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Howe perfect is my island

Travel Writing

This article was first published in the Times Online, on December 01, 2004.

After 25 years of running The Travel Bookshop in west London, Sarah Anderson sold up and took off around the world with books for company. In her latest exclusive dispatch for Times Online, Sarah writes an e-mail from Lord Howe Island, off Australia.

Imagine every cliché, postcard and commercial about tropical islands and you might get some idea of the beauty of Lord Howe. The two hour flight from Sydney is across an empty ocean and the landing strip seems only just long enough for the Qantas 30-seater turboprop to land.

Lieut. Ball R.N. first sighted the island in 1788 from his ship HMS Supply which was en route to Norfolk Island – two months later they landed, but no one settled there until the 1830s possibly because the charts said “pigs and onions but no maidens”.

Pinetrees has been run as a guest house for 150 years by generations of the same family who arrived in 1842. It is comfortable and the friendliness of the staff seems to rub off on the guests; it is the only hotel on the island offering full board and goodness, the food is good – daily fresh fish kingfish, tuna and trevally.

Comments from the visitor’s book from the 1930s include “absolutely top hole” and “ten weeks of fun foolin’ and hanky panky”. Both Morris West and Jan Morris stayed here in the 1990s and one of the owners Kerry McFadyen has written a book: Pinetrees. Lord Howe Island 1842-1992 (1999).

Now a World Heritage Site, the island really does seem like a tropical paradise with its white sandy beaches and the southernmost reef in the world. Two mountains – Gower and Lidgbird dominate one end of the island and it was these islands surrounded by cloud which made me speculate about the possibility of setting an Agatha Christie-like mystery here.

As I have written in one of my previous e-mails, mysteries seem to be very place-specific and where better than on an island which no one can leave, a hotel where there are no locked doors and a diverse collection of guests – a young singer who practiced scales and arias in the billiard room, a highly observant lone woman (a possible Miss Marple), a row of rooms built at the boat house where snorers had been banished – what a convenient alibi – the only telephone unusable in the rain because of the racket on the corrugated iron roof….

However as far as I know there is no crime – the biggest offence being riding a bicycle without a helmet. Bikes are hireable from Wilsons Hire. Although tourism is necessary for the economy – only 400 are allowed at any time and so the island life and community are well-preserved. The other industry is kentia palms, endemic to the island, which are the palms used in every palm court in Europe and USA.

Seedlings rather than seeds are now exported, mostly to Holland and Belgium. I felt indignant on behalf of the islanders that Florida, Norfolk Island and the Canaries also now grow them and the price 65 cents per seedling hasn’t changed since 1982. The museum displays the island’s history, has an interesting collection of sea-shells and there are worth-while evening lectures by the island’s natural history guru Ian Hutton.

A British business man, Michael Watt has given the money for a new reference library in the museum – the shelves, table and chairs all made from the sweet smelling and rare huon pine – evidently the best wood for preserving books.

In 1931 when Francis Chichester was planning his flight across the Tasman Sea, he landed at Lord Howe but due to an overnight storm his plane sank and had to be dismantled. Having decided to rebuild it on the island, Chichester became entranced by it and spent the happiest nine weeks of his life. In his book, Alone Over the Tasman Sea (1945), he wrote: “The sun and the warmth and the sand and the hearty, natural island life began to cast their spell. The charm crept through my veins, then ran, the raced.”

A Mills and Boon romance, A Masterful Man by Lindsay Armstrong (1994), is also set here: “Mount Gower and Mount Lidgbird … dark, sheer and austere and rising straight out of the sea, with a threatening sky behind them and a rainbow shimmering across them, they quite took her breath away”. I read it in one sitting and was impressed by the accuracy of the facts about the island, albeit mingled in with suppressed sexual longing.

Mount Gower, at 3,000ft, can only be climbed with a guide but because of its height it has marvellously diverse plants – 105 endemic to Lord Howe, with 168 bird species including the endangered woodhen. Each beach has a different character – sea mullet swim in the shallows on Ned’s Beach and it was there that I swam with a turtle.

To get to Middle Beach you have to walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death – an area of the island filled with banyan trees – some of which stretch over several acres. The boathouse opposite the hotel is excellent for watching the sunset and now has a well-stocked bar as the snorers have been banished. In Psalmist of the Dawn by Mary Marlowe (1934), after a shark attack on the mainland a boy loses his leg and, impressed by his courage, the about-to-be-blind surgeon accompanies him back to Lord Howe after hearing “That ain’t courage … That’s island calm … its bred in the islanders … its knowin’ the real value of things and bein’ natural”

The best coffee is from Blue Peter Café and a cocktail at Arajilla where you can also stay and which has yoga classes in its new yurt is a worth-while indulgence after a long day at the beach. I left echoing Chichester’s words: “I began to think the island the most attractive spot imaginable. The islanders formed the most independent-minded, thoughtful and happy community it has ever been my fortune to know”