There aren’t many places in the world where you’re told to undo your seatbelt when you get into a car. Lord Howe is one.
Arriving on this slip of land in a Dash-8 twin-propeller plane is a bit like stepping back in time. The tiny airport has a white picket fence, the maximum speed limit island-wide is 25km/hr – hence the lack of seatbelts – and there are no traffic lights. Although we’re only 600 kilometres northeast of Sydney, there’s also no phone reception and limited Wi-Fi, you won’t see a single cat, and there’s a cap at 400 on the number of tourists permitted to visit at any given time. When I reach my room at Capella Lodge, I’m also told that there’s a no-key policy across the property. “Just shut your door, or leave it open,” says our host.
Most Lord Howe locals live on the north of the island, but once we’ve unbuckled our seatbelts we head directly south to Capella Lodge, the island’s only luxury accommodation, with beach, lagoon and mountain views. Forested hills rise around us, leading up to the highest point on the island: 875-metre-tall Mount Gower. It’s just one of the signs pointing to Howe’s heritage as a seven-million-year-old shield volcano, albeit highly eroded today. All nine rooms enjoy views of the jagged volcanic peak, and interior design is pared back so as to not distract from the eye candy outside.
Like Longitude 131° and Southern Ocean Lodge – Capella’s stablemates in the Baillie Lodges portfolio – the property is decked out in earthy, natural hues and materials – think stone, wood and wool – with the occasional splash of blue as a nod to the sea. The Lidgbird Pavilion is the pick of the bunch. The split-level suite features a gas fireplace, private plunge pool and outdoor tub under a frangipani tree.
The soaring ceilings and glass walls of the lounge and dining pavilion mean you’re never far from a dazzling view. In fact, it’s about the only thing worth taking your eyes off your plate for. Having swapped the wilds of Kangaroo Island for the equally dramatic scenery of Lord Howe, chef Cooper Dickson is inspired by what’s around him when creating daily menus. That might be kingfish or lamb, local honey or vegetables from the kitchen garden.
The main way to get around the island is bike. One morning, staff scout out lunchtime picnic spots for us and point us in the right direction. We arrive at Blinky Beach on the east coast to find a table reserved by the sand and firewood and matches plus all the provisions for a seafood barbecue ready to go. Later, we stroll along the shore to the chorus of nesting muttonbirds, or flesh-footed shearwaters, just one of the island’s endemic species. Almost half the island’s native plants are also endemic, and many of the rare species grow on or around the mountain summits where the height has allowed the development of a true cloud forest.
The island’s diversity of flora and fauna comes into perspective after an evening lecture hosted at Capella with naturalist and photographer Ian Hutton. A Lord Howe specialist and resident for close to 40 years, Hutton says, “For me, living on Lord Howe is like living inside a David Attenborough documentary.” He talks about the mineral-rich soil being a fertile base for exotic endemic plants, including a rare species of mushroom that glows in the dark. He raves about the extraordinary seabirds – the providence petrel, sooty tern and muttonbirds are favourites. Almost 170 species of sea and land birds live on or visit the island group, and hundreds of thousands nest here every year. There are snow white terns, woodhens, silvereyes and golden whistlers, among many others.
And he discusses how these dramatic environs are sustained by strict environmental policies. It’s all detailed in his book A Guide to World Heritage Lord Howe Island (Ian Hutton, 2008), one of the 20 tomes Hutton has published on the island over his career, on top of documentaries and films and a personal collection of more than 40,000 photographs, which he has meticulously catalogued. It takes a special kind of place to inspire that level of devotion.
The only luxury retreat on the southern end of Lord Howe, Capella Lodge unites everything that is special about the island: mountain views, jungle, sea breezes and understated luxury. Rates include breakfast, dinner and drinks, with lunch – in the restaurant, a picnic, a barbeque – available at an additional cost. lordhowe.com