Hayman One & Only

Author: Catherine Keenan
Photography: William Meppem

It's easy to lose your sense of time on Hayman Island. If you were looking at the island from a distance, you could carefully position a thumb over the low-slung, white resort and imagine it looks much as it did hundreds, even thousands of years ago. Of the 74 islands in the Whitsunday archipelago, only seven are inhabited, and sparsely at that. The others still look like what they once were: scrubby mountain peaks that sank below the Coral Sea after the Ice Age.

This background of millennial indifference makes One & Only Hayman Island seem even more wildly, improbably luxurious. On arrival at the Great Barrier Reef airport on neighbouring Hamilton Island, you approach Hayman aboard the Sun Goddess, the resort's cruiser. The view is as described above - hazy purple-blue islands, shimmering sea - only more striking because you're seeing it while enjoying smoked trout canapés and a glass of Perrier-Jouët.

The 50 minutes it takes to shoot across the water effect a strange mental transformation. As the wind whips your hair and the sun shines just that bit brighter than you remember it doing before, you come to understand that here, in this tiny white strip of civilisation gradually resolving itself in the distance, your every wish will be attended to. Nature may be indifferent, but the staff at One & Only emphatically are not. As far as they're concerned, all this - the pristine beaches, the electric-coloured coral and fish flickering beneath the surface, the geological activity of eons - exists only for you.

Hayman has been a renowned resort island since Reg Ansett redefined the idea of holiday chic in Australia with the opening of the Royal Hayman Hotel in 1950. By the 1980s, however, his modest white huts were starting to look a little tired, especially compared with new resorts on Hamilton Island and Airlie Beach. In 1985 a $300 million refit saw the original huts replaced by a modernist white five-star resort. It changed hands in 1998 and again in 2004.

The resort's latest incarnation is its most glamorous yet. After a six-month closure and an $80 million refurbishment, it reopened in July as One & Only Hayman Island. The resort group was launched in 2002 by Dubai-based Kerzner International, which includes the 1500-room Atlantis at The Palm in Dubai in its resort portfolio. Hayman Island is One & Only's eighth property and its first in Australasia; other One & Only outposts are in the Bahamas, Mexico, the Maldives, Dubai and Cape Town, and there are plans to open in China, Montenegro and Saudi Arabia.

Why Hayman? "If you think about Australia, where better than Hayman?" says general manager Guenter Gebhard. His previous role was managing Kerzner's Mazagan Beach & Golf Resort in Morocco; in his spare time he's learning to fly helicopters. "It's a beautiful location, it's the most northern island near the Great Barrier Reef, it's only 10 to 15 minutes by helicopter or 45 minutes by boat to all the wonders. And it's its own private island."

The Sun Goddess pulls into the renovated marina, where a phalanx of golf buggies waits to drive us the few hundred metres to the resort. It's so new that when GT visits the staff are still untanned and butlers wear navy suits, like stockbrokers, while they wait for their more suitable Kym Ellery-designed white linen tunics and beige pants to arrive.

Anyone who has stayed at Hayman before will find the orientation familiar. The new resort retains the outline of the old: two cascading white wings extending from what's now called the Central Lanai (aka the lobby). Everything has been freshened up, but while some areas have had an extreme makeover, for others it's been more of a touch-up.

The biggest changes involve the conversion of all rooms in the Pool Wing to suites, with a subsequent reduction in the room inventory from 210 to 160. Australian firm DBI Design led the refurbishment and the interiors are a muted respite from the startling blues and greens outside, a wash of gently textured whites and tans. Pool suites feature light-toned stone floors in the open bathrooms, gauzy white linen drapes on the canopied beds and hand-tufted rugs over pale timber floors in the spacious sitting room. Private wooden decks overlook the gorgeous Hayman Pool, and occupants of the ground-floor suites can dive straight in. In the morning, you look out to see dozens of staff busy with tasks vital to your relaxation that day: the distribution of rolled towels on white sun lounges; the exact angling of umbrellas.

The pool is a marvel: 8.7 million litres of crystal-blue seawater with a hexagonal wooden deck in the middle surrounding an inner pool of fresh water. Along one side of the deck is a casual bar and restaurant, called On the Rocks; it's from here that glasses of iced tea magically appear by your sunlounge. There are new cabanas of white wooden slats along the pool's beach side, and the island's signature dining experience is served here at sunset: an extravagant seafood dinner served with Champagne. Just before ours we watch lobsters being unloaded at the marina.

Another major structural change is the addition of the Aquazure pool and adjoining tapas restaurant in the Hayman wing; both were unfinished during our visit. This wing is aimed mainly, though not exclusively, at families, with private foyers allowing rooms to interconnect. The pool has a gradual edge, like at a beach, so children can wade in, while white sunlounges in shallow water allow parents to wallow as they supervise. There are two kids' clubs, one for four- to 11-year-olds, another for the 12 to 17 age group.

"Our goal, certainly from the start, was being an ultra-luxury family destination," says Gebhard. "If you look at other resorts around the country, either they have children's restrictions or, size-wise, they're not really that appealing, or activity-wise they're not really that appealing."

The Kerry Hill-designed Beach Villas, opened in 2011 after Cyclone Yasi and, needing only a polish this time around, certainly stake a place among the most luxurious family accommodation in the country. Right on the beach and with private internal pools, the one-bedroom villas come with retreat rooms nearby to accommodate older children, nannies or relatives.

Aquazure is the only new venue on the island, bringing the total to seven restaurants and bars. All have been upgraded and include Amici (family Italian), Bamboo (pan-Asian) and Pacific, which is available for beachfront breakfast and dinner. Every morning there's an extravagant buffet of pancakes, house-made granola, honey dripping from the comb, eggs cooked to order and smoked salmon, and Pepe Saya butter among the options for your toast.

For years, the island's signature restaurant was the French La Fontaine; it's telling, perhaps, that the large central fountain it was named after was jubilantly knocked over in this renovation. The restaurant is now called Fire, serving modern Australian dishes such as salt-crusted Victor Churchill tomahawk steak for two with organic root vegetables, which are grown in the chef's garden, on roasted globe artichoke mousse.

Executive chef Grant Murray arrived on the island after time at gastropubs in London with ETM Group, and as executive sous-chef at Atlantis, The Palm. He has high ambitions at Hayman. "I want to achieve a quality of food across the board that consistently rivals some of the best restaurants in the world."

Good produce is his highest priority and he sources some seafood from Whitsunday Seafood Company; reef fish, farmed ocean-fed barramundi, sashimi-grade tuna and cobia are favourites. But to ensure sufficient quantities for up to 400 guests - and 450 staff, nearly all of whom live on the island - most seafood comes from Sydney.

Fresh and dry produce arrives on the island twice weekly on a barge and, while there's plenty of fruit and vegetables grown on the Bowen coast, Murray has to buy that, and nearly everything else, from Sydney. The produce goes to the market "that pays the top dollar", he says. On an island 30 kilometres off the Queensland coast, the logistics of ensuring that at the buzz of a room-service phone he can sate a guest's desire for Petrossian caviar or Alaskan king crab are complex and challenging. More than once in the frantic lead-up to opening, the 37-year-old was spurred on by the sentiment tattooed on his right forearm - "It's gotta hurt" emblazoned between open shark's jaws.

Islands lend themselves to myth-making and Hayman's legend is about being the most exclusive destination in the Whitsundays - in its boastful moments, the most exclusive in Australia. But its fortunes have occasionally waned. In the early '80s, when writer Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, visited, standards had slipped. "I hated it," he wrote. "The brochure was splattered with words like 'international' and 'superb' and 'sophisticated', and what this meant was that they had muzak pumped out of the palm trees and themed fancy dress parties every night."

In the early '90s, however, after the resort had received its upgrade, Adams visited again. "It was exactly the sort of place that 20 years ago I would have despised anybody for going to," he wrote in an article about his trip. This time he adored it. "One of the great things about growing older and getting things like freebie holidays is that you can finally get to do all those things that you used to despise other people for doing: sitting around on a sundeck wearing sunglasses that cost about a year's student grant, ordering up grotesque indulgences on room service, being pampered and waited on hand and foot."

One can only imagine the pleasure the late Adams would experience if he could visit today. Ask anyone at One&Only what makes their resorts different and they will immediately cite the service. Luxury without stuffiness is the aim, and it's practised by everyone - from the gardeners constantly nodding good morning to the carefully calibrated demands of a Bodyism workout personal trainer - though during our visit staff were still settling in and did not always reach the standards they set for themselves.

On Hayman you can take chopper rides or go on a sea-kayak adventure; you can enjoy spa treatments or be massaged while floating on a bed in the sea.

You can experience, at almost every waking moment, the ineffable sense of weightlessness that comes from having your every whim anticipated and fulfilled.

But the truth is that none of it will ever match the magnificence of the world beneath the surface of the sea. The reason for the existence of a resort on Hayman is the phenomenal clarity and intense colour of the water and its reefs that harbour manta rays, turtles, yellowtail fusiliers, spreading anemones and more. It's possible to snorkel just off the beach at Blue Pearl Bay, a hike over the hill or a boat ride to the other side of the island.

Once there, in those silent moments when all you can hear is the steady rhythm of your breath through a snorkel and nature's most wondrous display lies jewel-like around you, it's clear that nothing built on the island can match this. At exactly the same time, you realise how supremely lucky you are to be enjoying those things anyway.

Rooms cost from $730 a night in a Hayman Lagoon room, to $10,600 a night for the three-bedroom Owner's Penthouse. One-bedroom Pool Suites range from $980 to $1350 a night; one-bedroom Beach Villas cost $1990 a night or $2720 with a retreat room.

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