8 Australian Islands You Probably Haven’t Heard of But Need to Visit
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Though Australia is itself an island, its coasts are fringed by a number of smaller isles that are too often overlooked. You might have heard about Rottnest Island near Perth for quokka selfies and Phillip Island outside Melbourne (which is famous for its nightly penguin parade). But those are just two of Australia’s better known islands.
There are plenty more, like Queensland’s Fraser Island, which is the largest sand island in the world; Satellite Island, which is a private retreat off Tasmania; and Bigge Island off Western Australia’s Kimberley Coast, which has some of the oldest rock art in the world hidden in its dramatic gorges and cliffs.
Interested? Here are eight other Australian islands you might not have heard of yet … but we’re willing to bet are about to land at the top of your travel to-do list.
Lady Elliot Island, Queensland
Lady Elliot Island is among the southernmost islands of the Great Barrier Reef and is home to more than 1,200 species of marine life and myriad types of seabirds. But this vibrant coral cay wasn’t always a watery wonderland. Back in the 19th century, the island was strip-mined for guano (yes, bird poop) for use as agricultural fertilizer and an ingredient in gunpowder. The process denuded the island of its soil and trees, and it was left barren for over a century.
In the past few decades — and most notably once the current leaseholders took over 14 years ago — conservation efforts and replanting have once again made the island bloom, reinvigorated the coral reefs that surround it and attracted back much of the wildlife that once called this place home.
Today, Lady Elliot Island offers 45 dive sites for snorkelers and scuba enthusiasts, and is considered one of the top sites on Earth to dive with manta rays. Because it’s at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, the waters remain cooler than farther north, which means the coral has not experienced bleaching to the same extent as other parts of the reef.
Getting There: Spending at least two nights on the island is recommended. However, because of its proximity to the Queensland coast, you can even head out here for a day trip on a sea plane from Redcliffe Airport (RCL) near Brisbane, from the Gold Coast, Bundaberg or Hervey Bay/Fraser Coast. Prices are around $899 AUD ($633) per person and include airport transfers, round-trip scenic flights, snorkel equipment and a guided tour, as well as a buffet lunch, towels, sunscreen and use of the guest facilities.
Where to Stay: The island is only home to the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, a beachy bushcamp. It’s not fancy — rooms are fan-cooled and don’t have TVs or telephones — but it’s comfortable and, what’s more, the camp is on target to be powered by 100% renewable energy in 2020 and produces about 30,000 liters of its own fresh water each day.
Lord Howe Island, New South Wales
This secluded piece of paradise is located about halfway between Australia and New Zealand in the middle of the Tasman Sea. The island was formed from the remains of an ancient volcanic crater, and it is instantly recognizable by the dramatic crags that anchor its southern edge.
Apart from the spectacular scenery, the waters around the UNESCO World Heritage-listed island are home to hundreds of species of fish, 90 different types of coral and a thriving population of hawksbill and green sea turtles. You can even snorkel right alongside these amazing creatures just off shore, or during a multi-hour excursion with outfitters such as Islander Cruises or Marine Adventures.
Back on land, you can hike the island’s steep slopes, cycle along its gentle curves or just hang out at one of the many uncrowded beaches as you barbecue your lunch. Only 400 visitors are allowed at any given time, so you won’t have to fight the crowds for a spot on the sand. The best months to see turtles are from November to April, but the island’s climate is temperate year-round.
Getting There: Unless you have your own yacht, you’ll have to fly. QantasLink offers up to two daily nonstops from Sydney (SYD) and nonstop flights from Brisbane (BNE) to Lord Howe Island (LDH) on weekends. The flight lasts about two hours, but ticket prices are steep and range from $900 to $1,400 round-trip. Sadly, award availability seems to be nil if you want to use American AAdvantage miles or British Airways Avios to book a ticket on Qantas at the moment.
Where to Stay: As you might expect, the accommodations are limited, but there are still some beautiful resorts. Capella Lodge is one of Australia’s most sophisticated luxury lodges and has some of the island’s best views, while the more casual Arajilla Retreat has a Balinese-inspired jungle vibe.
Kangaroo Island, South Australia
OK, so you may be familiar with this stunning island just eight miles off the coast of South Australia. After all, it’s relatively large, at 96 miles long by 35 across at its widest point, and named after everyone’s favorite marsupial.
Over one third of the island is covered by national park land and other conservation areas, providing for up-close wildlife encounters (think: strolling through colonies of giant sea lions basking on the beach at Seal Bay; watching koalas feed at dusk at the Hanson Bay wildlife sanctuary; and picnicking alongside the island’s namesake kangaroos and jumpy wallabies). The western side of Kangaroo Island boasts stunning scenery, including the so-called Remarkable Rocks and Admirals Arch rock formations.
Kangaroo Island has also become a popular destination for foodies, thanks to the prevalence of locally produced culinary treats, including honey made by Ligurian bees, freshwater marron (a type of crayfish with particularly sweet meat) and fresh-caught seafood including oysters and abalone. There are also artisanal beers, wines and spirits to be sampled at outlets such as Kangaroo Island Brewery and Bay of Shoals Wines. An outfitter like Exceptional Kangaroo Island can create a tailored itinerary that combines nature, wildlife and gourmet experiences.
Getting There: For those with extra time on their hands, the Kangaroo Island Sealink ferry operates a daily service from Cape Jervis on the mainland, about a 90-minute drive south of Adelaide, to the island port town of Penneshaw. The ride takes 45 minutes. Otherwise, you can catch a 30-minute flight from Adelaide’s airport (ADL) to Kingscote (KGC) on Regional Express. Fares start around $300 AUD ($212) round-trip.
Where to Stay: Kangaroo Island is home to one of Australia’s most iconic luxury lodges, Southern Ocean Lodge, which overlooks the ocean from a dramatic bluff. The lodge offers a variety of nature experiences, bespoke menus featuring some of the best local produce and wines and, of course, a beautiful spa with treatments that incorporate Australian-made Li’Tya products. For something more casual (and self-catered), Kangaroo Beach Lodges is a good alternative.
Christmas Island, Western Australia
Easter Island is in the Pacific, but Christmas Island is in the middle of the Indian Ocean, a good 1,600 miles northwest of Perth and closer to Asia than Australia. This tiny, rocky outcrop is known as the “Galápagos of the Indian Ocean” thanks to the incredible variety and vibrancy of the wildlife to be found here, and nearly two thirds of it is considered national park land.
It is perhaps best known for the massive annual red crab migration that overtakes the island on full moons during the months of October, November or December (it varies year to year). The red crabs are one of 14 species of land crabs to be found on the island, and it is estimated that up to 50 million of them live there.
Apart from crustaceans, visitors can also marvel at Christmas Island’s stunning coral-reef formations, migrating whale sharks (between November and May), a multitude of seabird species including golden bosuns and red-footed boobies, primordial rainforest and the dramatic underwater drop-offs of the Java Trench. In short, it’s heaven for nature lovers.
Getting There: There’s not much choice here. Virgin Australia offers flights from Perth (PER) — just one nonstop per week to Christmas Island Airport (XCH), and one weekly flight via Cocos (Keeling) Islands Airport (CCK). Fares are high, starting around $400 AUD ($282) each way, but the good news is, you can actually find award availability using Delta SkyMiles for 22,500 miles and $31 in taxes and fees each way.
Where to Stay: The most upscale option on the island is Swell Lodge, which is a solar-powered eco-retreat nestled inside the jungle of a national park overlooking a reef and the Indian Ocean. The staff will create personalized itineraries and arrange the use of a complimentary 4×4 vehicle for your stay. But it’ll cost you: $690 AUD ($486) per person per night based on double occupancy. If that’s not in your budget, the Captain’s Last Resort is a more moderate option at just $190 AUD ($134) per night.
Bruny Island, Tasmania
If you make it all the way to Tasmania, you should absolutely include a visit to Bruny Island to your itinerary. This rugged piece of land lies just off the coast near Hobart, and is becoming a haven for foodies and wildlife lovers alike. There are tons of hiking trails, including one to Truganini Lookout for 360-degree views of the island and its slender isthmus, the Neck. Another on the Labillardiere Peninsula requires a full day out in South Bruny National Park. Pennicott Wilderness Journeys offers wildlife cruises to spot dolphins, migrating whales, penguins and Australian fur seals, while back on land, you might see spiky echidnas, burrowing wombats and red-necked wallabies.
For the food-focused, Bruny Island is home to one of Australia’s most famous artisanal gourmet producers, Bruny Island Cheese Co. While there, you can stop by the dairy to sample their various cheeses and other products. Visitors can also pop into Australia’s southernmost winery, Bruny Island Premium Wines; pick berries at Bruny Island Berry Farm; tarry for a tipple at the Bruny Island House of Whisky; or join a day-long gourmet tour with Bruny Island Traveller.
Tasmanian Walking Co. offers a three-day “Bruny Island Long Weekend” walking tour that takes in some of the island’s most iconic landscapes along with visits to local producers.
Getting There: There is regular vehicular ferry service from the town of Kettering, which is a 40-minute drive south of Hobart. The crossing takes 20 minutes and costs $32 AUD (about $23) for a driver and vehicle.
Where to Stay: If you want to stay out on the island for a few nights, the Hundred Acre Hideaway is a mini eco-resort with two self-catering cabins in a rainforest overlooking Cloudy Bay. Prices start at $250 AUD ($176) per night. Discover Bruny Island Holiday Accommodation is another good option for a home base, situated, as it is, in the island’s main township of Alonnah. Rates there start at $239 AUD ($169) per night.
Tiwi Islands, Northern Territory
Just 60 miles north of Darwin, where the Timor and Arafura Seas meet, the Tiwi Islands are a small archipelago of 11 islets. The two main ones are Bathurst Island and Melville Island, which is Australia’s second-largest island after Tasmania.
What makes the Tiwi Islands so special is that almost the entire population is of indigenous descent and travelers can partake in a variety of activities including cultural and wildlife tours with them. Among the arts and crafts that distinguish this singular place are colorful batik cloth painting, woodcarving, shell jewelry and various forms of ceramic and glass sculpture.
Outdoor enthusiasts also flock here for the phenomenal fishing, including for barramundi around Melville Island, crabbing and even tracking crocodiles along the untamed islands’ shores.
Getting There: Visitors can either fly from Darwin (DRW) to Bathurst Island (BRT) on a 30-minute seaplane flight or take the thrice-weekly SeaLink ferry from Darwin to Bathurst Island, which takes just under three hours. To get between Bathurst and Melville, where you’re most likely staying, there’s a ferry service on weekdays between the two. The Tiwi Islands Regional Council inter-islands car ferry between Wurrumiyanga on Bathurst Island and Paru on Melville Island operates Monday to Friday from 8am to 4pm, and tickets are available at the Council office or can be ordered on the phone.
Where to Stay: Your two best bets are both on Melville Island: the Melville Island Lodge and the Clearwater Island Lodge. Both cater specifically to folks out for some sportfishing, though they can also arrange other outings, including visits to local arts centers, bush walks to see the endemic wildlife, croc spotting, bird watching and cultural tours that may have guests foraging for traditional foods such as mangrove worms and mud crabs.
Daydream Island, Queensland
For folks who want the quintessential Great Barrier Reef experience without having to contend with crowded charters or tourist-clogged hotels, Daydream Island is the perfect alternative.
It’s situated in Queensland’s idyllic Whitsundays archipelago and is home to a soon-to-reopen resort. What sets Daydream Island apart is that, though it’s close to Airlie Beach on the mainland and the popular jumping-off point of Hamilton Island, it feels completely secluded. While some of the corals around the island were badly damaged by recent cyclones, those along its southern edge remain healthy. And if you don’t take my word for it, just check out the Instagram profile of the resort’s marine biologist, Johnny Gaskell, for some inspiration.
Getting There: Visitors have the choice of either flying to Hamilton Island (HTI) on Qantas (on which you can use American AAdvantage miles or British Airways Avios), or Virgin Australia (a Delta SkyMiles partner). Both fly nonstop from Brisbane (BNE), Sydney (SYD) and Melbourne (MEL). You can also fly to Proserpine (PPP) on the mainland from Brisbane on Virgin Australia and Jetstar, or from Sydney (SYD) on Jetstar and Tigerair. From either, you can catch the ferry service offered by Cruise Whitsundays.
Where to Stay: The island’s 277-room resort is currently undergoing an $86 million AUD ($60.6 million) renovation after being damaged by a cyclone last year and is expected to reopen in April. It will have a redeveloped pool area and various new restaurants, including one serving seasonal Australian fare and another focused on Asian-fusion cuisine. The most interesting attraction, however, is the newly expanded Living Reef outdoor aquarium that extends over 200 meters around the main building and holds more than 100 marine species, including rays, crabs, fish and corals.
Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Western Australia
Like Christmas Island, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands are far from the mainland in the more remote stretches of the Indian Ocean. They include 27 coral islands forming two atolls, and shelter a lively reef system that teems with sea creatures including rare hawksbill turtles, dolphins and sharks. Visitors can dive and snorkel, of course, but also angle for bonefish, kite surf, explore the islands on a canoe safari, laze around on the palm-lined white sands of Cossies Beach, or hike around the various islands.
The islands are also interesting from a cultural perspective since much of the local population has Malay roots, and that heritage is obvious in the beautiful arts and crafts still practiced on the island.
Getting There: Virgin Australia operates a circuit route with flights from Perth (PER) to Cocos (Keeling) Islands Airport (CCK) either nonstop or via Christmas Island (XCH) twice a week (the flight stops at the other destination on the way back to Perth). While tickets cost around $1,292 AUD ($909) round-trip, the good news is, you can actually find award availability using Delta SkyMiles for 22,500 miles each way plus about $31 in taxes and fees.
Where to Stay: Options are limited, but interesting. Oceania House is a hotel in a colonial-era heritage-listed house on Home Island with nightly rates starting around $225 AUD ($158). Cocos Cottages on West Island (where the airport is) comprises just three self-contained two-bedroom houses overlooking the golf course and lagoon. Rates start at $250 AUD ($176) per night.
Featured image of Lady Elliot Island via Shutterstock.