Lord Howe Island: The Last Paradise

When Bill and Janne Shead first took possession of their new Lord Howe Island property, it was euphemistically called, “zer dump”. Now the Arajilla Retreat is one of only two 5-star properties on the island and a beacon for relaxation and tranquillity.

Lord Howe Island was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1982 and is described as “a remarkable example of isolated oceanic islands, born of volcanic activity more than 2000m under the sea, these islands boast a spectacular topography and are home to numerous endemic species, especially birds.” Its fame is growing exponentially as the travelling world seeks out new and unusual locations away from the mass-market crush. The locals, and many others, believe Lord Howe Island to be the last true Pacific Island paradise.

The exclusivity of the location is enforced by remoteness and isolation. The only airstrip, a short sliver of tarmac in the shadow of the two iconic 1000m peaks, Mt Gower and Mt Lidgbird, was built by army engineers in 1974 amid some controversy. Rather than extend into the pristine lagoon, the islanders voted for a shortened strip with the knowledge that the smaller, less economical aircraft would keep visitations down – and the costs up.

Two hours by QantasLink Dash-8 200 carrying just 36 passengers is now the only means of arrival and departure, hence even a Super Saver return airfare is in excess of $800.

The Islanders, as Bill and Janne have become, continue to defend their patch against vulgar development with a parochial zeal. Only 400 guests are permitted onto the island at any one time and the once popular cruise ship visits are vigorously discouraged by a significant portion of the population of 350. A few expedition vessels land each year and receive a mixed welcome.

Arajilla’s original, long-demolished house was once the island’s curio shop, servicing the pre-war tourists, then delivered by steamer. It grew into a guest house of sorts offering rooms for the princely sum of $20. Outgoing proprietor, Hans “Schmutz” Ruekert boasted “ …we haff everyzing zat shutz and klozes”, but warned the new couple, “you vill hate zeez f..ing tourists!” Not only was Schmutz’s advice a little short of “best practice”, sadly it was indicative of the state of tourism on the island at the time.

Bill recalls his first visit to the island in the late ‘50s aboard one of the mighty Ansett flying boats that operated until 1974. He fell in love immediately. Bill’s father, with him for the trip, was a prominent real estate identity with an uncanny nose for opportunity, but Bill refutes any influence from his father. An avid blue water yachtsman, Bill made numerous visits to the island before seeing an advertisement for the property by chance in 1987.

“We just bought it on a complete whim,” he confesses, “and that’s the way it’s always been. It just called out to us and still does.”

“We began the transformation in 1988, pretty much straight away,” recalls Bill, “basically it was a demolition. Now, a few mill’ later it’s just a refurb every so often.”

When Bill refers to transformation, he really means it. Not only is the old building unrecognizable, but so are the hospitality, food and beverage standards of the whole island.

“We installed the island’s first espresso machine and it was the start of a minor revolution. Things were pretty ordinary back then,” continues Bill as we both tuck into a delicate chicken Caesar salad for lunch.

Daughter Kim, just back from an intensive Ayurvedic course, rejoins the family operation and will run the spa which opened this month. Set amongst imposing banyan trees and ferns on the 2.5 acre plot, the family is very excited about this new addition. Jo runs the superb restaurant, while the eldest, Emma, handles reservations.

Two additional, brand new suites have just opened and feature two bedrooms and family facilities, further enhancing Arajilla’s appeal.

Richard Rosebery, formerly of Select Hotels, took a very personal interest in the development of the property, assisting them with collateral and the website. “Of course every property is unique,” says Richard, “but Arajilla is like no other. Bill and his family have created an ecological and spiritual extension of the island that is both unpretentious and understated.”

But for anybody else considering opening up down the road, Bill reminds us that operating any business on Lord Howe, let alone a high end boutique resort, is a challenge in itself. The extraordinary Lord Howe Island administration imposes many difficult compliances and, as no freehold title exists, banks are very nervous about lending for development projects. But still, he and Janne sold everything to make Arajilla what it is today.

Consequently, Bill and Janne’s Arajilla Resort is truly a labour of love. For those few fortunate enough to stay at this remarkable property, the tenderness and care lavished on the resort spills over in gooey waves onto everything else, softening even the hardest stress-ridden hearts.

See for yourself at: www.arajilla.com.au

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