Aug 22, 2023

How a Father

In 1999, the financier Michael Maxwell was flipping through a newspaper when he spotted an advertisement for a 1930s lodge on Lord Howe Island, Australia, an island he'd visited as a child. He called the number, and within six months he owned a patch of land complete with a café and four holiday huts. He became one of the island's 400 residents.

"Even before I got to the shore, I was completely in love with the island," Maxwell told Insider.

His son, Timmy, was just as taken with Lord Howe Island when he stayed in their new holiday home for the first time in 2000. "I remember my mum saying to me, 'Well, you've got your bike, and you know it's safe, so just make sure you're back before dark,'" Timmy Maxwell said. "As a 12-year-old, that's amazing."

The family loved the casual paradise. It was the antithesis of life in Sydney, where they lived full time. For the next 13 years a local family ran their café and another resident managed the holiday huts.

In 2013, after Michael Maxwell retired and Timmy Maxwell gained experience working in hospitality, the father and son decided to make Lord Howe Island their permanent home and rebuild the huts to rent out.

They bought the rights to a plant nursery next to their property. They also decided to turn the café and the holiday huts into a new family home for themselves and build two new holiday houses.

While neither had worked in home development, the father and son said they weren't intimidated by the challenge. Timmy Maxwell joked that his father was always knocking down walls in the homes they'd lived in. "Ever since I was a toddler there were always paint tins or new pieces of furniture being shuffled around," he said.

They wanted the new buildings to be more striking than the holiday huts they'd removed, but also to disappear into the surroundings. The architects they commissioned mapped the position of the trees on the grounds, then created raised villas around them.

The timber and copper used in the building were designed to help the houses' exteriors age well and blend into the landscape. Sustainable development is encouraged on the island, so the Maxwells made use of solar power and rainwater throughout the property. They also oriented the villas so guests could wake up to views of the jungle filled with 800-year-old banyan trees.

The Maxwells realized that building new homes on a tropical island — and one designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO — would be far more difficult than building in the suburbs of Sydney. Planning applications were rigorous, and they could receive building materials only by air or water. "A ship would arrive with the floorboards, and then we'd find out that the glue wouldn't arrive until the next shipment," Timmy Maxwell said.

They thought many times that they'd bitten off more than they could chew. "We would be working on the build, dealing with deliveries, and then a pipe would burst in the nursery," Timmy Maxwell said. "Our goal and that dream was threatened many times."

While Michael Maxwell liaised with the architect and took care of the overall look of the villas, Timmy Maxwell used his hospitality background to focus on the guest experience. He added an annex with stand-up paddleboards, surfboards, and a didgeridoo, and he stocked the refrigerators in the villas with produce from the nursery and fish caught on the island.

The Maxwells traveled as far as Denmark to buy furniture and worked with Indigenous artists in Australia. "I think Timmy and I can put our hand on our heart, and we could take you around those houses, and every painting, every kitchen utensil, book, table mat, and couch has a story to it," Michael Maxwell said.

While concreting the driveway one day, Timmy Maxwell received a call from Tourism Australia, which had been following the family's progress. "I remember talking to our landscaper, Ken, saying, 'I've just got the craziest call, it's from Tourism Australia, and they would love to send Chris Hemsworth to us as our first guest,'" Timmy Maxwell said. "We were standing there still covered in cement going, 'OK, so this could be a life-changing event.'"

The Maxwells completed the South House and the North House and opened them as Island House in October 2020.

"Both my dad and I are over 6 foot, so the scale of the houses is quite large," Timmy Maxwell said. "As Chris Hemsworth is famously a pretty large guy, when he saw Island House, he said, 'OK, this is my kind of place.'"

During their visit to the island, the Hemsworths "were surfing and snorkeling, and the kids were running around and having fun," Timmy Maxwell said, adding that they later returned to visit a second time.

The Maxwells got a marketing boost from Hemsworth, who shared his holiday photos on Instagram.

Timmy Maxwell's partner, Cecile, also runs an Instagram account to market Island House, which is open from September to May each year.

Guests who'd like to come back regularly can join a membership program that costs just over $42,700. Members can book a particular week each year for the next three years and get access to certain experiences and benefits. The Maxwells said that three families are signed up now and the goal for next year is to hit seven.

Outside of the membership, guests can rent one of the houses for $3,250 a night or the entire site for $6,200 a night.

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