World Heritage-listed LORD HOWE ISLAND is a kind of Australian Galapagos, and a favourite destination for ecotourists. Just 11km long and 2.8km across at its widest point, the crescent-shaped island’s only industry other than tourism is its plantations of kentia palms, and two-thirds of the island is designated as Permanent Park Reserve. As you fly in, you’ll get a stunning view of the whole of the volcanic island: the towering summits of rainforest-clad Mount Gower (875m) and Mount Lidgbird (777m) at the southern end; the narrow centre with its idyllic lagoon and a coral reef extending about 6km along the west coast; and a group of tiny islets off the lower northern end of the island providing sanctuary for the prolific birdlife. Much of the surrounding waters and islands fall within Lord Howe’s protective marine park.
The emphasis here is on tranquillity: there are only 350 islanders; no rowdy nightclubs spoiling the peace; no mobile-phone coverage; and most of the 400 visitors allowed at any one time are couples and families. Even disregarding the island’s ecological attractions, it’s a fascinating place to stay: most visitors are intrigued by the small details of island life, such as how children are schooled and how food is brought from the mainland, and are generally eager to sample life in this egalitarian paradise where no one locks their car (or even takes the key out of the ignition), bike or house. Though it’s expensive to get to the island, once here you’ll find that cruises, activities and bike rental are all relatively affordable. The island’s climate is subtropical, with temperatures rising from a mild 19 °C in winter to 26 °C in the summer, and an annual rainfall of 1650mm. It’s cheaper to visit in the winter, though some places are closed.
Lord Howe Island was discovered in 1788 by Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball (who named the island after the British admiral Richard Howe), commander of the First Fleet ship Supply, during a journey from Sydney to found a penal colony on Norfolk Island. The island wasn’t inhabited for another 55 years, however; the first settlers came in 1833, and others followed in the 1840s. In 1853 two white men arrived with three women from the Gilbert Islands in the central Pacific, and it is from this small group that many of Lord Howe’s present population are descended. In the 1840s and 1850s the island served as a stopover for whaling ships from the US and Britain, with as many as fifty ships a year passing through. In 1882, a government expedition from the mainland recommended that in order to preserve the island, no one other than the present “happy, industrious” leaseholders and their families be allowed to make permanent settlement.
With the decline of whaling, economic salvation came in the form of the kentia palm, which was in demand as a house plant, making its seeds a lucrative export. Tourism later become the mainstay – Lord Howe was a popular cruise-ship stopover before World War II, and after the war it began to be visited by holidaymakers from Sydney, who came by seaplane.
Today, the kentia industry is in resurgence, with profits going towards the preservation of the island’s unique ecosystem. Seeds are no longer exported but instead are cultivated in the Kentia Palm Nursery for regeneration around the island.