When you visit a destination that overwhelming owes its economy to tourism, it is somewhat odd when fellow tourists, and even locals themselves ask ‘so how come you’re here on Lord Howe?’ Ah, don’t get me wrong: it was always asked with curiosity – but it was frequently asked.
Lord Howe Island is a strange place. It’s not the first, or even the tenth destination people will think of when considering a holiday in Australia. It’s only a two hour flight from Sydney, but you could fly to London for the same price. Seriously. Then there’s the size: at only 14.5 square kilometres – you can walk the island, tip to tip in under a day – and yet over 10% of visitors have visited over five times. There are only 15 hotels on the island – and $200/night is considered a bargain bin deal. Oh, and there is no cell reception: no internet, no real time social media updates, 100% digital silence. Well, unless you like paying $50/GB for satellite WiFi.
But then you see this, and frankly, all that just goes away:
Lord Howe Island is a
strange special place, a place so far away yet right on our doorstep.
Trip dates: 29/Sep/2018 – 7/Oct/2018
I’ve done a fair deal of domestic travel – Australia is a big country. I just don’t feel the same level of FOMO as I do about escaping to international waters (I mean…yeah I do plenty of that too…but that’s besides the point!). It would be fair to say I’ve seen more of our own outback than most people of my age – Bali is nice, but have you been to Esperance? Me neither – but you can bet I’ll go there first.
Of course, even multiple domestic trips a year is only scratching the proverbial tip of this great big rock we call home. The next itch then? Something a little different. An island, perhaps. But not just any island – Lord Howe Island.
Before I go any further, let’s take a video break:
UNESCO World Heritage-listed, Lord Howe Island packs a lot into very little. Its permanent population is just under 400. There is a cap on tourists (indirectly enforced through a limit on commercial accommodation bed licences) – also of 400, so the island’s population rarely exceeds 800. This means that despite its size, visiting Lord Howe is almost like visiting your own private island. Whole beaches, to yourself. Hiking trails, where the only noises you’ll hear are the rustles of your feet and the chirping of birds. A visit to Lord Howe Island is perhaps the closest true ‘escape’ one can have – all without even leaving the state!
But there’s no getting around the size of the place. The island is only 2km wide at its widest point, and 300m at its narrowest. It is 11km long from tip to tip – you can literally see the entire island from a drone, should you have one. The airstrip is so short, only small turboprop planes can land. These planes (Qantas Dash 8 Series 200s) only seat 36 passengers, and there are only a handful of flights per day. Taken together with the bed licence cap, the > $1000 price for return flights starts to make sense.
Like most islands on the Pacific Ring, Lord Howe is the remnant of a 7-million-year-old shield volcano. The island sits on top of a ‘seamount’ – a sea mountain, where the protrusion is technically the part of the seamount above sea level. There is an extremely cool-looking volcanic stack 23km away called Balls Pyramid, which is on a nearby seamount.
The island’s main industry is tourism (obviously), with a secondary minor industry in exporting Kentia Palm trees. Life is truly chill here: most people do 2-3 jobs (we’ve seen the same people operate boat tours, wait at restaurants, and fish depending on the day and time of day), though ‘job’ is probably pushing it: the happiness index here is undeniably high. The climate helps: it’s commonly described as ‘eternal Spring’. It never gets too hot (though summers are certainly balmy), with winter and Spring being surprisingly brisk. Of course being somewhat tropical, expect rain on roughly 1/3 of days. The island’s natural beauty and diversity of life means the UNESCO World Heritage listing is well deserved: many plants/animals are endemic to the island, and it is also home to the southernmost coral reef in the world. Lord Howe’s coral reefs are technically considered a (very southerly!) part of the Great Barrier Reef!
Well then, let’s escape to ‘Just Paradise’!
My friends and I personally incurred all expenses and planned our own itinerary for this trip; no component of this post was sponsored. All GoPro pictures (the fishbowl type) courtesy of @bellyyloo and all other pictures not mine otherwise credited. My edits for all.
For any photo note that you can click on it to see a bigger version.
Table of Contents
Activities / Sights
This list excludes beaches and other such common sights – you’re likely to see them all even just wandering around, and many will be listed in picture captions throughout this post.
Activities / Sights
If you’re adventurous, fit and full of energy, you can tick off every sight and activity on Lord Howe Island in less than four days. It’s one of those rare destinations that you can actually ‘complete’, though don’t let the repeat visitors hear that. It’s just not that big of a place – but this is a place for people to wind down, not up. Take your time, take in the sights, and by all means give yourself plenty of time on the beaches.
We stayed on the island for 9 days/8 nights. In retrospect, this was a generous amount of time, given our particular interests and physical ability. Those who know me more than as just a food blogger know that I’m very partial to hiking and scenery, so we did all the tracks on the island – yes all – many bundled up on the same day!
However many nights you intend to stay, I recommend adding an extra night or two, as you will need to account for rain, which will ruin your plans to do pretty much anything – since almost every activity involves being outside. This is particularly important if you wish to climb Mount Gower (more on that below).
Our accommodation – Somerset Apartments
To the best of my knowledge, Somerset Apartments is one of Lord Howe Island’s cheap(er/est?) accommodation options. We booked ours around half a year in advance, at a cost of $260 per room per night (twin share). Yes – that’s was the cheapest option, and no – it wasn’t even high season. When paired with $1000+ return flights, it shouldn’t surprise you that students and Millennials don’t exactly comprise the majority tourist demographic – hence all the quizzing we received from older adults.
Please. This ain’t Bali.
Somerset’s rooms and amenities are modest. No toiletries other than soap, no AC (though not a problem as it wasn’t summer), and no free laundry. For those who are used to getting bang for buck: prepare to lower your expectations. But that’s just the Lord Howe way.
Of course, this makes it seem like I hated the place: not at all. It was a perfectly functional residence, notwithstanding the above quibbles. Its relative value for money (relative being the keyword here) means that it’s a place I’d be happy to stay at again.
Just don’t expect any hostels.
Lord Howe Island’s most prominent feature, the only way you could miss Mount Gower is if you look in the opposite direction. Rising 875 metres from sea level, it’s not a particularly tall mountain in absolute terms, but it and neighbouring Mount Lidgbird still tower above all other features on the island, scrapes cloud half the time, and will still beat your ass if you try and climb it.
Come to Lord Howe Island for a nice time, come back with Mount Gower photo-bombing basically every photo you’ll take.
Mount Gower Climb
This is separate, for seeing Mount Gower is a very different game to climbing it. First and foremost: it’s a guided walk, for which you pay $100 to have the privilege of physically and mentally wrecking your body. You can try to climb it without a guide, but if you do, you’ll quickly start wishing you had one (well, and you’ll cop a fine). Besides, a knowledgeable guide is priceless.
There are only two guides that offer the walk, so book well in advance and book earlier in the week: if it rains and the walk is cancelled, you can still try to reschedule a second attempt later during your stay.
Second: you’ll need more or less the whole day – the whole hike takes around 8-9 hours. You might think you’re hot stuff and manage it much quicker; however, remember that you will only be as fast as the slowest walker, so don’t plan anything for the rest of the day (other than a godly shower + dinner afterwards).
Is it worth it? Let the pictures show for themselves: this is one of the most scenic hikes I’ve ever attempted, even as it was one of the most technically difficult.
If you are physically able, a hike up Mount Gower is a priceless experience.
Transit Hill Walk / Blinky Beach
This is a leisurely walk that takes you through a palm rainforest, up the appropriately-named Transit Hill, terminating at Blinky Beach. This beach was almost always devoid of people whenever we visited it – though the fact that it’s right at the butt-end of Lord Howe Island’s airstrip probably doesn’t help. Then again, plane spotting anyone?
Snorkelling / North Beach
Given my spiel about Lord Howe Island’s coral reefs, snorkelling is obviously a highly-recommended activity – and this is despite the fact that I have a fear of water (hey, you probably learnt something new about me today?!)
We opted for a 3.5 hour snorkelling tour with North Bay Turtle & Nature Tour which came to $75pp. This was unique in that we were on a boat that featured a glass bottom – allowing us to see directly into the coral, as well as the occasional turtle! A large part of the tour was spent on the boat and on land, picking our guide’s knowledgeable brain – we learned more about the island on this one tour than at anywhere else.
The actual snorkelling was about 50min – which was all we needed. We froze our butts off by the end!
Seeing a coral reef in person: (finally) check!
Mt Eliza Track / Old Gulch
Our snorkelling boat took us right up to North Beach – an easy hike up Mt Eliza or to Old Gulch. Mt Eliza is a very important nesting ground for the Sooty Tern bird from 1/Sep to 16/March, and as such we were only able to go partway – the summit was off-limits.
Old Gulch is a rocky beach less than a (very strong) stone’s throw from Mt Eliza – hence their grouping in this section. These were formed through erosion by ancient fast-flowing streams, leaving an almost valley-like impression when standing on the beach. I wouldn’t recommend sunbaking here unless you like hot stone massages with particularly jagged rocks.
Malabar Point / Kim’s Lookout
If you’re looking for the walk that allow you to see the entirety of Lord Howe Island – we’re talking postcard material here – this is the be-all-end-all. Make it here for sunrise or sunset (either is fine, given the island’s size), and you’ll get some of the best photos of the island: guaranteed.
Be prepared to fire up your quads, but an absolutely fire sunrise/set is the reward. Malabar Point and Kim’s Lookout are on the same route – where you start will determine which one you’ll come across first. Personally, I think Kim’s Lookout gives the better vantage point of the whole island; however, being at Malabar Point gives you a view of the Admiralty Islands.
Balls Pyramid Boat Tour
I assume you’ve already watched the aerial footage. I assume I shouldn’t have to sell you the merits of a boating over to see Balls Pyramid up close. This volcanic stack is a geological curiosity with absolutely insane features: it is Australia’s version of Star Wars’ Ach-To. That there’s nothing around it but sea for tens of kilometres juxtaposes its sheer features all the more. Believe it when I say that people have actually camped here, with a select number of them having been able to reach the summit. Heck, what does that even mean for a ‘mountain’ that’s effectively a sharp, stony spear?
In any case, you won’t get to climb it, and that’s probably a good thing. Tours to Balls Pyramid are around 4 hours long and cost between $140-$150, as well as a stomach that doesn’t get seasick (no seriously, it’s a rocky ride). Apparently, good weather is extremely hard to come by, so we were very lucky!
Do it do it do it do it do it.
Even if you have to buy all the Travacalm in the world.
Intermediate Hill / Goat House Cave / Boat Harbour / Mutton Bird Point
At 45min and 250m elevation, the southerly-facing Intermediate Hill lives up to its namesake in difficulty: you’ll ‘summit’ this without much trouble, where a viewing platform from the top offers a great view of the Goat House Cave recessed into Mount Lidgbird. This is the part of the aerial video where we’re sitting on a cliff edge.
We had allocated this entire day to hiking, so we bolted on said Goat House trail, as well as Boat Harbour and Mutton Bird Point. The result was around 7hrs of solid hiking, with seriously awesome views encompassing island’s north (similar to how being at Malabar Point gives the same perspective, but facing south).
Those more inclined to take it easy should consider doing the Goat House walk as a separate walk (it’s rated at 4-5 hours return, with the Goat House cave at around 450m).
I mean, yeah this is fairly self-explanatory. LOL. Enjoy my two whole pictures of the experience!
Kayaks can be rented from any number of the shacks along Lagoon Beach; rentals cost on average $15/hour.
There’s no two ways about it: food is not the reason for visiting Lord Howe Island. Water-fearing, exercise-phobic gastro-gourmands will probably fly back the very same day, all the while muttering ‘I could have flown to Japan and eaten at Matsukawa with change to spare…’. While the island does produce a very limited amount of foodstuff, and restaurants do source local fish (hobby fishermen sell direct to restaurants), the vast bulk of produce is shipped in on a fortnightly basis to the island. There is a real cost to this, which does mean eating out carries some expense. While it’s commonly cited that eating out on Lord Howe Island is ‘hella expensive’, the reality is that prices are on par with eating out in Sydney and Melbourne, with perhaps a 10-20% premium depending on context. This is acceptable in my mind, all things considered.
The exceptions are coffee (much more expensive at $4-5), and groceries (10-50% markup).
With only 9 restaurants (excluding hotel guest-only venues) on the island, we became intimately familiar with many of them. Most offer pub fare, some take the buffet route depending on the day of the week, and one particular standout goes down the fine dining route. Oh, a thing about restaurants: despite the island’s casual dining culture, reservations are mandatory at almost every restaurant for dinner. I mean it – don’t chance a walk-in.
Of course, you could BYO your food, but with only 15kg of checked luggage, you’d better have a dehydration machine back home. I’m not kidding: freeze-drying 30 meals of various Thai & Indian curries, amongst other things was exactly what one couple on our Mount Gower hike did!
But you know what you must BYO? Medication: basic drugs on the island were marked-up 400-500%. After all, if you suddenly require it and you’re already on the island, you’ll pay any price.
BYO enough pills to make customs flag you – that’s when you know you’ve brought enough*.
*ah, please don’t take that seriously.
Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner 7 days a week, The Anchorage Restaurant’s convenience, proximity to our accommodation and variety of fare made it our most-frequented and one of our favourites during our visit. It is hilarious to think that by the end of our trip, we had tried more or less everything on their breakfast menu, and many items from lunch and dinner also. Plus points to serving what was, to my mind, the best coffee on the island. Minus points for a general lack of consistency – which in fairness was only unearthed due to the frequency of our revisits.
Thompson’s General Store
A one minute walk from Anchorage Restaurant (seriously; maybe even less), Thompson’s is one of only two general stores on Lord Howe Island. Aside from vending overpriced goods (again, the fault and tyranny of distance, not theirs), the store hosts a burger bar open at certain times of the week. So uh, we got a whole bunch of burgers one particular time. They were decent, but don’t be expecting a Bar Luca or you’ll be wishing you saved the calories for something else.
Coral Cafe at the Museum
A cafe attached to the Lord Howe Island Museum, Coral Cafe is closed on some days of the week at certain times. Like many restaurants, a visit and even a reservation for dinner will need to be planned in advance: in fact, we never managed to make it for dinner. However, its simple daytime fare – sandwiches, burgers, and salads – has led me to conclude that missing out won’t exactly be a case of FOMO. While the food was mediocre, the coffee was surprisingly good – on par with Anchorage’s.
Don’t skip out on the museum itself though: you’ll definitely miss out on plenty of valuable Lord Howe info!
We visited Beachcomber Restaurant on a Sunday, which is apparently self-serve buffet day. It runs for a mightily-expensive $60, which is inclusive of a multitude of salads, seafood of the day (which, really, was kingfish for almost the entire trip), desserts and other odds/ends. The value proposition is quite poor (even relative to other restaurants on the island), so I can’t really recommend it. However, a visit on a normal ‘a la carte night’ might yield different results.
Just like Beachcomber, we also happened visit Greenback’s Restaurant on a buffet night. At $70, it’s even dearer than Beachcomber’s buffet, but it was materially better, especially when it comes to the technical cooking of the fish, and dessert options. Again, it’s not easy to recommend given its near-extortionist price point, but we visited Greenback’s after our Mount Gower hike: perhaps the one time where pigging out on an all-you-can-eat buffet is acceptable!
One little service niggle was that they overbooked us – we had a reservation, but the restaurant was full regardless. Fortunately they were able to make the necessary adjustments due to some nice souls that were willing to give up their table 🙂
Lord Howe Island Bowling Club
Burgers, tacos, and a real nice sticky date pudding: that’s our experience at the Lord Howe Island Bowling Club – bowling not included. As far as food goes, the Bowling Club sits decidedly in the middle of the pack. There’s no real reason to go here other than ‘to try it out’ – which is exactly what we did. Perhaps stay for some bowling? We didn’t.
The Golfy Sunset Bar & Grill
Lord Howe Island’s golf club does things a bit differently, utilising a hybrid buffet approach where you order an a la carte main, and then top up with your own choice of sides from a buffet section. Whether it’s chips or salad that float your boat (depending on your level of self-esteem and trails walked that day), The Golfy lets you have it all. Of course, as with such buffets, contents can be a little bit old, so wait for a restock before committing. This is more than made up by the mains themselves, which are quite reasonably priced and were above average in both quality and taste. As far as the sports clubs of Lord Howe Island go, the Golf Club offers the best fare.
Beach House on the Moon
Beach House on the Moon has the distinction of being the northernmost restaurant on Lord Howe Island: though that really just means a 15 minute walk from the residential centre. It operates a similar dinner system to the Golfy Bar: order a main, DIY buffet sides. However, this restaurant is decidedly one of the better ones: ingredients are better-quality, more varied, resulting in tastier, more thoughtfully prepared dishes. I’d put this one on your list if you intend to eat out at least once.
The only high-end restaurant (open to the public) on the island, it was no coincidence that Arajilla Restaurant served up the best meal of our trip, as well as the most expensive at $95. However, you know how I roll: most prices can be justified if the output is good enough, and Arajilla’s output was far and above the rest.
$95 gets you three courses: we chose one of two entrees, one of two mains and one of two desserts. As one of the desserts was cheese and none of us were partial to that, we all ended up with the same dessert.
Lord Howe Island – Just Paradise?
At this point, I’m supposed to sign off with some wistful words on why you should give Lord Howe Island a go. But if all these pictures haven’t done it already, then there’s not much else I can do than: