You know, Lord Howe is considered the “Galapagos of Australia”. It’s a bold claim, and one that is made often in the great southern, where the abundance and unique characteristics of its flora and fauna lend themselves to such grand statements.
But given that Dave Gardiner, a 40-year veteran of the waters around Lord Howe Island and a typically laconic Australian character (read: not prone to hyperbole), is the one making it, having just spotted a pod of pilot whales bobbing and diving in the distance (at first he assumed they were dolphins, so plentiful are they in these parts), it’s easy to give the claim credence.
As he steers his state-of-the-art eco vessel, Reef N Beyond, towards the imposing 1800-feet-tall form of Ball’s Pyramid, a towering shard of rock jutting from the blue waters of the Tasman Sea, he reels off the names of the abundant birds that dart and wheel overhead. Killing the engine at the base of the basalt sea stack (the world’s tallest), the remains of a giant volcano and caldera formed millions of years ago, Dave encourages everyone into the water in snorkeling gear to experience more of Lord Howe Island’s Galapagos challenging wildlife: turtles, rainbow runners, violet sweeps.
Back on land, the dense, lush vegetation of kentia palms, banyan trees and ferns fringed by pristine white-sand beaches validate the other often used term to describe Lord Howe Island: paradise. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Island that sits 373 miles off the New South Wales coast from Sydney is a tropical idyll that is blissfully removed from the ordinary.
Cars are used sparingly, school children attend classes barefoot (shoes aren’t part of the official uniform), and there are only 400 privileged visitors allowed on the island at any time.
The landscape of Lord Howe is dominated by the hulking form of Mt Gower, so complete is its presence from every corner of the island. Even on clear sky days, the summit plateau, located some 2870 feet above sea level, is often crowned by fluffy white clouds. It presents an irresistible obstacle that many visitors to the island are determined to surmount: the return hike to the top takes roughly eight hours and can be rugged and challenging in parts, requiring the services of a qualified guide.
This ends up being a bonus, as along the way you can gain an insight into the unique flora and fauna that proliferates. Alternatively, the walk to Muttonbird Point Lookout, a brisk return hike of just under two miles from the turnoff to the island’s modest airport, delivers views to a nesting colony of masked boobies and their downy brown offspring that presents like a Sir David Attenborough nature documentary.
There are less strenuous ways to encounter the island’s wildlife at close quarters however. Bicycle is the preferred mode of transport here (be prepared to steer one handed as you continuously wave a cheery hello to everyone you pass), allowing ample opportunity to stop to observe a roll call of birds that busy themselves rooting around in the thick, moist ground cover; the Lord Howe woodhen, the lovely emerald ground dove, and the Pacific golden plover.
Meanwhile, at Ned’s Beach on the north-east of the island, the likes of mullet, garfish and kingfish gather around your ankles in search of food when you wade into the clear waters; nutritionally beneficial fish pellets are dispensed in perfect piscine portions from a nearby box.
Given the luxury of experience offered upon Lord Howe, it’s perhaps not surprising that there is a decidedly luxe feel to its accommodation options too.
Capella Lodge, part of the bespoke Baillie Lodges roster that includes Longitude 131 in Uluru, is a sophisticated boutique hotel nestled in the shadows of Mt Gower. Here the emphasis is on streamlined luxury, all the better to experience the island and its simple pleasures without unnecessary fuss or visual noise.
Everything here is considered and executed impeccably, from the subtle yet stylish decor to the delicious food to the relaxed but highly efficient service. And the plunge pool looking out to uninterrupted views is the ultimate Instagram capture.
At Old Settlement Beach, Arajilla Retreat takes an equally relaxed approach to luxury. Shrouded in lush vegetation, the central open-air lodge forms the heart of the property, a place to gather, eat and relax, while its stylish suites are reached via raised walkways. The delightful Chef’s Cottage at Pinetrees comes complete with bookshelves lined with beach reads, three bedrooms and a full kitchen so you can indulge in the fantasy of it being your own self-contained holiday house in the Galapagos of Australia.
Protecting Lord Howe Island’s unique eco-system and enviable way of life is a full-time pursuit for many on the island, one that visitors can take part in too. As part of the Australian Geographic Expedition, to be held in September 2022, visitors will work with Australian Geographic and the Lord Howe Island Board to survey birdlife, marine life with NSW Marine Parks, and possibly do an invertebrate survey as well.
Keen twitchers should book their visit to coincide with Bird Week in March in order to take part in organized birdwatching tours with naturalist Ian Hutton. Participants count and categorize the birds they view, with details added to a central register back on the Australian mainland.