Although I spotted my first male Kangaroo Island kangaroo through binoculars, the muscle-bound fellow was still an impressive physical specimen, sporting a bodybuilder's chest and arms that certainly seemed capable of knocking out any heavyweight boxing champ.

An endemic subspecies, Kangaroo Island kangaroos evolved differently from their mainland cousins after the island separated from the rest of Australia about 10,000 years ago.

"Our kangaroos are very distinctive," said Craig Wickham, the owner of Exceptional Kangaroo Island, a high-end tour provider. "You'd pick them out of the lineup of other kangaroos in Australia mainly because they're quite a distinctive color. They're more of a chocolate brown, and all their points — their muzzle, their paws, their tail, their ears — are black."

Wickham said it's also common to see stocky, muscular males, who can be as tall as 4-and-a-half feet.

"The heaviest kangaroo ever weighed was a big male Kangaroo Island kangaroo," he told me. "So they're heavier than even the big reds [on the mainland]."

Exploring Kangaroo Island

Around dusk on the same day, I stood only 15 feet from a much less brawny, wild female kangaroo and her joey in a grassy field near the island's southwestern coast. Glancing up only occasionally, and largely disinterested in me, the fuzzy duo foraged over the green terrain along with dozens of other kangaroos as the closing colors of the day faded along a tree-lined horizon.

A nightly, predinner activity for guests staying at the luxurious Southern Ocean Lodge, the Kangas and Canapes outing offers folks a chance to mingle with the iconic island wildlife while sipping a glass of Champagne.

"Kangaroos are not entirely nocturnal, so they'll start to appear around 4 to 4:30 in the afternoon," said Alison Heath, the lodge manager for the Southern Ocean Lodge. "I think the animals themselves are kind of used to us now, so they typically let us get fairly close."

A South Australia native, Heath said Kangaroo Island's wildlife still astonishes her.

"It's untamed," she said of the island, a third of which is protected national parkland. "It's not as if you're going to visit a zoo. The animals are indeed wild animals, and they behave that way, and you might just randomly come across an echidna or koala sitting in the road."

During my recent visit, hosted by Tourism Australia, I did indeed catch a glimpse of a spiky echidna, an egg-laying mammal that looks a little like a porcupine with a longer nose, hurrying down the side of a dirt road.

And I also saw several wild koalas, most snoozing in the branches of their favorite dining establishments: bluegum eucalyptus trees. Spotting the furry Australian icons happened, however, largely thanks to the expert eyes of my Exceptional Kangaroo Island guides.

"Craig Wickham is an ex-park ranger, and he knows the island backward," said Ian Swain, owner of the Philadelphia-based packager Swain Destinations.

"He also knows nearly every kangaroo and koala there," he added with a laugh. "And he certainly knows where to find them and give clients an incredible experience."

The Flinders Suite at the Southern Ocean Lodge. The cliff-top eco-hotel is surrounded by a national park.
The Flinders Suite at the Southern Ocean Lodge. The cliff-top eco-hotel is surrounded by a national park.

Swain Destinations frequently books U.S. travelers on Australian itineraries that include stays at Kangaroo Island, which is located just 10 miles from the mainland and only a 30-minute flight from Adelaide. Clients are encouraged to stay three nights — four is better for those with time, Swain said — and at least one completely customizable and entirely commissionable outing is suggested with Exceptional Kangaroo Island, whose guides work hard to get folks near the animals.

Close proximity was the highlight of our later trip to the island's Seal Beach, where I walked within just a few feet of several adorable sea lion pups and enjoyed a front-row seat for a sandy territorial scrap between juvenile males. According to Wickham, visitors to Kangaroo Island have been spending time near the sea lions there for 75 years.

"Over time, there was a level of habituation with the animals that occurred without feeding them," he said. "They just accepted us as being part of the landscape."

Home to less than 5,000 residents and only 1,700 square miles in size, Kangaroo Island's major attraction is no doubt its distinctive collection of wildlife, which also includes more than 260 bird species, but visitors booked at the Southern Ocean Lodge are in for a treat.

Surrounded by national park, the cliff-top eco-hotel offers tremendous ocean views and a collection of 21 beautiful suites in a friendly, informal atmosphere. The lobby bar, for example, is an entirely help-yourself affair.

"Southern Ocean Lodge is one of my favorite lodges in the world," Swain said.

And the property's terrific restaurant makes use of an impressively diverse collection of locally sourced farm produce and products, including fish raised by students at a local school.

"They actually farm barramundi," Heath said. "The little kids feed the fish, and the big kids sell it to us."

Visit southernoceanlodge.com and www.exceptionalkangarooisland.com.

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