15 incredible islands to explore in Australia
Read time: 12 mins
Given that Australia has 8,222 islands within its watery borders, it would take several lifetimes to hop from one to another and still never make them all. With this in mind, we’ve selected 15 of the best island playgrounds accessible from the mainland - all of which deliver the dream for those seeking white-sand beaches, crystalline swimming waters, historic and cultural attractions, and soul-stirring landscapes.
Setting: More than a gateway to the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef, the Whitsundays is the exquisite collection of 74 islands scattered like jewels in the Coral Sea off the east coast of Queensland. Discovered by Captain James Cook who sailed past them in 1770 on what he believed to be Whit Sunday (it was actually Whit Monday), they tick the paradise boxes for white-sand beaches, national parks, and some of the best sailing in the Southern Hemisphere.
See and do: For ravishing views of the heart-shaped coral formation known as Heart Reef, take a scenic flight in a seaplane or helicopter. Also dive the coral reefs located around Manta Ray Bay, Langford Reef and Butterfly Bay on Hook Island and get stuck into activities such as kayaking, wakeboarding, knee boarding and scuba diving on Brampton Island. Be sure to spend time at Airlie Beach - the vibrant coastal town celebrated for its palm-fringed beach, weekly market, pleasure boaters, and huge man-made lagoon landscaped to tropical perfection.
Star attraction: A winning combination of turquoise-tinted waters and whiter-than-white sands made of 98 per cent silica (just like baby talc), the award-winning Whitehaven Beach stretches for just over four miles along Whitsunday Island - the largest of the archipelago. While this much-photographed beach has been gloriously untouched by developers, there’s zero facilities so remember to pack a towel, plenty of food and water, and protective sunglasses.
Stay: Daydream Island Resort
Setting: Just 11 miles off the coast of Western Australia (a 25-minute ferry ride from Fremantle), Rottnest Island wows with 63 white-sand beaches, translucent swimming waters, dive-worthy coral reefs, a network of walking trails, and a family-friendly vibe. But it’s probably most famous for its smiley quokkas - the furry marsupials that Dutch sea captain Willem de Vlamingh mistook for common rats when he discovered the island in 1696 (he named it Rat's Nest Island).
See and do: While crowd-pleasing quokkas are the biggest draw, this idyllic island is also fabulous for spotting humpback and southern right whales as they make their annual migration along the coastline (two-hour whale watching cruises run seasonally). Further fun-filled activities include joining a fishing tour, taking the Wadjemup Bidi Walk Trail to learn about Rottnest’s place in Whadjuk Noongar culture, riding the Island Explorer Bus to Wadjemup Lighthouse, and blissing out on the sands at The Basin, Little Salmon Bay, Strickland Bay, or Thomson Bay.
Star attraction: Departing daily at 1pm from the meeting post located outside the salt store in the Main Settlement, the Quokka Walk is the Rottnest Voluntary Guides Association’s free 45-minute guided tour. Led by a knowledgeable island volunteer, you’ll have ample time to learn fascinating facts about Rottnest's famous inhabitants who tend to spend most of their time eating leaves and grasses, snoozing in the shade, and perfecting their #quokkaselfie poses.
Setting: A pocket-size paradise of unspoiled rainforest and beaches within the calm waters of the Great Barrier Reef, Fitzroy Island is a 45-minute zip on the Fitzroy Island Fast Cat from the Reef Fleet Terminal at Cairns Marlin Marina. The entire island is a protected national park, with a small portion occupied by the privately-owned Fitzroy Island Resort. There’s also a council-run campground with approximately 28 tent sites and a modern shower block.
See and do: Activities include swimming, sea kayaking, paddle boarding, scuba diving, snorkelling the fringing coral reefs, taking glass bottom boat tours, and hitting the two main walking trails - Lighthouse and Summit - for panoramic views. The fun continues with fish and turtle spotting around the boulders that frame both ends of Welcome Bay, following the Secret Garden Track to learn about the local flora and fauna, and visiting Nudey Beach for its pure white sand and crystalline waters (be sure to hire stinger suits if visiting between October and May).
Star attraction: Opened in 2013 as an extension of the not-for-profit Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre (CTRC), Fitzroy Island’s volunteer-run outpost relies on public generosity for the rehabilitation of sick and injured turtles. During the 45-minute educational tour (daily at 2pm for up to 15 guests), you’ll learn about the plight of these marine beauties since Cyclone Yasi and also of their journey to recovery before being released back into the wild.
Setting: Known as Fraser Island and K’gari (the Butchulla word for paradise), this World Heritage-listed wonderland 186 miles north of Brisbane is the largest sand island in the world at 76 miles long and 14 miles wide (it’s also the only place on Earth where towering ancient rainforests grow on sand dunes at elevations of more than 656 feet). You’ll find tons of wildlife (wallabies, dingoes, brumbies), beautiful beaches, and half the world's perched lakes.
See and do: Predominantly a national park, the scenery is mind-blowing; especially on the 56-mile Fraser Island Great Walk that takes you between Dilli Village and Happy Valley, passing most of the island’s notable sites such as Lake McKenzie, Wanggoolba Creek, Lake Wabby, and the Valley of the Giants. Alternatively, take a whale-watching cruise between August and late-October, join a ranger-guided night bush walk to see nocturnal wildlife, dive the famous wreck of SS Maheno, and visit the collection of tranquil swimming holes known as Champagne Pools.
Star attraction: The sandy highway that runs the length of the island, 75 Mile Beach is one of Australia’s most iconic and challenging 4WD adventures - and one of the coolest coastal drives in the world. Motorists must be cautious at all times - and also keep their eyes peeled for the dips, bumps, and washouts that can often be hard to spot. Strict road rules are in place and police will clock anyone breaking the speed limit (stick to 80km and give way to planes).
Stay: Kingfisher Bay Resort
Setting: Just a 90-minute drive south of Melbourne, Phillip Island ups the ante for blissful seaside escapes with awesome coastal scenery, lovely white sand beaches, excellent swells, and a rather famous parade of the world’s cutest penguins. It’s also an essential destination for motorsports fans; not least for the Phillip Island Circuit that hosts a myriad of iconic events, including the annual Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix, V8 Supercars, and World Superbikes.
See and do: Every night at sunset, Fairy Penguins waddle from the sea into their burrows in the sand dunes. Known as the Penguin Parade, the procession lasts for around 50 minutes (from the time the first penguin crosses the beach) and can be viewed from the concreted terrace area or from elevated platforms. Also visit The Nobbies for marvelling at Australia’s largest colony of fur seals, the Koala Conservation Centre for watching koalas in their natural habitat, and the award-winning Maru Koala and Animal Park for up-close encounters with all sorts of native animals.
Star attraction: The Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit Visitor Centre offers Sodi RT8 go karting as well as adrenaline-amping Hot Lap rides with experienced racing drivers. You can also get behind the wheel of race simulators, take a walk through time at the History of Motorsport Display, and follow in the footsteps of champions on a guided circuit tour with exclusive access to the race control, media centre, pit lane, pit roof, and winner's podium.
Stay: Crowne Plaza Melbourne
Lord Howe Island
Setting: Named after British admiral Richard Howe, 1st Earl Howe, this tiny but tropical World Heritage-listed wonderland off the New South Wales north coast is so exclusive that only a maximum of 400 visitors are allowed here at any one time. Accessed by plane (flights depart from Sydney on most days and from Brisbane on weekends), you’re met with a natural paradise of tall mountain peaks, an abundance of wildlife, and the world’s southernmost coral reef.
See and do: The pace of life here is slow and bikes are the preferred mode of transport for visitors and residents alike. If you prefer to admire the scenery on foot, make your way to Settlement Beach, hike to Kims Lookout, and venture onwards to the 209-metre-high Malabar Hill for views of Ball’s Pyramid - the iconic rock stack rising 1807 feet from the ocean floor. There’s also Blinky Beach for surfing, Neds Beach for barbecues and fish-feeding sessions, and the surrounding waters for scuba diving, snorkelling, kayaking, and glass bottom boat rides.
Star attraction: Those up for a challenge should trek to the summit of Mount Gower - the island’s highest peak. Ranking as one of Australia’s best day walks, the 8.7-mile return journey can only be tackled if accompanied by one of the island’s two registered guides. It takes about 8.5 hours and rewards with views of Ball’s Pyramid, Mount Lidgbird, the lagoon, the island’s northern settlement area, and rare trees, ferns, mosses, and orchids (bring your camera).
Stay: Hyatt Regency Sydney
Setting: Just eight miles off the coast of South Australia and only 35 minutes by plane from Adelaide, Australia’s third largest island after Tasmania and Melville Island is home to flourishing wildlife populations in its conservation areas and protected national parks. Known to the locals as KI, it’s divided into seven regions and has four easy-to-access major towns: Kingscote (the capital), Penneshaw (where daily ferries disembark), American River, and Parndana.
See and do: Make a beeline for Seal Bay Conservation Park on the island’s south coast - the only place in the world where you can walk among Australian sea lions (take the 900-metre-long Boardwalk Tour or book the guided 45-minute Seal Bay Experience). Also visit Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary for all manner of wildlife (don’t miss the Koala Walk) and head to Grassdale in Kelly Hill Conservation Park and Black Swamp in Flinders Chase National Park to see native kangaroos - a shorter version of the western grey kangaroo found on the mainland.
Star attraction: There’s over 23 hikes on the island; from leisurely jaunts to challenging treks. Some of the best trails include Remarkable Rocks (0.5 miles), around the Platypus Waterholes (3 miles), and Hanson Bay (11 miles). For those with more stamina, the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail is a 45-mile trek that takes five days and weaves through unique botanical areas before reaching the rugged and remote coastline of the Southern Ocean.
Setting: Just a 45-minute catamaran ride from Cairns, Green Island is the stunning coral cay located in the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Surprisingly not named for its emerald green rainforest but in honour of HMS Endeavour’s on-board astronomer, Charles Green, the scene here is as tropical as it gets: think white sand beaches, magnificent marine life, 120 native plants, 190 different types of hard corals, and over 100 types of soft corals.
See and do: Both the island’s half-day and full-day tours include snorkelling, glass bottom boat rides, and eco walks. However, you can upgrade your basic package and add scuba diving, snorkelling, underwater helmet diving, parasailing, scenic helicopter flights, and beach lounging (umbrellas and sunlounger rentals are available). Another essential stop is Marineland Crocodile Park for holding a baby croc, admiring the extensive private collection of primitive art and marine artifacts, and meeting Cassius - the largest captive croc in the world at 5.48-metres long.
Star attraction: The award-winning Seawalker Green Island is a fun-filled experience that takes you from the dedicated platform moored in the shallow reef to a depth of approximately 16-feet below the water’s surface. There’s no complicated equipment other than a helmet so your head stays perfectly dry - and you can even wear glasses. No swimming skills are required and the walk takes approximately an hour (including a short safety briefing).
Setting: Made up of two islands joined by a thin sandy isthmus known as The Neck, Bruny Island sits in the D'Entrecasteaux Channel off the southeast coast of Tasmania, close to the Hobart coastline. Named for French naval officer and explorer Antoine Bruni d'Entrecasteaux, the first European to discover the channel separating the island from the mainland, this popular weekend destination appeals to foodies, beach lovers, and walking enthusiasts.
See and do: Hire a car to drive north to the sheltered beaches of Dennes Point and Killora - or venture south to Adventure Bay, the Cape Bruny Lighthouse, and Cloudy Bay. Those preferring to explore the island by foot can climb along the crest of the sea crags on Fluted Cape, take the loop track around the Labillardiere Peninsula, and soak up 360-degree views from Truganini Lookout. Also squeeze in a visit to the Bligh Museum of Pacific Exploration to learn about the Aboriginal people, sailors, whalers, and explorers who played a key role in Bruny’s history.
Star attraction: First lit in 1838, the John Lee Archer-designed Cape Bruny Lighthouse is the country’s second oldest and longest continually staffed extant lighthouse. Towering 114-metres over the dramatic cliff tops and coves that form this part of rugged Tasmanian coastline, it was decommissioned in 1996 and replaced by a solar-powered tower. Tours last for 30-minutes and run daily throughout the year from 10am to 4pm (weekend sunset tours are also available).
Setting: As one of Australia’s most glamorous and romantic spots, Hamilton Island (known as Hamo by locals) is the largest in the Whitsundays archipelago. Accessed by direct flights from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Cairns, it offers a spoiling mix of intimate luxury resorts, high-octane activities (including a week of sailing and festivities in August), dense tropical rainforests, palm-fringed beaches, and Great Barrier Reef splendour.
See and do: Once you’ve enjoyed a full day snorkelling or diving tour at revered sites such as Stepping Stones, Paradise Lagoon, and Manta Ray Drop Off, hit the beautiful Catseye Beach. Equally standout is hiking to Passage Peak, seeking out secluded swimming spots at Hideaway Bay or Coral Cove, and arriving in time for happy hour at sunset cocktail bar, One Tree Hill. You can also catch a ferry to Dent Island to tee off at the spectacular 18-hole,par-71 Hamilton Island Golf Course designed by five-time British Open champion, Peter Thomson.
Star attraction: One of the world's most exciting and hands-on animal adventures, WILD LIFE Hamilton Island offers up-close encounters with all kinds of Australian marsupials, snakes, lizards, dingoes, pademelons, kangaroos, and even a saltwater crocodile (every animal has its own zone). There’s also tours and feeding sessions with wildlife experts, thrilling photo experiences, and special breakfasts with cute koalas every morning from 7.30 to 10am.
Stay: Qualia, Hamilton Island
Setting: The tiny coral cay turned World Heritage-listed Marine National Park in the southern reaches of the Great Barrier Reef, Heron Island was discovered and named by British explorer and author Captain Charles Bampfield Yule in 1843. Having shot to fame as a favourite of veteran naturalist Sir David Attenborough’s (it features in his BBC Blue Planet Live series), it does not allow day-trippers - the only way to visit is to stay at the 109-room resort.
See and do: Nature-watching here is inescapable; from spotting the black noddies that perch in the pisonia trees to seeking out manta rays, whales, turtles, clownfish, potato cod, giant clams, maori wrasse, and sharks (known as the Great Eight). There’s also green and loggerhead turtle watching (October to April), a shallow fringing reef for snorkelling, and a total of 21 dive sites - half of which are just 15 minutes from the beach. You’re spoiled further with a selection of guided nature presentations, including special Junior Rangers programs for kids aged 7 to 12 years.
Star attraction: Part of island life since 1951, the University of Queensland’s Heron Island Research Station is the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. Resort guests are treated to free one-hour guided tours of this world-class facility to learn more about tropical marine life and reef studies from scientists and students. You’ll also get the opportunity to handle reef creatures in a touch tank and enjoy access to restricted research areas and teaching laboratories.
Stay: Heron Island
Lady Elliot Island
Setting: The coral cay located at the southernmost tip of the Great Barrier Reef within a highly protected Green Zone, Lady Elliot Island was named by Captain Thomas Stewart after the wife of Hugh Elliot, India’s colonial governor. Easily accessed by plane from Bundaberg, Hervey Bay/Fraser Coast, Brisbane, and the Gold Coast, this is a sanctuary for over 1200 species of marine life, including giant manta rays, turtles, dolphins, reef sharks, and schools of fish.
See and do: Given its reputation as one of the best Great Barrier Reef diving destinations, there’s no shortage of aquatic adventures; from glass bottom boat rides and snorkelling tours to guided reef walks and whale watching (humpbacks migrate through these waters from May to November). There’s also single and double kayak rentals, historic walking tours, a reef education centre with wall graphics, fact sheets, and touch-and-feel display boxes with coral and shells, and an eco resort offering beach volleyball, soccer, table tennis, and a pool table.
Star attraction: Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort offers an exciting and engaging schedule of night-time activities for guests, including the Night Stalk Tour where you can learn about nocturnal animals and possibly catch a glimpse of the island’s resident ghost. There’s also stargazing events, evening nature presentations, sunset turtle touring at the beginning and end of the nesting season (February to April), and glass bottom boat rides around the Great Barrier Reef.
Cocos (Keeling) Islands
Setting: Lesser-known than the Whitsundays but just as spellbinding, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands is the archipelago of two low-lying atolls and 27 coral islands (only two of which are inhabited) located midway between Australia and Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean - approximately 1,709 miles from Perth and 621 miles from Christmas Island. Known as Australia's last unspoiled paradise, they were discovered by British sea captain William Keeling in 1609.
See and do: Life here revolves around the luminous turquoise waters and lagoons, so expect plenty of snorkelling, diving, fishing, kitesurfing, surfing, canoeing, and sailing trips to spot reef sharks, turtles, and dolphins. Further highlights include birdwatching tours for sightings of 39 breeding or resident bird species as well as migratory birds, a golf course that plays across an international runway, and guided eco tours that more teach about the Cocos Malay culture, colourful jukong boat races, and celebratory open feasts in the kampong villages.
Star attraction: Probably Australia’s most remote stretch of gleaming white sand, the 300-metre-long Cossies Beach (named in honour of Australia’s Governor-General, Sir Peter Cosgrove and also the colloquial term for a swimming costume) is located on the banana-shaped Direction Island. Just a 30-minute ferry ride from the neighbouring West Island (Thursdays and Saturdays only), it delights with coconut palms, aquamarine waters, and a wealth of marine life.
Setting: Named in 1770 by Lieutenant James Cook in honour of the Argus monitor (Varanus panoptes) found almost everywhere, Lizard Island is the Great Barrier Reef playground located 150 miles north of Cairns and 17 miles off the coast of northern Queensland. Plane transfers are organised between Cairns International Airport and East Air fly above the only place in the world where two World Heritage-listed sites meet - the reef and the ancient Daintree Rainforest.
See and do: There’s 24 white sand beaches, so make the most of possibly never seeing another soul. Spend your days swimming in impossibly clear waters, borrowing the resort’s motorised dinghies to explore above and below the Coral Sea, and walking the length of the island’s airstrip to the isolated Blue Lagoon. Equally standout is diving at the world-famous Cod Hole - a reef-encircled sand patch renowned for its huge (but friendly) potato cod, dazzling array of soft and hard corals, grey reef sharks, schooling sweetlips, and tropical reef fish.
Star attraction: Take the challenging 2.4-mile hike to Cook's Look, the highest vantage point on the island named in honour of Captain James Cook who climbed to the 360-metre summit in 1770 to get a clearer understanding of how to navigate HMS Endeavour back into open waters. Best tackled early in the morning, this two to three hour walk (quicker if you’re super-fit) rewards with panoramic views of Watsons Bay, the outer reef, and the entire island.
Stay: Lizard Island Resort
Setting: Straddling the Timor and Arafura seas, the Tiwi Islands is comprised of Bathurst Island and Melville Island as well as a handful of smaller islands that are uninhabited. Accessed by plane or sea (a ferry travels between Darwin and Bathurst three times a week), this so-called Land of Smiles just 62 miles north of Darwin has a 2,500 strong population - 90 per cent of whom are of Aboriginal descent and whose families have lived here for at least 7,000 years.
See and do: The arts and crafts scene is huge; you’ll want to stock up on everything from ceramics and bronze and glass sculptures to batik and silk-screened clothing, painted shells, pottery, wood carvings, and woven bangles. Take a local design tour to enjoy a session with a Tiwi artist, visit one of the crafts co-operatives or galleries, and book a cultural experience to watch local women perform totem dances and initiate smoking ceremonies. Wildlife is another big draw and there’s a fair amount of sport-fishing, croc spotting, and birdwatching on offer.
Star attraction: The Tiwi people are passionate about Australian rules football (known as Aussie rules) and the island is believed to have one of the country’s highest participation rates (an estimated 400 regular players). If you’re visiting in March, the Tiwi Islands Football League Grand Final at Wurrumiyanga Oval on Bathurst Island is the biggest event of the year and the only day when visitors can travel to the island without a permit.
Stay: Mantra on the Esplanade in Darwin