Features writer Anna Tsekouras gives us the low-down on the Whitsundays.
Sure, there's Paris, the Amalfi Coast and the Bahamas. Romantic destinations for honeymooners, smug couples and those who believe upping their frequent flyer miles means upping the romance factor.
Little do they realise that nestled within Australia's own backyard lays a glittering constellation of 74 islands that calmly rival the sexiness of Mykonos and the showiness of Barbados.
Home to one of the world's best (Whitehaven) beaches? Check. An island shaped in the form of an actual heart for die-hard romantics? Check, check.
Just like we envy the Brazilians for their Victoria Secret producing nation, the world sees the Whitsundays as the perfect, lithe, sun-kissed Aussie. It's warm, welcoming, and so effortlessly sexy, in that tousled- hair–white–shirt-with-sleeves -rolled-up-over-faded-denim kind of way.
But make no mistake. The Whitsundays is not another casual affair. It's soaked with glamour, luxury and decadence and has enough heat to kick-start any flailing relationship, secure a new love interest or convince the commitment-shy to, well, commit.
With endless beaches, meditation centres, spas and sunsets, it's also an Eat, Pray, Love destination for happy and serious singletons. Me, included.
Paradise Bay Eco Escape
Glamour factor: Idyllic privacy: Rarely can you push back and your aviators and say, "my chopper is waiting". But if you're off to Paradise Bay Eco, hidden in the secluded southern tip of Long Island, you won't be lying. It's the only way to access the uber private eco-friendly five-star luxury resort, rarely visited by boats or tourists.
Suddenly, every fantasy I've had of being Ivana Trump and commanding my own island is fulfilled when waiting staff greet me by name, push champagne in my hand and present me with desert bearing my name written in Belgian chocolate.
Hosted by a couple, comprising a chef and host, they are the happy (real) couple equivalent of a butler - there to ensure your every desire is fulfilled. Not only do they offer refreshments and towels, it seems, but also a master class in dating happiness (that I furiously take notes in).
The rules are that there are no rules, merely three critical parts of the day: breakfast is at 9.30am; the island's private catamaran departs at 10.30am, anchoring at the most exclusive and remote islands for a day's trip of snorkelling, sailing, swimming and sun-bathing, and cocktails and canapés are at 6.30pm.
Culinary pleasure: What, we eat together? With no T.V. D.V.D, Wi-Fi (and other critical acronyms) allowed on the resort, the focus is on stripping things back, removing distractions and indulging in the art of true relaxation and conversation. With this in mind, the resort serves dinner in the outdoor 'living room' with fellow guests. Suddenly it feels as though I'm in a 5-star camp for grown-ups from all over the world, swapping stories around a bon-fire, while sipping on Bloody Mary cocktails.
The conversation is just as fresh as the gourmet meals plated up. Each course is matched to wines chosen from the owner's cellar of Australian Boutique favourites. Since I'm more master-failure-than-chef in the kitchen, I devour the proscuttio wrapped rock melon with halloumi and mint leave canapés with finesse.
I quickly learn that the more syllables in a meal's description, the greater the eating pleasure. Entrée is a salad of Moreton Bay bug and tiger prawn with a shellfish bisque. For the main, its molasses and ale marinated Tasmanian eye fillet with confit shallots, garlic and smoked bacon. A "Paradise Bay Layered Trifle" for desert completes the feast.
(I realise I'll never remember the meal – for later requisite gushing to my friends – and politely ask the chef to write it down. I feel confident I may be the next Iron Chef. Or, at least, Iron Food Speller.)
Relationship theme: Couple cleansing: With only 20 people allowed on the island at any one time, Paradise Bay is reminiscent of Temptation Island, minus the cheating. Free from mobile phone reception, kids, and modern cons – it's just you and your lover. If there was ever a time to have "that" talk, ask "that" question or to examine what the hell happened – this would be it. You have nothing but time, sunsets over the horizon and pure unadulterated intimacy.
Luckily, you're spared the experience of being privy to other's "intimacy", as you are housed in ultra-private water-front luxury bungalows, complete with verandas and swinging hammocks. An overhead fan replaces air-con in the eco-conscious bungalow, that complements the lazy feel. But being "conscience" doesn't mean "sacrifice" in Paradise Bay. Getting "back to basics", also means slipping between 400 thread count cotton cool sheets in summer, or a duck down quilt comforter with a 1,000 thread count cotton in winter.
Like a holiday straight out of a 1950's film, picture grainy images of long walks on the beach and cocktails by sunset – all the simple pleasures of holidaying in luxury.
Why it must be on your holiday bucket list: You can indulge in 5-star luxury guilt-free. Boldly green, it's reliant on solar power, natural gas and collected rainwater, the entire lodge consumes less energy than an average suburban home. What it lacks in consumption, it makes up for in secluded luxury. It has the awards to prove it too - picking up Trip Advisor's 2010 trophy for Number One hotel in Australia for 'romance' (as well as other global awards praising its innovation, forward-thinking as well as its superior facilities for one all-inclusive price).
Royalty factor: Just like, "it's Chanel" or "I got it at Tiffany’s" and "it's a Birkin", Qualia must be name-dropped at every turn.
For those who have heard of this world-class 5-star fortress that proudly sits on the secluded northern-most tip of Hamilton Island, they never fail to be impressed.
Suddenly a nervous twitch develops and (as much as they may try to fight it) raised eye-brows and a quickened breath indicates that yes, they have heard of this A-list, golden ticket, once-in-a-lifetime-stay boutique resort.
For those who haven't heard of Qualia, a casual reference to their reputation (did I mention superior facilities? World-class?) their clientele (every A-lister and people who matter) or a quote from their website: "Your every wish is catered for…where a premium level of discreet and intuitive service is guaranteed" – gives them the rough idea.
Relationship theme - Decadence: Disembarking from my Sydney flight with my fellow passengers is my last memory. The rest is a V.I.P blur of luxury, grandeur and class.
As the Qualia staff representative greets me at the airport and gracefully hands me my cool, rolled towelette "for my comfort", I am instantly distanced from my poor (ahem) fellow passengers – in space and class. While they bustle about for their bags, sweaty and tired, I float, as if in slow motion to my lover –ahem, Qualia host - and am chauffeured to the resort, in style.
Like the fortress that it is, the metre-high gates swing open and I steadfastly don't look back. My freestanding north-facing Windward pavilion is, well, a pavilion – everything that a hotel room tries to be and isn't (four times the size to be precise).
It's the one time that I can confidently use "flawless design" (and mean it). A sprawling studio, shaded by eucalyptus and palms, with polished timber floors and floor-to-ceiling glass windows that shows off the 360 degree, breath-taking beauty of Hamilton island (yes, from every window).
I run from room to room and spin around, flop on the sea-view room bed (aka Julia in Pretty Woman) and shout with glee. I am drunk on the mesmerizing views of the Coral Sea, staring boldly back at me from my bed.
The his and hers bathroom is so beautiful it makes me want to weep and sleep in the tub. Every amenity, I am told, has been signed off by management, from the natural fibre Lou fah to the bath soap (Aesop all the way). Lush tropics surround the floor to floor windows, with a feeling of outside meets inside. I estimate that 18 people could fit in the sprawling shower (if you're into that kind of thing) and want to curl up there and read a book.
The only thing that draws me out of my beautifully appointed Pavillion is the outside. From the north-facing sundeck, to the private infinity-edged plunge pool. My mouth aches from gaping.
But there's more. So much more. Did I mention they hand you keys to your own transport? Even Qualia's golf carts are a cut above the rest. For my entertainment I am given use of a two-seater electric golf buggy for "independent excursions around Hamilton Island".
I drive between their two swimming pools, their two restaurants (fine dining vs a more casual affair) their fully equipped gym and fitness centre and their tranquil library. I cruise in my Qualia buggy, engaged in my superior Qualia thoughts and over-take, while head held high, other no-name hotel carts.
Pampering plus: I stop in at Spa Qualia, which is as intensely pleasurable as it sounds. I am told by my masseuse that I will be having a full-body massage using LI'TYA premium products which "integrate indigenous modalities, utilising precious extracts from the Australian earth and pure botanicals". Throw in organic Australian native plants, pure essential oils and no artificial fragrances. They also use Sodashi (meaning 'wholeness, purity and radiance') that are "world-class products for your skin, your body and your soul, made using the highest quality plant essences and formulated using the knowledge and wisdom of natural healing traditions".
I am already so seduced by the words, that it feels like the actual massage is just a bonus. I suddenly am overcome by the need to obtain a tattoo from Bali with these kindred words.
Culinary delights: Degustation. That's all you need to know when you visit Long Pavillion restaurant. Each course is reminiscent of the seven stages of grief.
I am close to tears when the peking duck consomme starter is finished. I grieve my poor little duck during the second course, of seared tuna and wasabi with pickled ginger sorbet. I show signs of recovery when my third course arrives, a golden egg (indeed) with mushroom cream and truffle brioche soldiers. I am feeling the dairy guilt and bargain with my gut as the fourth course appears, a chilled salad of coconut marinated bugs. I work my way through my anger and through course five– lamb loin with hazelnut puree, minted peas and parmesan and rosemary crumbs. Oh me, oh my. Round six, the espresso and baileys give me momentary joy. Finally, I reach true acceptance after I polish off the chocolate walnut brownine – that sadly, it's all over.
Why it must be on your holiday bucket list: It's Qualia. With more awards under its belt than Katharine Hepburn, including the 2011 Australian Gourmet Traveller award for 'Best Australian Resort' as well as remaining a permanent fixture on Condé Nast Traveller's (USA and UK) Gold Lists and Hot Lists – the list of accolades go on. Seemingly had Sex and the City's Carrie and co. been unable to secure Abu-Dabi for its second instalment – Qualia would've been its fifth cast member.