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8,000 year heritage History of Hamilton Island

Renowned winemaker, Bob Oatley, and his family purchased Hamilton Island in 2003 - turning it into the world-class holiday destination it is today.

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History of Hamilton Island

The Ngaro people

The Whitsundays form the traditional lands of the Ngaro people, who archaeologists report settled in the region approximately 8,000 years ago. The many islands and the surrounding waters, provided a bounty of food and ideal opportunities for shelter, making it a hospitable place to live and settle.

The naming of The Whitsundays

On Sunday, 3 June, 1770 (the day Whit Sunday is celebrated on the Christian calendar) Captain James Cook sailed his ship the Endeavour, through this broad expanse of islands and water which provided an unimpeded passage to the north. Accordingly, he named it ‘Whitsunday Passage’. Cook and his crew were amazed by what they were observing – some 150 tropical islands spanning near one degree of latitude, and in close proximity to the coast. Cook blanketed the group with the name ‘Cumberland Isles’, but as time passed, those islands adjacent to the Whitsunday Passage became more commonly known as ‘The Whitsundays’. It was the mid-1800s when European settlers came from the south and moved into the coastal region of the Whitsundays. They were mainly timber-getters, graziers and sugarcane farmers, and it wasn’t long before they made their way east to the coast where they discovered for themselves the true beauty of the islands.

The naming of The Great Barrier Reef

It was more than 15 years after that the explorer Matthew Flinders, sailed by while undertaking the incredible task of circumnavigating the entire continent. During his circumnavigation of Australia, Flinders actually walked on the reefs, which he referred to as the ‘Extensive Barrier Reefs’ when he was off the coast of Queensland, and this reference is believed to have contributed to the adoption of the name, the Great Barrier Reef.

The arrival of tourism

Tourism arrived in the 1920s when galvanised iron huts appeared on some islands and along parts of the coast to accommodate locals and holidaymakers who came from the inland (the ‘outback’) and the south. The small, charming coastal village of Airlie Beach appeared on the map in 1936, but it was not until the 1970s that the identity of the Whitsundays moved strongly towards tourism. That was when the first significant yacht charter companies began to operate out of nearby Shute Harbour.

The development of Hamilton Island

The real boom arrived in the early 1980s with the development of the gateway to the Whitsundays and Great Barrier Reef: Hamilton Island. In the mid-1970s when the high profile Queensland tourism entrepreneur, Keith Williams, was enjoying a cruise through the Whitsundays aboard his large motor yacht, he noticed an island on the port side that he’d not seen before. It was Hamilton Island, and what impressed him most was that it had one of the very few north-facing beaches to be found anywhere on the east coast of Australia. He made some inquiries about the island, and within a very short time, he purchased it and decided to turn it into an exciting tourist destination. He built a commercial airport, harbour and resort from scratch and by the early 1980s he could lay claim to Hamilton Island being Australia’s premier tropical island resort destination.

The Oatley era begins

When Keith Williams was in the early stages of the development of his resort, renowned Australian winemaker Bob Oatley was cruising through the islands aboard a yacht and just happened to sail past Hamilton Island: ‘I didn’t go ashore, but I could recognise the potential of the island,’ Oatley said. ‘It was the very early days of the development; they were building the airstrip and the harbour at the time, and there was a lot of activity going on. I remember saying “what a great project that is,” never thinking that one day I’d be the owner.’

Current ownership

Bob Oatley and his family later came to purchase Hamilton Island in 2003 and, following an exceptional investment and development program, they now present a world-class destination that promises leisure, lifestyle, adventure and escape in a region of incredible natural beauty.