Tiwi Island Retreat review: The Northern Territory's wildly beautiful escape

Our rating

5 out of 5

THE PLACE

Tiwi Island Retreat sits on the south-west coast of Bathurst Island, in the Tiwi Islands, a 30-minute spectacular flight north of Darwin. This unobtrusive yet unforgettable retreat was founded by crocodile handler Matt Wright, star of National Geographic's Outback Wrangler.

THE LOCATION

.... is where the wild things are. This is apparent soon after our plane touches down on a red-dirt airstrip at Port Hurd surrounded by vegetation and we carry our bags to a bouncy jetty. There are crocs here among the mangroves, lots of them. In fact we just missed a biggie, says Dwayne who has come to pick us up in a small boat. There are also barra, mud crabs, dolphins.

As we head off for the short ride to the retreat we marvel at sparkly water as far as we can see and wonder what it would be like to live out here. And then – we are stuck. Engine trouble. There's nervous laughter followed by silence as Dwayne tinkers. "This hasn't happened before," he smiles. Birds cackle. The water laps against the boat. After an eternal four minutes and 54 seconds, we are off again, and the palm tree-ringed retreat appears ahead.

THE SPACE

As our boat slides onto the beach we are greeted first by Claudia, the croc who likes to chill in the blue-green waters in front of the retreat. She's smallish, but nosy, and is always there – even if you can't see her (watching her do her vanishing act is compelling). The retreat, in one of the most remote parts of the planet, sits alone on this picture-perfect beachfront and the quickest way to get anywhere is to hitch a ride on the retreat's chopper parked on the sand nearby.

The wood and iron buildings are in harmony with their surrounds, with a covered deck bar - perfect for watching storms roll in - an air-conditioned meals area with communal tables and a 15-metre pool with a spacious wooden deck.

Maybe it's the remoteness, or maybe it's the beauty the guests soak in as they sip a drink on one of the verandahs and watch that sun sink behind Claudia's playground, but this place promotes conviviality. You will chat to most of the other guests and all of the staff during your stay. On our first morning a cheer goes up when Sarah, the newly hired Irish worker, spots her first ever dolphin from the dining room window.

THE ROOMS

There are only 18 rooms, including nine queens, five twin-share and three family ones containing a queen and a bunk bed, and all have been recently refurbished. My light queen room faces the pool with the Timor Sea beyond. While the bathrooms are in shared blocks a short walk away, they are pristine and stylish. The bed is comfortable, there are bedside tables, good quality linen and towels, a basic hanger, mirror, ceiling fan and air-conditioner.

Yes the accommodation is simple – the retreat was originally built as a fishing lodge – but this place is not about the rooms. There's a reason why it attracts well-heeled executives and celebrities: there's nowhere else like it.

STEPPING OUT

It's not unusual for a hungry croc to check out the odd crab pot up here so it's just as well Dwayne skippers our boat when we head out. There is an intake of breath as he hauls up each pot to reveal small crabs (who are thrown back) then two biggies at the next one, then a monster. Wrangling the catch is tricky, but he somehow manages to tie the crabs in seconds, without a nip. The fishing can be spine-tingling. When one of us hauls in a huge cod we are all relieved it didn't turn out to be something even bigger.

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Later we go out with Dwayne again, this time in a beach buggy on terra firma for a sunset picnic further up the deserted beach, complete with cheese platter and champagne. In the time it takes us to have a bite of cheese and a first sip, he has built and lit a camp fire to sit by. Guests have other options which can be organised privately, such as flying over and then swimming in one of Australia's most remote - and croc-free - waterholes; full-day deep fishing charters, scenic flights across Bathurst Island plus Indigenous art and cultural tours. Or if you are there in March, you can use the retreat as a precursor to the Tiwi Islands AFL Grand Final which is held on the other side of the island.

THE FOOD

When we present our huge cod and mud crabs to Siggy the chef and all-round problem solver, she knows exactly what to do: the cod is not best for grilling - we have fresh barramundi for that. Instead she serves "fish bites" - juicy fat pieces in a light but crispy seasoned batter - to accompany our cooked crab legs, grilled barra, tangy salad, thick-cut chips and ice-cold beers and white wine. The food here is a testament to Siggy's ingenuity and cooking skills: there are no local shops so she needs to plan strategically, waste nothing. So we understand her dismay when a boat arrives sans the pumpkin she ordered for her ravioli and she hastily changes the menu.

Despite the challenges, the food here is incredibly fresh and tasty (try the fish tacos) and makes good use of all that tropical produce just a plane flight away. Breakfasts are also epic: as we devour avocado toast we watch a table of executives from a pearling company devour trays of bacon and eggs.

THE VERDICT

I always thought there would be nothing more frustrating than to see water and not be able to swim in it. But maybe it's something in the water up here (besides crocs) that make this place so spectacular. Luxury is not always a private spa bath and the biggest television. The wild beauty of this retreat is priceless.

THE ESSENTIALS

Minimum two-night stay from $500 a person a night. All inclusive packages from $4700 for two people for two nights and $4910 for a

family (two adults and two kids) for two nights. These include flights from Darwin, boat transfers, all meals, buggy picnic and two three-hour fishing and mud-crabbing excursions.

Port Hurd, Tiwi Islands, NT. Phone (08) 8983 4017; see tiwiislandretreat.com.au

Jane Richards stayed as a guest of Tourism NT. See northernterritory.com

HIGHLIGHT

The luxurious wildness. Where else can you sit by a campfire with champagne and watch a croc glide past?

LOWLIGHT

The realisation that so few Australians will ever make it up here.