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Hamilton Island Race Week: Australia’s Ascot on the water

Originally published in The Telegraph
Hamilton Island Race Week: Australia’s Ascot on the water

The annual Audi Hamilton Island Race Week is Australia's largest offshore keelboat regatta; Anthony Horowitz joins its billionaire supporter Bob Oatley for a day at the races.

Australian billionaires may not be our favourite kind of people right now, but 84-year-old Bob Oatley (or “Popeye ”, as he is known) is a benign example of the breed. He is not associated with hacking, or intent on dominating every medium we use, but has made his living peddling pleasure. First he traded coffee and cocoa in Papua New Guinea, then made his fortune founding, and ultimately selling, Rosemount Wines . He now heads up the dynasty that owns Qualia resort on Hamilton Island, two hours by air from Sydney and nudging the Great Barrier Reef. The family owns the rest of Hamilton Island, too, a place largely inspired by Porto Cervo in Sardinia, where Bob owns a holiday home and has spent many a summer. Created by the Aga Khan in the 1960s , Porto Cervo, with its exclusive Yacht Club Costa Smeralda , is a playground for the rich and nautical – as is Hamilton Island.

I was there last August for the annual Audi Hamilton Island Race Week, Australia’s largest offshore keelboat regatta and one of the must-sail events in the southern hemisphere. Some 168 boats were taking part, from sportsboats to multi-million-pound “supermaxi” yachts such as Wild Oats XI , the 100ft monster owned by the Oatleys – and competition was fierce. It made me wonder why James Bond never went sailing. If you want to see the super-rich battling the elements – and each other – by day while canoodling in six-star luxury by night, head here.

“Once you get racing in your blood, you can’t lose it,” Bob Oatley told me – and throughout his life, he has never done business on a Wednesday, refusing to miss the weekly races in Sydney Harbour. I watched the Race Week action from Oatley’s other yacht – a mere 65ft in length – bobbing along with dozens of fellow spectators, on private vessels or on tour boats that set off daily from the main harbour. You can charter a skiff or a maxi yacht of your own if you want to take part. It’s a spectacular sight, with the tide rushing between the islands and trade winds gusting up to 30 knots. I loved watching the bowmen, tacticians and navigators in their colourful gear. Is there any sport so laid-back and yet so ruthlessly professional?

The greatest thrill came at the end when Wild Oats XI, with its astonishing 140ft carbon-fibre mast, came cutting through the water towards us at 34 knots. I wish I could have gone on board the A$10 million (£6.7 million ) machine, built with the sophistication of a jet fighter, crewed by two dozen of the best sailors in the world and capable of sailing upwind faster than the wind itself. It has won the Sydney to Hobart yacht race six times and would win everything, but for the number of handicaps it has been given to level the playing field.

But there was more to Race Week than the yachting, not least a glittering parade of cocktail parties, lunches and dinners. It began with a champagne reception at the brand-new A$30-million yacht club, where I mingled with sailors, celebrities, fashion designers, Olympic heroes and entrepreneurs. Past guests have included Oprah Winfrey, Naomi Watts and Dannii Minogue , but the atmosphere was unexpectedly casual – no ties, no VIP areas. Celebrity chefs had been flown in, including Kylie Kwong , co-owner of Billy Kwong in Sydney. I have never tasted better crispy duck, and her steamed scallops with ginger and spring onions were sensational. There were also beach parties, a fashion show by the Australian designer Collette Dinnigan and a pop-up bar provided by the Keystone Group , which runs some of Sydney’s best-known clubs and restaurants. How does anyone get up to sail?

The executive chef at Qualia is Alastair Waddell , originally from Glasgow and a master of “sous-vide” cooking, which uses airtight plastic bags and very precise temperatures to create pretty much perfect textures and tastes. Perhaps that was only to be expected at Australia’s first six-star resort, located on the northernmost tip of Hamilton, with views over the Coral Sea towards the neighbouring Whitsunday Islands. There are 60 private pavilions dotted around gardens that are gorgeous and well-established – it’s difficult to believe they were created relatively recently. And there are no cars. Guests trundle around the island in electric buggies at a cheerful 5mph. At times I felt like a character in The Prisoner, the cult 1960s television series set in a mysterious seaside “village” – but hopefully with better dress sense.

My room had floor-to-ceiling windows, and the views were so striking I could have spent my entire visit lying on the capacious bed or immersed up to my neck in the bath, which is shaped like half a bird’s egg. Against an ever-changing sky, the landscape appeared as a series of paper cut-outs: the hillsides plunging down to the beaches, the spiky palm trees silhouetted against the setting sun, the dozens of little islands scattered across the sea. Qualia was designed by Chris Beckingham , a local architect who is also a Buddhist. I’ve seldom stayed anywhere so serene.

Not everything on the island is perfect. Although you can’t see them from Qualia, it would be unfair not to mention the 380-room Reef View Hotel or the Yacht Harbour Tower apartments, both built by the island’s former owners and variously described as “old-fashioned” and “unsympathetic”. Frankly, if the island were mine, I’d blow them both up. But the Oatleys like it just the way it is – and they have a point. You don’t have to be super-rich to come here; you can find a room or rent a house at many price points, and it was good to see lots of families with children on the lively, slightly Disney-esque harbour front.

Just about anything you can do in, on or under the water is possible here – from swimming and diving to paragliding and, of course, sailing. But for me, the real highlight of the trip was a helicopter ride to Hardy Reef in a four-seater Robinson R44 , swooping as low as was legal over the islands and the sea. We were close enough to pick out stingrays , turtles and pods of humpback whales. Every year they come here to give birth – and the sight of a mother with her new-born calf balanced on her flipper, which is how they learn to swim, was one I won’t forget.

Before arriving in Hamilton Island, I had spent some time at the Oatley family vineyards in Mudgee , New South Wales, in a beautiful spot north of the Blue Mountains . With its soft rolling hills, wooden houses and rusty metal windmills, it could have been Kansas 100 years ago. As I was treated to a superb barbecue on a windswept hillside, I kept expecting Dorothy or Toto to join us at the table.

From there I was flown to Hamilton Island on board the Oatleys’ Falcon 2000 . It was the first time I had travelled this way, and I loved it. It’s not just the leather seats and the leg-room. It’s the sense of empowerment, the delicious informality, the way you can stroll on to the plane without the ritual humiliation of clearing security, take off when you want and even sit in the cockpit as you come in to land. Plastic forks? I don’t think so.

I used the journey to chat to the steely-eyed but smiling Sandy Oatley , Bob’s fiftysomething son. He is the man who runs Hamilton Island, looking after its 1,000 staff and such details as the 200,000 litres of water needed each day to keep things running, the design of the new golf course, and even the position of the shower mats in the rooms. The one thing he wouldn’t discuss was the disastrous sale of the family business, Rosemount Wines (“We don’t like talking about that”), which went to Southcorp Wines for A$1.5 billion in 2001 . The Rosemount brand, once synonymous with the burgeoning Australian wine industry, headed fast downmarket where it effectively shrivelled and died. But now the Oatleys are back with a range of wines carrying the Robert Oatley Vineyards (ROV) label. Some of them have already won major awards, although I wonder how names such as “Tic Tok ” and “Wild Oats ” will go down at Claridge’s.

At Mudgee and on Hamilton Island, I began to understand this great Australian dynasty and what makes it tick. What motivates the Oatleys – whether in their wine business or in tourism – is a burning sense of national pride and a determination to sell Australia to the world. I asked Bob Oatley if he was religious. “No,” he replied. “But I’m a very proud Australian. That’s my religion.” He means it quite seriously, and Qualia is his high altar.