"Want to build a vacation home for me in paradise?" That's the question contractor Fred Allen's architect friend asked him in 2006. Fred had never heard of Australia's Whitsunday Islands -- let alone its largest inhabited, Hamilton Island -- but he said yes. Within a year, the 49-year-old had leased his Westport, Connecticut, home, sold his construction company and moved south with wife Merilese. Way south. We talked to him about what it's like to live down Under and how it feels to have what he considers the best job in the world.
Did your first few days on the island feel like a vacation? We felt like were dropped into paradise. We got off the plane and hoisted our bags onto an electric buggy, which is the main mode of transportation here. Every day for the first few weeks, we'd take the buggy out at sunrise and marvel at everything. We saw rainbow lorikeets, cockatoos and the occasional wallaby. The island is only about four miles long by two miles wide, so it's easy to see everything.
Did the island's small size make it easy for you and your wife to find a place to live?Not at first. I thought we'd grab a place at one of the hotels while we figured everything out, but we arrived in winter -- the island's high season -- and every room was booked. Fortunately, one of the construction guys had some connections, and we got a hotel room at the Beach Club for the first few nights. and eventually, we met a couple from Melbourne who rented us their home in the residential area of Mermaid Reach for a fantastic price.
Does your life on Hamilton Island still feel like a vacation nowadays?We've been here a year and a half, and it feels like home now. The first time it really felt like that was when we went back to the states for the Fourth of July, after living on Hamilton for eight months. Going back to the states felt like a vacation, and I felt like I needed to get home. Back to Hamilton.
While you were in the states, did you feel like you needed to stock up on things that aren't available on the island? No. Everything that you need is available on Front Street, a beautiful strip in the island's main down- town area, Marina Village (pictured above). It's about five minutes by buggy from our house. There's a grocery store, a pharmacy, some boutiques, the post office and our favorite restaurant, Romano's. Anything we can't find is available on the mainland in Queensland, which is only a 35-minute ferry ride away.
As an expat on the island, do you feel welcome? We made a lot of friends when we first moved here. Jo, the lady who runs the buggy rental shop, knows everybody on the island and introduced us to a lot of people. I've met some friends through my construction work. We've met the island management. They've got a pretty big operation here -- medical, security and transportation services. There's even a sewage plant. It's like they're running a little country. The locals have been very courteous -- they adoringly call us "the Yanks."
Does that mean you stand out a bit compared to other islanders?The locals are much more laid-back than we are. Coming from the Tristate area, where everything needed to be done yesterday, we've really had to have more patience. They move at a slower pace here, but not in a bad way. Everything isn't as alarming here. The phrase "no worries, too easy" is one they use a lot on the island.
But was moving to an Australian island really that easy? The visa took a little time to get, but if you come here to research business opportunities, you can stay for a year, three months at a time. It's also possible to retire here if you have enough capital. We didn't ship anything over. We each came with two duffel bags full of clothing and some electronics. Hamilton Island has an airport, so it is easy to get here.
Where is your favorite spot to soak in your life on Hamilton?The back veranda of our house. Right now I'm looking out the window about 50 feet over the water, with the waves crashing down on Catseye Beach below. We're on the east -- the sunrise side of the island.
Does living on such a small island ever give you cabin fever?It's funny you ask because we have experienced that feeling lately! Fortunately, our friends, work and plenty of island activities keep us stimulated. It's also good to get to the mainland once every couple of weeks, and the airport has direct flights to Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Cairns. One of those destinations every three months or so fends off the fever.
What kinds of island activities usually keep you and Merilese busy? We'll rent a sailboat down at the marina sometimes and explore the Whitsundays for the weekend. Whitehaven Beach is right around the corner and is something anyone who comes here must see. It's beautiful to cruise up to Whitehaven and watch the water go from aquamarine to emerald green. You can sail up to any of the hundreds of private beaches and pretty much have it to yourself. We also like to hike up Passage Peak on the east end of the island. It's about 1,000 feet up and offers great views.
What does it feel like to live the life that thousands of people want? A co-worker said the other day, "There are 35,000 people competing in the 'Best Job in the World' contest, and they all want your job, Fred." And all I can do is sum it up with one word: fortunate. I'm very fortunate.
Facts of Life
- Climate: Tropical
- Population of Whitsunday Shire: About 30,000, including shore communities
- Population of Hamilton Island: 1,200
- House starting price: About $2 million
- Hospital: Proserpine Hospital in Queensland
- Price of local beer: $6.70 for a pot of Carlton Draft (about nine ounces)
- Language: English
- Ease of immigration: Difficult
- Ease of buying a home: Easy
- Website: hamiltonisland.com.au