From boutique brews to deserted beaches, this windswept Bass Strait treasure is packed with hidden secrets.
It is a sunny afternoon at King Island Brewhouse and although the pilsener is cold, the conversation is heated. Topic of the day: the fact that the island's British Admiral Beach has made Tourism Australia's list of Australia's best beaches. You might expect the locals to be proud but instead, the prevailing mood is quite different.
"What is up with that?" asks brewer Corey Brazendale, in a tone of disbelief. "That is literally the worst beach on King Island!"
It is a view I'll hear over and over again during my visit, and one that I quickly come to agree with. King Island has plenty of beaches to choose from. The island itself is far from small, with a total area of around 1000 square km, and its coastline ranges from soaring cliffs to sandy bays - some wild and windswept, others with sand so white it could be on the Caribbean. British Admiral Beach, not far from the main town of Currie, is indeed rather nondescript when compared with many other of the island's beaches.
But then, King Islanders are accustomed to outsiders not really getting them. Few mainlanders could confidently tell you the island's location (between Tasmania and the mainland) or hazard a guess as to its population (about 1600). Food fans may know of King Island for its dairy and its beef; some golfers may have heard of its two top-rated links courses. But those who have been to King Island will tell you that its biggest attraction is actually its way of life. Community comes first here, and it's something that visitors find intriguing.
"It all starts with the little wave on the road," says Cameron Jones, referring to the way that drivers greet each other when they meet on the island's largely empty roads, where wild turkeys and peacocks wander undisturbed. Jones is a new recruit to the island, having moved here a year ago from Melbourne to manage the scenic Ocean Dunes links golf course. What he discovered is a place where friendliness is a way of being. "It says something about the people here that they take that effort to say hello," Jones says.
The wave is something that many visitors ask about, according to Ian Allen. "They are intrigued by the wave, by the fact that we leave our keys in the car, that we leave our houses open," says Allen, who moved here 37 years ago. Then a young teacher, Allen intended to stay just two years but, like so many others, found himself seduced by the quirky island.
Like other locals he has noticed a recent uptick in tourism, although it is more of a trickle than a flood. King Island has always been limited by the fact that it is accessible only by air (via Melbourne, Launceston or Burnie), but over the last few years, the island has been slowly raising its profile. The advent of two dunes golf courses, Ocean Dunes and Cape Wickham Links - both ranked among the best in Australia - has helped. So has the fact that surfers are increasingly becoming aware not just of the reliability of the island's waves, but how uncrowded they are.
"If locals get to the beach and there are more than two people on a wave, they go to the next beach," says Aaron Suine. "There aren't so many places left where you can easily be the only people on the beach."
Retreat to luxury
Suine and his partner Nick Stead have been doing their bit to introduce more people to the island's charms. The couple moved here from Sydney to build a luxury lodge. Kittawa Lodge, which opened in late 2020, has just two private villas, each one with designer interiors, art by local painters, and magnificent views across the sea. It has proven a hit with post-COVID travellers who are looking for a different sort of holiday.
"Our guests are predominantly professional couples, business owners or retirees who are seeking a true escape, with space to breathe, reconnect and explore," Suine says.
"On their first day, guests tend to relax into their lodge, sitting in front of the fire, watching the endless horizon over the Southern Ocean or taking some self-care time luxuriating in our handmade concrete baths.
"The surprise factor for so many guests is just how much there is to see around the island, easily filling in each day across a three, four or more night stay."
"There are lots of things to do without looking for a schedule," agrees Andrew Blake. He and his wife Diane spent years managing an arts community in Arnhem Land before buying land here 18 years ago and building their own house. He says that the island is still governed by natural rhythms, which spurs both creativity and mindfulness.
"You just go for a walk and find yourself immersed in what's around you," he says. The island's diverse landscapes - ranging from lush pastures to melaleuca forests and wetlands - offer a range of experiences, enhanced by the ever-changing weather conditions.
"Whether it's a perfect day or as raw as a slab of meat, you can go to the same track or the same piece of beach and find that everything feels different."
The island's profile is certainly being raised. Local events like the King Island Imperial 20, a 32-kilometre run across the width of the island from Naracoopa on the east coast to Currie on the west, are drawing more people than ever before. "What we're finding now is that we have people wanting to come to the event who can get flights but can't get accommodation - we didn't have that problem 10 years ago," Allen says.
The increased interest is encouraging locals to build boutique businesses - although in typical King Island fashion, they are doing it their way. One of Currie's landmarks, the whimsical Boathouse - also known as The Restaurant with No Food - sits at the edge of Currie harbour. Painted in extraordinary shades of orange, blue and pink, The Boathouse is kitted out with tables set for diners and surrounded by colourful artworks (all for sale, on an honour system), alongside a quirky collection of odds and ends collected with a magpie eye.
A living artwork by local artist Caroline Kininmonth, it is also an elegant solution for an island with limited places to dine. Bring a packed lunch, sit at the table and gaze out to sea and you have a dining experience that's hard to beat.
Craft brews and guided walks
Following Kininmonth's lead, a new breed of locals is launching their own projects. Take Corey Brazendale, of King Island Bewhouse, who must be one of the few boutique brewers in Australia not interested in pushing the boundaries of what beer can be.
"I'm not competing with some craft brewery in Sydney or Melbourne; I just want to brew beer that locals will drink," Brazendale says. "I like the thought that when tourists come here, they are drinking the beer that locals enjoy. They might not be the most out-there styles but they are honest and traditional, and that's what King Island is."
Brazendale is being modest. Alongside a basic range that includes a couple of pale ales and an IPA, he experiments with seasonal beers, focusing on German styles as an Oktoberfest celebration, for instance. He also does a mean ginger beer and enjoys experimenting with ciders.
"How they turn out depends on the season. The first one was really cloudy and sweet; the one after that was clear and dry. I find that interesting," he says.
Up next is the King Island Walking Company, due to launch in August. Owners Ian Allen and Adam Hely plan to start with day hikes and guided tours of the historic lighthouse, graduating to multiday hikes. "The walks and trails are there but for the general tourist, finding them isn't necessarily straightforward," Allen says. "They are not necessarily signposted, and some of the routes we are walking will cross private land."
Suine, who crafts individual itineraries for each guest, says that they never run out of activities. "Whether it be picnics on secluded beaches, energising walking trails, a spot of bird watching, or a scenic drive, there is always something that keeps our guests returning with a smile on their face."
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And yes, to answer the question that almost every mainlander asks: you can get good coffee. Guests at Kittawa Lodge have their own coffee machine; otherwise there is the King Island Bakehouse in Currie or Sharon Frosi's bright red coffee van, which I find parked on Main Street in Currie. In typical island fashion, Frosi says the coffee, cakes and toasties she serves up are a secondary product.
"It's really about being sociable," she says. "The community thing is really important to us."
Inevitably, as it does with every other islander, conversation turns back to the attention that has recently been showered on British Admiral Beach, and which stretch of sand is really the best on the island. She tells me her pick but immediately adds, "Don't go telling people! I love that when I go there, I never see people, only footprints." A quick smile, then she adds, "Tell them to find their own favourite place."
- The writer travelled with the assistance of Tourism Tasmania and Kittawa Lodge
Getting there: Rex Airlines, Sharp Airlines and King Island Airlines fly to King Island from Melbourne. Sharp Airlines also flies to King Island from Launceston and Burnie.
Staying there: Kittawa Lodge is an off-grid luxury retreat offering with two secluded clifftop lodges, each with one bedroom and a designer kitchen. Guests receive gourmet breakfast provisions, lunch prepared daily and gourmet dinner provisions. Rates from $1,650 per night (two-night minimum stay).
Explore more: kingisland.org.au
King Island's best beaches
British Admiral Beach may have been named one of Australia's best beaches but King Island has plenty of other great stretches of sand. Check these out.
For photos: Martha Lavinia Beach
Whether you are swimming, surfing or strolling, the white sands of Martha Lavinia Beach in the north-east will have your friends thinking you made a detour to Tahiti.
For shipwrecks: Yellow Rock Beach
A stroll along the golden sands of Yellow Rock Beach on the west coast gives you the chance to spot one of the island's most famous shipwrecks, the paddle steamer The Shannon, driven ashore over 100 years ago.
For beachcombing: Naracoopa Beach
For those who love collecting shells King Island is a haven, with more than 140 different species identified including the ultra-rare Nautilus shell. Naracoopa Beach on the east coast is a good place to start looking.
For surfing: Colliers Beach
On the right day take Red Hut Road to the gently-curving Colliers Beach on the island's south side and you will find perfect waves and not a single other person there.
For picnics: Pennys Lagoon
When you take a seat in the picnic hut at Pennys Lagoon, a perched lake with its own sandy beach, keep your binoculars handy - this is a great spot for birdwatching.