Hopping to it on South Australia's Kangaroo Island

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Room Key: Southern Ocean Lodge

Address: Hanson Bay, Kangaroo Island via Kingscote, SA 5223, Australia
Tel.: (011) 61-88 559-7347
Fax: (011) 61-88 559-7350
Reservations: (931) 924-5253
Web:www.southernoceanlodge.com.au  
Affiliation: Luxury Lodges of Australia
Suites: 21
Rates: From about $785 per person, per night, including three meals, all selected beverages, minibar and guided tours
Facilities: Lodge, restaurant, bar, Southern Spa, gift shop
Suite Amenities: Kingsize beds, sunken lounge, glass-walled bathroom with Southern Spa amenities, outdoor terrace, walk-in closets, complimentary room bar, twice-daily housekeeping, heated floors, Internet, music system (with MP3 input), safe and telephone. TVs in selected suites.

Given that I was headed to a place called Kangaroo Island, I probably shouldn't have been surprised when I encountered, well, quite a mob of kangaroos. And yet -- somewhat absurdly, I'll admit -- I was.

It wasn't that I didn't expect to see any of the hopping marsupials there; I'd been told I would. It's just that, to a non-Australian like me not used to seeing kangaroos live, in the flesh and jumping across roadways and fields, they're just so darned strange. Nothing against 'roos in particular, either: I was equally amazed to spot cuddly koalas, spiny echidnas (ant-eating relatives of the platypus) and the miniaturized kangaroos known as wallabies, all equally exotic to North Americans, during my two-day stay on "K.I."

Actually, even the existence of the island, about the size of New York's Long Island, lying just off the coast of the Australian state of South Australia, came as a surprise to me, as well. I'd never heard of it before my visit. That's typical of foreign visitors, and something Australian tourism officials would like to change.

In fact, at the 10th annual Australian Tourism Exchange trade show, held recently in the South Australian capital city of Adelaide, Ian Darbyshire, CEO of the South Australia Tourism Commission, announced a marketing campaign to position Kangaroo Island, popular among locals for abundant wildlife and striking scenery, as "Australia's fourth tourism icon, alongside Uluru [Ayers Rock], the Great Barrier Reef and Sydney Harbor."

Travel agent Donna Thomas, president of New Zealand Travel/Aussie Travel in Langhorne, Pa., and a Tourism Australia Aussie Specialist, said she'd "put Kangaroo Island above Uluru, to be honest ... because of the animals." Thomas, noting that she recommends K.I. to all clients planning a week or more in Australia and ends up sending about 80% of them there, advises a stay of at least one night, to ensure glimpses of the island's many nocturnal animals.

Better than Uluru or not, Kangaroo Island, where one-third of land is protected park, is certainly one of Australia's best-kept secrets. The sheer diversity of the flora, fauna, scenery and tourism infrastructure on the island, referred to as "Australia's Galapagos," make it a must-do on any Aussie itinerary.

Nature on display

My visit to K.I. began with an 18-minute turboprop flight from Adelaide to a tiny airport outside the town of Kingscote, via regional Australian air carrier Regional Express, also known as "Rex."

Air South also offers daily flights to Kingscote. The other option for getting to Kangaroo Island is a 45-minute ferry ride via SeaLink from Cape Jervis on the mainland to Penneshaw on the eastern end of the island. Cape Jervis is two-hour drive from Adelaide.

At the airport, I was greeted by a guide from Kangaroo Island Wilderness Tours, and we set off in a luxury, four-wheel-drive vehicle on a two-day nature itinerary. (The firm also offers one-, three- and four-day tours.)

Seal BayFirst stop: Seal Bay Conservation Park, on K.I.'s gorgeous, cliff-lined south shore for a walk amid the local Australian sea lion colony. (The kangaroos would have to wait.) Thanks to my authorized guide, I was able to leave the viewing walkway and descend to the beach, where sea lion bulls, cows and pups sunbathe, sleep and frolic.

I was warned not too get too close to the animals, and not just for their own good: Unwary humans have been trampled by cavorting sea lions at play.

Next up was a coffee and tea break, complete with carrot-cake cupcakes, at the base of a vast area of sand dunes known as Little Sahara, before we headed inland to the Parndana Wildlife Park. The park, a refuge for ailing or unwanted animals, is where I met my first K.I. kangaroos. (The K.I. kangaroo is a subspecies of the western grey kangaroo and is smaller, darker and has longer fur than mainland species.)

Entering their pen, my hands full of feed, I actually got a bit nervous as several of the animals, used to humans bearing edible gifts, hopped their way over to me. Their bounce made for such a strange sight that it was disorienting. The kangaroos, however, proved to be gentle and adorable, if a bit assertive, pulling at my hands with their tiny paws to better get at the munchies.

At Parndana, I also got to pet my first koala (those in the wild have been known to bite), spot my first echidna and wonder at some dinosaur-like cassowary birds. The park was a good up-close introduction to the more elusive, untamed animals I was to encounter later in the K.I. bush.

Kangaroo Island Wilderness Tours served a gourmet lunch of marinated chicken breast, fresh salads, a lemon tart dessert and Australian wines, beers and soft drinks at the park before we headed out again, bound for Lathami National Park, where mobs of kangaroos and wallabies hop across roadways, golf courses, front lawns and forests.

There, we got out of the vehicle and strolled among (or tried to) the more skittish wild kangaroos, craned our necks into the trees to spot the rare glossy black cockatoo and pursued a lone wild echidna, another rare find, across a clearing.

K.I. is accommodating

King Island KangarooThat evening was devoted to learning about K.I. accommodations, with a quick predinner drink and site-inspection at Seascape Lodge (www.seascapelodge.com.au), an upscale, three-suite B&B on Emu Bay that's operated by Kangaroo Island Wilderness Tours. The five-acre property, available exclusively to the operator's touring customers, is just one of a growing number of upscale K.I. lodging options.

Others include Thorn Park on the Island (www.thornpark.com.au), a three-bedroom beachhouse in Penneshaw available for self-catering stays of three days or more, and what must be the standout accommodations addition to the island, the 2-year-old Southern Ocean Lodge (see Room Key), a 21-suite luxury redoubt set in splendid isolation on Hanson Bay.

Midprice hotel options are also available, such as the newly expanded and upgraded Aurora Ozone Hotel (www.auroraresorts.com.au) in Kingscote, my accommodations for the evening. The hotel has the added attraction of being just steps from a colony of fairy penguins, also known as little penguins, endemic to Australia and New Zealand.

My second day began at Flinders Chase National Park, on K.I.'s western end. Standout sights: Admirals Arch, a limestone seaside cave that's home to colony of the New Zealand fur seals, and the nearby Remarkable Rocks, weird, rust-colored granite formations that seem more like modern sculptures than natural phenomena.

A barbecue lunch of marinated steak, onions and potatoes, salads, poached pears and refreshments was cooked in one of the park's picnicking huts, under towering gum trees. We then headed to Koala Avenue, a private property where we searched for wild koalas in yet more gum trees. The rest of the afternoon was spent touring the Kelly Hill Conservation Park for more kangaroo-spotting, before I was dropped off for my flight to Adelaide.

For more, visit the South Australia Tourism Commission's K.I. site at http://tourkangarooisland.com.au or Tourism Australia's official site at www.australia.com.  

This report appeared in the July 19 issue of Travel Weekly.

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