HAMILTON ISLAND, Queensland, Australia -- Just off the coast of Australia's mainland, Hamilton Island ranks as the most populous of the 74 Whitsunday Islands along the Great Barrier Reef.
A resort destination since the 1970s, it has finally appeared on the golf radar.
The unofficial capital of the islands -- if only because it's home to the lone commercial airport and a large port -- Hamilton Island is hardly a metropolis, with only about 5,000 people on the island at any time.
Only 30 percent of the island is available for development. But most of the Whitsunday action is based here. Each year, the Audi Hamilton Island Race Week welcomes sailing enthusiasts from all over the world.
On a regular week, the island has a slower vibe as visitors arrive by plane or their own boats. They come to set up a base for an excursion to the Great Barrier Reef or world-famous Whitehaven Beach -- or to stay put and take in the island's own natural attractions.
Though the island operates as one resort, it's more like a small village to the visitors. Numerous resort options exist, with most of the action near the port, where you'll find a port-side shopping street, restaurants, little sweet shops and more.
The main method of transportation around the island is the golf buggy. But only in 2009 did the island actually became a golf destination. The resort has flourished since the Oatley family -- of Australian wine estates fortune -- purchased the island in 2003. Since then, they've gone full-bore with additions, renovations of existing buildings and plenty of new recreation options.
Now, with most construction complete for the time being, the island is shining brightly, especially with the addition of its new 18-hole golf course, unlike anything in Queensland.
The new Hamilton Island Golf Club on Dent Island
Travel to Hamilton Island Golf Club requires about a five-minute ferry ride on the "Island Links" from Hamilton Island across to Dent Island, home to the golf club and nothing else.
More than a dozen golf-course architectural firms have visited the site of the golf course, planned for about 20 years. The Oatley family finally put the plan in action with Australian designer and former professional Peter Thomson.
To fit 18 holes here must have been a real challenge -- as rough-and-tumble Dent Island isn't exactly built for golf. The golf course plays to a par of 71 and measures 6,692 yards from the back of three tee boxes.
Perhaps it fit the mold of the traditional Scottish links that Thomson, a former five-time British Open champ, didn't shy away from blind tee shots, rolling, natural fairway undulations and some hidden hazards.
Thick grass, rock outcroppings and vegetation line most holes. The first time around leaves a few awkward tee shots, so it's best to consult the yardage book -- or to seek the services of head professional Cherie Alison.
A former LPGA pro, Alison makes finding the fairway look a little too easy.
For the rest of us without laser-like drives, expect a few lost balls when the wind picks up. And it does, given the exposed positions of many holes above the sea.
The back nine gets especially dramatic. The closing stretch hugs the coastline, starting with the short, par-3 14th that plays over a coastal ravine. The ensuing hole plays along a narrow strip of land on the island, and then you turn around to play the par-3 16th, which features a green built out on bluffs. A wooden-bridge cart path around the right side of the green runs behind a giant boulder.
If that's not enough to see, No. 18 is a long par 4 that plays from a steeply elevated tee box straight toward Hamilton Island and its new focal point, the $85 million Yacht Club and villas that opened shortly after the golf course.
Stay and play on Hamilton Island
Other than a mysterious, small pack of goats that find their way to the golf course from time to time, Dent Island includes no accommodations, though some are planned, or inhabitants. Hamilton Island offers a variety of accommodations to suit most groups, from three-star hotels and self-catering apartments to luxury, high-end villas and hotel rooms.
Larger family, golf and buddy groups have especially taken to the new villas, along with the yacht club. The highest building on the island is the Reef View Hotel, which also provides the best views. Guest rooms, featuring large balconies, were refurbished in recent years to offer all new amenities. Just beware of the cockatoos that may raid your room when you're out.
The most high-end option on the island is the new qualia hotel. This adults-only retreat, secluded from the rest of the resort, has its own spa, pool, bar and dining. Among the spa offerings, the "Golf Pro" treatment starts with a foot soak and pedicure and leads to a manicure, pedicure, scalp and shoulder rub in an open-air treatment room, overlooking the sea.
Getting to Hamilton Island
Hamilton Island has its own airport, Great Barrier Reef Airport (code: HTI) and receives several flights daily from cities like Brisbane and Sydney on Virgin Blue, JetStar and Qantas. You can get here from the mainland via ferry from the Shute Harbor port, but you must leave your car in the parking lot on the mainland.
It's golf buggies only on Hamilton Island.