Australia is renowned for its diverse experiences from its cosmopolitan coastal hubs to the rugged interior of the Outback. Yet over 8,000 smaller islands fringe the continent’s coasts, offering laid-back beaches, water adventures and intriguing wildlife. We’ve rounded up some of the most alluring islands that promise to change your perspective of Australia from singular continent to island-hopping home base.
Aboriginal heritage on Australia’s Top End
Should you seek immersion into Australia’s indigenous culture, venture into islands sprinkled off the coast of the Northern Territory. On the Tiwi Islands of Bathurst and Melville, nearly 90 percent of inhabitants are of Aboriginal descent. You’re invited to Bathurst Island’s Tiwi Designs to learn how artists’ works have developed over more than 7,000 years — in traditions quite distinctive from mainland artistic influences. Browse among ochre paintings and brightly decorated pukamani burial poles, or work side-by-side with a textile artist. More Aboriginal heritage exists in Arnhem Land and its neighboring islands. You can learn their stories at Elcho Island Arts, a center that celebrates the work of over 200 local Yolŋgu artists. Nature lovers can venture into the wilderness of Arnhem Land with a local guide who reveals ancient secrets of mud crabbing and spear fishing in your watery surrounds, or set out on a private boat tour to spot 42 species of birds circling above Bremer Island.
Below (and above) the surface in the Great Barrier Reef
You needn’t be a certified diver to recognize the spectacular riches of the Great Barrier Reef’s 900 islands, as snorkeling is one of the best ways to sightsee below the surface. Magnetic Island is one of the most accessible areas: over 23 bays and beaches offer limitless excursions into wrecks and reefs, and we recommend wading into Picnic Bay by way of the palm-lined beach. On Hamilton Island, swim with sea turtles, some of the ocean’s most magnificent creatures, on a Deep Water Turtle Discovery tour. To recharge from all your underwater exploration, you don’t ever have to leave the sea: One&Only Hayman Island resort pampers with 90 minutes of blissful massage delivered to you as you float above the Great Barrier Reef. At Lizard Island, the northernmost island resort on the reef, Australian ingredients shine at Salt Water Restaurant, and we can arrange a sunset beach picnic of seven mouthwatering courses paired with local wines.
Perfect views of Sydney Harbour
Believe it or not, the best view of Sydney’s skyline isn’t from atop the Harbour Bridge; rather, it’s found on the grass tennis courts of Cockatoo Island. A 10-minute ferry ride from the mainland is a cluster of uninhabited sandstone knolls scattered in Sydney Harbour. A standout among the eight islands, Cockatoo Island — a World Heritage site — has been transformed into a low-key playground, where we’ll reserve you a coveted slot on Cockatoo Island’s tennis courts, which sit on the upper island to deliver unexpectedly picturesque views overlooking Sydney and the Harbour Bridge. Spend the night in a safari bow tent on the island’s edge and emerge from camp to take in views of Sydney at sunrise.
An unexpected mix on Phillip Island
Within day-tripping distance from Melbourne lies a real surprise: Phillip Island’s Grand Prix Circuit, where Australian racing was revived in 1951. You can take the laps yourself in a luxury BMW or hop in a five-point harness race car with a professional in the driver’s seat. Once the adrenaline abates, it’s time to explore the island’s more wildlife-centered attractions: a parade of little penguins takes place daily at dusk when the tuxedoed birds return to their nests on Summerland Beach, and the Koala Conservation Centre invites you to come face-to-face with the native marsupials in their natural treetop habitat. Phillip Island is also steadily gaining a reputation as a culinary hotbed. Take a rainbow trout fishing lesson from the eco-friendly experts at Rhyll Trout & Bush Tucker Farm, sample some of the 190 confections produced at Pannys Phillip Island Chocolate Factory before concocting your own custom candy and explore the cool-climate varietals at several wineries.
Tasmania’s gourmet side
The island-state of Tasmania lies off the southern coast of Australia’s mainland and encompasses a surprisingly diverse wonderland that wends from World Heritage wilderness to charming coastal climes. With such an array of resources, local and sustainable dining is a natural way of life on Tasmania. Organic produce is a fixture on both sophisticated restaurant menus and at roadside farm stands.
A walking tour of Hobart tempts your palate with samples of fresh-caught oysters and a soft wheel of “Saint” at Bruny Island Cheese Company. Learn how local mongers make these delectable morsels during a cheese-making class at The Agrarian Kitchen, housed in a former schoolhouse just 30 minutes from Hobart. If you prefer to pursue the nectars of Tasmania, follow the Cider Trail to taste how producers put the state’s annual 55,000 tons of apples to good use, and sample cool-climate wines that have been lauded since the 19th century.
“Only in Australia” encounters on Kangaroo Island
It should come as no surprise that one of the best places to spot Australia’s iconic kangaroos is on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island, specifically in the 5,000-acre Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. Included in your stay at the ultra-luxurious Southern Ocean Lodge are daily wildlife excursions: tiptoe through old-growth forests on a guided nocturnal tour to see kangaroos and porcupine-like echidnas at their most active time. Approximately a third of Kangaroo Island is protected, and while you’re busy making your way from the sand dunes of Little Sahara to the signature Remarkable Rocks in Flinders Chase National Park you may cross paths with more than one wallaby or opossum. This island is also revered for its locally produced goods, its honey in particular: Kangaroo Island is the oldest bee sanctuary in the world and is home to the only pure strain of ligurian bees, while the Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary comprises 20,000 acres of apiaries.
Meet the quirky quokkas of Rottnest Island
The journey is just as meaningful as the destination as you cross the 12 miles of Indian Ocean separating Rottnest Island from Western Australia’s city of Fremantle, near Perth. Aboard a catamaran, tuck into a ploughman’s lunch or plunge into the balmy waters from the ship’s swim platform. Prefer to arrive at your destination in mere minutes? A chartered plane from Perth stuns with aerial scenery and delivers you directly to Rottnest Island. On the car-free island, rent a bicycle to cruise alongside any one of the island’s 63 beaches and pause to encounter quokkas. This little marsupial is known as the “world’s happiest animal” for the permanent smile affixed to its furry face. They live only in Western Australia and over 8,000 quokkas call “Rotto” home. To sight a much more massive creature, time your visit between September and November when you’re most likely to glimpse a humpback whale migrating off the coast.
Australia’s islands offer secret, off-the-beaten-trail encounters and surprising forays that foster a deeper appreciation for this vast and varied continent. Whether you’re seeking up-close encounters with wildlife, an epicurean tasting tour or a meaningful chance to connect with locals over Aboriginal customs, we can customize an island escape that explores Australia anew.
The cover photo is The Twelve Apostles, Great Ocean Road, Victoria, Australia.