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Co-owner HAYLEY BAILLIE chats to Traveltalk about the lodge’s remarkable journey, including its recovery from the bushfire tragedy of 2020.

Q: Hayley, happy 16th birthday. Do you remember why you chose to build Southern Ocean Lodge back in 1998?

A: My husband James had a background with P&O Australia Resorts and they’d actually looked at developing something on Kangaroo Island, but on the north coast where lots of locals prefer to have their holiday houses because obviously the weather is potentially more favourable.

Back then there were great bed and breakfasts, some lovely motels and house rentals but there definitely wasn’t any sort of high end, luxury lodge accommodation. We saw a niche in the market.

We flew around the whole island and for us straightaway it was the south coast that appealed. It was that wild ocean, next stop Antarctica-type of feeling that we felt would appeal to our international visitors.

James and Hayley Baillie at Southern Ocean

Q: It was considered quite a game changer in Australian luxury accommodation when it first opened.

A: It prompted a great coming of age in Australian luxury in a sense because prior to these types of properties it was all about marble and gold taps.

To be able to have properties like Southern Ocean Lodge, Longitude in Uluru and Saffire Freycinet in Tasmania – these amazing lodges that international visitors are really drawn to and make them want to come to Australia even more because they realise there’s the type of accommodation, especially for the high end market, that they’re looking for.

Q: The bushfire of 2020 was a tragedy. Where were you when it happened?

A: James and I were on Lord Howe Island at Capella Lodge, one of our other properties, and luckily we had cell reception with our managers at Southern Ocean Lodge who were sitting in the fire bunker as the fire was raging over the top of them.

We knew that the fire had gone through and thankfully the staff were all safe. But by the next morning the Lodge was completely gone. It really was devastating.

Q: But after four years Southern Ocean Lodge is back. What were the emotions like when the doors finally re-opened late last year?

A: A sense of relief really because it was down to the wire with construction still happening as guests were arriving and that was quite stressful. There was going to be a bit of a gap in between for the staff to take over but that just wasn’t the case.

I am just so relieved and really pleased with how it’s come together because it looks fantastic.

Q: You’ve also taken the opportunity to change certain things at the Lodge.

A: The footprint is very much the same but one of the most outstanding little changes is the way the guest suites are now orientated with views looking down the coast, which brings a really different dynamic to the suites. It feels more like you’re on a boat.

And there’s this beautiful little detail that I don’t know if even the architect realised but if you lie in bed at night with the curtains open, blinds up, you can see the Southern Cross in the sky because of the way the rooms are now orientated. That’s pretty cool without having to actually camp outside.

Q: How has the reaction been to it reopening?

A: It’s been amazing, both the support from repeat guests and the broader travel industry in general. It’s been pretty much full since the day it opened and advance bookings are looking really good, so yeah, it’s doing really well.

It’s fantastic having the lodge reopen again. It’s doing so well with lots of international visitors and Australians alike. It’s back better than ever.

Q: That leads me nicely into my next question. Why do you think luxury travel is booming at the moment?

A: It is absolutely booming and I feel that this level of the market has recovered quite well since COVID. I think Australia is currently looking at around 86% return to pre-COVID levels of inbound tourism and we’re really reaping the benefits of that.

But you know, we are just small properties and, at the end of the day, there’s enough people in the high end market that really want to have these unique experiences, especially if you’re coming from the other side of the world to experience a country.

Q: So, what kind of experience do you want your guests to leave with?

A: That real sense of place of where they are; everything from the food, the wine, the natural history, the experience, the architecture, the art around them, so that they leave enriched about the destination, whether that is from what they’ve seen, what they’ve learned or what they’ve tasted.

We try to stay really true to what Australia has to offer and to showcase the very best. If we can get our guests to leave with a better understanding of that, I think we’ve done a pretty good job.