Cook’s tour of the Whit­sun­days

Drift and dine in style around the Whit­sun­days

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - KENDALL HILL

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

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