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Fantasy Islands : It's Hard to Find an Escape More Remote Than Any of These South Pacific Outposts. With the Current Transpacific Air-Fare Bargains, There's No Better Time to Go. : Lord Howe: British Heirloom

March 01, 1992|JIM HUTCHISON and MARGO PFEIFF | Hutchison and Pfeiff are free-lance writers and photographers living in Westmount, Canada.

LORD HOWE ISLAND, Australia — "See you at the fish fry," passers-by shouted as we pedaled rickety bikes down pot-holed, one-lane roads toward the Milky Way Restaurant on Lord Howe Island. Every Friday evening the restaurant's outdoor picnic tables fill with locals who gather for gossip, a cold beer under the palms and a generous slab of kingfish caught that morning in waters nearby. While their counterparts in Sydney fight rush-hour traffic, diners at the Friday night fish fry are about the closest thing to a crowd that can be found on Lord Howe.

We had to pedal our bicycles hard to exceed the strictly enforced speed limit of 15 miles per hour that rules the 15 miles of roads lacing together the island's 98 homes, 12 tourist lodges and four small general stores--all half buried in bougainvillea and palm trees. Shaped something like a boomerang, 7 1/2 miles long and roughly one mile wide, this tropical green, volcanic sliver lies 500 miles northeast of Sydney in a remote corner of the South Pacific. And despite our age of rampant development and super resorts, the determination and pride of the islanders--as well as their unusual government--has allowed Lord Howe to remain relatively uncommercial.

Several lodges refuse to in stall telephones--as a protection for guests who really want to get away from it all. There are no overhead cables or billboards. And at the nine-hole golf course, guests can help themselves to clubs, balls and buggies and deposit payments into an honor box. Although the local population of 292 swells to nearly 700 during the peak Christmas period, it is always possible to find some unpopulated white sand beach with the dramatic mist shrouding Mt. Gower and Mt. Lidgbird in the background.

The entire island is part of the city of Sydney and is government-owned Crown Land. That means that no one, not even those born on the island, can own any of it. Leases of half an acre or less are granted in perpetuity, with islanders given preference over outsiders. Lots cannot be taken over by companies and must be occupied full time, effectively keeping out companies and holiday cottages.

The Lord Howe Island Board, which is governed by the Australia National Parks and Wildlife Service, maintains strict control over any changes: All buildings, including hotels and motels, cannot exceed a single story and leaseholders must apply to the board before they so much as cut a branch off a tree or change the color of their home.

Several years ago, concern over the number of cars on the island (at that time, 143) prompted the board to rule that islanders must apply for permission to buy a new car, showing proof that their old one is no longer in use. "We're sometimes accused of being bureaucracy gone mad," says longtime resident Clive Wilson "but our goal is to prevent change and to preserve our unique and delicate environment." All of this said, tourists find that the most popular form of transport is the bicycle, which is readily available for rental.

UNESCO was obviously impressed when they declared Lord Howe Island a World Heritage Site in December, 1982, ranking the pristine island jewel with such natural wonders as the Grand Canyon and Mt. Everest--not only for its beauty, but for its natural treasures as well.

The world's southernmost coral reef lies off the west side of the island. And into the subtropical, 3,600-acre haven bustling with indigenous birds and creatures fly thousands of migrating birds from as far away as Siberia to nest in the 28 rocks and islets that make up the Lord Howe Island Group--eroded remnants of a huge mid-ocean volcano that erupted more than 8 million years ago.

Lord Howe Island was visited by ships of Britain's First Fleet on Feb. 17, 1788, just weeks after the founding of the colony at Port Jackson, which would later become Sydney. That event is marked each year by Discovery Day--the island's biggest celebration. The sailors found the island well stocked with birds and turtles, which they captured for the cooking pots of scurvy-racked Port Jackson.

Settlers gradually made their way to Lord Howe, many of them seal and whale hunters. One early settler was Nathan Chase Thompson, who in 1853 brought with him a 12-year-old Gilbert Island princess whom he had plucked from a marriage arranged when she was a baby. The couple made their living by supplying passing ships, but hard times came with the arrival of steam and a downturn in the market for whale oil.

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