What is so special about Lord Howe Island, Australia?
Tiny in size yet vast in natural wonders, Australia’s Lord Howe Island is a truly remarkable place. Antonia Black travelled there to experience it for herself
Heralded as one of the most ecologically intact spots on Earth, Lord Howe Island is tiny in size yet vast in natural marvels. We share Sir David Attenborough’s belief that this World Heritage-listed island is “so extraordinary it is almost unbelievable” and, during our time here, we were struck by its sheer beauty and endemic wildlife on many occasions.
Lying 700km north-east of Sydney, this tropical isle can be easily reached by a two-hour flight. The aerial arrival is arguably worth the journey alone as gliding over Lord Howe’s verdant topography makes for a spectacular experience, especially when the island’s iconic peaks – Mount Gower and Mount Lidgbird – come into full view. The Tasman Sea’s lively waves are also a striking sight when seen from above and their continual movement draws your eye towards Lord Howe’s crescent-shaped lagoon, which is so bright it seems to emit a bright, aquamarine glow.
Flying over the lagoon at Lord Howe Island, Australia
If you so wish, it is possible to walk to the base of the towering mountains and the turquoise lagoon on your first morning or afternoon as the entire volcanic island is just 2km wide and 11km long. However, we suggest settling into your beach retreat on arrival and taking a look at a map to get to grips with the lay of the land before setting off. We loved taking the time to do this, and exploring this off-grid idyll at a gentle pace, as it meant that we could admire the phenomenally biodiverse environment around us rather than speeding through it.
There is a surprising amount to discover here for Lord Howe’s volcanic origins, maritime climate and geographical position – between five ocean currents – have formed a staggering variety of microhabitats. Not to mention, each of these ecosystems – from subtropical jungles and rugged hills to sandy beaches and serene coves – are home to their own diverse flora and fauna, most of which are endemic to the island.
Subtropical jungles, one of the many microhabitats on Lord Howe Island, Australia
What’s more, a wide array of walking trails and cycling routes can be found across the island, as can multiple swimming and snorkelling spots. These all take you to a different part of the eclectic terrain so – trust us – nature lovers of all ages and abilities are bound to enjoy a stay here.
On the north of the island, our favourite scenic walk is the two-hour trail to Malabar Hill, which continues along the ridge to Kim’s Lookout. Further towards the centre of the island, we recommend the picturesque hike that leads you up to the summit of Intermediate Hill, where an impressive lookout sits at 250m above sea level. This viewpoint makes the walk worth every step as it rewards you with panoramic 360Â° views. Not only can you see the renowned mist-shrouded mountains to your left here, but the iridescent lagoon stretches out towards Mt Eliza on your right. Behind you lies perhaps the most commanding view of all: the atmospheric Ball’s Pyramid – the world’s tallest volcanic remnant – rising out of the ocean.
View from the summit of Intermediate Hill
Fortunately, both pathways there and back wind their way through pristine forests that burst with huge ferns, palm leaves and enormous banyan trees, so you can enjoy some relief from the sun while taking a closer look at the endemic plant life around you. This lush greenery also harbours unusual wildlife, from the jewel beetle to the silvereye bird. You may even catch a glimpse of the indigenous golden whistler as you pass through here.
If you are looking for a more adventurous hike, you may be tempted to go to the southern end of Lord Howe to climb the island’s highest pinnacle, Mount Gower (875m). This walk certainly takes it up a notch as it is a demanding eight-hour trek. But – fear not – for you will be accompanied by a licensed guide who will provide you with all the necessary equipment and local knowledge to ensure you are kept safe. Plus, the views throughout are phenomenal! One of the most thrilling parts of this climb is walking among the unique cloud forest at the top, where moss, orchids and ferns encircle you, making you feel as though you have entered another world entirely.
View of Mt Gower
Birdwatchers will love exploring the island on foot, as you cannot help but spot many of these beautiful creatures flitting around overhead and resting in the trees nearby. The lack of people on Lord Howe (thanks to the tourist cap of 400 visitors a day) allows you to appreciate these animals up close as they tend to sit calmly on branches without flying off at the slightest sound. If you are particularly keen to learn about the island’s 200 species of bird in intricate detail, we are able to arrange half a day with the island’s renowned naturalist, Ian Hutton.
While the spectrum of birdlife to be found here is extraordinary in its own right, it is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all of the wildlife on the island. Under the waves, a whole host of tropical and temperate marine life can be seen by snorkelers and divers. If you take a dip in the inviting lagoon you will find yourself swimming among the southernmost coral reef on the planet, which is home to more than 500 fish – 10% of which are endemic to these waters – and 90 different types of coral. On our first day, we came face to face with vivid parrotfish and rare double-headed wrasse in the first five minutes of our swim on Ned’s Beach, which was a wonderful welcome to the island.
a whole host of tropical and temperate marine life can be seen by snorkelers and divers at Lord Howe Island
Thanks to the laid-back vibe of this lovely island, cycling is a great way to explore as it is possible to simply hop on and off wherever you like and leave your bicycle unlocked. We recommend going through the small town and stopping off at Lord Howe Island Museum along the way, since it beautifully exhibits the island’s history, including its discovery in 1788, and sheds light on its incredibly rich biodiversity. Make sure not to miss the environmental collections during a visit here as they are particularly impressive and are bound to engage children as well as adults.
A friendly, cosy atmosphere can also be felt in Lord Howe’s luxury lodges, namely, Capella Lodge and Arajilla Retreat. Our favourite of the two is, without a doubt, Capella because it is a true idyll – from its prime position overlooking an aquamarine bay to its elegant interior and architectural design. Its beach house ambiance manages to strike just the right balance between refined and relaxed.
Capella Lodge Dining Room
Swaying palm trees line each of the nine suites’ terraces, providing privacy and a sense of peace, and the mossy mountains can be seen peeking through the leaves from every room, too. This natural landscape is particularly arresting in the early evening when it is bathed in golden sunlight. There is no better spot to enjoy this from than your very own hot tub, which is especially soothing after a busy day spent outdoors. For honeymooners looking for an extra-special stay, it may be worth choosing the Lidgbird Pavilion for this state-of-the-art suite comes with a wraparound veranda and a plunge pool.
Cuisine is a real highlight here: Capella’s seasonal menu is modified every single day – to ensure the finest and freshest of ingredients – and the dishes all have their own creative twists. The service was impeccable throughout our stay. Not only were we warmly welcomed on our arrival by fantastic General Manager, Mark, who kindly gave us detailed information about the island, but we were always handed whatever we needed, be it a chilled bottle of iced water before we ventured out or a freshly squeezed fruit juice or cocktail on our return to the lodge. It is worth noting that ecofriendly designs are scattered throughout Capella – from solar panels to recycling baskets – and the lodge proudly supports the island’s local revegetation program, which prevents erosion of Lord Howe’s precious and fragile ecosystem.
Capella Lodge Dining Room
While Arajilla Retreat may not offer quite the same view or level of service as Capella, it is another lovely place to stay on the island. This boutique hotel has 12 suites dotted along a palm-covered wooden walkway and an airy dining room, where you join the other guests to dine on delicious locally-sourced food and wine. Arajilla is close to Old Settlement Beach, which we recommend visiting in the evening if you would like to be in with a chance of spotting turtles in the shallows. Due to its relaxed and rustic atmosphere, this is perhaps better suited to families and young couples.
Lord Howe Island is a special place indeed and has so many exciting areas to explore that we recommend staying at least three days to make the most of it. Another night or two would be ideal, time permitting, as it would increase your chances of enjoying clear blue skies and spotting as many endemic flora and fauna as possible. This natural paradise has a mild spring climate so is considered comfortable all year-round. However, the optimum times to visit are between September and May when the water is at its warmest. Keep in mind that the island’s far-flung position in the middle of the Tasman Sea means that it typically has changeable weather, so you are likely to see bright sun, clouds and sometimes rain in a matter of hours. While this may be unpredictable, it definitely adds to Lord Howe Island’s legendary Jurassic feel.
Arajilla Retreat, Lord Howe Island
- Sit on the left-hand side of the plane to enjoy the best aerial views on arrival.
- Please let us know if you would like to climb Mount Gower in advance so we can arrange for the local expert guide, Jack Shick, to accompany you.
- Please request a morning or afternoon with the island’s naturalist, Ian Hutton, in advance so we can guarantee he can spend time with you.
- If you stay at Capella, enjoy a trip on the lodge’s glass-bottom boat.
- Keen surfers and bodyboarders should spend some time on Blinky Beach.
- If you forget your snorkelling gear or fancy an impromptu swim at Ned’s Beach, borrow the masks on offer and contribute to their ‘honesty box’.
- Pack light as the weight limit on Lord Howe flights is 14kg per person of checked baggage (plus 7kg of carry-on baggage).
- Walk to the southernmost tip of the island to visit Little Island, a secluded stretch of volcanic coastline that lies under the cliffs.