While it could be argued that Australia’s best island is, in fact, Australia itself, this country-continent exports some of its best commodities offshore, with its 8000-plus islands offering escapes, adventures and oddities to travelers of all stripes. Underwater, on-land, cultural or quaint: whatever floats your boat, set sail to discover Australia’s best islands for you.
FOR WATER BUGS AND SUN-WORSHIPERS: WHITSUNDAY ISLAND
Australia’s islands boast some of the most bonny beaches on the planet: Fitzroy Island’s flawless Nudie Beach, Great Keppel’s 17 serene stretches of sand, and the untouched shores of the far-flung Cocos (Keeling) Islands to name a few. But for a beach so postcard-perfect it’s practically a cliché, drop your towel at Whitehaven Beach on North Queensland’s Whitsunday Island. With 7km of eye-smartingly pure white sand, pristine turquoise water, and a lush jungle backdrop, it’s little wonder Whitehaven has won accolades – best beach, cleanest beach, most eco-friendly beach – from pundits across the globe. And about that sand: its 98% silica content – the source of its blinding whiteness – means it won’t burn your bare feet, even on the hottest of Queensland days.
FOR WILDLIFE-LOVERS: KANGAROO ISLAND
Macropods, sea lions, and koalas! Kangaroo Island, 13km off the South Australian coast, is often touted as ‘a zoo without fences’ thanks to its hefty tally of wild, roaming animals. From the waddling colonies of Seal Bay to endemic echidnas to the ‘roos that give it its name, the island – Australia’s third-largest – attracts fauna fans in droves. Rottnest Island is another world-beater on the wildlife front, thanks to its native population of about 10,000 goofy-smiled quokkas; over in the far east, Fraser – the world’s largest sand island – is home to a large population of pure-bred dingoes.
FOR INDIGENOUSNESS ADMIRERS: BREMER ISLAND
Off the coast of Eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, beguiling Bremer Island is a Top End treat, both culturally and visually. Remote and largely untouched by modern life, Bremer is home to the Yolngu people, who partner with the island’s only accommodation – Banubanu Beach Retreat – to give visitors a taste of local indigenous customs and traditions, from basket weaving to crab catching. To the northeast, Thursday Island and the other 100-plus islands of the Torres Strait offer an immersive insight into Torres Strait Islander life and culture.
FOR DIVING ENTHUSIASTS: HERON ISLAND
Renowned as one of the world’s best scuba spots, Heron Island (90km off the central Queensland coast) is a diver’s dream, with warm clear waters teeming with sharks, rays, sea turtles, whales, and more than 900 tropical fish species. The World Heritage-listed marine national park offers aquatic adventures for everyone from beginners to experts; an island-based research center offers insights into Heron’s unique underwater world.
FOR SNORKELING BUFFS: LADY ELLIOT ISLAND
The Great Barrier Reef is no slouch when it comes to stupendous snorkeling, but you’ll find arguably the best of the best at Lady Elliot Island. As one of the Reef’s most remote coral cays, you’ll need to hop on a charter flight to get here, but the abundance of manta rays – an estimated 700 in the waters surrounding the island – turtles, dolphins, whales, and hundreds of other marine-life species make the journey oh-so-worth-it. Corals here – hard and soft – are healthy, colorful, and thriving, thanks largely to Lady Elliot’s location in a marine-park ‘Green Zone’, which offers its sub-aquatic species the highest protection.
FOR URBAN LIFE EXPLORERS: COCKATOO ISLAND
Not all of Australia’s islands are paradisiacal jewels and palm-studded getaways: Sydney’s Cockatoo Island is a gritty historical complex that’s been an 1800s convict prison, a reform school for girls, a rough-and-ready shipyard, and a naval base. Today, the Unesco World Heritage site is a slightly creepy – and highly photogenic – a destination that welcomes visitors with evocative tours of its heritage buildings, plus cafes, bars, live performances, and overnight accommodation ranging from stays in an erstwhile fire station to waterfront camping. On a quest for quirky? Rival city Melbourne offers itty-bitty-island carousing at Yarra River watering hole Ponyfish Island.
FOR LUXURY TRAVELERS: HAGGERSTONE ISLAND
Lizard Island, Orpheus Island, Hayman Island, Hamilton Island… Australia is spoiled for choice when it comes to luxury. But for the ultimate in island indulgence, remote Haggerstone Island – a two-hour private charter flight from Cairns – is where it’s at. And ‘it’ means: voluptuous villas and huts, exclusive access to pristine reefs, feasts pulled straight from the sea, custom adventures, and pampered privileged privacy. For the most splendid isolation, splash out and hire the entire island for yourself.