Best Australian luxury lodges in stunning locations

Australia is the perfect setting for the luxury lodge model, which at its best combines remote locations and extreme luxury.

On the south coast of Kangaroo Island, if the wind does not get you, the water will. It is not enough that, on this zig-zagging coastal path, we are being battered by roaring gusts of wind; simultaneously, we are also being lashed by lariats of spray, whipped up from the long rows of breakers crashing into the jagged rocks. If you were to fall into the icy water and be carried out to sea, your body would probably wash up on the next piece of land due south. That would be Antarctica.

Whoever decided to build a luxury lodge here was a bit soft in the head, you might think, but don't be too hasty. Head indoors and pull up a chairseat – a cosy chair positioned in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows, with a cashmere blanket draped over you and a glass of Barossa red in one hand – and that hostile environment is transformed into a mesmerising panorama, an ever-shifting arrangement of blues and greys. When lunch is announced, we are reluctant to tear ourselves away, until we happily realise that the dining tables share that wonderful view. 

The allure of Southern Ocean Lodge, perhaps Australia's most-awarded luxury lodge, can be summed up simply: an untamed environment, savoured from the lap of luxury. After a day spent exploring the island – complimentary activities range from visiting the local sea-lion colony to enjoying champagne and canapes in a paddock full of kangaroos – guests return to enjoy gourmet meals, luxurious rooms with sunken lounges and day beds, and a generous help-yourself wine cellar.

This open-handed approach, combined with a stunning location, immaculate service and exquisite design, has seen Southern Ocean Lodge scoop up one prize after another.

Last year, the respected US magazine Travel + Leisure named it the top resort in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific, and placed it at number four in its list of best properties around the world.In the same year, the lodge was also named Most Romantic Hotel in Australia in Trip Advisor's Travellers' Choice Awards, as well as scoring doubles from both Luxury Travel magazine (Best Australian Boutique Lodge and Best Australian Food & Wine Property) and Gourmet Traveller (Readers' Choice for Best Lodge/Resort and the Expert Panel's award for Most Outstanding Service). It also collected gongs from Conde Nast Traveller and Mr and Mrs Smith Hotels.

The allure of Southern Ocean Lodge, perhaps Australia's most-awarded luxury lodge, can be summed up simply: an untamed environment, savoured from the lap of luxury.

Southern Ocean Lodge's significance goes way beyond trophies, however. When it opened in 2008, it was one of the first in a wave of lodge openings around the country – including qualia on Hamilton Island in 2007, Emirates Wolgan Valley in the Blue Mountains in 2009, and Tasmania's Saffire in 2010 – that reinvented Australia's tourism industry. 

"Luxury products and luxury experiences have become key elements of our international appeal," says John O'Sullivan, managing director of Tourism Australia. The lodges showcase Australia's finest attributes – "our scenery, our skies, our people", according to O'Sullivan – and also mesh with changing international travel trends.

"In the 1980s and 1990s, Australia was a group destination. We're now seeing the rise of couples, people who really want to stay in five-star accommodation," O'Sullivan says. "Thanks to the explosion of investment, we now have a critical mass of luxury lodges and we are seeing the positive effects." 

It is clear that Australia's luxury lodge market is finally beginning to match, if not surpass, the competition. For many years, Australia watched enviously as New Zealand, a leader in the field, drew high flyers from around the world to its network of luxury lodges. What gave New Zealand the head start? Their advantages included a range of established properties – Huka Lodge opened all the way back in 1924 – set in a much smaller country. 

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International visitors could arrange itineraries taking in two or three different properties without ever spending more than an hour or two in the car – a feat impossible in Australia. These conditions quickly allowed a critical mass of properties to be built up, with more lodges drawing more visitors which in turn encouraged the opening of more lodges.

The luxury lodges of both countries draw the type of luxury travellers that the tourism industry adores. They spend more and often stay longer; if they have been impressed by one luxury lodge, they are more likely to return to visit another. They also spread the tourist dollar further, as lodges tend to be located in remote locations beyond the well-trodden Sydney-Melbourne-Barrier Reef axis. 

In many ways, Australia is the perfect setting for the luxury lodge model, which at its best combines remote locations and extreme luxury. Together with his wife Hayley, James Baillie runs Baillie Lodges, Southern Ocean Lodge's parent company. The Baillies opened their first lodge – Capella Lodge on Lord Howe Island – in 2004. Southern Ocean Lodge followed four years later. While each lodge has its own identity, reflecting its surroundings, Baillie says the properties share a number of core elements. 

"Number one is an amazing location, a place with a wow factor," Baillie says. He also lists locally sourced food and beverage, first-name service, unique guest activities and "contemporary Australian design which gives it a sense of place. The finishings, the furnishings, the fabrics – it has to have soul."

Southern Ocean Lodge certainly ticks all the boxes. The Great Room, the heart of the lodge, features those panoramic views and a set of leisure areas which flow seamlessly from lounging to drinking to dining. There are blankets draped over the arm rests; strategically scattered pillows, each with a perfect central crease; and a suspended spherical fireplace.

Chef Tim Bourke's food is superb: local, seasonal and inventive, with dishes such as roast venison rump with wild rosemary, onion puree and poached pear, or a salad of local wild garlic and onion. The 21 suites are luxurious. Each one is oriented to the sea. Some have baths positioned in front of the window, many have fireplaces. The mini-bars are stocked with wine, cheese, crackers and other goodies – all complimentary, of course. 

During turndown, the staff not only leave chocolate kangaroos on your pillow; they also turn on your fireplace and the underfloor heating. If you're the type to carelessly throw your clothes on the floor at the end of the day, you'll find them pre-warmed in the morning. 

It's no wonder that lodges like this have become destinations in their own right. I chat with a family of fellow guests, over from England for a three-week tour. Their itinerary takes in Western Australia, South Australia and New South Wales; they are staying exclusively at luxury lodges. Southern Ocean Lodge is their only destination in South Australia. This is not unusual. The lodge has even had guests fly in from the US for a long weekend, then fly straight home again, without setting foot anywhere else in the country.

The experience is not cheap, of course.  A stay at Southern Ocean Lodge will set you back at least $4000 per couple: $1000 per person per night, with a two-night minimum stay. Of course, that includes all your meals, drinks and activities. Other luxury lodges hover around the same price point. There are plenty of people willing to meet the price – even, perhaps surprisingly, locals. At many lodges, Australians visitors make up around 50 per cent of guests. At Southern Ocean Lodge, it is closer to 70 per cent.

The Baillies have recently expanded their portfolio, having last year signed the management contract for Longitude 131, the luxury tented camp near Uluru. They have spent $2 million on an initial refurbishment, which focused on new furniture and soft furnishings. The Baillies have also commissioned artworks   from nearby Anangu indigenous communities, including dot paintings, ceramics and wood carvings. The new works will balance out the existing explorers' artefacts, photographs and journals that feature across the property.

Plans for next year include adding verandahs, each with its own fire pit, to each of the 15 tented pavilions, as well as the addition of two premium tented suites with private plunge pools. They are also introducing a range of new activities, including an early morning helicopter tour which sees you landing atop Mount Connor for a glass of champagne. 

The property usually cited as Australia's first iconic remote lodge, El Questro Homestead – which opened in the East Kimberley in 1993 – remains truly remote, even today. From the east coast, you have to fly to either Perth or Broome, then take another flight to Kununurra. Even then, you still face a lengthy drive before you reach the property. Fortunately, the property is worth the journey, with a maximum of just 18 guests treated to a range of wilderness experience alongside gourmet meals and indulgent accommodation.

Like New Zealand lodges such as Wharekauhau and Huka Lodge, El Questro started as a private retreat. When Celia and Will Burrell bought El Questro in 1993, they were intending to run it as a cattle station. The Homestead was originally their home. It was the need for additional income that prompted them to open it up to guests.

 "I pulled ideas from the African safari formula, the European ski chalet and the plantation houses of America's Deep South, where you have these luxurious homes in rugged country," Will Burrell says. The Burrells were fortunate that their million-acre property offered a rich variety of experiences, from soaking in hot springs to exploring tropical gorges on foot, on horse or by helicopter.

The fact that El Questro – which the Burrells sold in 2005 – is still going strong is remarkable, given the extreme conditions in which it operates. The lodge closes every year during the wet season, and requires considerable maintenance prior to reopening. 

"It's like opening a new resort every year," long-time lodge manager Lori Litwack says. "We need to grade the roads afresh, clear out canyons – we have our guides up there with machetes and whippersnippers, moving big rocks that have shifted and remarking trails. 

"The geckos and frogs move in when you move out. The wallabies take over the verandahs; we have a water monitor [lizard] who moves into the swimming pool every single year."

The challenges are not limited to the physical. Every high-end property places a premium on good staff; holding on to your staff in a remote location is no easy task. When you are only open half the year, the degree of difficulty increases.  Litwack works extensively with other lodges to find positions for staff looking for work in the off-season, in destinations such as Central Australia, northern Queensland or Tasmania.

Southern Ocean Lodge is nowhere near as remote - being just a half-hour flight from Adelaide Airport - but it still faces challenges, not least the paucity of fresh water on the island. The lodge collects rainwater in tanks, supplemented by water drawn from solar-powered bores, which is then desalinated using solar energy.

Chef Tim Bourke, a proponent of locally sourced produce, has faced a different set of challenges. "In pre-opening, I was only able to source around 10 per cent of my ingredients locally," he remembers. However, having spent several years building relationships with local producers and encouraging them to diversify, he has now increased that figure to over 80 per cent.

That's not the only way in which Kangaroo Island has benefited from having a luxury lodge of its own. Lodges often have significant flow-on effects for local communities, generating new businesses and increasing demand for services. "The resort has definitely impacted overall revenue and growth on the island,"  the South Australian Tourism Commission's chief executive, Rodney Harrex, says. 

It has lifted the profile not just of the island – repositioning the family favourite as a luxury destination – but also that of South Australia.   "Southern Ocean Lodge is one of our iconic products," Harrex says. "It helps us tell the story about our food, our wine, and our nature."

The writer travelled courtesy of Baillie Lodges, El Questro, the South Australian Tourism Commission, Tourism Northern Territory and Tourism WA.

FIVE OTHER GREAT LUXURY LODGES

BAMURRU PLAINS, NORTHERN TERRITORY

Built on stilts over a wetland skirting Kakadu National Park, this nine-room wilderness camp offers activities ranging from croc-spotting to rock art tours. See bamurruplains.com

EMIRATES WOLGAN VALLEY RESORT, NSW

Set on 161 hectares adjoining the Blue Mountains, each of the 40 suites has its own indoor/outdoor swimming pool. Visitors have plenty of opportunities for spotting wombats and wallabies. See wolganvalley.com

SAFFIRE, TASMANIA

With just 20 suites overlooking the Freycinet Peninsula and the Hazards Mountains, Saffire is known for its fabulous setting as well as its fine food. Guests frequently don waders to enjoy oysters literally fresh from the sea. See saffire-freycinet.com

QUALIA, QUEENSLAND

Private plunge pools and complimentary breakfast in bed are just some of the elements that keep guests returning to this indulgent 60-villa property on Hamilton Island. See qualia.com

EL QUESTRO HOMESTEAD, WA

Set on  more than 400,00ha in The Kimberley, the Homestead takes just 18 guests at any time. Explore on foot, by boat or by helicopter, or just soak in the thermal hot springs. See elquestro.com

GUEST PASS

Luxury lodges are known for the spectacular experiences they offer their guests. Here are some of  the most memorable.

Spotlight safaris – Spot wombats, possums and other nocturnal animals with a night-time expedition at Emirates Wolgan Valley Resort.

Oyster indulgence – The fresher the oyster, the better it tastes, which is why guests at Saffire are encouraged to don waders to enjoy oysters literally straight out of the ocean.

Kangas and Kanapes – Champagne, hors d'oeuvres and a paddock full of kangaroos: Southern Ocean Lodge's most memorable sunset experience.

Swimming in it – Accessible only by helicopter, the 15 waterfalls at El Questro's Amaroo Falls plunge into pristine swimming holes. 

Dinner under the stars – Longitude 131 offers an intimate dining experience under an outback sky, with gourmet food and an indigenous dance performance.

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