Great Barrier Reef: One & Only Hayman Island, Australia

IMG_2456It’s a two-hour flight from Sydney to Hamilton Island, the main jumping-off point for destinations on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. For divers, this is a Mecca that only the most jaded and world-weary can resist. We’d wanted to go for years, and our first choice for lodging would have been the legendary Lizard Island, another of those small, private-island resorts that we favor.  But Lizard Island was still recovering from a cyclone at the time of our trip, so we fell back on Hayman Island, equally famous and, while much larger, almost equally inviting, at least by reputation.

The Hayman Island property had been recently taken over by the “One & Only” hotel chain at the time of our stay last October (2014).  Our general impression of this hotel chain is not particularly favorable, having been formed on a couple of lackluster visits to the One & Only Palmilla in Los Cabos, Baja California.  And let’s face it, any hotel named “One and Only” Anything has to be immediately suspected of unearned pretensions.  It’s just bad branding.

IMG_2459On our arrival at Hamilton Island’s small airport, we were greeted by Hayman Island staff and whisked to the resort’s private yacht, conveniently docked just steps away from the air terminal. There followed a 45-minute ride to the resort, which was pleasant enough, as we were plied with h’ordeuvres and champagne and given the run of the boat. But one also must mingle with other arriving guests, whether congenial or annoying, and with some staff being transported to work (and hence not in the best of moods, heads down in their iPhones, trying to be invisible).  The trip seemed a bit long, and on our departure we opted for a private helicopter back to Hamilton.

Bottom line first: the most striking overall characteristic of the Hayman Island resort is its unevenness (acknowledging that it had been a “One and Only” for only a few months at the time of our stay and may not have found its sea legs).  It’s almost like several resorts fused together into an overlarge and ungainly whole.

IMG_2401On the upside, our beachfront suite was utterly spectacular — ultra-modern and commodious, with wonderful views of the water and mountains across the bay.  Even the oddly land-locked plunge pool, which is completely walled in (no doubt due to the ubiquitous avian wildlife on the island) and somewhat awkwardly separates the lovely bath and walk-in closet from the spacious bedroom, was nonetheless a delight.  We were, however, staying in one of the dozen beach-front suites, which come at a hefty premium and are walled off from the rest of the resort behind keyed gates, while most of the resort offers much smaller rooms in rather conventional, mid-rise, multi-unit structures.

Our “butler,” who attended to us during the length of our week-long stay, was a charming Aussie lad of flawless decorum and good humor, though his chores were limited (partly by our own choice) to bringing us ice for late afternoon cocktails and, rather unnecessarily, escorting us to dinner (though I’m sure the latter had the additional effect of ensuring good seating).


With the restaurants we began to encounter the aforementioned unevenness, as they varied wildly in quality of food and service, though it must be said that, apart from the high-end venue, “Fire,” and the poolside lunch spot “On The Rocks,” the level of service at the dining venues was consistently poor.  This is clearly not for want of willing staff (who are uniformly friendly and eager to please) or adequate staffing (the place employs seemingly hundreds of young, attractive people), but simply for lack of proper training and supervision.  At one dinner al fresco at one of the more remote tables in the garden at “Bamboo,” the asian eatery, we were left unattended for so long that I was certain we’d been completely forgotten and my wife, similarly despairing, went hunting for staff.  Drinks were ordered that never arrived, and the food was rather ordinary, perhaps one step up from your local Chinese restaurant.  At the poolside lunch/dinner spot, “Aquazure,” we were approached by no less than three or four different wait-staffers, none of whom had any idea of what or whether we’d ordered from the others, and again, the food itself was unexceptional.

The one breakfast venue, which offers a very nice buffet, necessarily must accommodate the entire guest population, and is therefore a scene of barely-controlled chaos every morning; if the cockatoos don’t steal your brioche, you might eventually get that cappuccino you ordered.

IMG_2397The constant battle among staff, guests, and the local bird population could be a subject for a separate, more humorous essay.  And if you are bat-phobic, this would not be the place, as vast hordes of giant “flying foxes” take to the skies every sunset.  We found them fascinating and they have the wonderful side benefit of clearing out any semblance of a bug population.  We’ve never had so many balmy nights without worrying about mosquitoes, and we’ve begun plotting to introduce flying foxes to Florida.

A further complication is the fact that not all restaurants are open on all days, and one or another of them will be unexpectedly commandeered by large corporate or wedding parties, requiring some advance strategy to avoid disappointment.

The sheer size of the place is perhaps its greatest liability: too many large groups surging in and out like the tide, too many “events” pre-empting this or that dining venue, and in the end, too many guests for a young staff of limited training and experience to handle seamlessly. Perhaps this will work itself out in time, but we would opt for smaller GBR properties in the future (some day we hope to compare Qualia, on Hamilton Island, for instance, and fervently regret that we missed Lizard Island).

On the other hand, the spa was professional and the treatments delightful, the gym well-equipped, modernIMG_2402 and spacious, and one of the restaurants, the aforementioned “Fire,” worthy of any urban metropolis.  We enjoyed a perfectly equipped, 6-hour private dive/snorkel excursion, which fulfilled every fantasy of visiting the remarkable Great Barrier Reef. The bay on which the resort is situated is beautifully scenic (though those accustomed to the more powdery sands of the Caribbean will find the beach a bit abrasive), and that remarkable suite will have spoiled us for a long time to come!

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About Keith McWalter

Keith McWalter is an author and lawyer. His essays and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Wall Street Journal. He lives with his wife Courtney in Granville, Ohio and Sanibel, Florida.