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Gastronomic delights at sea 4:07pm, Mon 07 Sep 2015

CCY feature in The Australian Travel section, Queensland's Whitsundays region has long been a magnet for foodies. After Lieutenant James Cook recorded the charmed archipelago off the northern Australian coast in 1770, subsequent sailors planted coconut palms and set goats and pigs loose on the islands to supplement the abundant seafood supplies. Archaeological evidence from middens at Nara Inlet shows the Ngaro people have long feasted on the local bounty of fish, turtles, birds, marsupials and reptiles. But the potential for culinary indulgence in the Whitsundays has never been greater than right now.

During three days of sailing and pleasure-seeking I am feted with mud crabs and champagne, teppanyaki toothfish soused in sake, a Catalan-style surf n turf paella of nannygai and chicken skin, and a twilight dinner of coral trout barbecued on the back of a boat at Whitehaven Beach.

Our custom-made itinerary begins at Abell Point­ Marina in Airlie Beach where Charlie Preen welcomes us aboard the eight-berth catamaran Seaduction, one of a considerable inventory of bareboat vessels he operates as managing director of Cumberland Charter Yachts. The plan is to give us a cook's tour (but, clearly not a James Cooks tour) of the islands' gastronomic highlights, our days divided between the luxury resorts of Hayman and Hamilton islands and a night on board at Whitehaven.

The trade winds are gusting at 10 to 15 knots from the southeast as we venture past a parade of moored vessels, with wince-making names such as Two Keel A Sunset, into open water. Hayman is straight ahead of us at the end of the Molle Passage. Hook and Whitsunday islands are off to the right. Preen unfurls the sails, winching and tightening and whatever else it is sailors do to make cloth catch wind. A veteran of six Sydney-to-Hobart ocean races, he knows his craft, so I just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Chris Cross is singing in my head "If the wind is right you can sail away and find serenity..") as we glide over the Coral Sea past the rainforested peaks of drowned mountains towards gathering sunshine in the east. "It looks like the day is going to come up nice,' Preen smiles. By the time we reach Blue Pearl Bay, on Haymans northwest coast, the rainclouds have dissolved and the sky is all soothing blue and puffs of white. Time for some seagoing exercise - a swim to shore, a snorkel over the fringing reef - and a sun -drenched lunch of caesar salad an- ­sauvignon blanc.

It is peak hour at One & Only Hayman Island when we pull into the marina midafternoon. The resort’s sleek cruiser, Sea Goddess, which transfers guests from Hamilton Island airport, docks just ahead of us; a helicopter hovers noisily overhead. The 65-year-old Hayman ­resort, reopened last July after an $80 million renovation, is the buzz of the smart set once more.

After settling into one of the new pool-wing suites, doubled in size and as chic as you'd find anywhere, we meet executive chef Karim Hassene for a progressive dinner showcasing three of Hayman's seven dining ­venues. Burgundy-born Hassene trained under Gerard Vie at the two Michelin star Les Trois Marches in ­Versailles. His resume since then spans Ritz-Carlton ­hotels in the US and the opulent Leela Palace in Udaipur, India. At the resort's buzzy Italian bistro Amici he offers a beautiful beef carpaccio seasoned sparely with ­parmesan, basil oil and an aged balsamic reduction. His burrata with vine tomatoes and basil brings Capri to the Coral Sea.

Hassene then leads us down a garden path at the ­resort's Asian diner, Bambo, and up to one of two teppanyaki platforms where chef Neil Sato works the grill. Using flames and flair he prepares toothfish with sake and Szechuan sauce, plump Hokkaido scallops and ­garlic-sauteed king prawns with nam jim. This alfresco experience operates year-round except April when, I’m told, the fruit bats descend en masse and curtail the fun.

Dinner progresses to Fire, the signature restaurant, where we are escorted to a table behind the kitchen with glass-walled views of gleaming stainless steel and bustling chefs. There are sourdough rolls with Pepe Saya butter and cabernet sauvignon salt, presumably to complement the St Henri shiraz we're served with our wagyu. Hassene prepares the steaks individually at a white-clothed table, with green peppercorn sauce, mash and vegetables straight from the garden. “Nothing is better than a nice piece of beef, two veg and mashed potato,” he says. The dish is a taste of Fire’s new focus as a ­premium steakhouse.

After the Hayman blowout it's back aboard Seaduction next morning to motor to Blue Tongue Bay, where giant green turtles float in turquoise waters, for a (relatively) modest spread of cold seafood and a hike to Tongue Point lookout on Whitsunday Island. The exercise is welcome; the reward is a panorama of beaches and bush and the ice-cream swirls of white sands and pale blue waters in Hill Inlet below, where rays and shovel-nosed sharks dart through the shallows. Ahead lies our anchorage for the evening, the famous Whitehaven, one of Australia’s most photographed beaches.

It is a rare privilege to spend the night here. Tourist boats don't start disgorging day-trippers until 9am, so I dive early into the sea and have the famed shoreline all to myself except for cockatoos breakfasting on casuarina cones. That’s the allure of a private yacht charter — the islands are yours for the taking.

We farewell Preen at Hamilton Island and head to the Yacht Club for lunch with two talented young chefs who now call Queensland home.

Kendall Hill - editorial THE AUSTRALIAN was a guest of Tourism Whitsundays.

Airlie Beach-based Cumberland Charter Yachts offers a range of bareboat (self-drive, self-provisioned) charters on yachts, catamarans and motor cruisers. The sailing catamaran Seaduction has four double cabins and costs from $1024 to $1679 a night based on a seven-night charter and depending on the season.
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