I drove my first half-hour on Kangaroo Island without seeing another car. I was on one of the main thoroughfares connecting the airport and Stokes Bay: a rutted dirt road that hugs the northern coast. When I passed a maintenance truck idling in the scrub, I couldn’t help skidding to a stop. I wanted reassurance that the landscape around me was, in fact, inhabited.
At Stokes Bay, the road ended near a few small cottages and a deserted beach. I pulled up to what looked like an abandoned trailer. This turned out to be the Rockpool Café, where I’d booked a table. This place was clearly no relation to Neil Perry’s renowned Rockpool in Sydney, where the cost of an average dinner probably exceeds the value of this entire establishment. I wrestled with a locked front door, mounted an investigation around back, stumbled upon what proved to be a rear entrance, then found a room outfitted with three picnic tables, stacks of board games, and a chalkboard for a menu. Once the chef emerged from behind the stove, I ordered the local whiting, then enjoyed one of the tastiest pieces of fish of my life, seasoned and grilled with a deft minimalism. “Caught over there,” said Matthew Johnson, the chef and owner, with a dismissive wave toward the water.
I’d made the brief flight from Adelaide to see the ambitious new Southern Ocean Lodge, a remote retreat combining true ecotourism with extravagant amenities along a picturesque stretch of naked coastline on the southern shore. What I found was an appealing remoteness even in the island’s populated areas—let alone the prehistoric bogs and lonely beaches that surrounded them—and an island that existed as a world unto itself, bearing little relation to the Australia I knew. “The eight miles between here and the mainland, it could be three continents,” said Sue Pearson, a chef who emigrated to Kangaroo Island from England in 2000.
Those namesake kangaroos, which bound from the underbrush with such abandon, are a subspecies not found elsewhere; they’re smaller, darker, and have more fur. The island’s koala population has multiplied to such an extent that a sterilization program is under way. Its honeybees, imported from Italy in the 1880’s, are the world’s only remaining pure specimens of the Ligurian strain, while a few hundred endangered glossy black cockatoos flit from one to another of the stately casuarina trees. Its fairy penguins, barely a foot high, bear a striking resemblance to Bloom County’s Opus. Sea lions, fur seals, and wallabies abound. For the collector of sightings of rare, freakish, and improbable animals, this is one-stop shopping.
The 4,260 people who have spread themselves out across a landmass not much larger than Rhode Island constitute their own peculiar breed. They pronounce themselves eager for tourism but do little to attract it. Like several hotels and restaurants I encountered, Rockpool Café couldn’t be bothered to have a sign. “The tourism infrastructure has been very slow to get here,” said Sophie Newland, an émigré from the mainland who opened Hog Bay Hill guest cottage, where I stayed, in March 2007.
Almost everyone I met on K.I. had been drawn here by the uncomplicated lifestyle. Yet they shrugged off any intimation that it might someday be threatened. “If it ever were, someone would complain,” said Susan Berlin, who owns Island Pure Sheep Dairy. Added Pearson, “People here are so passionate about what they have, they won’t let it change.” After spending time on the island, I sure hoped so. But I couldn’t help worrying that the Southern Ocean Lodge—and the resorts and developments likely to follow it—would drastically alter K.I.’s international profile.
The lodge itself, set miles from the nearest building and an hour from the airport, is unobtrusive until you’re almost directly upon it. Then it’s breathtaking. Local limestone and glass fill dramatic public spaces. The 21 rooms snake along a bluff overlooking the water, offering an in situ wilderness experience mitigated by Wi-Fi, Modernist furniture, and a stocked mini-bar. Floors are heated, bathrooms are glass-walled, linens are 500-count, and the ratio of guests to staff is an Amanresorts-like 2 to 1.