Australia's greatest islands
With over 8000 to chose from, Australia has some of the most beautiful islands on earth. From tropical paradises like Hamilton Island to the diverse and pristine Kangaroo Island. With vision from various Australian tourism bodies
LORD HOWE ISLAND
The word "paradise" cops a hiding these days. A few swooning coconut palms, a scrap of sand, a lurid sunset and "paradise" limps into view. Tired, overworked and underachieving, "paradise" has lost its punch, and so it is that I am left with no single word for Lord Howe Island.
Yet from the moment your plane sweeps low over the island's cliffs, skims across the surf break on the edge of the lagoon and drops you in the shadow of two leaping green volcanic peaks you'll be in no doubt. Paradise it is. Anchored 550 kilometres due east of Port Macquarie, Lord Howe Island is barely 11 kilometres from end to end and two across at its widest point, yet rarely is so much crammed into such a tiny pimple of dry land. Its shallow lagoon hosts the world's most southerly coral gardens.
The interior is shadowed by dense forests of the miraculous banyan tree, the summit of Mount Gower is richly invested with rainforest and most of the island's lower storey is blanketed by a rustling canopy of kentia palms. In the surrounding waters colliding warm and cool currents spawn giant clams, sea turtles, clownfish, lionfish, tuna, butterfly fish and the doubleheader wrasse.
The island is also a biological ark, a perch for exotic species of sea birds in migratory journeys that might take them to Siberia. Lord Howe is the only place where providence petrels breed and one of the greatest concentrations of the fabulous red-tailed tropic bird can be found along the island's northern cliffs. So much natural bounty is mightily invigorating.
Everyone swims, snorkels, hikes, fishes, bicycles and takes up birdwatching. Lord Howe Island is also a potent personality-altering substance. Wherever you go on the island you'll come across visitors sighing or whistling to themselves, or stopping to admire some particularly heartening piece of real estate. This is the way the world should be. Paradise, with brass knobs on. See lordhoweisland.info.
SAILING THE WHITSUNDAYS, QUEENSLAND
Protected by the World-Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef, and spread out across 74 tropical islands – of which only five are inhabited – the Whitsundays region is considered the world's premier sailing destination. Why venture to the congested waters of southern Europe when you can anchor free-of-charge at deserted, calm-water anchorages beside some of the world's best beaches (including Whitehaven Beach)? There's any number of sailing options – from bareboat charters where you're the skipper, to crewed sailing journeys. See tourismwhitsundays.com.au.
BILL PEACH JOURNEYS, GREAT AUSTRALIAN AIRCRUISE
Have breakfast overlooking Broome's sweeping Cable Beach on Western Australia's far north coast and by dusk watch the sun slip behind Uluru before dining under a blanket of stars. The beauty of a chartered aircraft is it makes crossing Australia's vast distances entirely plausible. And on the 12-day Great Australian Aircruise you tick off Australia's most prized landmarks – Kakadu, the Red Centre, the ancient Bungle Bungle Range, the mighty chasms of Katherine Gorge, the Buccaneer Archipelago and the Olgas – in one, awe-inspiring journey. See billpeachjourneys.com.au
MARGARET RIVER DISCOVERY TOURS, WESTERN AUSTRALIA
Consistently rated on TripAdvisor as a five-star experience – of a total of 399 reviews at the time of writing, 395 awarded it top marks – Sean Blocksidge's Margaret River Discovery Tours are one of the great small-enterprise success stories of Australian tourism. Sean runs all of his company's adventure-cum-wine-tasting tours himself, and he's a man who loves his job. Why wouldn't he? It involves canoeing down Margaret River, hiking the Cape to Cape Track, four-wheel-driving through sand dunes, and tasting some of Australia's best wines.
THE HARRY REDFORD CATTLE MUSTER, QUEENSLAND
What could be more quintessentially Australian than mustering cattle across the outback by horseback (except perhaps wrestling a croc near Walkabout Creek)? There's no more authentic cattle muster on Earth. You'll lead over 600 head of cattle through drought-stricken west Queensland with a motley crew of local volunteers. It's no tourist gimmick either: in 19 days you'll cover 200 kilometres. It's not a trail ride, this is real-life cowboy work. See harryredford.com.au.
SAIL DARWIN, NORTHERN TERRITORY
Sail Darwin's three-night Turtle Dreaming and Tiwi Islands Adventure, aboard the 15-metre catamaran Sundancer, is as culturally rich, environmentally sensitive and relaxing an experience as you can have anywhere in the world. With young Larrakia guide, Shannon Lee, aboard, sharing spots from his childhood and leading you ashore on Bare Sand Island to witness turtle nesting, and quality time spent with Tiwi artists and elders on Bathurst and Melville Islands, this is unobtrusive indigenous tourism at its best. See saildarwin.com.au.
WILDERNESS ADVENTURES, TASMANIA AND NATIONALLY
As you float down Tasmania's Franklin River on a raft, there's a point where you realise you haven't seen a house, a field, a human structure or perhaps even a scrap of rubbish in days. It seems improbable that a capital city might be less than 100 kilometres away.
Few countries have Australia's wealth of accessible wilderness, or the adventures that open it so readily for inspection. Spend a week or more afloat on the Franklin River, and Hobart is never too far out of sight. Yet the river's catchment contains not a single bit of cultivated land or settlement, and it wasn't until the early 1970s that it was successfully rafted.
Today, rafting groups bob down the river each summer, sleeping under rock overhangs, wrestling with rapids and watching the river rise and fall in elevator-like proportions with the rain. Few rafting trips in the world run so long or so far from the human fingerprint – quite remarkable for a small island.
Elsewhere in Australia, there are other remote and wild landscapes just as adventurous and approachable. Step out from Alice Springs onto the Larapinta Trail and it can be two weeks before you see a settlement again.
This 223-kilometre desert hike runs the length of the West MacDonnell Range, journeying through arid, rocky terrain interspersed with waterhole oases. It's like hiking back towards the start of time, with the Finke River, crossed near the western end of the trail, often claimed as the oldest river on Earth.
Australia's wilderness even comes coupled with luxury on a few remote adventures. At the southern foot of Wilpena Pound, the Arkaba Walk leads hikers through four days of spectacular, inhospitable country in the most hospitable way possible. Days end with hot showers, gourmet dinners and warmed swags that peer out onto ancient mountains. It's outback opulence the equal of anywhere in the world. See worldexpeditions.com; arkabawalk.com.
GOLFING, MORNINGTON PENINSULA, VICTORIA
It's now one of the world's premier golf destinations – comparable only to California's Monterey region and Scotland's Fife district. But the Mornington Peninsula has two very distinct advantages over both. First, you can play most courses here for under $60 a round. And the Mornington offers convenience: there's over 15 courses located within a 30 minute drive of each other, including some of Australia's Top 50 courses built in amongst coastal sand-hills right beside Bass Strait. See visitvictoria.com.
While Australians fly off in ever increasing numbers to Indonesia on surf holidays, it's worth remembering how many unridden waves we're leaving behind. For this is a country with 36 000 kilometres of coastline, spread across three different oceans. While our most iconic waves might get crowded, there's parts of Australia's coastline that have still barely been surfed – you'll always paddle out alone along South Australia's Eyre Peninsula, or Western Australia's Goldfields-Esperance region or Tasmania's lonely south-eastern coastline. See australia.com.
TIWI ISLANDS, NORTHERN TERRITORY
Remote, but not too far from the big smoke, the Tiwi Islands are a 15-minute flight or three hour ferry ride from Darwin. We Aussies love immersing ourselves in other cultures' lifestyles, from Thai to Turkey: why not look to our own? Go on safari to spot man-eating crocs or ancient turtles, catch and release a big barra or its many feisty friends, immerse yourself in a unique design culture or tap into the silence and stillness of island life. See travelnt.com.
NINGALOO REEF, WESTERN AUSTRALIA
The whale sharks aren't the only breathtaking sights to be found on Ningaloo Reef. In fact, this Western Australian wonder may be our most underrated natural attraction. Snorkellers can access extraordinary hard coral gardens teeming with fish right off the beach, or swim with elegant manta rays and an occasional dugong. The fun continues on dry land: explore dramatic gorges or spot kangaroos and echidnas in Cape Range National Park. See westernaustralia.com.au.
THE BELLARINE PENINSULA, VICTORIA
What's it say about how much a country offers that an entire peninsula – that's an hour from its second largest city - goes almost completely unnoticed, even by those who live beside it? The Bellarine Peninsula is home to some of Australia's best cool climate wineries with award-winning restaurants like Oakdene and Jack Rabbit Vineyard and golf courses rated inside the country's Top 20 courses, (like 13th Beach), and yet it's still largely ignored by all but the few who know it. See visitgeelongbellarine.com.au.
THE KIMBERLEY, WESTERN AUSTRALIA
The Kimberley is where the Dreamtime began. It's where one of the planet's oldest people – the Australian Aboriginal – first came to more than 40,000 years ago, a place where human life on Earth stemmed from. You can feel it all around you here – it's this extraordinarily long culture and it's the reminder of the region's link to our origins that gives the Kimberley a sense of isolated romanticism no other place on Earth can muster.
For Australians seeking a journey into our indigenous past, there is no better destination. The Kimberley is an area three times the size of England (423,000 square kilometres) but with less than 40,000 inhabitants (England has 57 million people). There are fewer people per square kilometre living here than almost any other place on Earth. There's nowhere that provides more of an escape from modern life.
The Kimberley's landscape is amongst the most diverse on Earth. It's much more than a desert, though many of us think of it that way – there's more prehistoric sheer-sided mountain ranges than endless red sand plains. And there's plunging gorges, waterfalls and rivers that flow fast with the tide. There's even beaches – plenty of them – spread across the wildest and most beautiful stretch of coastline in Australia, accessible often only by boat.
The landscape's so steep that the Kimberley's impossible to traverse from back-to-front, there are parts that have still not been seen by anyone – it's one of the remotest, wildest regions left on Earth. But for all its harshness – it is a place of parched, red earth and dangerous rivers where salt-water crocs lie in wait for those naive enough to tread – the Kimberley exudes a gentleness you only glimpse at sunrise, and sunset, and under all those stars. If you like feeling lost on holiday, there's nowhere on Earth you'll feel quite as helpless. See australiasnorthwest.com; westernaustralia.com.
In many cities, a dark laneway or dead-end alley is the scene for strife. In Melbourne, it's most likely the address of the hippest little bar in town. Put your walking shoes on to discover Japanese bathhouse Onsen Ma or American deep-frying restaurant Mr Big Stuff (Meyers Place), a sneaky rat by British heavyweight street artist Banksy (AC/DC Lane), old-school Italian cafe Pellegrini or top fusion cuisine at Gingerboy (Crossley St). It's the world, ensnared in a nine-by-nine street grid. See thatsmelbourne.com.au; visitvictoria.com.
GREAT BARRIER REEF, QUEENSLAND
Nothing prepares you for seeing the hallowed Great Barrier Reef for the first time. Stretching 2300 kilometres, its astounding beauty, with its montage of jewel-like reefs, islands, coral cays and atolls, and more marine life per square inch than anywhere on the planet, is profoundly moving. To grasp our world heritage listed reef's splendid magnitude take to the air on a scenic flight. Listed as one of the seven wonders of the natural world, it's something every Australian should experience at least once in their lifetime. See hamiltonislandair.com; whitsundayscenicflights.com.au.
PORT DOUGLAS, QUEENSLAND
In the 1980s Port Douglas was synonymous with excess. Back then it seemed inconceivable that this quaint frontier town would ever recover from Christopher Skase. But it has. Port Douglas today has everything that you might want in a tropical hideaway – a lively restaurant scene, great accommodation and a glamorous marina. A perfect base for trips to the reef or the rainforest, Port Douglas is better than ever: affluent, spotlessly-clean, laid-back and decidedly cosmopolitan. See queensland.com.
KARIJINI NATIONAL PARK, PILBARA, WESTERN AUSTRALIA
There are few places on the planet where you can be sandwiched between 100-metre tall gorge walls that are 2.7 billion years old. Hancock Gorge in Karijini National Park is one such place. As spectacular as the Kimberley but with far fewer visitors, Karijini is a natural wonderland of canyons, narrow fissures and Edenesque swimming holes located in the midst of the arid, remote Pilbara region. Visit soon to have Hancock and other primordial gorges to yourself, and bed down in an ensuite safari-style tent at the Aboriginal-owned Karijini Eco Retreat. See karijiniecoretreat.com.au.
As a travel writer based in Britain and specialising in Australia, there is no single Australian experience that I'm asked about more than the BridgeClimb in Sydney. That's a pretty effective measure of global brand recognition. However, the query usually runs along the lines of "it seems incredibly expensive. Is it worth it?" To which my answer is usually along the lines of "Well, it is undoubtedly overpriced, but despite that and despite there being so many other good things to do for much less, yes, it is worth it."
Seeing people in grey romper suits clambering over the Sydney Harbour Bridge is now such a part of the city's fabric that it's easy to forget how revolutionary it was when it opened in 1998. Founder Paul Cave – whose father-in-law bought the first ever ticket for a train crossing of the bridge in 1932 – had the idea nine years earlier. Getting the concept right, the logistics and systems in place, and the permissions granted took nearly a decade.
Given that effort, you can perhaps forgive BridgeClimb for being such a ruthlessly milked experience. It's a superslick operation, with groups being processed and taken through the basics at precision-timed intervals. But the nagging feel of being factory farmed doesn't matter all that much once out on the bridge.
It's more of a walk than a climb, toddling along the arc once a few initial steep steps are out of the way. Fear of heights disappears fairly quickly too – you're permanently clipped to a fixed cable running the entire length of the route and there are few gulpworthy moments of looking directly down.
Wisely, the magnificence of the bridge and the harbour are allowed to take centre stage. The perspective on the great handiworks of both man and nature is deliciously dazzling – especially from right at the top. Once seen, any doubts of the BridgeClimb being worth it are expelled. See bridgeclimb.com.
See also: Australia's best resorts and hotels in 2015
See also: Australia's best food and restaurants in 2015