It takes a while to get tuned into the Lord Howe Island way of life. The traffic on the narrow roads around the island consists mostly of bicycles. People wave at one another as they pass. Traffic signs are distinctly unusual: one shows the silhouette of a seabird and bears the message "Mutton Birds – Drive carefully". Collecting us from the small airstrip on our arrival from Sydney, the representative from the self-catering lodgings explained that we would not be getting a key to the lodge. On Lord Howe, nothing is locked. It's not that sort of place.
It was all slightly odd and out of kilter, like being transported back to a lost age of trust and relaxation – more 1950s than early 21st century – and was the opposite of what I had been expecting. Lord Howe is a small island in the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand, some six miles long and barely more than a mile wide. It is full of natural wonders on land and at sea – its crescent shape means that it has a lagoon where there is a thriving coral reef, the most southerly in the world. With some justification, the brochures describe it as "a lost paradise".
But anyone expecting a standard, luxury-resort holiday – cocktails, spa treatments, jet-skis and a piano bar with a brilliantined wally playing Billy Joel numbers – is in for a surprise. There is no mad marketing to tourists on the island, no hotels, no busy developments, no clubs blaring music, no speed boats, no boastful millionaire hang-outs, no mobile coverage. The place is about activity. Visitors are treated more like guests than tourists.
There are reasons, both environmental and historical, for the unusualness of Lord Howe. It is part of what remains of a shield volcano which erupted from the sea bed some seven million years ago, and belonged to no continental mainland, so that many species of bird, flora, marine and insect life are endemic to the island: there is even a Lord Howe cockroach. Uninhabited until it was discovered by Henry Lidgbird Ball of HMS Supply in 1798, the island became a stopping-off point for whalers and ships travelling from Australia to the penal colony of Norfolk Island. In 1834, three couples from New Zealand settled there to start a new life. It is their descendants who are still there, and who have created the extraordinary experience for visitors.
The airstrip finally opened only in 1974. Just the moment when a tsunami of mass tourism might have engulfed it, Unesco nominated Lord Howe Island, with the 27 unoccupied islets that surround it, as a world heritage site. The citation celebrated its "remarkable volcanic geology, its exceptional range of ecosystems, its rare collection of plants, birds and marine life ... and its exceptional natural beauty". Strict controls over the island's use and development were imposed. Today, only 400 visitors are allowed to be on the island at one time and, more significantly, the number of permanent residents is restricted to 320. It is virtually impossible for a non-islander to settle there – indeed, many of the children of residents are obliged to move away from the island when they grow up.
Forget cars. That was an early lesson. Although Lord Howe is small, and the inhabited part even smaller, it is sensible to get around by bicycle, easily hired, along with crash helmet, from Wilson's Hire Service, which also rents out snorkel- ling equipment.
There are designated walks of varying heartiness around the island. At Ned's Beach, an easy five-minute bike ride from most of the lodges, one can wander past colonies of sooty terns and black noddies, many with young when we were there in January. In characteristically relaxed Lord Howe style, there is a hut on the beach where surf-boards, flippers and snorkelling equipment are available to visitors. You leave your payment in a box.
After sunset, Ned's Beach offers one of Lord Howe's more spectacular sights. Shearwaters, the mutton birds of the traffic signs, nest in rabbit-like burrows beneath the palm trees near to the beach. During the summer breeding season, they fly in at the end of the day, circling in the gathering gloom before plummeting to the ground and waddling with absurd awkwardness to their burrows, uttering a strange two-note call.
A three kilometre walk, involving a moderately demanding climb through the low subtropical rainforest will take you to Malabar Hill, affording a spectacular clifftop view over the neighbouring islets. Red-tailed tropicbirds soar past at eye level, occasionally tumbling backwards in their courtship display. For the more robust, guides offer a tough walk and roped climb – 14 kilometres long and 875 metres high, up the striking table-topped Mount Gower at the unoccupied south end of the island.
Lord Howe offers birdwatchers the unusual double treat of seeing rare species without the slightest difficulty. Since the arrival of settlers, five species of endemic birds have become extinct, but others have survived, including species that cannot be seen anywhere else in the world. Lord Howe's own flightless bird, the woodhen, was on the brink of extinction a couple of decades ago and one can see why. Still one of the rarest birds in the world, it is as fearless as a chicken.
The island and chain to which it is connected, is one of the world's great breeding grounds for seabirds, with hundreds of thousands of petrels, terns, shearwaters and masked boobies. Around human settlements, white terns,u oenchanting and ghostly birds, lay their eggs precariously on the low branches of Norfolk pines, but with no nest. For the visitor, it is a startling experience to find oneself staring eye to dark eye at a fluffy, young white tern, waiting patiently on its branch for one of its parents to fly back from the sea with food, but islanders have become used to them, returning chicks to their branches when winds have blown them off. If the parents desert them, some of the locals have taken to rearing the young themselves until they are ready to fly.
Then there is the reef itself. Nothing prepares one for the strange, intestinal beauty of the undersea world on display here with its widely varying corals and fish whose multicoloured strangeness is almost comically beautiful. Occasionally, when the sea around the island grouping is relatively calm, it is possible to take a trip to Ball's Pyramid, a rock stack – the largest in the world – which rises like a cathedral out of the sea, with thousands of breeding seabirds on the sheer walls of its cliffs.
As befits a world heritage site, striking stories of conservation and its problems attend the island. The systematic eradication of feral cats and pigs, introduced by humans, has helped local birds, but an accidental invasion still poses huge environmental problems.
In 1918, black rats from the wreck of a ship called the Makambo arrived on the island and quickly had a dire effect on its fragile ecosystem.
During the 1920s, masked owls were introduced in a misguided attempt to control the rats. The new arrivals quickly discovered young birds comprised easier prey than rodents. A controversial plan to blitz the island with rat poison from helicopters is under discussion. Tourists of an environmentally thoughtful nature are able to make their own contribution to conservation by going on a so-called "weeding holiday".
Mornings are spent tugging up the invasive kikuya grass, introduced by humans, which is now spreading in parts of the island. But most visitors, like me, will simply enjoy the island's mysteries. For anyone remotely interested in nature and the challenges of conserving rare and fragile ecosystems, Lord Howe is a place of endless charm and fascination, full of stories and surprises. The innocent openness of the natural world is matched by the island's own way of life, and how it treats visitors with an easy, grown-up respect.
By the time we had reached our last day on the island, the busy, consumer-crazed outside world seemed a long way away. We visited the island's tiny Westpac bank and discovered, alarmingly, we were unable to take out enough cash to pay for our lodgings before our early departure the next day. Not a problem, said the woman behind the counter; she would open up at seven for us the next morning.
We returned our bikes to Wilson's Hire Service where a group of children were feeding baby white terns. After the sun had set, we wandered down to Ned's Beach for our last view of the shearwaters flying in to roost. In the half darkness, their calls merged with the guttural cries of sooty terns as night closed in on the extraordinary island that they have made their home.
Offshore: Australia's other islands in the sun
So big, it's a state all on its own (but it's also occasionally omitted from maps of Australia). Tasmania is a ferry ride across the Bass Strait from Melbourne on board the 'Spirit of Tasmania'. New arrivals can experience the wilds of the Cradle Mountain National Park, the gloomy ruined penitentiary of Port Arthur, or beautiful hiking in the Freycinet Peninsula on the east of the island.
The second-largest Australian island lies off the Northern Territory mainland, some 80km north of Darwin. Together with its smaller neighbour, Bathurst, Melville forms part of the Tiwi Islands, whose eponymous Aboriginal inhabitants have a rich history and unique culture due to their isolation from the mainland. Although closed to general tourism, day trips or overnight tours with Tiwi guides are available from Darwin.
Australia's third-largest island is just off the coast from Adelaide and the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia, reached by light plane or ferry. It was the site of the first official colonial settlement in the south in 1836. The island remains relatively unspoilt, with plenty of native bushland and thriving wildlife from platypuses to penguins.
This outlying Australian territory is a diver's delight. It is located where the coral reefs give way with a dramatic descent into the Java Trench, the deepest point of the Indian Ocean. Visit in late October or November to be in with a chance of witnessing the annual red crab migration, in which thousands of the indigenous crustaceans scuttle long distances overland from the forest to the sea to breed. You can fly from Perth, some 2,600km to the south; Kuala Lumpur is a closer alternative.
The largest of the 74 islands that make up the Whitsunday chain just off the coast of Queensland, and easily accessible by boat. Whitehaven Beach, stretching 6km along the south-eastern coast of this uninhabited isle, is one of Australia's most beautiful shores.
The busiest of the Whitsunday Islands and touted as Australia's most popular offshore holiday destination. Experience Hamilton at its most vibrant during Race Week in late August as yachters from all around converge on the island for nautical pursuits. Direct flights to Hamilton are available from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Cairns. Sadly, applications for "the best job in the world" – a six-month role as reef caretaker on Hamilton Island – are now closed.
The largest sand island in the world lies off the southern Queensland coast. Hire a four-wheel drive to freely roam the island, although when cruising the Seventy-Five Mile Beach be prepared to give way to the occasional local plane touching down on the packed sand highway.
St Helena Island
This small island, a stone's throw from the city of Brisbane, is home to the ruins of the colonial St Helena Island Prison, known formerly as the "hell-hole of the South Pacific". Take a boat trip out for a guided tour of the former penitentiary which housed some of the country's most dangerous criminals from 1867 to 1932. Many tried to escape; all failed.
Moreton Island is also off the coast of Queensland near Brisbane, and 95 per cent of it is protected National Park. Scale Mount Tempest, reputed to be the largest sand dune in the world, to be rewarded with spectacular views of the Sunshine coast. Then snorkel among the Tangalooma Wrecks, a cluster of 15 sunken vessels that provide a unique backdrop to the numerous species of tropical fish.
The main approach is via Sydney, served from the UK by a wide range of airlines. From Sydney, Qantas (08457 747 767; qantas.co.uk) flies daily to Lord Howe Island in the peak season (roughly September to May); it also has some flights from Brisbane. Fares include a tourism levy.
To reduce the environmental impact, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).
A handful of travel agencies specialise in holidays on Lord Howe Island. They include Talpacific Holidays (020-8288 8400; talpacific.com.au), Pacific Traveller (00 61 3 8662 7399; pacifictraveller. com. au) and Oxley Travel (00 61 2 6583 1995; oxleytravel.com.au).
Accommodation ranges from self-catering apartments (from A$130/£59), to the luxury Capella Lodge (from A$1,080/£492 double, half board).
The island can be visited year round. Between September and May, the weather is fine and mild, with an average daily high of 25C, while in winter it is around 19C on the island.
A number of local firms offer a variety of walking, climbing, snorkelling, scuba-diving and boat tours, including Lord Howe Island Nature Tours; the proprietor, Ian Hutton has made a life's study of the island's wildlife, and was the first person licensed by the Lord Howe Island Board to conduct guided reef and botanical tours (PO Box 157, Lord Howe Island, NSW 2898; lordhowetours.com.au).
Ian Hutton is also the publisher of 'A Guide to World Heritage Lord Howe Island', a comprehensive and well-produced portrait of the island.
Lord Howe Island Tourism: 00 61 2 6563 2114; lordhoweisland.info