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.