Sometimes the legend surrounding a place exceeds the reality. Not so the world heritage-listed Lord Howe Island which lies in the Tasman Sea, between Australia and New Zealand. Described by National Geographic in 1935 as the most beautiful in the Pacific, the praise is still accurate — even 80 years on.
My first time, I was already planning my trip back before our Qantas Dash-8 had even touched down at the quaint airport with its white picket fence.
As we made our final approach, the water surrounding this stunning grouping of volcanic pinnacles resembled a liquid abstract painting, turning from the deepest blue to aquamarine and then to a turquoise so clear you could easily make out the world's most southern coral reef beneath.
In the seat behind me the owner of Arajilla Retreat, where I stayed on both my visits, was flying home with her grandson who grew up on this magical island. His excitement was contagious and the moment he stepped off the plane, he'd kicked off his shoes, was happily reunited with his dog and drove off in the family ute like he was the luckiest kid in the world.
Taking his cue, I slipped into island mode on the short ride to the northern end of the island. It's not difficult. With few cars, a maximum speed limit of 25 km/h, no high rises and no mobile coverage, Lord Howe transports you back to the Australia of the 1950s and '60s where locals stop and chat with each other and kids roam barefoot (even to school).
Volcanic pinnacles tumble down to pristine inlets and secluded bays hugging a lagoon that practically begs you to take a swim. This isolated speck in the Pacific is also home to many unique and endemic species. Lord Howe you had me at hello.
Having said that, four days is ideal for first timers (Lord Howe junkies can get their fix in a weekend). Take the early-morning flight on a Saturday and return on the last flight home Tuesday afternoon.
The first thing you'll need to sort out is wheels - of the bicycle variety (these can be hired on the island or some accommodation operators provide them). Then take a leisurely cycle to familiarise yourself.
Within moments of checking into Arajilla, a chic, Asian-inspired hideaway consisting of 12 suites and spa tucked among a lush forest of kentia palms and ancient banyan trees, I'm coasting on a resort bicycle (the island's main mode of transport) into town. The locals jokingly refer to it as the CBD but in truth it's little more than a few quaint shops, a general store, post office and community centre.
By late afternoon I have climbed the short but steep track to Kim's Lookout from Old Settlement Beach. As I surface from the thick foliage at the barrier-free pinnacle, I am rewarded with i 360-degree views over the island. White kestrels soar above and I feel I'm within spitting distance of heaven.
After a hearty breakfast of nasi goreng, I do the Valley of the Shadows walk through gorgeous rainforest and the short trek to Clear Place where I can see Balls Pyramid in the distance. I later cool off in the surf at Ned's Beach while huge kingfish circle my legs looking for food. You can hire a mask, snorkel and fins from Ned's Beach Shed (run on an honesty-box system) and feed the eager mullet, wrasse, garfish, trevally and kingfish. Fish food is dispensed for a $1 coin. From there I t head for the Boat Shed, a bar attached to the iconic Pinetrees Guesthouse (pinetrees.com.au) and also run on the island's endearing honesty-box system. I grab a icy beer and chat with fellow travellers who have gathered to watch the sunset. Back at Arajilla, guests swap stories over canapes and pre-dinner drinks.Later I retreat to my deck overlooking a banyan tree, a book in one hand and a chardonnay in the other.
This morning I amble down to Old Settlement Beach at the northern, sheltered end of the island, where huge turtles come to feed on the sea grass. After wading in, I'm soon watching four turtles munch on breakfast steps from my feet.
After another amazing lunch at Arajilla on the freshest of kingfish , I cycle to Howea Divers (howeadivers.com.au) which is operated by its original owner, Brian 'Busty' Busteed. We head out for a dive at Malabar with its series of bombies, overhangs, coral walls and fingers of reef. I come face to face with an enormous doubleheader wrasse suspended in the deep.
If you're not a diver, never fear. You can easily spot sea turtles and every type of fish imaginable through the glass- bottomed Marine Adventures boat (marineadventures.com.au), plus snorkel out to a sunken US fishing trawler. Comet's Hole is another excellent snorkelling spot.
That night we enjoy Frangelico caprioskas on the deck of Capella Lodge (baillielodges.com.au), looking out across rolling farmland to Mount Lidgbird and Mount Gower beyond. Inside, we tuck into Capella's incredible Modern Australian menu. Capella's chefs are enthusiastic foragers, scaling down cliffs and traipsing across sand all to get wild plants for the lodge's regularly changing menu. Rocket flowers, nasturtiums, watercress, oxalis and sea herbs are just some of the local goods used in the spectacular dishes.
By now you've probably figured out that most activities on the island revolve around the water or walking. Lord Howe also attracts a fair share of bird watchers here to admire snow-white terns, endemic woodhens, silver eyes and golden whistlers.
There are many fantastic walks offering trails for all fitness levels. Ron's Ramble is an easy guided walking tour though the mythical Valley of the Shadows and Clear Place with long-time local Ron Matthews, who explains everything about the local flora and fauna. Goat House Mountain is another popular trek, taking about three hours return.
You can also seriously challenge yourself by tackling Mount Gower (lordhoweislandtours.com). At 875 metres it offers a tough (read gruelling) eight-hour return hike to the highest peak on the island and is rated as one of the best day treks in the world. Due to the difficulty of the hike, Mt Gower must be tackled with an experienced local guide.
Alternatively, you could take a gentle amble along Little Island walk on the south-western shoreline through ancient forests of banyan trees and endemic kentia palms to the base of brooding Mt Gower. At the end of this gorgeous walk I lie on my back on the grass, watching the soaring Providence petrels circle on the wind.
I take one last dip at the tiny, secret beach at Lovers Bay near the golf course. As I head down the narrow dirt track to the beach, I pass a woman returning from a swim. I now have the secluded beach all to myself. Just how I like it.
Qantaslink, the only airline that flies to Lord Howe Island, has daily flights from Sydney, weekend flights from Brisbane, and seasonal weekly flights from Port Macquarie (October-May). See qantas.com.au
WHERE TO STAY
The boutique Arajilla Retreat consists of 12 suites and an ayurvedic spa. The Banyan suites have been refurbished and are an oasis of calming neutrals, soaring ceilings and louvred windows for catching Pacific Ocean breezes. Steps away from Old Settlement Beach, Arajilla offers terrific food by chef Dennis Tierney who also dabbles in food foraging, attentive staff and an all-inclusive tariff. Priced from $740 per person per night, the rate includes all meals, pre dinner drinks and canapes, bikes, snorkelling equipment and more. See arajilla.com.au
Arajilla has also opened a beach house for two adults, Blue Peters, serviced daily from $650 per night. See lordhoweislandbeachhouse.com.au
Sheriden Rhodes travelled courtesy of Lord Howe Island Tourism Board.