Welcome to Australia’s most underrated island. By Georgia Rickard. Photograpy by Grace Cassio.
I’m standing in front of a banyan tree, and it’s beautiful. But I don’t really care about that.
I’m also barefoot, and barefaced. But I don’t care about that, either.
I’m standing in front of a banyan tree, observing its incredible network of gnarled roots and leaves, and all I’m thinking is: What’s the best way to climb this? Should I grab that root and then pull myself up?
Or would I be better off using that foothold?
Mind you, I haven’t climbed a tree since I was 10 years old. Haven’t even considered the idea. But there’s something about this place – just a tiny speck of an island, all but swallowed by the vastness of the Pacific – that could bring out the mischief in anyone.
It’s almost impossible to pinpoint exactly why this island has such a profound effect on people, but the power of her spell is legendary. Ask anyone who’s been here and you’re practically guaranteed a rave review.
When it comes to choosing our number one destination for a bloody awesome trip, Lord Howe comes out on top, according to a 2010 survey by Tourism Australia – it’s our absolute number one destination for visitor satisfaction.
And Sir David Attenborough – no stranger to the cream of the world’s crop – was so star struck by Lord Howe, that after visiting just once he described it as “so extraordinary it is almost unbelievable.”
And indeed, it is. As far as untouched paradises go, Lord Howe is quite literally one of with the world’s best. In 1982, this was the first island on the planet to be inscribed on the World Heritage List – a privilege that’s only been extended to four other island groups since.
The natural environment here is six-star luxury: all creamy yellow beaches, softly sunlit grasslands, insultingly clear water. And the locals are as warm and friendly as they are generous.
Remember the days when you could play outside until sundown? When the only worries to do with hand sanitiser involved threats about having your mouth washed out? Lord Howe is a lot like that – just with Wifi and high-thread counts.
For all the island’s quietly fanatical fans, however, it’s mind-boggling to think that she’s sat as close to the hubs of Sydney and Brisbane for as long as she has, without attracting more attention. That is, until you realise how fiercely she’s guarded.
Tourist numbers are tightly regulated: no more than 394 people can come here at any one time. (A miniscule 350 residents live here permanently.) Strict laws also preserve the current development status quo – any property which comes to sale has to be offered to islanders first (someone who has lived here for 10 years or more) before an outsider can try to purchase it. (If they succeed, they can’t just build a holiday house, either – they’re required to live here for a minimum of six months of the year.)
And then there is the total lack of mobile reception, something that probably deters many potential visitors, acknowledges Jim McFayden, executive manager of Lord Howe institution Pinetrees (more on that in a minute). But spend a few days of peace here, and you’ll understand (then thank them heartily for) their decision.
This is the virtual definition of unspoilt: there’s no graffiti, no litter, no advertisements (the latter of which takes a few days to put your finger on). And it doesn’t take long to fall in love with.
For me, it happens almost as soon as I tumble out of the tiny plane onto the airstrip (disembarkation is a decidedly casual affair here) and take my first look around. Lord Howe is not like anything I’ve seen before: all lushly grassed hills and lanky palm trees; heartbreakingly clear water in shocking shades of aqua; and fat, grazing cows who know nothing but lazy, peaceful lives.
Which is another thing – there are no abattoirs here. No violence at all, in fact. Never has been.
“Lord Howe was totally uninhabited until her discovery in 1788,” explains Libby Grant, host at my temporary home, Capella Lodge, as she drives me the one kilometre from airport to accommodation (yes, one kilometre. This island is tiny).
“There was no war with indigenous people; nothing like that. As a result, there’s an inherent sense of peace here. It’s just…” she pauses for a moment, searching for the right words. “It’s a good place.”
In coming days, I’ll come to the similar conclusion; that Lord Howe is sort of… clean, somehow. But for now, I settle into my seat as we make our lazy way to Capella and stare out the car window.
And that’s when a sprightly 70-year-old whizzes straight past me. On a bicycle.
“Did you see that?” I say, astonished. Libby glances back at me in the rearview and grins.
“Most people get around here on bikes,” she says, by way of explanation. “If you do drive, there’s no need to wear a seatbelt, either,” she adds, gesturing at mine. “The island speed limit is 25 kilometres an hour.”
It’s not just the cars that take life at an amble. Everything is easy, man.
If you want a hit on the golf course, just chuck the hire fee in the honesty box and help yourself. Same goes for having a wine from the fridge at The Boathouse, or hiring snorkeling gear at Ned’s beach (‘just make sure you rinse the equipment before you put it back’, says the sign). And don’t bother locking up – ever. The entire island has a no-key policy.
Then there’s Pinetrees; affordable island accommodation that’s also Australia’s second-oldest family-owned company (after Tyrell’s Wines, according to Jim). It was also, one might propose, a concept entirely masterminded by parents.
When I stop by for lunch, there’s not a single child in sight – they’re all off exploring together.
“I actually don’t know where our five-year-old is right now,” admits Jim with a grin, as we toast to our meals. “But it’s fine to let them wander around.” Indeed, if ever there was a place to let the kids run off with no worries, Lord Howe would be it.
Locals make their way to and from school unaccompanied from the time they’re five years old (wearing a school uniform that officially sanctions bare feet), which pretty much sums up the likelihood of danger.
There are no snakes, no poisonous spiders; no fast cars to worry about.
No crime either, unless one forgets to wave to a passing cyclist. And the sense of community is quite staggering. Even I – cynical, suit-wearing, city-slicker – find myself compelled to greet passing strangers with a wave, and ask if they need a hand with their shopping.
“I think that’s one reason why people keep coming back,” Jim agrees, sipping his beer.
And come back, they do: the Pinetrees guestbook, for example, has been receiving messages from repeat visitors since 1901.
“There are couples now celebrating 50th wedding anniversaries who’ve been coming here since their honeymoon,” he acknowledges. “Grandparents often pass on the tradition to their children, too, who in turn bring their children here, to experience the same idyllic vacations they had as kids.”
Well – almost the same. For all the relaxed charm and small-town warmth, it’s clear Lord Howers don’t mind their modern luxuries.
Visiting jazz bands, cooking classes with celebrity chefs and yoga classes led by none other than Charlotte Dodson (Miranda Kerr’s yoga teacher) are all on the schedule at Pinetrees; while Capella Lodge (sister property of Kangaroo Island’s Southern Ocean Lodge) does barefoot luxury as expertly as rumours promise.
I spend far too long happily crowing over each several-course meal here – triumphant mixes of local produce and ‘mainland’ ingredients – and an equally large amount of time wandering admiringly around my two-storey suite.
Studied touches like goose-down pillows, Basaltina-tiled bathrooms and Bemboka merino wool throw rugs make for indulgent counterpoints to the outdoor showers and unofficial shoe-free dress-code here, and it is with great delight that I sink into bed each night.
Up the north end of the island, Arajilla too offers these kind of creature comforts – twice-a-day room service, the island’s only day spa, spacious rooms, and an extremely talented head chef whose last gig was at, well, Capella. (Like I said – tiny island.)
Tucked amidst a veritable jungle of palm fronds and banyan trees, it feels like an enchanted hideaway – distinctly different to the airy brightness of Capella. But the rooms here are luxuriously large and comfortable, and the first-name service is flawless.
Indeed, it’s hard to find fault with anything here. Utterly by accident, I wander past a sign denoting the ‘mutton bird walking track’ and stumble into a frond-covered paradise that I stand in silently, mouth open, for a good minute. I take a snorkeling trip on a glass-bottomed boat, and despite the generally touristy feel about these things, this trip is an absolute delight.
Our guide Dean is degree-qualified knowledgeable about marine life, and there is plenty for him to talk about – just under 500 species of fish and 100 coral varieties live here; including 15 types of fish that are found nowhere else in the world.
Even the island pets are well-behaved. In order to protect the woodhens endemic to the island (sweet, little flightless birds tame enough almost to pat), cats are no longer allowed at Lord Howe (the funeral for the island’s final feline, Tasman, allegedly drew quite the crowd), and dogs are required to undergo behavioural training before they can come here.
It’s all feeling a little bit suspicious – how can one place be so perfect?
Then, on my final day, I am waiting at the island’s tiny airport – which is queue-free, of course – when I discover what I don’t like about this place. Leaving. Ah yes. Predictable, perhaps, but I suppose something about this island needs to be.
Things to do
Hit up pie night – This is one of Lord Howe’s most popular events – up to 150 people can show up at the lawn bowls club for a feed and a spot of socialising.
The bowls club is also Lord Howe’s only pub (and thus the default centre of the Lord Howe social universe).
Just don’t expect frivolities here on Thursday afternoons. That’s when bowls is played, and it’s serious business.
Laugh at the birds – Lord Howe’s resident mutton birds are famously awkward, and make quite a sight when they return to Ned’s beach after a hard day’s fishing to burrow into the ground for the evening.
Take some canapés and a few drinks, settle yourselves on the grass, and sit back for a sunset performance.
Feed the fish – Ned’s Beach is a known ‘fish sanctuary’, where you can buy fish food pellets from a vending machine (bring $1 coins) to feed the colourful critters.
Consequently, there are hundreds of hungry fish waiting expectantly in the shallows each day. Having them slide and flop all over your feet as they scramble for food is quite an experience.
Shop the markets – These are held every second Sunday of each month at the local school. Shop for fresh produce, second-hand clothing and art.
Visit the day spa – Arajilla’s day spa feels soothing before you’ve even walked in, thanks to its locale in a veritable palm forest.
Choose from body polishes, steams, ayurvedic massages, hot stone therapy and facials with silver or golf leaf.
How to get there:
Qantas Link flies direct from Sydney daily, direct from Brisbane on weekends, and direct from Port Macquarie once a week.
Where to stay:
There are 18 different accommodation options on the island. AT can recommend the following:
Capella Lodge – Couples beware, this is the kind of place where spur-of-the-moment proposals happen.
If you’re after a really decadent escape, Capella is up there with the best of them. lordhowe.com
Arajilla Retreat – Retreat is absolutely the right word – this quiet little spot feels like its own little world beneath the canopy of palms and banyans.
Rooms are large and very, very comfortable, and though it’s not omg-luxe, it’s close. arajilla.com.au
Pinetrees Island – Accommodation here is clean and comfortable but fairly basic.
Expect a beachside location, personalised service and truly excellent food – chefs Paul Brown and Leigh Laird are of Bilsons, Flying Fish and Hayman Island pedigree. Perfect for families. pinetrees.com.au
Need to know
• Summer is the ideal time to come here, but shoulder seasons (September-October and March-May) are also beautiful and offer cheaper flights. Winter is also lovely, but quieter – although the wind can get a bit nasty.
• Being 700 kilometres east of the mainland, Lord Howe runs half an hour ahead of Eastern Standard Time.
• A large proportion of the island population is Seventh Day Adventist, so some businesses (such as the museum) are closed on Saturdays.
• There is no mobile phone reception and internet comes via satellite so it can be patchy when there is cloud cover or wind.
• Flights are weather dependent and cancellations are regular during winter – we’d recommend taking out travel insurance.
For more info, see lordhoweisland.info