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.
Its owners, James and Hayley Baillie, who also run Capella Lodge, on the even more remote Lord Howe Island, are saying all the right things about sustainability, sourcing provisions locally, and leaving the smallest possible footprint on the area’s ecology. Cliff-top hikes, penguin treks, beach walks, and natural history lectures encourage the requisite communion with the outdoors. An environment fund, created in partnership with South Australia’s government and relying in part on voluntary contributions from guests, is targeted to raise as much as $50,000 annually, and more than 240 acres of the 250-acre site are earmarked to remain undeveloped. When I visited, I was given more information on the resort’s eco-practices than on what I might expect to eat for dinner.
The lodge is clearly targeting an affluent, worldly-wise traveler who previously wouldn’t have considered a visit to K.I. (When I asked a hotel executive for the demographic of the typical guest, he answered, in all seriousness, “Nicole Kidman.”) Already, Southern Ocean Lodge has shone a spotlight on an island unaccustomed to such glare. “What we’re doing here will certainly raise the island’s profile,” said Tim Bourke, the chef, who’d previously worked in London. He meant that as a positive. I wasn’t so sure.
Perhaps Southern Ocean Lodge is a one-off, a singular exception to an otherwise low-decibel brand of tourism. But the last few hundred years of human existence lead me to believe that a place this Edenic isn’t likely to remain so for long. Similarly remote locales such as the Yucatán, the Maldives, and the Galápagos attracted so many pilgrims seeking an unspoiled experience that—in a sort of hospitality-industry version of the Heisenberg Principle—the areas themselves were fundamentally and permanently altered.
I’d seen the transformation of Spain’s Costa del Sol, Phuket, Waikiki, even in parts of the Caribbean, all of which had once lured visitors with empty seacoasts, a relaxed cadence, and authentic cultural connections. In a mere generation or two, places that had remained the same for centuries were changed beyond recognition. Perhaps it’s a stretch to connect the dots to K.I., but the island is only a short hop from Adelaide, a major city, and a single connection away from nonstops to Europe, Asia, and the Americas. The compelling story unfolding there, it seemed to me, wasn’t at the Southern Ocean Lodge, but all around it.
Statistics claim that 175,000 outsiders visit Kangaroo Island annually. Where they go, I have no idea. At last count, there are more miles of coastline (300) than there are hotel rooms (250). “You go to a beach,” says Jenny Clifford, a K.I. native who owns Clifford’s Honey Farm with her husband, Dave, “and you’re the only one there.”
Pulling up to their farm, I spied a bus in the dirt parking lot. The dozen or so pensioners milling around looked like they’d just arrived from a walking tour of the Cotswolds. Their knee-length shorts had pockets inside pockets; floppy bush hats dangled around necks. On a day trip from Adelaide, they had only a few minutes to settle on a souvenir before returning to the bus. “We’re off to see the koalas,” one of the tourists said, in a voice from a hundred BBC sitcoms.
Clifford’s is one of a growing number of specialty food producers on the island. Like others of its kind, it thrives because of restrictive policies put in place to keep K.I. biologically pristine. (Attempting to bring your own honey onto the island, or even a bag of trail mix, is like arriving at customs in Peshawar with a stack of Playboys.) Many of these growers, such as Island Pure and Kangaroo Island Abalone, sell goods to Southern Ocean Lodge. “We’re an isolated community,” Berlin said. “If they want something, they’ve got to get it from here, don’t they?”
Hotels, of course, are a different sort of product. They don’t merely offer a bed for the night, but a tone, a mood, an experience. Sophie Newland’s Hog Bay Hill, in K.I.’s northeastern corner, has only three rooms, each with a deck and a panoramic view, and is furnished with her discerning eye. There’s no restaurant, but Newland sometimes serves dinner. The night I ate there, the featured attraction was the local abalone, served with somen noodles, bok choy, piquant Chinese sausage, and a 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon from Cape d’Estaing, the best of the small wineries on the island. The full-throttle red wasn’t a natural match with the spicy seafood, but I loved the idea that so much of what I was consuming had its origins a few miles away—and that Newland herself joined us to share dessert.
The next morning, with the sun still below the horizon, I went wandering. From the end of the inn’s driveway I could just see the hills of the Fleurieu Peninsula on the mainland. A kangaroo the size of an ATM sprang from the trees and crossed my path. I was eager to see others, but I’d arranged to meet Sue Pearson for coffee. Her résumé lists stints as a chef at the Ivy in London and the Pier in Sydney, two of the English-speaking world’s more serious restaurants. Now she does catering and owns a storefront fish-and-chips shop in Penneshaw, a town as trim and shuttered as Ferness, the tiny Scottish village in Local Hero.
It seemed odd that Pearson could be fulfilled deep-frying fillets for the same handful of people night after night. But when I thought about it further, I understood. If Sophie Newland had more entrepreneurial drive, she’d grow her three-room cottage into a full-fledged inn. If Graham Allison of Cape d’Estaing wanted to capitalize on its success, he’d plant more vines and make more wine. But then, they’d probably never have moved to K.I. in the first place. “People come in and say, ‘You could expand!’ ” Pearson said. “And we say, ‘We’re all set. We’re happy. We’ve got a bit of money. And we’re here.’ ”
On an island this sparsely populated, one keeps seeing the same faces. When I happened upon Sorrento’s, an Italian restaurant in Penneshaw, I found a table there full of people I’d already met, including Newland and her boyfriend, Justin Harman. They were dining, it turned out, with someone I’d wanted to meet: Jayne Bates, the island’s mayor. Bates clearly shared her constituents’ ambivalence about tourism. “We want to encourage development and money being spent,” she told me. “But it’s all about keeping vigilant.” She made sure I knew that there is no McDonald’s on the island (though I couldn’t imagine that anyone would have tried to open one), no movie theater, and only three elevators. “We walk a fine line,” she said.
When I wondered where I might see another kangaroo before I left, Harman offered to drive me to the best spot. We left the road at a dirt path and rambled to a clearing. Suddenly marsupials were springing past our headlights like goblins in the night. Sitting in the car, watching this otherworldly ballet, I had a disturbing vision of future resorts on the site. Each in itself would be tastefully restrained and well conceived, but taken together the increased development would drive the kangaroos farther and farther into the interior. Soon they’d be foraging for food in backyards, dodging BMW’s on a newly improved road system.
Does Martha’s Vineyard still have vineyards?I wondered. Does Oyster Bay have oysters?Is Paradise Island still paradise?
Bruce Schoenfeld is Travel + Leisure’s wine and spirits editor.
Kangaroo Island is a half-hour flight from Adelaide. Regional Express (rex.com.au) and Air South (airsouth.com.au) offer daily service. At the airport, car rentals are available through Budget Rent A Car (61-8/855-53-3133), or Kangaroo Island Transfers (61-4/2788-7575; kitransfers.com.au) provides regular shuttles into the city of Kingscote.
Where to Stay
Where to Eat
Fish Café Off the Sealink ramp, Penneshaw; 61-4/3980-3843; lunch for two $17.
Rockpool Café North Coast Rd., Stokes Bay; 61-8/8559-2277; lunch for two $28.
Sorrento’s Restaurant 49 North Terrace, Penneshaw; 61-8/8553-1028; dinner for two $71.
Where to Sip
Sunset Winery Hog Bay Rd., Penneshaw; 61-8/8553-1378; tasting for two $14.
What to Do
Flinders Chase National Park Off South Coast Rd.; 61-8/8559-7235.
Island Pure Sheep Dairy Gum Creek Rd., Cygnet River; 61-8/8553-9110.