear; the odd stain on a sun bed pillow, scratched paint on railings, moss that creeps across the poolside tiles. Plus, the more unavoidable parts of being among nature; an occasional creepy crawly, muted but constant birdcalls (crows and curlews predominantly) and the cocky cockatoos. For the most part, however, it’s Instagram-level perfect.
By 5pm the sun has moved past the beach and balconies, but the air is still deliciously balmy. Once it sets, an hour later, it’s time for a nocturnal wildlife walk around the resort, led by our new friend Jackson.
“Let’s go find some wallabies and big spiders that can kill us”, he says with a grin.
Walking along the tree-lined road that leads to the wharf, we slowly sway our torch beams through the forest, eyes peeled for a wallaby. Minutes later, Jackson pulls us into a huddle beside a thick hedge. “This is a secret mission,” he whispers before sketching out the plan to ambush a large group of wallabies supposedly hiding on the other side of the bush. We count down from five, then, with a holler from Jackson, raise our flashlights and charge through a gap in the hedge to a grassy clearing that is, unfortunately, totally empty.
Our group are disappointed but it’s nothing compared to our guide. “Aw man, they know my tactic” Jackson cries, looking crestfallen. “There aren’t even toads” he adds with an air of disbelief, kicking at the grass with his Crocs before gathering us for a ‘formal apology’. “We thought we were gonna see wallabies and cane toads and we saw squat,” he says, shaking his head, before marching off to find us some reef sharks on the beach.
The next morning is free of activities before checkout, so I take it decadently slow. Strolling to breakfast (indoors this time, having learnt my lesson), I chip away at a cold brew coffee and cereal while watching the ocean, journaling and actually paying attention to my food as I eat. It’s a welcome change to the shovelling typically done in a car en route to work.
Eventually, I drift to one of the cushioned chairs on the beach and try to soak up as much of the island’s innate tranquility as possible. As if, with enough determination, I could bottle it in my body, creating a wellspring of calm I could call upon in the future. The final 20 minutes seem to both stretch right out yet pass all too quickly and soon we’re boarding the launch bound for Hamilton Island.
In the end, I’m pleased to report that the opulent aesthetic is where The White Lotus likeness ended. There were no grisly murders or hidden mistresses, no scheming staff (unless you count Jackson) or dramatic plot twists. But between the Champagne-filled launches and pristine private beaches, remote-controlled curtains and extravagant breakfast buffets, it sure was fun to play the part of its high-rolling characters.
Air NZ and Qantas both fly non-stop from Auckland to Brisbane in approximately 4 hours. A connecting flight from Brisbane to Hamilton Island takes an additional 1 hour, 45 minutes.