This review of Southern Ocean Lodge in Kangaroo Island is taken from our guidebook Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Collection Australia/New Zealand.
The local at the airport car rental asked where we were heading. ‘Southern Ocean Lodge,’ I replied. ‘Lucky bastards,’ he said. Ten minutes later, driving through the rolling hills, our serenity was shattered by some crazy hoon tooting and flashing his headlights. Was it a demented yokel going all Deliverance on us? Nope, it was the car-rental guy, pulling alongside at 80km an hour and shouting out the window that we’d left the Kangaroo Island map on his counter. ‘You’ll need it,’ he yelled, flapping it out the window more dangerously than Paris Hilton’s eyelashes on Spring Break. Given that there’s only two main roads on the island this seemed unnecessary, but it came to reflect the unique, nothing’s-too-much trouble character of the place.
Now with map, we continued through a spookily sexy forest and were suddenly upon the lodge. Bounding down the walkway came manager Ben, who gave Mrs Smith and I the sort of heartfelt welcome we’d expect at a mate’s place. His mesmerisingly sweet wife Louise helped with the bags. Marcus parked the car. Ree offered cold towels, and the chef waved from the kitchen. We’d been there two minutes and already we knew everyone.
The lodge doors opened to the limestone-wrapped Great Room and its IMAX-sized view. Before us were craggy cliffs dropping to beaches as white as Brad Pitt’s smile (and just as shallow) and lapped by the porn-star-eye-shadow-blue waters of the Southern Ocean. A glass of champagne and a salmon finger sandwich later, we trailed down the long corridor (we later dubbed it Dead Man Walking for its length and the nightly journey to an abundance of food), past rooms named after different local shipwrecks until we reached ours, Vale. ‘Went down twice in one night,’ Ben said reverentially. ‘If only,’ I thought.
Our room, an Ocean Retreat, was like a luxe beach shack, open-plan with endless windows. The timber bed rested on a cosy carpeted floor, which segued into heated limestone then a huge bathroom and Pavarottisized rain shower. Down a few steps was a generous lounge room complete with books, music, home-made lamingtons and an eco-fire. This was a room designed by someone who not only has great style, but also lives like a normal person.
Even at the fanciest-schmanciest hotels, the food can be blah, but that night at dinner Mrs Smith and I thought we’d discovered the world’s greatest unsung chef. Matthew Upson’s food was simple and honest, impeccably cooked with an inspired imagination. And no request was too great. Mrs Smith didn’t feel like steak so they did her a fish. I didn’t feel like a souffle so they did me a Sixties-style Milo and ice-cream – and then asked me if I’d like them to mush it up! Even worse, I let them.
We were also surprised to fi nd just how much of the menu came from the island: honey from the local Ligurian bees, lamb from a farm up the road, greens from the market garden over the hill. When I said I wanted the barramundi I assumed it would be an import, but our waiter explained that the local high school had established a barramundi farm. The under-rated benefits of living somewhere where there’s not much for kids to do...
Up early the next day, I drew a bath in the two-person tub, pouring in a cocktail of all the local salts on offer. In a lavender-honey-vanilla daze, I read the in-room book about our shipwreck, and gazed out the window at two eagles nesting in our midst. I’m not really a wildlife junkie, so when I wound up the platypus bath toy I thought that was probably as close to nature as I’d get. At that moment, in the waves right outside, I saw two pods of frolicking dolphins. I immediately woke Mrs Smith who sprang out of bed and onto the terrace. ‘Where,’ she cried. ‘Near that whale?’ And she wasn’t joking.
Like the lodge itself, Kangaroo Island is all about the environment, so we’d organised a morning tour to see it all, including the Henry Moore-like Remarkable Rocks, a seal colony, a ‘rare breeds’ farm and a truly extraordinary native bush garden. Again, everyone was so unbelievably friendly and happy to see us. It was like The Stepford Wives, but with more dirt. After lunch on the deck it was time to rub the city out of my neck. The spa, on a nearby cliff, delivered a serene massage using local eucalyptus oils that began with an indigenous Dreamtime technique and a welcoming cleansing of smouldering gum leaves in a bowl. I was initially sceptical, but it was performed with such soul I was completely converted.
Over sunset drinks in the lounge, the staff’s real pride in the place shone through. One knew the guy who carved the sculpture, another knew the names of all the wildfl owers out the window. Lovable nerds, all of them, but real people and that was the secret for making everyone – the chic industrialists from Milan, the cheerily loud Californians, the super-stylish Poms and a diverse array of Aussies – feel so at ease. Back in the room we slipped into the alpaca slippers and snuggled up with chunky woven rugs. The whole place is just so frigging tactile. Then there are all the tiny details that make it perfect, even in the smallest room: the leather toilet-roll holder, mood lighting and timber shelves complete with glass sculpture and a 1974 copy of Dinkum Aussie Dunnies with the real inscription ‘happy birthday darling Kaye, love Nanna’. This is as special a place as I’ve stayed in Australia, a new benchmark in how a hotel should not only look, but also feel. The staff made it lovable, the rooms made it liveable and the island made it memorable. As we were leaving, I annoyingly triple-checked with Mrs Smith to see if we had everything. ‘No,’ she replied. ‘I’m going back to steal the hair dryer. Best hotel hair ever.’ She was joking …ish.