You won’t find a Macca’s, KFC or Pizza Hut.  The nearest equivalent for an evening takeaway on King Island is the bakery’s fresh-made pizza – and they only do it on Friday nights.  It’s that kind of place.

Bakery - King Island

It’s the island effect. While commercialism can hitch a ride into mainland country towns, where townies and truckies are forever passing through, on King Island it has to come by sea or by air. And, so far, it hasn’t made the effort. There’s not a billboard to be seen.  The businesses still carry the names of local people, not national chains.  And when you drop off your rental car at the airport, you leave the keys in the ignition. After all, why steal a car when there’s nowhere to hide?

Islanders talk about going ‘up north’ or ‘down south’ in tones that suggest untold distances, but the island is just 64km from north to south and 27km from side to side. Criss-crossed with narrow roads lined with hedgerows, its scenery is more intimate than grand. Think undulations, not mountains; glimpses, not panoramas.

King Island sits astride Latitude 40 ºS, directly in the path of the ‘roaring forties’.  That makes wind one of the defining features of the island. The spindly, mop-topped paperbarks have a characteristic lean and the kelp-strewn headlands speak volumes about the storms that pound this rugged coastline.

Swans, cattle and trees, King Island

Those storms have taken their toll on shipping. After George Bass and Matthew Flinders charted Bass Strait in 1798, many a ship’s captain took this ‘fast route’ to Sydney. The unlucky ones ended their journeys on the reefs surrounding King Island.  Australia’s worst civil disaster remains the wrecking of the Cataraqui in 1845, when 400 people drowned just 100 metres from shore. You can follow the shipwreck trail along the coast, where memorials tell stories of heroism and heartbreak. Today, the Cape Wickham lighthouse guards the western entrance to Bass Strait while, further south, the Currie Light looms above the harbour of the island’s main town.

Grassy, in the south east, has a half-forgotten look. The single men’s quarters that used to house workers at the now-abandoned scheelite mine is a graveyard of asbestos cement sheeting and gaping window frames.

King Island is not a cosmopolitan place. After a while, you become disconcertingly aware of all those clear blue eyes. Most of the surnames have a distinctly English ring to them. Many are preserved in unlikely memorials, like the somewhat featureless stretch of grass that rejoices in the name of Eleanor Snodgrass Park.

People laugh and suggest that they’re “stuck in the eighties”, although it seems less ‘stuck’ than holding onto values that small towns on the mainland have lost and would envy. King Island has its share of sea-changers – refugees from high stress lifestyles elsewhere – and you sense that the yesteryear feeling is more a result of conscious choice than isolation.

If you’re a resort-goer, look elsewhere. There are no five-star facilities here, no designer boutiques, no in-crowd to impress. Service comes with genuine warmth and concern for your comfort, not professional polish. There are a few restaurants, and they feature the spectacular island produce, but how many times do you want to eat deep fried camembert with plum sauce? If you’re a serious foodie, you might suffer restaurant withdrawal.  But this is more than compensated for by the sheer quality of the produce available on your doorstep.

Of course, there’s also the ‘restaurant with no food’, Caroline Kinimonth’s restored boathouse that nestles beneath the lighthouse on Currie harbour. Bring your own champagne, wine, beer, food – what the boathouse supplies is atmosphere, as you watch the light change on the harbour and the fishing boats coming and going from the wharf opposite.

So why would you go to King Island?  Remember your childhood holidays down (or up) the coast?  Before real estate prices went ballistic and the fibro shacks were replaced by neo Italianate fantasies with vast decks and six bedrooms? You can recapture that feeling on the Island. Rent a cottage with a view of the ocean; buy your produce fresh off the boat or straight from the dairy. Cook it the simple way, on the barbecue, maybe with a touch of the local mountain pepper.  Sit by a driftwood fire and watch the waves that come all the way from South America

Obviously, King Island is a place people come back to. We heard lots of stories of going and returning. In Caroline’s visitors’ book is a note from a group who had just fulfilled their final obligation to a deceased relative. She’d expressed a desire to return, “in powder form” to the island of her birth. To float away with the gulls on the winds of the roaring forties…that’s not such a bad way to go.

First published in Regional Food Australia, Issue 1, Autumn/Winter 2005. Photographs © Fred Harden