Luxurious natural retreats are just a short ferry-ride away. Koren Helbig finds a place to enjoy the unique experiences one can only find on Kangaroo Island.
It was back in the 1940s that an enterprising South Aussie named James Holden (the ‘sir’ part would come later) began heading to Kangaroo Island. Holden grew to love the place so much that he soon bought a block out there, dragging his wife Prue and their children across the Backstairs Passage to live. Little mind the lack of power, mains water or bituminised roads. The living was hard but the fishing was excellent.
Holden went on to be knighted for designing the bodywork of the very first Holden motorcar, which was named in his honour. He was inventive in his private life, too, plonking a shack on a truck and shipping it over to KI. But the island’s roads were so rubbish that he couldn’t get it up the hill to Western River, on the rugged north coast, and instead unloaded his house at Snelling Beach’s sand hills, just a touch further east.
Almost eight decades on, this very spot is now home to one of Kangaroo Island’s most luxurious retreats, a set of four homes and a restaurant created literally within the tangled branches of a giant fig tree, which are together run by two of Holden’s grandchildren.
To get to LifeTime Private Retreats, one drives up the guts of Kangaroo Island via the Playford Highway, then north along roads that quickly turn to dirt. For anyone imagining KI to be rather small, this 90-minute drive is the moment of realisation: plans to mosey about visiting every foodie hub and famed scenic site in just a few days will surely be dashed.
Who wants to spend their entire holiday in the car?
That’s why, 15 years ago, brother-and-sister team Nick and Rachel Hannaford dreamed up a way for visitors to sample the island’s best from one swish location. They threw open the doors to their childhood home, the Cliff House, designed and partly built by their father Ian Hannaford from handmade bricks in 1974. Hannaford knew what he was doing — he’s the renowned architect behind dozens of prominent SA landmarks, including Rundle Mall and the Big Lobster.
On Kangaroo Island, he created an astonishingly beautiful three-bedroom mini mansion on a cliff high above Snelling Beach, with floor-to-ceiling windows providing unfettered views across the rugged bay below. Hannaford’s signature arches are dotted throughout the home, most strikingly in a two-storey tower bedroom that seems straight out of a fairy tale. Underneath is a circular sunken “conversation pit” filled with comfy cushions, a plasma TV and a combustion fireplace. Plonk down inside with a glass of wine after dinner — perhaps after a long soak beneath the stars in the outdoor Jacuzzi — and you’re sure to nod right off.
LifeTime’s three other homes have just as much history: the rammed-earth Sky House was built by the Hannaford children’s mum, Belinda (who launched Adelaide’s Jolley’s Boathouse restaurant in the 1980s); the sandstone Settlers Homestead was built from the property’s old milking dairy; and a newer four-bedroom Sheoaks house aims for sustainable design.
While Kangaroo Island’s south coast has flourished with tourism developments in recent years, the north coast remains something of an isolated wilderness. No shops or supermarkets lie nearby the LifeTime Private Retreats home, and the nearest petrol stop is a 30-minute drive south to a small general store at Parndana.
Guests can stock up at Penneshaw or Kingscote and cater for themselves, as each home has a fully equipped kitchen. But for those willing to spend a little more, a far more enticing option awaits. For Nick’s sister Rachel is a chef who’s worked at leading restaurants around the world and cooked for the Dalai Lama, KD Lang and Mick Jagger. With her business partner and sous chef Sasha Sachs, Hannaford offers lavish catering packages to LifeTime guests.
Opt for Hannaford and Sachs’ Silver Package and one arrives to a fridge fully stocked with KI’s best brekkie produce: Island Pure haloumi, Kangaroo Island Free Range Pork bacon, Island Beehive honey, and SA-sourced free range eggs, sourdough, fruit loaf, jams and more. A bottle of Dudley Bubbly, from the island’s northeast corner, begs to be immediately cracked.
Lunch is a DIY affair, but come dinner, a chef rolls up with an exquisite threecourse meal — and even does the dishes before leaving. It’s so delightfully decadent it’s hard not to begin plotting a series of life choices that might lead to this becoming a more regular occurrence. Up your package to the Gold offering and that same chef will whip up your brekkie, too.
Each catering package includes a dinner at the Enchanted Fig Tree, a restaurant that must be seen to be believed. The fig tree itself, planted by early settlers, is more than a century old and so large it can comfortably seat 40 diners beneath its gnarled and leafy branches. “We have to give credit to Mum for that,” Nick Hannaford admits. “She used to set up and have pretend dinner parties sitting in the tree when she was a kid.”
Rainy days mean retiring to the 150-year-old Shearing Shed instead, another exceptional dining spot dreamed up by Belinda Hannaford. “Mum was having one of her creative moments, saw it all falling apart in the paddock and started fixing it up slowly. It was literally a ruin,” Nick says. Keen eyes will spot a few choice bits of Holden memorabilia, a nod to the property’s history.
The creativity doesn’t end with location alone. An eight-course degustation menu allows visitors to taste test Kangaroo Island and South Australia’s most delectable offerings, including almost every Island Pure cheese available, locally produced meat and veggies and a heavily local wine list.
One could, of course, visit some of these top-notch producers individually. But Hannaford and Sachs offer a chance to sample them all without racing about the island like a madman – freeing up time to instead stop leisurely by famed sites such as Admiral’s Arch and Remarkable Rocks, or Will’s Rare Breeds Farm just down the road.
It is mighty tempting, though, to simply lay back with a nice glass of Dudley Wines merlot in an elegant home all of your own, and do little more than listen to waves crashing onto the nearby beach while pondering what excellent fare will be brought to your door next. If only real life could be so almightily grand.