A prolific Canadian travel journalist with four decades of heavily stamped passports to prove it, our editor-at-large Margo Pfeiff is often asked about her favourite trips. If an Arctic safari to Baffin Island’s floe edge during a Nunavut spring tops Pfeiff’s Canadian travel list, then her international equivalent is the polar opposite: Australia’s exceptional Lord Howe Island in the South Pacific. — T&C
By Margo Pfeiff
Rainbow-coloured fish swirl around my thighs in the crystalline ocean. During a rainforest hike, I clap my hands and exotic, loudly chirping birds swoop towards me. I’m in a place so magical, it feels like a dream and I can’t quite believe I’m back.
Although located just a two-hour flight east of Sydney, Lord Howe Island is little known beyond Australia. Only 11 kilometres long and barely three kilometres wide, the boomerang-shaped isle hugs a vivid turquoise lagoon rimmed by the world’s southernmost coral reef.
With its spectacular geography and indigenous plant species found nowhere else, Lord Howe Island was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. Naturalist Sir David Attenborough called the island “so extraordinary, it is almost unbelievable…few islands, surely, can be so accessible, so remarkable, yet so unspoilt.”
I first visited Lord Howe Island in 1983 and, lucky for me, I’m able to return for a third time (just before the global pandemic hit.) I’m picked up at the airport in an electric golf cart for the short shuttle to one of the island’s 12 lodges — the lovely and luxurious Capella — where I grab a bike and head off to explore.
Everyone rides bicycles along the island’s 13 kilometres of roads and tracks, through overhanging palms and alongside 11 often-deserted beaches. Kids stroll to school barefoot. I plunk coins into honour boxes at roadside fruit stands, at the beach shack for a mask and snorkel, and for a cart and putter at the golf course.
Given the island’s small size, visitors can conveniently take advantage of any number of outdoor adventures — from surfing to mountain biking to lawn bowling. At the six-kilometre-long lagoon, I trade my bike for a kayak and paddle out to nearby Rabbit Island, which I have to myself for a picnic lunch.
In the afternoon, I swap the kayak for a scuba dive boat to Rupert’s Reef where warm Great Barrier Reef currents bring swarms of tropical species to mix with those of Lord Howe’s cooler waters, creating a rich collection of underwater critters not normally rubbing shoulders among vast and colourful coral gardens.
The next morning, I meet up with Jack Schick, a fifth-generation islander and third-generation mountain guide, to tackle the 875-metre Mount Gower looming up from the island’s southern tip alongside its lush twin, Mount Lidgbird. It’s a humid, full-day tropical bushwalking adventure onto a misty, mossy summit — a Tolkien-esque world of gnarled trees, orchids and stunning views.
As much as I love the natural attractions and small-town culture of this fairytale island, it’s even more rewarding to experience the energy and determination of a community focused intently on protecting its unique environment. Everything about Lord Howe Island is laid-back except for the fervour with which its inhabitants protect their paradise.
In 1981, to address concerns over habitat destruction, pollution and development, the elected Lord Howe Island Board capped visitor numbers to 400 people at one time. Strict rules were laid down and the limit remains. Today, the closest thing to a local traffic jam is the weekly mingling of islanders (population 380) and visitors at the outdoor fish fry.
Locals and island guests have opportunities to work as citizen scientists alongside conservationists to help protect the island’s biodiversity from the bottom of the marine park to the mountain tops.
Lord Howe Island may have high thread count linens, five-star dining and top Australian wines, but there is no cell phone reception or air conditioning or billboards. Everyone gathers rainwater to drink and uses bore water first for washing, then for gardening. Cruise ships are banned. Camping and part-time holiday houses are not permitted and locals are given first dibs in the rare instance a house comes up for sale.
The island’s tiny township, half buried in tropical foliage and flowers in the middle of the island, consists of a community centre, bakery, butcher, general store, post office and a couple of funky shops — and the Lord Howe Island Board operates the liquor store, which funnels profits from beer sales into local improvement projects, which literally makes raising a cold one a community service!
Over decades, the island has brought back endemic creatures from the brink of extinction, like the Lord Howe Island Woodhen (only 30 remained) and the world’s rarest insect, the Dryococelus Australis (commonly referred to as a tree lobster.) No surprise then, that given its long history of conservation and sustainability innovation, the Lord Howe Island Board received Australia’s top eco award, the Gold Banksia, in 2018.
By the end of my stay, I’m thrilled to be able to scribble down words that travel writers can rarely say given overtourism around the world: “Lord Howe Island has become greener, more sustainable and yet no more crowded than the first time I was here 36 years ago.”
An incredible feat for a fragile paradise and the forces in place to protect it.
Travel journalist Margo Pfeiff visited Lord Howe Island as a guest of Tourism Australia, which did not edit or review this story before publication. Please see Tourism Australia’s website for updates on travel during the pandemic. Read about Pfeiff’s love of Nunavut, Canada in our conversation with her here.