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The names of Hamilton Island and the Whitsundays are synonymous with tropical relaxation. Every year, hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers make their way to this chain of islands — possibly the most gorgeous along the entire Queensland coast — so they can kick back with a cocktail under the palms and listen to the tinkling of the waves through the coral.
My trip to the island, with a group of fellow photographers, was anything but that. There were definitely cocktails involved, but they were generally arranged around photographic opportunities — something that the Whitsundays have even more of than beaches.
In the span of three days, and aided by our handy golf carts (the official form of transportation on Hamilton), we saw more of the island than I would have ever seen otherwise. We were up well before dawn and stayed out well into the night chasing stars, and as a result, we captured some memorable photos that just wouldn’t have been possible in the middle of the day.
So where do I recommend you head to capture the image that epitomises your trip to paradise?
Heading up to One Tree Hill for sunset is one of the most popular pastimes on Hamilton Island…so much so that every night, a pop-up cocktail bar operates there from 4.30pm until sunset. As can be expected, they are quite expensive (generally around $14.50) and there aren’t many options, but after walking up the hill from our holiday house, they were refreshing. That said, I couldn’t justify having more than one.
The reason One Tree Hill is the place to be is its location high above the rest of the island (except for Passage Peak). It offers views straight across the water to the mainland and the setting sun and has plenty of grassy knoll for everyone to claim their own spot. It’s good that the view required focal lengths verging on telephoto as well, since otherwise you’d struggle to find a spot where your photos wouldn’t be filled with people.
As for why it’s called One Tree Hill? That’s a good question. There seemed to be trees everywhere, and we couldn’t identify that one special tree.
We found this one completely by chance. Having decided that it was getting too cold on the beach (it was still winter, after all), we packed up and drove up the hill towards our house only to find this scene waiting for us.
It was too good to pass up, so we quickly learned how to do a u-turn in a golf buggy and pulled over for a few shots. The marina is scenic as it is — especially with the boat-shaped yacht club — and the sunset made it even moreso.
This one won’t be an option for everyone, but a lot of the holiday homes on the island have good views so you might be in luck. While some of our view was blocked by trees, the sun was kind enough to go down in an area where we could clearly see it dropping behind the hills of the mainland.
What a turnaround from sunset to sunrise. At sunset, we would have been hard pressed to find a parking spot for our golf buggies. When we arrived on the hill around 30 minutes before sunrise, we were the only people there.
A few more people gradually filtered in as the sun was about to rise over the horizon, but all of together would have made up less than 1/10 of the people that had been there the night before.
Because One Tree Hill is the high point on the western side of Hamilton Island, it means that it has views both towards the sunset and the sunrise. We were able to watch the sun appear on the horizon just beyond Whitsunday Island, and while it wasn’t the most spectacular sunrise, it was still worth seeing.
Of all the sunrise and sunset spots we went to on the island, this was my favourite. I felt like I had a lot more options compositionally and a great angle of view looking directly at the rising sun…yet after sunrise I could move so I could get the colours without the white-hot glare of the sun blowing out my photos.
Plus, sitting on the beach watching the sunrise has to be my favourite way to start the day. Good thing I live in one of the best places in the world to do that!
I know I keep mentioning One Tree Hill, but its proximity to our house and its location made it great for multiple forms of photography. As soon as darkness fell, we realised that the Milky Way had appeared above us, and plenty of photos ensued. The Milky Way is best seen in the winter months in the southern hemisphere as it is highest in the sky, so its angle in the sky only got better as the night went on.
Funnily enough, we never actually visited the chapel during the day, but then again, we weren’t on Hamilton Island for a wedding (which is its usual purpose). We thought it would make a great foreground subject for Milky Way photography until we realised that the lights were left burning. I’m not sure if that’s a common occurrence, but it would have been so much better to capture the chapel in darkness; the lights made it a much more difficult proposition to balance with the darkness of the sky above.
That said, all of the ambient light in the area made for really interesting palm tree shots, since we didn’t have to light them at all but still got a great lighting effect. The majority of our group spent more time aiming up into the trees than at the chapel — especially since the brightest part of the Milky Way was in that direction.
Our last night time stop on the island was Catseye Beach, the most popular beach on the island that is ringed with resorts. I recommend walking through the lobby area of the Reef View Hotel out onto the beach nearby; not only will you get beach scenes (and the occasional rocks), but you’ll also find plenty of other props for the foreground, such as a line of Hobie catamarans (which are available for rental during the day).
Those were all the spots we had the energy to go looking for on our long weekend on the island, but there are surely plenty more (like Passage Peak on the island’s eastern side) that are waiting to be captured. So what are you waiting for?
Of all these views, which is your favourite? Which one would you seek out if you were staying on Hamilton Island?
Virgin Australia and Jetstar run daily flights direct from Sydney and Brisbane to Hamilton Island (Great Barrier Reef Airport). Flights can be as cheap as $59 one way.