Capella Lodge, Lord Howe Island review: Australia's lord of the islands won't last forever

Our rating

4.5 out of 5

Australia's own Pacific paradise is diverse: It ranges from magnificent to breathtaking, writes Andrew Taylor.

Walking along Ned's Beach with Pete Smit is a revelation. The sparkling waters lapping one of Lord Howe Island's loveliest beaches teem with mullet, wrasse, garfish and kingfish as they swim through visitors' legs.

The overfriendly fish bump and nudge each other like schoolboys as they hoover up food tossed to them.

But Smit, the head chef at Capella Lodge, has his eye on the plants marooned on the sand or clinging to rocks.

Beach mustard, sea rocket, saltbush and sea spinach are just a few of the ingredients he collects to garnish and flavour the culinary masterpieces that are a highlight of Capella Lodge, one of Lord Howe Island's luxury digs.

Smit's foraging is philosophical – a culinary commitment to local, seasonal produce – and practical. Whatever this tiny speck in the Pacific Ocean cannot provide is shipped in from mainland Australia.

But the days of privation on Lord Howe Island, when locals ate the indigenous swamphen to extinction, are long gone as we settle in for one of the island's most enjoyable traditions – the beach barbecue.

Sporting a tattoo of the elusive title character from Where's Wally? behind one ear, Smit grills enough Yamba prawns, kingfish, Moreton Bay bugs, squid and saltbush lamb to sink a ship, let alone our hips.

Gluttony is usually excused on holidays but on Lord Howe Island you run the risk of public humiliation in the form of a threatened weigh-in before the return flight.

Of course, visitors have always had to make sacrifices as a trip to the island's small, but engrossing museum suggests.

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The first European settlers, who arrived on the island in 1833, risked their lives in treacherous seas to land on the remote island situated 700 kilometres from Sydney.

A number of shipwrecks since then suggest life for mariners can still be arduous.

Passengers on the sea planes that plied the route from the 1940s had to be prepared to depart Rose Bay in the dead of night to ensure a landing in Lord Howe Island's lagoon at high tide.

The Biggest Loser weigh-in aside, visitors these days must stick to a strict 14-kilogram weight limit for checked-in luggage, leaving little room for inhibitions on the Qantaslink flight from Sydney.

Travelling incognito on a 32-seat plane to an island with a population of just 350 (and a maximum of 400 visitors) would be difficult even without the loose lips of Libby Grant, the manager of Capella Lodge.

We have barely touched down at the airport, which is squeezed onto the only available patch of flat ground on this tiny volcanic outcrop, before Libby is bringing us up to speed on island gossip.

Libby's entertaining commentary contrasts with the languid pace with which she drives along Lagoon Road, past kentia palms and signs warning "Muttonbirds on road", towards the island's towering twin peaks of Mount Lidgbird and Mount Gower.

With a 25 kilometre speed limit, strictly enforced by Wayne, the island's sole police officer, it pays to abide by the law.

It also gives Libby plenty of time to appraise us of the Thompson, Schick, Wilson and other clans who call Lord Howe Island home.

My favourite islanders, however, are Ken and Dorothy – mainland blow-ins who have lived on Lord Howe for more 40 years and festoon the lodge with flowers and stories on their thrice-weekly visits.

Anonymity, however, appears to be a luxury denied to residents, whose telephone numbers are readily available from a 14-page directory hanging from a hook outside the post office.

It is one of many quaint touches on an island where bicycles rule the road, mobile phones do not work and newspapers arrive in the afternoon, if there is room on the plane.

The preferred payment method, meanwhile, to play golf, using snorkelling gear at Ned's Beach or have a drink at The Boatshed at Pinetrees is an honesty box.

Lord Howe Islanders are not insular and suspicious of outsiders, except perhaps Simon Dodd, the author of a crime-thriller set on the island.

"That's the worst book I've ever read," declares the assistant at the museum shop who nevertheless takes the money I fork out for Death by Muttonbird.

It is a harsh assessment that may be the result of the high body count or the author barely concealing the resemblance between his fictional characters, especially the murderer, and the island's actual inhabitants, most of whom I feel I know by the time Libby pulls up at Capella Lodge.

Tucked into the hillside and hidden by a thicket of shrubbery, the lodge is barely visible from the road but makes a fine impression when you set foot inside the main building.

The vast, high-ceilinged Kentia Lounge has a beach shack vibe with banquettes and a fireplace, while the bar running the length of the room seems to have enough liquid refreshments to sate the thirst of the entire island.

On the far side of the room lies the dining area and outdoor Gower's Terrace with plunge pool offering priceless views of the mountainous twins haloed in light as the sun sets over the ocean.

Rising above lush rainforest and the lagoon, the two mountains are a majestic sight even if the cows grazing in nearby green paddocks seem distinctly uninterested.

A ban on milk and beef production leaves the island's cattle population with little to do except eat, sleep and work on their tan lines. They are a fine example to follow.

Throughout the lodge, which has nine suites of varying sizes, are vivid artworks inspired by the island's nature and history by Mambo designer Bruce Goold.

One of his works depicts the infamous sinking of the SS Makambo in 1918, which led to the introduction of rats to the island.

Thankfully, its namesake room at Capella does wonders to restore its good reputation.

The split-level, 90 square metre  Makambo suite features a roomy bathroom decked out in basalt stone and pamper products from the property's Capella Spa, lounge with banquettes facing a large-screen TV and a balcony with hot tub downstairs, while beach towels and backpacks are provided for adventuring.

Up the bright red spiral staircase is a king bed perfectly positioned to admire the view of mountains, beach and ocean although a night-time trek to the bathroom can be arduous.

Lord Howe Island is laced with well-marked hiking trails that range in difficulty from easy coastal strolls to the 14-kilometre, eight-hour guided trek up Mount Gower, rated one of Australia's best day walks.

It also gets the thumbs up from by deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek, whose electorate of Sydney includes Lord Howe Island.

A regular visitor to the island for holidays, Plibersek has made the day-long pilgrimage to the island's highest point several times, which she says is an unforgettable experience.

At one point, she explains, walkers must edge along a ledge, barely a metre-wide, with a rope on one side and a drop of at least 50 metres onto "jagged rocks and roiling ocean".

"That was the most terrifying experience of my life doing that part of the walk with my daughter," Plibersek says. I had nightmares for weeks because of the image of her falling into the ocean."

Less strenuous, but just as rewarding is the four-hour walk up Mount Lidgbird through wet rainforest and towering ferns to Goat House cave, a large indentation in volcanic cliffs that plunge 400 metres to the ocean. The views are magnificent, particularly if you are brave enough (I wasn't) to edge around the rock ledge for a southerly outlook to Ball's Pyramid, a 550-metre tower of grey basalt that thrusts out of the ocean 16 kilometres away.

The Malabar Hill trek, meanwhile, follows the island's mountain spine through kentia palm groves and mutton bird breeding burrows before coming to a heart-stopping end at steep cliffs. Lord Howe Island sets high standards when it comes to views and this one does not disappoint, with a breathtaking vista of ocean, dramatic cliffs and the far-off Admiralty Islands.

For the less gung-ho visitor, there are easy strolls to beauty spots like Little Island in the shadow of Mount Lidgbird or Lovers Bay, which looks out on the lagoon.

The World Heritage-listed island is a magnet for birds ranging such as the flightless woodhen, which can be seen and heard fossicking about Capella Lodge. It's quite frankly a rather graceless creature whose loud squawk and dull brown feathering places it at the lower end of avian beauty.

More impressive are the red-tailed tropic birds performing balletic, aerial courting rituals, the rare providence petrels that can apparently be beckoned like dogs and masked boobies that nest along the sea cliffs at Mutton Bird Point.

The island has just as many gifts for the aquatically-inclined, with temperate and tropical fish, coral gardens and a substantial turtle population providing endless opportunities for scuba-diving and snorkelling.

But all good things must come to an end, warns naturalist Ian Hutton at the end of his presentation at the lodge about the island's rather dramatic natural history.

Formed around seven million years ago following a volcanic eruption, Lord Howe Island is slowly, but inevitably being eroded by wind and water.

With only two per cent of the original volcano still intact, Hutton reckons Lord Howe Island may only have another 200,000 or so years left before it is claimed by the ocean.

The writer travelled courtesy of Capella Lodge. 

Explore the beauty of Lord Howe Island in the photo gallery above.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

lordhoweisland.info.

GETTING THERE

Qantaslink flies from Sydney daily, as well as Brisbane and Port Macquarie. See qantas.com.au

STAYING THERE

Capella Lodge has a  "Stay 7, Pay 6 Lord Howe Luxe" package that includes a bonus night and spa vouchers, available until October 31 for $4200 per person. See www.capellalodge.com.au

FIVE ISLAND ADVENTURES

Explore the lagoon

Snorkel, kayak or jump on a glass bottom boat to explore the coral reef lagoon along the island's west coast. Keep an eye out for turtles. See www.islandercruises.com.au

Cast a line

Surrounding waters provide excellent deep sea, reef and fly-fishing. Expect to catch kingfish, wahoo and yellowfin tuna, to name a few.

Surf the breaks

Ride the reef breaks off Lagoon Beach or cross the island to Blinky Beach for some of Australia's least crowded waves.

Dive the deep blue

Hundreds of different dive sites range from shallow coral gardens in the lagoon to deeper reefs and caves offshore, all with a rich variety of marine life. Or investigate the wreck of The Favourite at North Bay. See www.howeadivers.com.au

Marvel at nature

Explore the World Heritage-listed island's vibrant bird life and unique environment with naturalist Ian Hutton. See lordhowe-tours.com.au