Australia's third-largest island, located to the south of Adelaide, is known for its landscapes and abundant wildlife, all wrapped up in a colourful history. Once the butt of local jokes as the lazy 'overseas' holiday, 'KI' is having the last laugh as a food, wine and ecological destination rapidly gaining credibility for its quality produce and slick tourism businesses. Cruise lines are lining up to get ashore in record numbers, driven by positive passenger feedback.
If you've never been to Kangaroo Island before, a shore excursion is probably the best way to experience some of what this special place has to offer, but you need to travel long distances (about 150 kilometres across) from one sight to another, so you won't be able to do it all in a day.
Cruise season is November through March and likely to be warm and sunny. Most ships arrive around 7am and are gone by 8pm, making full use of the extra summer daylight hours.
Much of the best landscapes and animal life is found in the Flinders Chase National Park, including the famous Remarkable Rocks, a cluster of granite boulders sculpted by the weather and perched on a granite dome rising steeply from the ocean and formed into a 'Salvador Dali' mass of weird and wonderful shapes.
A highlight of wildlife-watching, however, is Seal Bay, with its colony of sea lions -- the third-largest breeding colony in Australia. With a National Parks officer as a guide, groups can watch the seals from a distance of about eight metres as they bask in the sun, swim and jostle for position on the beach.
Regular cruise ships anchor off the small port village of Penneshaw and use tenders to transport visitors to the pier, and if you just want to hang locally, it's an easy 10-minute walk to the main street. There's a lovely swimming beach (water can be a bit cool) known as Hog Bay, which also has a picnic area and barbecues, or you can try out the town's gourmet seafood joints opposite the park where you'll find in-season produce such as lobster, scallops, marron, prawns, whiting, oysters and garfish.
The newly built tender jetty at the Penneshaw Ferry Terminal is where you will get off the transfer from your ship. Straight away you will see eager ground handlers waiting to whisk you away on pre-booked shore tours. But there's even a second chance in case you missed out as there's a desk where local community operators will also offer supplementary tours and excursions, sometimes at substantial saving. There are washrooms here, too. The town centre of little Penneshaw is just a few hundred metres up the gentle slope.
Don't be all taken aback if you get 'the finger' from another driver on the roads of KI. It's actually a popular local greeting. Just gently lift your fore or middle finger off the steering wheel as the oncoming vehicle approaches. You can accentuate the gesture with a short nod making a quaint and endearing acknowledgement of your fellow road user. Not sure it will work back in the big smoke.
While most stores will happily accept credit cards and EFTPOS transactions, Australian dollars in cash can be obtained from either of the ATMs in the Penneshaw Hotel or IGA Supermarket. The big town, Kingscote, is an hour by road and your tour (if you're on one) may not stop there.
English is the official language all over Australia, but sometimes visitors from overseas will have trouble understanding the thick drawl sometimes invoked by truckies, tradies and footy fans. It has been claimed (usually by South Australians themselves) that theirs is the clearest and most 'correct' English spoken anywhere in the country and a few little nuances will give it away. Like castle said 'CAR-sell' (not CASS-sell). And 'croweaters' (the slang name for South Australians) will go swimming in 'bathers', not 'togs', 'swimmers' or 'cossies' as they do in the other states. South Australian 'schooners' (the most common beer glass) are actually equivalent to Eastern states' 'middies', so don't look shocked if your draught lager has shrunk. If you want the big one, ask for a 'pint'.
While KI may be best known for its fresh air and stunning scenery, that can be a bit hard to take home. But, quarantine laws permitting, the local organic honey is to die for. Produced by the last genetically pure population of Ligurian bees (Apis mellifera ligustica) imported from Italy well over a century ago, their product is used in everything from ale and hand creams to anti-cancer propolis and good ol' honey. Otherwise, The Emu Ridge Eucalyptus Oil distillery, the only one left in Australia apparently, offers pure oil, skin care products and confectionary. The eucalypt honey is worth the few dollars and makes a great gift.
For a true local flavour with 'buzz', you'll need to be on a tour that visits Clifford's Honey Farm where the microbrewery The Drunken Drone has been set up by locals Greg and Sharon Simons. The top drop is the small batch, hand-crafted Honey Wheat Ale. Currently only available at the farm gate, it may soon be found in the visitors' centre.
For something a little more feisty, local distillery KI Spirits create their own special Mulberry Gin, infused with mulberries from a tree that predates Adelaide itself. Fantastic served in a smashed cocktail with basil and lemon juice. Or try it with Fevertree Lemon Tonic (bitter lemon) or ginger beer.
--By Roderick Eime, Cruise Critic contributor