Lord Howe Island's Capella Lodge gets a $4 million refurbishment: Travel tips and advice for Australia's most exclusive island

A peculiar event, at least for this day and age, occurs when the Bombardier Dash 8 Q200 touches down at Lord Howe, its approach having included a glimpse of the island's twin peaks that thrust spectacularly from the Tasman Sea like a pair of seriously-marooned bactrian camel humps.

As the prop-job taxis to the apron of a runway, seemingly shorter than your average suburban cul-de-sac, I wait for the customary entreaty from the flight attendant inviting passengers, should mobiles be within reach, to switch them back on.

It's an invitation that never comes. Lord Howe, you see, is among the last of the digital detox paradises. Its meagre population of fewer than 400 souls decided against acquiring mobile coverage (though the island fails the complete digital detox test since a scratchy Wi-Fi connection is possible).

I'm not worried. Really. Largely deprived of electronic distractions – and the associated incessant charging and recharging – I'll be able to concentrate on Lord Howe's almost ludicrously boundless wonders, particularly since it's taken me the good part of a lifetime to get here.

I first became aware of Lord Howe Island as a youngster through the annual visits by Neville Wran, the former NSW Premier, in the 1970s and 1980s. He'd routinely stay at the island's venerable Pinetrees Lodge, swapping his suits for shorts. In his latter sojourns he'd invariably be accompanied by his glamorous wife Jill, also be-shorted.

Yet for years Lord Howe felt to me a little quaint, a Bora Bora for upper-class bogans, as it were, but, as it eventuated, Nifty, as per his memorable moniker, was way ahead of his time in his pining for Pinetrees and the island itself.

A full two decades later, and with a UNESCO World Heritage listing to boot, Lord Howe finally acquired some real cache, aided in part by the opening of Capella Lodge, an erstwhile Seventh-Day Adventist retreat that last year underwent a $4 million refurbishment.

Today, the nine-room Capella, at a cool $750 a person a night, is Lord Howe's most exclusive lodging with the island – 600 kilometres from Australia's east coast – exclusive in its own right as visitor numbers total just 15,000 a year due to that problematically short runway limiting the size of aircraft able to land.

When they built their retreat the Seventh-Day Adventists, selflessly unto their maker, chose the choicest slice of God-zone for themselves. The modern-day lodge, my home for a few nights, is nestled in a vast and luxuriant thicket of billowing endemic kentia palms, over which loom Lord Howe Island's Mount Gower and Mount Lidgbird, rising to 875 metres and 777 metres respectively.

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From my cushy, split-level, two-bedroom-and-two-bathroom Catalina Suite – named after the Qantas sea-planes that once provided air transportation between Lord Howe Island and the mainland – the twin peaks remind me of the brooding presence of Table Mountain spread out above Cape Town.

Capella, imbued with a suitably languorous beach-house-chic flair, and stocked with Australian-made designer furnishing, remains the only accommodation on Lord Howe to offer proper peak and ocean vistas. There's also bonus bovine views with the bucolic sight of the odd cow visible from the lodge. There's one grazing in a lime-green hilly paddock, set above the backdrop of the island's impossibly turquoise lagoon, home to the world's southern-most coral reef.

The cow is an anomaly for in its original World Heritage inscription for Lord Howe – actually an island group – UNESCO declared it to be "a remarkable example of isolated oceanic islands, born of volcanic activity more than 2000 metres under the sea, these islands boast a spectacular topography and are home to endemic species, especially birds".

Unfortunately, likely the most common species on the island is also the most unwelcome, with my favourite piece of artwork at Capella the deliciously politically incorrect linocut by Bruce Goold, a prominent member of the Mambo school, depicting the rats that invaded the island during the 1918 grounding of the SS Makambo.

A century later, the descendants of those disembarking rodents are the target of a controversial island-wide eradication program, one of the biggest ever undertaken anywhere in the world, designed to protect the more than 200 species of birdlife that have been recorded on Lord Howe.

But if you really want to learn about the island's remarkable flora and fauna, and what imperils it, there's one man you must meet and if you're a guest of Capella over a weekend you're in luck. It's a Saturday night tradition at Capella to treat house guests to a talk delivered by the island's celebrated naturalist, Ian Hutton. He's a kind of dishevelled, unpolished Sir David Attenborough, a passionate and knowledgeable advocate of Lord Howe and its abundant natural treasures. The best part of Hutton's talk comes when he warns the assembled that should they be contemplating a climb of the notoriously precipitous Mount Gower it will amount to one of their most challenging life endeavours.

I don't detect any hint of a collective squirming among the attendant group of passive-faced prospective climbers, all in their sprightly 60s. But I'm calm in my own knowledge that my only climbing plans, in relation to said mountain, will be when I rise from Catalina Suite's king bed to admire the peak from the window.

However, there's one sure way to experience the monumental nature of Mount Gower and Mount Lidgbird without confronting the ordeal of a hellish ascent (and, for that matter, difficult descent) of it by foot: take an eco-tour boat ride around the 11-kilometre-long and barely two-kilometre-wide island. Such vessels are able to negotiate positions fearfully close to the monumentally sheer rock faces of the peaks that descend vertically right the way down to the gluggy sea, casting a gloomy and enveloping shadow over the water and dropping the temperature at least a few notches.

Beyond these cliffs and from the boat, we just can discern a rough outline of Ball's Pyramid – the haunting, rough-hewn arrow-shaped rock outcrop that stands alone in the sea about 23 kilometres south from the Lord Howe coastline – through a yonder mist.

Today the seas are much too uninviting for us to visit it by boat, but I learn that the 551-metre-high, uninhabited and predator-free rock is home to one of the most extraordinary examples of Lord Howe's unique ecology in the form of the phasmid, a giant flightless stick insect that can grow to 12 centimetres in length. Nowadays the only place that the visitor can encounter them on Lord Howe itself is in a display at the local museum.

After all-too-few days on the island, which seem to evaporate as quickly as the time it takes to deactivate an iPhone, I arrive back at the airport suitably digitally-detoxed. Then, would you believe, the flight is delayed as that persistent wispy veil around Gower and Lidgbird has also settled around the island's nether regions, including the airport.

There's the tantalising chance that I, suddenly as flightless as a phasmid, could be stuck in this sub-tropical Shangri-la, trudging back to Capella for another injection of luxury. Alas the only part of me that gets to remain behind is my overweight suitcase, to be returned by an efficient QantasLink the next day, so that the aircraft can be sufficiently light enough to take off.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO ON LORD HOWE ISLAND

FEED THE FISH AT NED'S BEACH

One of the most popular pastimes on Lord Howe are the famous fish-feeding sessions at Ned's Beach. You'll get to meet some of the scaly locals such as mullet, garfish, silver-drummer and perhaps the island's metre-long kingfish. See lordhoweisland.info

EXPLORE THE MARINE PARK

Home to 500 species of fish and 90 species of coral, the cool waters surrounding Lord Howe, declared a marine park in 1999, are a haven for scuba divers, snorkellers, kayakers and glass-bottom boat sightseers. See visitnsw.com

MAKE IT TO THE TOP OF MALABAR HILL

If Mount Gower is too daunting, tackle the three-hour return walk to the 209-metre high Malabar Hill, which delivers views along the green spin of Lord Howe as well as the surrounding ocean. See lordhoweisland.info

SEE THE MUSEUM'S HISTORICAL DISPLAY

Lord Howe's modest museum not only features an interesting, if dusty, historical display, it offers the chance to meet Ian Hutton, Lord Howe's legendary naturalist, should he be in-house. See lhimuseum.com

TAKE A BOAT TRIP TO BALL'S PYRAMID

On fair-weather days it's possible to take a boat excursion to the haunting, grey basalt Ball's Pyramid, a popular spot for not just sightseeing but also for diving and fishing among the abundant marine life. See lordhoweisland.info

TRIP NOTES

Anthony Dennis was a guest of Baillie Lodges and Destination NSW.

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traveller.com.au/new-south-wales

visitnsw.com

FLY

QantasLink operates year-round flights on most days between Sydney and Lord Howe Island with connecting flights from other capitals including Melbourne. Due to the small size of the aircraft servicing the island it pays to observe the luggage limit for flights.  See qantas.com

STAY

Rates at Capella Lodge start from $750 a person a night and include gourmet breakfast, sunset drinks, canapes, dinner with premium wines and spirits and island airport transfers. Until December 20, Capella has a "stay seven nights but pay for six nights" package, which includes a bottle of champagne and a spa treatment. See capellalodge.com.au

See also: Paradise vs paradise: Between Lord Howe and Norfolk, which of these two Aussie islands is best?

See also: Capella Lodge review: Lord Howe home to one of our finest hotels

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