Do you remember Fantasy Island?
That hit TV series about a mystical tropical island paradise where dreams come true – for a price.
Tattoo, a trusty sidekick to the enigmatic white-suited Mr Roarke, became a pop icon for millions of prime-time viewers in the late ’70s and early ’80s for his catchcry “Ze Plane, Ze Plane”.
Like many other gen Xers, now middle-aged and shackled to a mortgage, school fees and work, it was a wonder of my childhood. Did such an exotic place where people from all walks of life can go to live out their fantasies, really exist?
In the Whitsundays, it did.
Hayman, Hamilton, Daydream, Lindeman, South Molle, Hook and Long Island were all open as resorts and pumping hard in the ’80s.
Holiday-makers, backpackers and Baby Boomers with kids in tow flocked there on a mission to live out their own fantasies. Those were the halcyon days.
The 74 islands of the Whitsundays became a world-famous wonderland with its boating, bejewelled sea, white beaches, coral-fringed bays and forest-clad peaks.
It was all sun, sea, fun, swimming, fishing, sailing, coral gazing and all-you-can-eat buffets.
Some resorts, like the now defunct Lindeman’s Club Med and South Molle, were notably popular with adults for a hedonistic mix of wild parties, booze, sex, and late-night skinny dips.
There was no talk of sharks as reef-goers piled into cargo nets towed behind boats and the only mishap was the odd lost bikini top.
But then came Bali, Thailand, and Vietnam as families from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane flew overseas in search for a cheap beach holiday.
Forget Tourism Australia’s $180m tourism campaign “Where the Bloody Hell Are You”. It was the 2009 “Best Job in the World” promotion that restarted the craze, winning over an entirely new generation of travellers.
Ginger-haired Brit Ben Southall beat 35,000 applicants in 2009 to become caretaker of the Islands of the Great Barrier Reef for six months, generating an estimated $450 million worth of publicity.
In what is widely regarded as one of the most successful tourism campaigns of its kind, he posted 2000 pictures, sent 1000 tweets, wrote 60 blogs, and got 5.4 million hits on the website to lure in the digitally connected of the new social-media age.
“Not since Willy Wonka and the golden tickets hidden in chocolate bars, has something come along like this,” wrote the editor of the Sunday Times of London.
Oprah Winfrey, Taylor Swift and a host of Instagram influencers followed but it was Cyclone Debbie two years ago that completely transformed the destiny of the Islands of the Great Barrier Reef.
Category-four Cyclone Debbie, packing 263km/h winds, was a devastating event that scored a direct hit on the Whitsundays but there was a billion-dollar silver lining in the dust cloud of the reconstruction effort and hopes are now high the Whitsundays and Airlie Beach region is about to enter a honeymoon period with a slate of shiny new luxury resorts.
Daydream Island, ravaged by the category-four storm, opened for business on Monday for the first time after a stunning $140 million rebuild of the iconic resort.
“Breathe. Relax. Unwind,” Daydream general manager Dawson Tang tells Insight of the relaunch campaign.
He hopes generations of families who visited over the years will come back to revisit the new 4.5 star version.
Former Daydream chief executive Scott Wilkinson, whose parents ran South Molle Island and who fondly recalls those heady days, believes the region is about to undergo a honeymoon-like revival.
“We need to step away now and embrace what is new, what is good and what the future holds,” he says.
Hayman Island, too, has spent $100 million to “re-imagine” the exclusive luxury resort before it was demolished by the cyclone.
“It will be for guests who are looking for an experience that’s nothing short of sublime,” Hayman resort boss Mark Eletr says, ahead of the July opening.
“Like many, I share a special affinity with Hayman Island,” says Eletr, who has also worked at Green Island and Lizard Island.
“Its spectacular beauty and seclusion are rare encounters in today’s world.”
Hamilton Island boss Glenn Bourke is the real-life version of the sophisticated and suave Mr Roarke of Fantasy Island.
The former Olympic sailor has been making visitors’ dreams come true at the biggest island resort, bought by the late Bob Oatley, for the past 11 years.
“The Best Job in the World was an incredible panorama for the globe to see us and understand us and I think it was a wonderful marketing ploy,” he tells Insight.
“Oprah Winfrey cuddling a koala here and walking down the beach enjoying all of those aspects of a tropical island getaway were big things for us.
“The Great Barrier Reef, it’s right there, that’s number one.
“Number two: all of these islands are safe havens for boating opportunities that people don’t always get in their lives.
“And Whitehaven Beach is around the corner of course, and that is something you’ve just got to do.”
He says Daydream and Hayman spending at least $240 million to build brand new sparkling accommodation will have a “magnetic pull for Australians”.
“We really have great anticipation, I’ve had a look at Daydream and I think they are doing a great job, and I know that Hayman are spending a really solid amount in a complete refurbishment of that island.
“The other great thing for us at the moment, coincidentally, is that the Australian dollar is at US70¢ or thereabouts.”
Bourke feels the almost $6 billion reef tourism economy is on the cusp of a new dawn in the Whitsundays.
“It took a lot of work, but everybody cracked on and got going, and the product here will be the best it has ever been in decades.
“All of us, the three major players being really healthy and refurbished, is the catalyst for everything.
“What it does is creates more volume into the region through the airport, which means the airlines become more competitive with their pricing and the volume makes it commercially viable for them to increase the number of flights.
“Yes, it took a while to get there, absolutely, but we’re ready to go.
“They are all just about open, and we continue to be strong and refurbish things and to spend money and make sure our product is competitive and fresh and new and moving forward.
“And all of those things support the whole industry and the whole area of the Whitsundays.”
Hamilton, at the epicentre of the cyclone, has also been rebuilt with a new marina, new conventions centre, new blocks of staff accommodation, and a beach pavilion is being built on Catseye beach.
“We took the opportunity to do a complete refresh of Qualia as well and brought it back to a new state; it was perfect timing for us.
“It had been open for ten years, its reputation was very high, and we felt there were some things we could do to bring it back to a new condition.
“The cyclone, while it was traumatic and difficult, it did allow us to do a lot of the jobs maybe we wanted to anyway.
“We feel like we are now really robust against cyclones or whatever nature can throw at us.”
Bourke is philosophical about the horror spate of four shark attacks, one fatal, in the past six months in the region.
“Shark attacks are a part of life and nature, and obviously we felt incredibly compassionate towards the people who were injured and killed and the families involved. I think these things can be coincidental.
“And I think the Government, in reviewing why (three attacks) might have happened in Cid Harbour in that time, is interesting for us and we are still waiting for the full report.
“We think as populations grow and as there are more boats in the harbour and if the actions of boaters are to throw food scraps overboard, there are probably lessons that have been learnt and we should steer away from that sort of behaviour.
“So, we are learning as well, but we’re like the rest of coastal Australia, there is a chance these attacks happen, but it is unfortunate and it’s life.”
Easter bookings are at 96 per cent, which means they are effectively full, in positive signs the marketplace is still strong, after a 90 per cent occupancy rate all year round in the past two years.
Silicon Valley banker Andrew Skalitzky and wife Chrissy recently lived out a “fairytale set in the tropics” on a sailing honeymoon in the Whitsundays.
The Californian couple told of the next-level luxury on Hamilton Island, home to the world’s top-rated Qualia resort, which costs about $1250 a day.
Skalitzky was an undergraduate uni student in Wollongong when he saw pictures of the shimmering turquoise waters of Whitehaven Beach.
“I always wanted to come back,” he said, toasting a sunset fantasy from One Tree Hill. “Sailing through the islands was an adventure unlike any other.”
Sydney pair Nicola Beverley and Craig Walker, originally from the UK, wanted to tick-off a visit to the outer Great Barrier Reef.
“It’s a must-do,” Beverley, said of snorkelling at Heart Pontoon on Hardy Reef this week.
“It’s been top of our bucket list. Now we can say we’ve done one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.”
Brisbane’s Richard and Helen Southwell, and kids Zac, 5, and Anna, 3, decided to spend Easter break on Hamilton Island this year taking sailing lessons.
“We’re expecting baby number three so we thought we’d squeeze in a tropical holiday,” Richard said.
“It’s been a dream trip.”
Of the renewed interest in the region, Bourke says it has been keenly anticipated and much appreciated.
“We’ve been waiting for it with bated breath for quite a while, we are really looking forward to them (the resorts) cracking on, and I think the overall benefits to the region are huge.
“Good on them and well done. The Whitsundays is open for business.”