When tickets for the White on Whitehaven by Fish D’vine went on sale earlier this year, they sold out in just one day. The drawcard? A freshly cooked, seafood lunch with signature Mojitos and Aperol Spritz, served up on a beach so white you need sunglasses even on cloudy days. Given the location and the offering, you could wonder why it took so long to sell out.
Of course, the lunch’s obvious popularity didn’t surprise Tourism Whitsundays CEO Natassia ’Tash’ Wheeler; she suspected the interest for this kind of event was there and she wasn’t wrong. “We love to support these premium events, they are good for the whole region and people love them. This lunch sold out so quickly,” she says. “And now we have 450 people attending on Saturday and then there’s around 230 people, including my team, attending on the Sunday as well.”
Along with its corresponding “pre and post” celebrations in nearby Airlie Beach, the whole event is choregraphed by local seafood experts Fish D’Vine, one of the region’s most loved and enduring restaurants. The man of the hour – and of the weekend – is co-owner Kevin Collins, a sixty-something chef with a work ethic that rarely allows him a full night’s sleep. Collins has been a fixture of the Airlie Beach community for the best part of 30 years, and he approaches the weekend’s lunch with the kind of humorous optimism you’d expect from a sun-bronzed Queenslander; mind boggling considering the military-like operation needed and the challenge of working on an island in a protected nature reserve with no facilities.
“We’ve got a 50-tonne barge leaving at 4am to get to the island in time to set up,” he tells me over a seafood dinner at his busy restaurant. “I’ll be packing with the guys all night to make that happen.” And if 50-tonnes seems like a lot for a simple beach lunch, it won’t once you hear Collins reel off the contents of the transport: “There’s 700 bottles of French Champagne, enough ingredients to make 1000 Aperol Spritzes and 1000 Mojitos, 1980 cans of beer, 250kg of local bugs, 160kg of prawns, 250 dozen oysters, 50kg of salmon gravlax, 20kg of salmon sashimi, 10kg of Kingfish sashimi, 900 eye fillet steaks, 2000 pealed king prawns…” The list goes on.
The challenge, he says, is that if they forget something, they’re an hour and a half away by boat from the mainland and the rest of their supplies. Not only that, being a nature reserve, he is also personally responsible for leaving the beach as he found it: pristine with no evidence that three to four hundred people enjoyed an elaborate – and suitably boozy – lunch just hours before.
As you’d expect, the operation is also wholly dependent on the weather gods, with choppy seas and ocean winds deadly for white pergolas and freshly ironed tablecloths. “We’ve got back up places and contingency plans,” says Collins, “But we don’t want to use them, of course.”
Luckily this year, when T Australia joins the party, the sun is shining and the sea is calm. As we arrive, the guests, all clad in white, descend on the beach in small launches off larger boats and yachts. Barefoot, they are met with Mojitos (which run out shortly afterwards) and chilled Champagne (which thankfully does not). The obligatory photos are taken, before the barbeques start to produce smells so alluring, they stop conversations mid-flow. Grilled prawns and bugs are popular in the served buffet, as expected, and there’s a slight wait on the steaks, but considering this is a pop-up lunch on a remote beach, everything is impressively on time and in supply.
Many empty plates and Champagne toasts later, what started as well-behaved introductory handshakes and glass clinking, soon ends with empty tables, chairs brought down to the water’s edge, laughter and feet wading in the shallows. And apart from the prawns and the run on those icy Mojitos, Collins’ 50-tonne barge has fared surprisingly well. The drinks (and popular dessert tray) keeps coming until the honk of the vessels sound the return and the party continues on board.
When the beach empties, Collins and his crew kick into action with the aim of packing up, returning to Airlie Beach for a few hours’ sleep, before returning again at 4am to set up for tomorrow. And as the sun sets and guests carry on celebrating back in Airlie Beach, the popularity (and success) of this year’s lunch – the first to be a standalone event in the Tourism Whitsunday calendar – has firmly placed this bucket-list adventure in the diaries of many Australians. Not surprisingly, the event is now taking registrations for next year, no doubt with Fish D’Vine’s Kevin Collins already planning his 50-tonne barge haul.