On a castaway island in the midst of the Pacific, The Adelaide Review finds blissful adventure — on land and in water.
We’ve been flying northeast from Sydney for close to two hours when the captain announces our descent. I peer out the window to see a sharp wedge of rock jutting out of the ocean like a giant fin; across the aisle, out the other window, two imposing peaks rise improbably out of the water. Beyond them is a stretch of green lowland, and smaller ridges and summits, all curving around a large reef-fringed lagoon.
Our plane glides over the ocean that divides the fin and the peaks, before banking over a pristine beach with rolling waves that range in spectrum from sapphire to turquoise. On a clear day, there’s no doubt that the approach itself is an impressive entrée to Lord Howe Island.
The landscapes and seascapes from above give only the briefest hint of what awaits on ground and in water. The Lord Howe Island Group was inscribed as a World Heritage site in 1982; it includes the crescent-shaped, 14.5 square-kilometre Lord Howe, which features those two imposing peaks, Mount Gower and Mount Lidgbird; the Admiralty Group, a cluster of islets to the north; and Balls Pyramid, that notable fin, some 20 kilometres south. The surrounding waters host the world’s southernmost coral reef, with 80-plus coral species and more than 500 species of fish.
I explore the lagoon — it’s easy to access many coral formations from the beach, but the best underwater sights are further from shore. Dean Hiscox from Lord Howe Environmental Tours runs a snorkelling excursion that covers four main sites: Erscott’s Hole, Erscott’s Reef, Comets Hole and The Horseshoe. In the water, myriad fish, from doubleheader wrasse to striped butterflyfish, drift past my mask. I float past corals in vibrant yellows and blues, murky greens and dull greys. I skim over large stingrays, nestled into the sandy seabed. I’m hoping to see a Galapagos shark, which I’ve heard are beautiful and mesmerising, but I’m out of luck. Maybe later in the week.
Back on land, the ever-visible Mount Gower looms large, both a challenge and a warning. If you want to climb it, Hiscox is your man — he guides groups to the 875-metre summit twice a week. A word of warning: it’s a gruelling ascent, tackled over eight to 10 hours. I steer clear, instead opting for the many other trails that crisscross the island.
From Malabar, in the north, I take in the lush topography, sheer cliffs, and an ocean that stretches into infinity. I explore pandanus forests near Boat Harbour and Rocky Run, and wander through Kentia palm groves in Valley of the Shadows. I scale Intermediate Hill gawking at the 360-degree panoramas from the viewing platform. And if hiking isn’t enough, there’s a nine-hole golf course and cycling — in fact, bikes are the island’s main form of transport.
This much activity requires serious fuel. Thankfully, food at Pinetrees, where I’m a guest, is simple, abundant and excellent. The property is the oldest guesthouse on the island (they’ve been taking guests since 1895); current custodians Dani Rourke and Luke Hanson gave it a chic makeover in 2015. Now, interiors are crisp, clean and inviting. It’s the perfect place, too, for a screen detox: there are no televisions and no Wi-Fi, and the island has no mobile phone coverage, so idyllic isolation is guaranteed.
Consequently, the vibe at Pinetrees is relaxed and convivial. Guests are encouraged to mingle with one another, which is how I find myself one morning on the Islander Cruises ‘taxi service’ to North Bay, with a group of like-minded adventurers.
Our skipper, Pete Busteed, also runs turtle-viewing cruises, so it’s no surprise that in our short journey we see two of the intriguing and endearing reptiles nosing in the weeds underwater. Once at North Bay, we follow a trail to Old Gulch where we clamber single-file along the exposed rocks to the Herring Pools, where we float in deep rock formations that nurture small schools of fish, sea urchins and colourful corals.
Towards the end of my week, I’m ready to hit some deeper snorkelling sites — still hoping to spy a shark. Local outfit Pro-Dive runs off-shore excursions once a week, exclusively for Pinetrees guests. We head to the base of the Malabar Cliffs, where the depth is up to 13 metres, spending almost an hour seeing more marine life than I can count. The fish here seem more abundant, and bigger than in the lagoon; the coral formations are deeper and more varied. Visibility is at a wonderful 25 metres but Pro-Dive owner Aaron Ralph tells me that he’s seen it at twice that. It turns out that 25 metres is just fine, because that’s when a Galapagos shark glides silently below us along the ocean floor: mesmerising and thrilling, just like so much of this island.
The writer was a guest of Pinetrees – pinetrees.com.au
Lord Howe Environmental Tours – lordhoweislandtours.com
Islander Cruises – islandercruises.com.au
Pro Dive Lord Howe Island – prodivelordhoweisland.com.au