Beyond a chic beach-house lodge on Lord Howe Island, Helen Anderson meets a cast of thousands.
'I'll introduce you to Fred," says Dean Hiscox with a grin beneath snorkel and mask, and he disappears. I follow him into the parallel universe of Comet's Hole, where silver drummers and painted morwongs mingle with spangled emperors and neon damsels. It's said they gather in this deepest hole in the lovely lagoon encircling Lord Howe Island at a "cleaning station", a spot where little cleaner wrasse, like busy fluorescent fingers, snack on parasites attached to visiting fish, who get a scrub in the process. I think of this fishy exchange as a symbol of balance in one of the most pristine ecosystems on Earth, closely monitored and protected for the past 30 years by its World Heritage status.
Shards of sunlight illuminate a blue-green-brown coral garden of staghorns and plates, frills and mushrooms, so enchanting I almost miss Hiscox's underwater gestures. It's Fred, swimming towards us.
Fred, it turns out, has two heads.
Found nowhere else in the world, like so many creatures on and around Lord Howe Island, Fred is a double-headed wrasse, deep blue in colour, the size of a small dog and so ugly he's adorable. He has a pair of buck teeth and an exaggerated hump above his eyes, giving the appearance of another head in a growth spurt. And just like a small dog beside the dinner table, Fred waits for Hiscox to hand-feed him a sea urchin. He quickly grinds the morsel with a second set of teeth, spits out the spines and waits for more.
At the confluence of five big ocean currents, we're hovering over the world's most southerly coral reef, harbouring 90 species of coral and 500 species of fish, including the Galapagos sharks circling beneath me. They're harmless, Hiscox says, but close enough to take the breath away.
Underwater, on land and overhead - hundreds of thousands of seabirds come and go like clockwork - the island teems with wildlife. Far outnumbered by wild things are humans - only 400 visitors are permitted at any time, joining about 350 residents, some of whom you'll meet on their bicycles, dodging shearwaters and woodhens (once one of the rarest birds in the world, before a successful breeding program in the early 1980s).
The island is criss-crossed by walking tracks, on which you're unlikely to see anyone. On a blue-sky Sunday morning, I walk with long-time resident and expert naturalist Ian Hutton for a couple of hours along bluffs and sea cliffs, and gaze down on white-sand beaches fringed by Kentia palms, another endemic species, which became the essential Victorian-era parlour palm of Europe. "Living on Lord Howe Island is like living in a David Attenborough documentary," Hutton says, and proceeds to narrate his own mini-doco.
Though Lord Howe Island is protected by green-minded residents and strict conservation policies, Hutton says global plastic pollution threatens the seabirds that nest here, in particular the shearwaters. "The adults fly over the ocean, pick up shiny bits of plastic they've mistaken for food and feed it to their chicks," he says. Last year Hutton found a young bird near death; an autopsy revealed 274 pieces of plastic in its stomach.
Today there are sooty terns underfoot, nesting on the ground and unfazed by our presence, but no sign of humans. The biggest gatherings on Lord Howe Island are usually for morning coffee at Humpty Mick's Cafe and at the airport, a simple, neat building surrounded by a knee-high white-picket fence. The manager of Capella Lodge, Libby Grant, is here to greet me and everyone else who arrives today - it's that kind of place.
We circumnavigate the island at mandatory snail's pace, past glorious spots meant for island barbecues and the golf club's idyllic, dune-side eighth hole. Just past Lovers Bay, and facing an arc of white sand and the twin Jurassic-esque peaks of Lidgbird and Gower, is the lodge, owned by James and Hayley Baillie, whose portfolio includes Southern Ocean Lodge at Kangaroo Island and plans for a heritage hotel at The Rocks in Sydney. Capella is their chic beach house, with nine split-level suites and a big, light-filled lounge, bar and dining room flanked by decks, with mood-altering views and stay-longer sofas. This is the place to linger over breakfast and lunch (if you're not out walking, snorkelling, diving or barbecuing). And it's the place to return for sunset drinks and long, memorable dinners.
The highlight of the table is fish caught today just off the island, sold exclusively to islanders and prepared in the Capella kitchen: trevally carpaccio, tea-smoked bass grouper, seared kingfish.
The dramatic peak of Mount Gower is a constant presence. The summit climb - a nine-hour challenge - is a signature Lord Howe experience, yet it's satisfying just to watch its moods from Capella. Sometimes the peak is wreathed in cloud, sometimes streaked with new waterfalls after rain.
The lodge is the epitome of smart-casual luxe, yet the beach-holiday ambience and the warm-hearted staff match the unpretentious island character. On my last day, Grant takes me to the airport, our vehicle crawling past cyclists. As I turn to board the Dash 8, I see Grant and three generations of islanders waving goodbye.
Helen Anderson travelled courtesy of Capella Lodge and Lord Howe Island Tourism Association.
Qantas has a sale fare to Lord Howe Island from Sydney (about 2hr) for $540 return; see qantas.com.au.
Capella Lodge has a seven-night fly-free deal from $3900 a person, twin share, including one bonus night's accommodation, return flights from Sydney or Brisbane, daily breakfast, daily three-course dinner with wine and sunset drinks. Valid July 28-September 30. Phone 9918 4355, see capellalodge.com.au.
Dean Hiscox's Lord Howe Island Environmental Tours runs general and specialty snorkelling and kayaking tours, and he leads nine-hour Mount Gower walks; see lordhoweislandtours.com.
Ian Hutton runs customised guided tours, from half-day walks to week-long bush regeneration trips; see lordhowe -tours.com.au.