Travel to Australia: holidays in the tropical islands around Australia

There are only 400 guests per night on this tiny Tasmanian atoll.

Flora, fauna and ocean activities: Australian islands offer unique experiences, writes Ewan McDonald

The Australian islands are paradises. Norfolk is a “South Pacific paradise”. Lord Howe is “Just Paradise”. The Cocos (Keeling) Islands are “the last preserved paradise”.

What’s annoying is that they’re pretty much right. Let’s fly, sail, paddle and dive around the island-continent. Where better to start than an Australian paradise where the locals would rather be part of Aotearoa?

Only 800km from New Zealand, norfolk island shares the subtropical climate of the east coast of Australia. It’s tiny – only 8km x 5km but there’s plenty to keep you busy. Or, if you prefer, engage with total laziness.

Clear water beaches sheltered by coral reefs; spectacular headlands with panoramic views; waterfalls tumbling from the cliffs to the ocean. The fishing is sensational; surfers will enjoy sharing waves with… no one.

Norfolk Island has clear water beaches sheltered by coral reefs;  spectacular headlands with panoramic views;  and waterfalls tumbling from the cliffs to the ocean.  Photo / Tourism Australia
Norfolk Island has clear water beaches sheltered by coral reefs; spectacular headlands with panoramic views; and waterfalls tumbling from the cliffs to the ocean. Photo / Tourism Australia

It is home to rare birds, the tallest tree ferns in the world and the namesake pines. There are walking paths, a single road, and minimal (familiar?) public transport. The best way to get around and meet the 2200 inhabitants is to rent a Mini Moke. You will find that the cows have the right of way and everyone has time to chat.

Norfolk Island: 805 km north of New Zealand, 1675 km northeast of Sydney; 2h30 flight from Auckland, Sydney and Brisbane.

Smarter than Barcelona or Venice, Lord Howe Island protects its World Heritage listing by limiting visitors to 400 at any one time. The tiny outcrop is home to over 450 species of fish and 90 corals, many of which are unique. see them on a glass-bottom boat and snorkeling trip or hand-feed the fish (under strict conditions).

Lord Howe Island Marine Park has 60 known dive sites. Anglers can try from shore or out of the reef (beware, strict rules apply).

The lagoon inside the world’s southernmost coral reef is perfect for swimming and water sports, and the island is bringing back its Ocean Swim Weeks and Summer Festival next year.

Land hikers can challenge the day hike to Mount Gower; gentler walks take you through palm groves to observe amazing birdlife.

Lord Howe: 700 km northeast of Sydney; 2 hour flight from Sydney; Options from Port Macquarie, Newcastle.

Views from Blinky Beach towards Mount Gower and Mount Lidgbird on Lord Howe Island.  Photo / Visit NSW
Views from Blinky Beach towards Mount Gower and Mount Lidgbird on Lord Howe Island. Photo / Visit NSW

If you want to find a deserted island, go to queensland. We can’t mention every hot spot here, so – spoiler alert – here are some of my experiences.

Island of Orpheus is 11 km from white sand beaches, national park and biological research station. Limited to 28 people, the rooms and villas at its luxury resort are set in palm trees just yards from the beach. Proud of his kitchen and his cellar, he has much to be proud of.

It’s an island where you can do a lot of nothing. Or you can do a bit of everything – snorkeling and diving, fishing and boating. Day spa treatments. Until the private helicopter brings you back to reality.

Orpheus: 80 km north of Townsville; 30min private helicopter.

The Whitsundays are 74 islands ranked among the most beautiful sailing areas in the world (some people haven’t seen the Hauraki Gulf). Golden sandy beaches – apart from Whitehaven it is 7km of white sandy beach. Fringing corals and reef life. Resorts, golf, but for me…

You have heard of the gray nomads. Here, Blue Nomads have fun on boats. Where better than semi-tropical islands where the water is 27°C in the dead of winter, there are sea turtles, dugongs, whales and other cool underwater inhabitants?

Charter companies in the Whitsundays make chartering a yacht easy. You can “bareboat” – that is, self-navigation. They will run you through a soft grill (seamanship, not barramundi on the barbie) to make sure you know each side of the boat from the other. Otherwise they will provide a skipper.

Pentecost Sundays: 250 km south of Townsville; daily flights to Hamilton Island from Sydney, Brisbane.

Named cook magnetic island because he believed his compass had drifted out of the beam as he passed it. More than half is enshrined in the national park; over 800 koalas live here, the largest group in the wild; and it is a fisherman’s paradise.

A favorite vacation spot for mainlanders since the 1800s, ferries now dock at a terminal with supermarket, resorts, cafes and shops. Enjoy water sports, golf, diving, jet-skiing, fishing, horseback riding, and topless car rentals (think mini-jeeps).

Magnetic Island: 8 km east of Townsville, 20 minutes by ferry from Townsville.

More than half of Queensland's Magnetic Island is listed as a national park, and more than 800 koalas live here, the largest group in the wild.  Photo / Tourism Australia
More than half of Queensland’s Magnetic Island is listed as a national park, and more than 800 koalas live here, the largest group in the wild. Photo / Tourism Australia

Miss Elliot is a station with a difference: no cell phone reception, intermittent internet. The traffic – on foot, reef shoes only – gives way to over 100,000 nesting seabirds. On land or at sea, turtles reign; it is one of their most important breeding grounds.

For several days you can live in one of the most delicate ecosystems in the world. All food, all waste must be airlifted; virtually all energy is solar. Only 150 people can spend the night in the old guano miners’ huts; Another 100 can come and go daily.

Miss Elliot: 85 km northeast of Bundaberg; 30min flight from Bundaberg.

Fraser Island is the largest sand dune in the world, 250 km of beaches, 40 km of strikingly colored sand cliffs, a tropical forest growing in the sand, dune lakes, forests and mangroves.

A dingo lining the beach, a prehistoric lizard climbing a tree are favorite shots, but there are rare mammals, birds and reptiles all around; dolphins, dugongs, turtles, rays in the waters.

More than 1,500 humpback whales roam here in August-October, using the island to shelter with their young for up to two weeks.

Accommodations for all wallets, but the real experience is camping at the 45 dingo-fenced sites, lakeside or seaside (permit, 4×4 required).

Fraser: 40 km east of Hervey Bay; 15min flight, 50min ferry from Hervey Bay.

For families, the most accessible and organized offshore escape is Moreton Island. Most will opt for, and need not stray too far, from the sprawling Tangalooma Island Resort with its accommodation, bars and restaurants, water and land activities from dawn to dusk.

Divers will enjoy the Tangalooma wrecks, with walkers strolling among bushes, beaches and wildflowers. Try tobogganing down massive dunes (I planted my face), ATV trails (wrapped around a tree), and hand-feeding wild dolphins (they stopped me there, for a any reason).

Moreton: 47 km east of Brisbane, 75 minutes by ferry from Brisbane.

Far. Literally: cross the continent and stay west for another 2,750 km to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, a perfect circle of 27 coral islands in the Indian Ocean, only two of which are inhabited. By humans, that is.

Closer to Indonesia than Australia, the remote atolls of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands are best known as an internationally important wildlife habitat.  Photo / Tourism Australia
Closer to Indonesia than Australia, the remote atolls of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands are best known as an internationally important wildlife habitat. Photo / Tourism Australia

Closer to Indonesia than Australia, these remote atolls are best known as an internationally important wildlife habitat.

Most tourists stay in the laid-back West Island resorts. On Home Island, the Malays of Cocos offer traditional culture and cuisine. Direction Island is currently “Australia’s Best Beach”; expect to swim, snorkel, reef dive, or enjoy fishing and surfing year-round. Windsurfing and kitesurfing are popular from July to September.

Cocos (Keeling): 2750 km northwest of Perth; twice weekly flights from Perth via Christmas Island.

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