When I visited Lord Howe Island in October, the shearwaters were nesting behind Ned's Beach and the red-tailed tropic birds were doing the same on Malabar Hill. A new moon drew tides out so far even residents were surprised at what was exposed. During my weeklong stay at Pinetrees Lodge, I spend time with Dani Rourke and discover that owning and managing one of Australia's oldest family businesses was something this former lawyer and sixth generation Lord Howe Islander could not have foreseen.
Lord Howe is a 14.55-square-kilometre crescent-shaped volcanic remnant in the Tasman Sea. It lies approximately 600 kilometres east of the NSW mainland coastline and has a population of about 350 people. In 1982 the Lord Howe Island Group was declared a World Heritage site for its spectacular topography and plethora of endemic species. The island-wide cap of 400 tourists at any one time, implemented to help preserve the natural beauty, still exists.
Pinetrees is just over a kilometre north of what Lord Howe residents tongue-in-cheekily call the CBD. It employs about 30 staff and accommodates up to 75 guests. Although Pinetrees is one of the cushiest places to stay on Lord Howe, with exquisite meals and top-notch service, it's an understated and unplugged experience.
Rooms and cottages, with comfortable lounges and louvred windows, are connected by boardwalks. There's a small onsite day spa, a tennis court and lawns. Gardens are packed with Kentia palms while overhead is a banyan tree canopy and towering Norfolk pines. Meals are served on the verandah or inside where there's a dining room, bar, lounge and library. Their beachside boatshed is a real suncatcher.
The Pinetrees story begins with Margaret Curry, an Irish-born housemaid, and Thomas Andrews, a fetching seaman she met on her passage to Australia in 1832 and married when they got to Sydney. As Australia sank into economic depression in the early 1840s the couple headed to Lord Howe for a 12-month stint, working as general servants for a Captain Poole, that became a lifelong sea change. Back then, the island was freshly settled and a resupply station for whaling ships.
In 1848, the Andrews paid two tonnes of potatoes for a large piece of land that included what is now Pinetrees Lodge. Their daughter, Mary Nichols, was not only integral in the development of the island's Kentia palm seed export industry – necessary after whaling waned – but began operating the family homestead as a guesthouse. The Pines, as it was called, officially hosted guests from the mid-1890s.
Despite disease, divorce, departure and death – one relative even went down with the Titanic in 1912 – Pinetrees stayed in the family and has operated continuously. During the 1930s, the rowdiest Christmas time guests (lawyers apparently) were relegated to tents because they kept breaking the fibro walls. In the 1950s, Pinetrees offered the island's first ensuite rooms.
While improvements have been made by each generation, including Dani's parents Pixie and Ed Rourke, everyone has always tried to preserve an atmosphere reminiscent of a less complicated time.
As the younger of her parents' two children, Dani Rourke was not originally obliged to join the family business. Her older brother, Harry, was all set to take over Pinetrees but in 2002 he tragically died at 29 in a motorbike accident. At that time, Dani was living in the inner Sydney suburb of Surry Hills working as a lawyer at Blake Dawson Waldron with no intention of ever moving back to Lord Howe.
Her future now looked completely different to what she'd envisaged. Dani told me it slowly dawned on her she'd have to adapt to that by doing something she'd heard about called "settling down". She did so with a scientist she'd crushed on since university, Luke Hanson. They married in 2006 and eventually began their own family. Yet before their first child, Elsie, had even turned one, Dani's mother and longstanding Pinetrees co-owner became terminally ill.
More than once, during my stay on Lord Howe, I am reminded of the film The Descendants. It opens with footage of Hawaii and the voiceover of George Clooney's character bemoaning the fact his mainland American friends assume that because he lives somewhere that looks like paradise his life must be one long holiday. "Are they nuts?" he says. "How can they possibly think our families are less screwed up, our heart attacks and cancers less fatal, our grief less devastating."
Dani spent the last few months of her mother's life by her side back home on Lord Howe. After Pixie Rourke died in 2010, Dani and Luke took over the management of Pinetrees and a few years later bought out Dani's aunt, Kerry McFadyen. As new owners, they wished to make significant improvements while preserving the spirit of Pinetrees and retaining valued regulars.
Once they got their footing, Dani and Luke injected all the love and money and energy into Pinetrees they could muster, running refurbishing projects every winter and raising the culinary standard to great heights. They are currently working on renewable-energy options. There are still no locks on the doors or any Wi-Fi or TV screens.
Since my stay, the family has moved to the mainland for the kids' schooling. Yet, having met Elsie and Pixie, I can so easily imagine returning years from now to find one or both of the seventh generation taking care of business at Pinetrees while preserving an atmosphere reminiscent of a less complicated time.
Pinetrees Lodge is a full-service adventure lodge. Rooms from $510 a person per night including island airport transfers and all meals. See pinetrees.com.au
Elspeth Callender travelled as a guest of Pinetrees Lodge.