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An Australian dining landmark rises from the ashes: the Stokehouse is back ready to please the crowds for at least another generation to come, writes Michael Harden.
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When is a resort not a resort? When it is a retreat, a hideaway, an escape? At Qualia, which brings a rarified new level to the Hamilton Island holiday experience, they've settled on 'escape'.
Okay, sunny Hamilton Island is just a geographic reference, because there's widespread agreement that Qualia has set a new benchmark for Australian tourism. Better still, it has done so without confusing sophistication with conspicuous luxury.
The chic 60-pavilion escape on the northernmost point of Hamilton Island, which was due to open this month, has all the trappings of the most elegant high-end getaway. The north-facing Windward Pavilions each have stunning ocean views and their own private plunge pool, while the west-facing Leeward Pavilions have private sundecks with open-air cloudburst showers.
There's a choice of two restaurants, a gym (with an inhouse personal trainer) and yoga area, plus a library. There's also Spa Qualia, with six deluxe treatment rooms in which guests can indulge in an indigenous hot stone massage treatment, among other stress relievers. For those who want to travel further afield, two-seater golf buggies are available for private use.
There is none of the glitzy theme-park artifice that can sabotage many resort experiences, just the understated sophistication of a thoughtful concept overlaid with unmistakable yet sensitive references to local lifestyle and landscape. The guest experience here is clearly focused on a connection with the environment. Qualia is where busy professionals can escape the rigours of the boardroom and rejuvenate.
Visually, the retreat is 100 per cent tropical Australia - glimpses of corrugated-iron roofs, wide eaves, ventilation slats in the roof peaks, verandas and breezeways shimmering through a lacework of eucalypts and flowering melaleucas. The resort respects and complements the natural beauty of a setting surrounded by the Whitsundays' waters. But the elegance of its interiors and fittings, and the excellence of its amenities and services, places it among the best international experience-driven resorts.
The term 'experience-driven' brings us to the name 'Qualia'. Owner Bob Oatley and his family - well-remembered for Rosemount Estate wines - have spent an estimated $75 million on a development deserving of a distinctive name. Qualia (kwah-leea), a word of Latin derivation meaning a combination of sensory experiences, hit the spot and had the added benefit of not containing the words paradise, palms, plaza, coral or dunes.
While Australian tourism is euphoric over having a knockout new benchmark, it's reasonable to ponder whether the project is a magnificent vision or just a case of good capitalists adjusting to an evolving market.
Executive chairman Sandy Oatley says Australian tourism needs a new luxury resort to maintain its competitive position in the global market.
"It is international in its level of quality, but designed to be a distinctively Australian experience," he says. "In particular, we wanted to share the sense that, in Australia, elegant can also be casual. While everything is of the finest quality, we went out of our way to avoid it becoming imposing. The aim is for guests to feel comfortable." And with that, they're hoping the escape will induce "the spectrum of sensory experiences" from various parts of the property.
"Exceptional guest experiences cannot be artificially formulated, it must come from within the guest. We have created an environment which facilitates for each guest to respond to his or her senses... this coupled with exceptional service culminates to what we describe as 'The Qualia Effect'," says Oatley.
"If that wasn't the case, Qualia would have been the worst possible name for the place. As it is, guests can choose to take from Qualia what they will. We are proud to say that the attention to detail has never been seen before in this country."
Oatley's favourite town is Porto Cervo in northern Sardinia where his father lives for much of the year. He says elements of it are reflected in Qualia.
General manager Amanda Silk, ex-manager of award-winning resorts El Questro and Lizard Island, makes the point that Qualia expresses class and style, not money and ostentation. She predicts guests will be the most discerning of holidaymakers - those who are not afraid to part with the all-inclusive tariffs which begin at $1400 per night.
Qualia's design is the work of architect Chris Beckingham who has designed and built 15 houses on Hamilton Island, including Bob Oatley's home, Balmoral. In the two decades he has worked in the Whitsundays, Beckingham has evolved a tropical Australian style of architecture that is both climate and site specific.
"Bob's home in Sardinia reinforced our concept that true quality and style is achieved by paring back unnecessary detail and allowing the natural elements and materials to make the statement," says Beckingham.
The result is a design that brings together a sense of place, openness and breeziness - the private one-bedroom pavilions appearing to be constructed of panels of air and water framed by timber and stone.
Some pavilions are about four times the size of the average hotel suite and make
the most of natural bushland and water views to maximise the sense of space and harmony. Even the curtains are meshed for privacy without loss of view.
Interiors feature contemporary furniture designed by Freedman Rembel, the Australian team behind Sydney's harbourside Quay restaurant, among others, with many of the furnishings taking inspiration from the textures, shapes, surfaces and colours of tropical nature.
Perhaps the most amazing experience at Qualia is the Beach House, a $3000-a-night escape with sweeping views over the Coral Sea. It has a spacious bedroom plus guest pavilion, extensive entertaining area and a private full-sized swimming pool.
Qualia's focal point is the Long Pavilion, which creates a dramatic sense of arrival. Just short of 100 metres long, it opens onto an epic panorama of the Whitsundays. The Long Pavilion has 100 floor-to-ceiling folding glass doors which will spend most of their time opened to the elements - not so much a room that can be opened as a veranda that can be enclosed. While epic in size, the Long Pavilion maintains a strong and stylish connection to its tropical-island setting through a design that makes a hero of the view. Materials such as indigenous granite, native-wood finishes and natural fabrics are featured. Bowen granite is used extensively throughout Qualia and the contemporary chic of the Long Pavilion is expressed in the rich ox-blood flooring of kwila, a New Guinea hardwood, a ceiling of plantation hoop pine and expanses of raw and honed Italian volcanic rock called basaltino.
The pavilion embraces the signature dining room, lounge, bar, buffet areas and the library. A pool runs the length of the pavilion on the seaward side, while panels of floor-to-ceiling glass on the back wall showcase lush tropical landscaping featuring glossy indigenous palms and exotic heleconias and gingers. Furnishing fabrics borrow colours from the table - chocolate, armagnac, saffron.
As a backdrop to the dining area, a 1000-bottle climate-controlled wine wall creates an auspicious atmosphere in which to enjoy a menu blending vibrant Mediterranean and Asian influences created by executive chef Stephane Rio and his lieutenants Brendon Chadwick and Daniel James. In dining mode, the room achieves a rare combination of spaciousness and intimacy, and the menus tie together all the produce, seasons and moods of the area with a modern sensibility and a purity and depth of flavour that tick off more sensory experiences. Dishes such as an entrée of mud crab rillettes with gazpacho sorbet and garlic tuille, and coral trout with Asian-braised pork cheeks, coriander, Vietnamese mint and herb salad.
The Long Pavilion dining room provides a breakfast and dinner service, while the lunch venue is a more casual shoreline restaurant at Pebble Beach. Think platter dining here - seafood plates, antipasti. The dining space, with its expansive deck over the water, is part of a complex that includes a pool, gymnasium and cabanas.
Time for one more sensory experience. Spa Qualia protects the integrity of the Qualia experience by using terms like 'wellbeing', 'holistic' and 'nurturing'. Signature treatments include a chakra-therapy session using a range of Australian essential oils from Anoint and a hot stone massage treatment known as Bularri Yarrul.
Qualia guests are also free to indulge in the extensive range of amenities on the island - luxury yacht charters and helicopter excursions to Whitehaven Beach being favourites. Next year, the swanky facilities of the Great Barrier Reef Yacht Club will come on-line, followed by a Peter Thompson-designed 18-hole championship golf course, set to open on nearby Dent Island in 2009.
In the meantime, guests won't be disappointed with Qualia's on-site attractions, from simply relaxing by the pool to being pampered at the spa. It's a true escape.
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