Cook’s tour of the Whitsundays
Drift and dine in style around the Whitsundays
Queensland’s Whitsundays region has long been a magnet for foodies. After Lieutenant James Cook recorded the charmed archipelago off the northern Australian coast in 1770, subsequent sailors planted coconut palms and set goats and pigs loose on the islands to supplement the abundant seafood supplies. Archaeological evidence from middens at Nara Inlet shows the Ngaro people have long feasted on the local bounty of fish, turtles, birds, marsupials and reptiles. But the potential for culinary indulgence in the Whitsundays has never been greater than right now.
During three days of sailing and pleasure-seeking I am feted with mud crabs and champagne, teppanyaki toothfish soused in sake, a Catalan-style surf ’n’ turf paella of nannygai and chicken skin, and a twilight dinner of coral trout barbecued on the back of a boat at Whitehaven Beach.
Our custom-made itinerary begins at Abell Point marina in Airlie Beach where Charlie Preen welcomes us aboard the eight-berth catamaran Seaduction, one of a considerable inventory of bareboat vessels he operates as managing director of Cumberland Charter Yachts. The plan is to give us a cook’s tour (but, clearly not a James Cook’s tour) of the islands’ gastronomic highlights, our days divided between the luxury resorts of Hayman and Hamilton islands and a night on board at Whitehaven.
The trade winds are gusting at 10 to 15 knots from the southeast as we venture past a parade of moored vessels, with wince-making names such as Two Keel A Sunset, into open water. Hayman is straight ahead of us at the end of the Molle Passage. Hook and Whitsunday islands are off to the right. Preen unfurls the sails, winching and tightening and whatever else it is sailors do to make cloth catch wind. A veteran of six Sydney-to-Hobart ocean races, he knows his craft, so I just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Chris Cross is singing in my head (“If the wind is right you can sail away and find serenity …”) as we glide over the Coral Sea past the rainforested peaks of drowned mountains towards gathering sunshine in the east. “It looks like the day is going to come up nice,” Preen smiles. By the time we reach Blue Pearl Bay, on Hayman’s northwest coast, the rainclouds have dissolved and the sky is all soothing blue and puffs of white. Time for some seagoing exercise — a swim to shore, a snorkel over the fringing reef — and a sun-drenched lunch of caesar salad and sauvignon blanc.
It is peak hour at One & Only Hayman Island when we pull into the marina midafternoon. The resort’s sleek cruiser, Sea Goddess, which transfers guests from Hamilton Island airport, docks just ahead of us; a helicopter hovers noisily overhead. The 65-year-old Hayman resort, reopened last July after an $80 million renovation, is the buzz of the smart set once more.
After settling into one of the new pool-wing suites, doubled in size and as chic as you’d find anywhere, we meet executive chef Karim Hassene for a progressive dinner showcasing three of Hayman’s seven dining venues. Burgundy-born Hassene trained under Gerard Vie at the two Michelin star Les Trois Marches in Versailles. His resume since then spans Ritz-Carlton hotels in the US and the opulent Leela Palace in Udaipur, India. At the resort’s buzzy Italian bistro Amici he offers a beautiful beef carpaccio seasoned sparely with parmesan, basil oil and an aged balsamic reduction. His burrata with vine tomatoes and basil brings Capri to the Coral Sea.
Hassene then leads us down a garden path at the resort’s Asian diner, Bamboo, and up to one of two teppanyaki platforms where chef Neil Sato works the grill. Using flames and flair he prepares toothfish with sake and Szechuan sauce, plump Hokkaido scallops and garlic-sauteed king prawns with nam jim. This alfresco experience operates year-round except April when, I’m told, the fruit bats descend en masse and curtail the fun.
Dinner progresses to Fire, the signature restaurant, where we are escorted to a table behind the kitchen with glass-walled views of gleaming stainless steel and bustling chefs. There are sourdough rolls with Pepe Saya butter and cabernet sauvignon salt, presumably to complement the St Henri shiraz we’re served with our wagyu. Hassene prepares the steaks individually at a white-clothed table, with green peppercorn sauce, mash and vegetables straight from the garden. “Nothing is better than a nice piece of beef, two veg and mashed potato,” he says. The dish is a taste of Fire’s new focus as a premium steakhouse.
After the Hayman blowout it’s back aboard Seaduction next morning to motor to Blue Tongue Bay, where giant green turtles float in turquoise waters, for a (relatively) modest spread of cold seafood and a hike to Tongue Point lookout on Whitsunday Island. The exercise is welcome; the reward is a panorama of beaches and bush and the ice-cream swirls of white sands and pale blue waters in Hill Inlet below, where rays and shovelnosed sharks dart through the shallows. Ahead lies our anchorage for the evening, the famous Whitehaven, one of Australia’s most photographed beaches.
It is a rare privilege to spend the night here. Tourist boats don’t start disgorging day-trippers until 9am, so I dive early into the sea and have the famed shoreline all to myself except for cockatoos breakfasting on casuarina cones. That’s the allure of a private yacht charter — the islands are yours for the taking.
We farewell Preen at Hamilton Island and head to the Yacht Club for lunch with two talented young chefs who now call Queensland home. Nicolas Gomez-Duran, former chef de partie under Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxford, is Hamilton’s executive chef, overseeing everything from a fish-and-chips cafe to Bommie, the Yacht Club’s fine diner. Josep Espuga, a young Catalan who trained under star Spanish chef Sergi Arola, lends Bommie’s kitchen a sophisticated Iberian twist. At the end of six (or is it seven?) courses I’m presented with a box of tiny macarons that I barely have time to touch because we are late for our Talk & Taste session at the elite Qualia resort, where executive chef Alastair Waddell is itching to educate us about his favourite crustacean. With his heady Glaswegian accent, huge smile and enthusiastic manner, an audience with Waddell is a pleasure. Naturally there is more food, in the form of tempting crabby canapes, served with a flight of Charles Heidsieck Champagnes. The hedonism resumes just an hour later with dinner at Qualia’s Long Pavilion where Waddell presents his signature tasting menu against a stunning backdrop of paperbark and pandanus, the Coral Sea and silhouetted islands. “Just a few small bites throughout the evening,” he explains. “Very produce driven, not messing about with it too much. And, most importantly, delicious.”
Then there are desserts and petits-fours, and more wine, and then a short stroll along a eucalypt-scented path to my guest pavilion, cantilevered over the bush and sea, to sleep like a man who has just gorged on his last, rather spectacular, supper in the Whitsundays.
Kendall Hill was a guest of Tourism Whitsundays.
Seaduction in the Whitsundays, main; Hayman’s Amici Italian restaurant, above left; Whitehaven Beach, above right; and executive chef Alistair Waddell at Qualia, inset