Whether you’re looking for deserted beaches, outdoor adventure or a wildlife encounter, Australia’s islands offer all this and more, writes Janet McGarry.
Australia isn’t lacking in great spots to visit but somehow travelling to an island adds a certain extra spark to any trip. Whether it’s 150 kilometres off the mainland or just a few hundred metres by bridge – it brings an element of isolation and adventure and a certain intrigue.
Here are four of my favourite islands around Australia. All are easily accessible but offer very different experiences. All deserve a spot on your travel list.
Size matters. After all, with islands you might as well have them either small and deserted, or as big as the Australian Capital Territory. Kangaroo Island (commonly referred to as KI) is the latter – stretching for more than 150 kilometres from top to toe. You’ll arrive off the ferry at Penneshaw on the south-easterly tip, perhaps a bit green around the gills as it can be a rough crossing. But plan to spend more time than you expect getting around - whether you just want to knock off the main attractions or want to discover small empty beaches and other hidden gems. Slow down and you’ll be rewarded with outstanding vistas and rolling green country.
KI should have been dubbed ‘Wildlife Island’.
It takes most of Australia’s iconic animals and puts them within accessible distance. Never seen a koala outside of Taronga Zoo? You can fix that here with a wander down koala alley near Hanson Bay where they are literally falling out of the trees. Or you might have chance encounters like the one I caught snoozing up in the branches of a convenient gum tree as I pulled into a café.
Most people start with Seal Bay – a wide horse-shoe expanse of the southern ocean with a starkly white beach littered with sea lions. Gathering in groups, they flap and flop, bark and barrack, preen and pose, as groups of visitors are brought down by national park rangers for a close up encounter. It’s very controlled and organised, but works to balance visitor numbers with keeping the wildlife ‘wild’.
It’s also easy though to see seals basking off rocks in Flinders Chase National Park. Visitors are drawn by the distinctive Remarkable Rocks, but wander a little off the main path and you’ll be rewarded with colonies of sea birds and basking seals. Late in the afternoon, driving back to the eastern end of the island, make sure to slow down and you’ll see mobs of shy tammar wallabies – much smaller than kangaroos, and virtually extinct on the mainland.
You can never have enough wildlife, so finish a KI day with a visit to the Penguin Centre just down below the Kangaroo Island YHA in Penneshaw. Watch the fairy penguins come ashore at dusk – the odd one has even been known to take a wrong turn and pop up at the hostel!
There’s a point on the ferry ride from Townsville to Magnetic Island when you realise that you are about to shake off urban living. Townsville is a busy regional centre and whilst some residents commute in from Maggie, the differences between the two are vast. Maggie is a world apart – a small tropical island with a laidback lifestyle to match.
Only eight kilometres off shore, Magnetic Island is 50 square kilometres of tropical paradise, with deserted beaches, azure blue waters and warm sunny days. Twenty minutes is all the time you have to get into holiday mode before the ferry pulls into the main settlement of Nelly Bay which looks back towards Townsville. The island’s only real road heads east from town, past idyllic beaches like Arcadia Bay, up and over a pass by the highest point on the island (Mt Cook), and down to the village of Horseshoe Bay.
My first evening on Maggie, I sipped a cold beer at the pub on the front at Horseshoe, listened to the chatter of locals and watched the light fade over the perfect curved beach. It was a great introduction to time away from the rat race, and one of the reasons Magnetic Island is a popular holiday spot.
An early start next morning saw a breakfast date with koalas. Let’s be honest here, koalas are very cute – at a distance. Up close, they have a distinctive odour (eat eucalyptus leaves all day and you would too), and can be more than a tad grumpy. Bungalow Bay YHA, just on the edge of Horseshoe Bay, has something no other YHA has – its own wildlife park – and a champagne breakfast with the koalas is too good to pass up.
The rest of my stay was a mix of activity (think bare back horse riding along the beach and superlative sea kayaking to Balding Bay) followed by lazy afternoons at the pool or beach. It’s easy to see why the locals slip into Maggie-time, who wouldn’t?
Best Wildlife Photos
Some special spots to get that shot:
Enough of lazing on a beach - All these islands offer great adventure activity opportunities: