The Great Barrier Reef is one of our nation's treasures and a staple of every Australian's childhood holidays. The last time I'd been in this neck of the woods was as an eight-year-old and my only memory was of me chundering off the side of a boat headed to Green Island.
This year, I was determined to establish new, better memories – with my better half in hand. And I could find no better way to explore the romantic side of the Whitsundays than spending our first-year anniversary on Hamilton Island.
We're Stef and D, a pair of married jetsetters. Together, we've visited over 50 countries, and we're determined to see even more – all while working full time and paying off a mortgage. We count our dollars at home and away and are here to share our tips on how you can travel on a budget.
April to June boasts consistently cool weather and little rainfall. December to January is better for beating hot sun but is also busy due to the Christmas holidays.
Our anniversary coincided with the warm season in May. Unfortunately for us, we caught an unlucky break, arriving to pouring rain, muggy temperatures and windy conditions. The good news is that rainfall never lasts long, and as the days passed, the clouds parted to bless us with sunshine for the tail-end of our trip.
The end of May is also the end of stinger season, which runs from October to May. This is when jellyfish are most active. The good news is that by wearing a stinger suit, you can severely reduce the likelihood of getting stung in the water.
The bad news is that they're not very sexy and look a lot like a morphsuit. We were offered them on our trip to Whitehaven Beach, and if you're on tour, you'll likely be offered one as well.
Hamilton Island is notorious for being a family holiday destination, so travelling outside of the school holidays is key to keeping your trip costs down. Avoiding Race Week in August is also paramount as this is the nation's largest offshore sailing event and drives up prices across the island. May was still busy as there was a conference on, but it didn't feel overcrowded.
Getting around Hamilton Island
As Hamilton Island is car-free (outside of service vehicles), the next best option to zip about the place is by buggy. These seat four (perfect for families) but don't come cheap, starting at $59 for 2 hours. Your better option is to go for the $87 per day (24 hours) hire.
Don't be alarmed when you receive the email from your hotel stating that pre-booking is recommended as they can sell out. This is during peak-period only. When we arrived, there were car parks full of buggies waiting to be hired.
Also, don't feel like this is your only option to get around. The main resort area, which is where you'll find the Reef View and Beach Club, is a 10-minute walk to the marina. You can also hop on the free shuttle buses, which will take you around the island.
During warmer months, use the free shuttle buses. Walking is possible, but the island is quite hilly, and in high humidity, this can be very uncomfortable. If you're impatient, you can do as we did and hitchhike. My husband laughed when I confidently (and jokingly) stuck my thumb out on the way back to our resort only to have a lovely man who worked nearby offer us his back seat. We gratefully accepted. It might not work for you, but just know there are nice people out there.
The view from our room at Reef View Hotel Image: Stephanie Yip/Finder
Chilling out at Main Pool Image: Stephanie Yip/Finder
Hamilton Island accommodation
Hamilton Island has a wide range of accommodation options for every need. At the bottom of the budget scale is the Reef View Hotel. It's a massive 363-room hotel that has options for couples and families. Rooms start at $370 per night.
The Beach Club is directly across from Reef View and is an upscale adults-only resort with an impressive infinity pool. At $720 per night, it's a romantic getaway that'll set you back a bit.
At the highest end of the scale is qualia. Located on the northern tip of the island, away from the other resorts, it's renowned for its world-class dining and spa facilities, which are exclusive to guests. At $1,300 per night, it's for the high-rollers only.
Other options include holiday homes, which are speckled throughout the island, and Palm Bungalows, which feature kitchenettes for home-cooked meals.
Being budget travellers, we went for the Reef View Hotel. With 4-stars to its name, it's still high-end, although due to its size and capacity, it feels busy and crowded. We booked a garden room, which was on the 4th floor and offered a very limited view of the front garden. Had we been on a higher level, we would have been able to see the beach. The room was geared at families, boasting two double beds, which made it extra spacious.
We checked out the pool and the Pool Terrace pool-bar but weren't thoroughly impressed. The pool was small, enclosed and had no view and the bar forgot my drink. A better alternative is to head to the Main Pool (pictured). It's on the doorstep of Catseye Beach, has a swim-up bar and has a winding swim space.
The Hamilton Island site often boasts discounts on rooms during low season. Keep an eye out and book when the price is right. All bookings made through the site earn Velocity Points.
If there is no discount, check out RedBalloon. It sells Reef View rooms and is how we booked as we had a $500 voucher from our wedding. On top of this, we used a 15% off coupon code to get our 3-day stay down to $608.37. Unfortunately, I asked at the desk but bookings made through RedBalloon aren't eligible for Velocity Points. Also, after we booked Hamilton Island decided to host a sale on Reef View rooms. I contacted RedBalloon to see if they would price-match but they don't. Once you've booked with RedBalloon you also can't cancel (not even for credit) so we were stuck paying the higher price.
Wagyu tartare at Coco Chu Image: Stephanie Yip/Finder
Salmon at Manta Ray Image: Stephanie Yip/Finder
Romantic Hamilton Island restaurants
Many of Hamilton Islands' fancier restaurants recommend or require pre-bookings. This includes Coca Chu, Beach Club and Bommie.
We put our money on Coca Chu and weren't disappointed. Featuring modern Asian cuisine, it had a luxe-cantina vibe to it and didn't scrimp on the chilli. The service was attentive and the cocktails creative, taking on a bit of a beach theme with extra "sand" on the rim. There are more than a few window seats to take in the view with your loved one.
For a walk-in affair with service and water views, try Manta Ray Restaurant. It's all modern Australian here with well-shaken cocktails including the infamous Hamilton Ice Tea. The meals are well-priced, starting at $23 for a main, though if you're not eating, you can just drop in for a drink.
For a cheaper option, the Pizzeria at the marina serves up generously sized pizzas at a reasonable price. We shared a pizza between the two of us for $24 and washed that down with some chips from Popeye's Fish and Chips for a cheap date out.
Hamilton Island activities for two
The list here could be endless, but of the activities and adventures we went on, these are our top three favourites for couples to swoon over.
On top of One Tree Hill Image: Stephanie Yip/Finder
1. Catch the view off One Tree Hill
Not the TV series but the cafe. It's on the northern tip of the island – not far from qualia – and being on top of the hill, perches itself in prime positioning to catch the sunset as it hits the horizon over the nearby islands.
It opens from midday for a cheeky "afternoon" drink and shuts just after sunset. Get there early to snap up those window seats.
Whitehaven Beach is oh-so-perfect Image: Stephanie Yip/Finder
2. Laze on Whitehaven Beach
We've always acknowledged that Australia has some of the most blissful beaches in the world, but you don't know what bliss is until you've stepped foot on Whitehaven Beach. The sand is so fine it feels like icing sugar under your feet. It's so pale, it's practically white. There aren't even rocks or shells. And the ocean? It's the definition of Pantone blue turquoise.
You can lay on the beach, splash in the water, hike to the view point or do whatever suits your fancy – just milk it for as long as you can.
No underwater images as somebody (coughs) forgot the GoPro. So here's the side of the boat leaving the Great Barrier Reef. Check out that colour! Image: Stephanie Yip/Finder
3. Snorkel or dive the Great Barrier Reef
I was afraid before we left that I would leave the GBR heavily disappointed. I'd been warned how bleached the coral was, that poor visibility could mar my experience and that booking the wrong tour would find me swimming with hundreds of others off a pontoon. Outside of the coral bleaching, we experienced none of this.
After the warning about cheap tours, we booked with Explore Group through the Hamilton Island website. It promised a small group tour (there were 38 of us in total) and sailed out to handpicked locations in the reef that featured coral that hadn't been destroyed by the cyclone in 2017.
We had visibility of 10 metres and after a few initial bumps against other snorkellers in the water, we fanned out enough to be able to immerse ourselves completely in the moment. Amid the bleached coral were outstanding pockets of colour. Marine life abounded and we managed to catch sight of schools of fish, a turtle, a manta ray and a reef shark.
We had two swims, with a lunch break in-between. Neither D nor I had ever snorkelled the Great Barrier Reef, so it was a sweet treat for both of us to experience its beauty together.
Day trips aren't cheap, though if you don't mind sticking around the island, there's plenty to do that won't cost you a cent. If the weather is cool and you have good hiking boots, leg it along one of the many trails on the island. Word of warning though: they're quite hilly. Most hotels offer free hire of kayaks, paddle-boards and snorkels, which you can use at Catseye Beach.
Stephanie Yip is the travel editor at Finder and has been writing about travel and lifestyle for over a decade. She has written for Travel Weekly, Escape, Thomas Cook Magazine, Showpo, The Nibbler and Hostelworld. She was also the editor of kids magazine DMAG. Stephanie has a Bachelor of Communications from the University of Technology Sydney and has visited over 50 countries (and counting). She has a passion for sharing her experiences and knowledge of travel and helping readers stretch their dollars while on holiday.
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