Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2008

The Islands of Oz

Charles Darwin was so surprised by Australia that he suspected it was a separate creation from the rest of the world, and that was after visiting only one of the many astonishing living laboratories of unique flora and fauna and exquisite natural beauty that can be found off the mainland.

Lord Howe Island is a two-hour flight northeast of Sydney on a Dash 8 propeller plane and boasts five species of birds found nowhere else on earth, including a flightless wood hen that is so curious that when you snap your fingers, it scuttles out of the forest to see what's going on. In the turquoise Pacific waters surrounding the island, huge, harmless kingfish — each as big as a small child — might join you for a swim, and sea turtles often paddle past, unruffled. Twelve miles (about 20 km) off the coast, Balls Pyramid rises like a mighty cathedral spire 1,800 ft. (550 m) out of the sea. The rock formation — access to which requires a hard-to-get permit, a mountaineer's climbing skills and serious sea legs for an often rough crossing — is the world's tallest sea stack and the last home on earth of the Lord Howe Island phasmid (Dryococelus australis), a nasty-looking though largely harmless critter that resembles a prawn crossed with a big Havana cigar.

One explanation for the almost Edenic purity of Lord Howe's creatures is that this World Heritage-listed island, which is a little less than 7 miles (11 km) long and at no point more than 1.2 miles (2 km) wide, along with Balls Pyramid (where you can't stay overnight), remained completely undiscovered by European or Polynesian explorers until 1788. No trace of indigenous people has ever been found. Thus the wildlife developed no innate fear of humans. The first settlers didn't move to Lord Howe until 1833 — more than a century after the notion of far-flung islands gathered romance with the publication of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe — and today fewer than 350 people reside there. Visitors are kept to a minimum, with a cap of 400 at a time, a lucky 20 of whom get to stay at Capella Lodge, an unexpectedly luxurious yet laid-back hideaway. The surfer-chef makes great use of local ingredients (seafood, dairy products and farm-fresh organic fruit and vegetables), accompanied by well-chosen wines freighted in from the mainland.

Think Australia — and certainly travel experts are anticipating that many will do just that once the scorched-earth epic of the same name, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, arrives in multiplexes in November — and you'll most likely visualize the empty outback, majestic Uluru (Ayers Rock) or the sparkling white "sails" of the Sydney Opera House. Less widely known is that this vast island continent is surrounded by what are arguably the most diverse outliers of any country — from coral cays in the Great Barrier Reef to remnant volcanoes in the Pacific. And while most are way too rugged for the casual traveler to access, about a dozen now offer adventurous yet luxurious little-known vacation spots that combine astounding natural landscapes with five-star service and, where applicable, accommodations that are thoughtfully constructed to maximize wildlife-gazing and at the same time deter those infamous spiders and snakes from entering your bed.

The best place to see Australia's almost comical marsupials in the wild is the aptly named Kangaroo Island, off South Australia, which is known to locals as K.I. and to scientists as "Australia's Galápagos" and "the zoo without fences." On a landmass roughly the size of Long Island, N.Y., there are kangaroos, of course, as well as wallabies, bandicoots and koalas, the latter introduced in the 1920s. Each July, K.I. becomes one of the few places in the world to witness an echidna mating train (the echidna, which looks somewhat like a porcupine, is not a marsupial but an egg-laying monotreme), in which up to eight males spend about a month following a single female as she makes up her mind which one will get to father her baby, or puggle. Of course, July is winter in the southern hemisphere, but visitors to K.I. won't feel they are missing out on an ocean experience, since this area is one of the white-shark capitals of the world.

For about 500 million years, the Antarctic winds that buffet K.I. have been sculpting granite boulders into a stunning natural work of art now known as the Remarkable Rocks. It took only about five years — much of it spent acquiring permission — to develop the nearby Southern Ocean Lodge, Australia's first true superlodge, which sits amid 252 acres (102 hectares) of virgin bushland. While the building, which snakes down an escarpment, is stunning — especially its massive, light-flooded great hall, sparsely furnished with distinctly "groovy" furniture that resembles a place where the Jetsons might live — the emphasis here is on what's outside. Hence there are dawn walks among the sea lions (your expert guide is armed with only a broom, which may appear somewhat flimsy in the face of a sea-lion bull), while dusk is the time for "Kangaroos and Canapés," plus a few glasses of 2007 Henschke Julius Riesling, from South Australia's Eden Valley. The service is superb — chatty and friendly in true Aussie style, with an all-inclusive, help-yourself bar adding to the sense that this spectacular lodge is your home away from home.

Southern Ocean Lodge is the creation of James and Hayley Baillie, a dynamic young couple who have earned their stripes as pioneers of luxury-level, nature-based tourism. Their four-property portfolio also includes Lord Howe Island's Capella Lodge and, opening in 2010, a lodge on Australia's largest island, Tasmania. James believes that, aside from some of the ritzy tropical islands in the Great Barrier Reef region, his homeland's offshore gems remain undersold. "We have great diversity, plus overall, Australia has become so much more sophisticated. We've come of age in terms of food and experiences which are special and yet really relaxed," he says. "We're not just a flop-and-drop beach destination anymore."

However, should you want to flop-and-drop in style, there's Qualia, a resort that opened earlier this year on Hamilton Island, off the coast of Queensland. Hamilton is no secret; it is Australia's Oahu, if you like. Yet Qualia, which hugs its northernmost tip, is peaceful, tropical and indulgent, from the vast daybeds for lounging and fabulous gazebos surrounding the infinity pool to your room's wide-screen TV, positioned so you can watch it from your private plunge pool. The resort is also within easy access of international airports.

The antithesis is Haggerstone Island, at the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef. It takes a day and a half to reach Haggerstone from Sydney, including a two-hour flight on a six-seater plane followed by a half-hour boat ride. One recent guest said he felt like Tom Hanks in Castaway, except he had the company of affable hosts Roy and Anna Turner, who landed on the island more than 20 years ago and handcrafted the Robinson Crusoe-style structures, including a tree house hidden in the jungle. A favorite among those traveling with Wilderness Australia, which specializes in off-the-beaten-track destinations, Haggerstone is "among the more rustic experiences we offer," says Charlie Carlow, who helms the company. "But it's the ultimate marine safari." Trips from the island with Roy take guests across coral reefs, with turtles, reef sharks and other marine life easily visible in the waters below. The channels between the reefs offer spectacular fishing opportunities, with remote sand cays providing an unbeatable dining spot for the freshly cooked catch of the day. "Enchanting," says Marion von Adlerstein, one of Australia's leading travel writers, recalling with a chuckle, "I felt that I was one of the Swiss Family Robinson, yet with a glass of wine in my hand!"

As for Australia's most perfect secret isle? James Baillie nominates Wilson Island, a pristine coral cay that is both part of the Great Barrier Reef and surrounded by it, calling it a "magical place." His company does not have a property on Wilson, because none exist there — just six tents and a shared washhouse, run with considerable style by the Australian resort specialist, Voyages. This tiny paradise has not only pristine natural beauty but also chilled beer, and those who have traveled to any of the continent's bleached and rugged islands that lack the latter may agree that Wilson has landed a wonderful combination, especially as they sit in awed silence watching loggerhead-turtle hatchlings dig their way out of the sand. Just don't try going to Wilson in February, because it is always booked — not by humans but by the nesting birds that have exclusive use of the island for one month of the year.