Australia's best islands for a holiday: A guide to choosing the right island for you

Where can you be happier on holiday than on an island? What destination can feel safer than one that's protected from the rest of the world – entirely – by water?

Australia has over 8200 of them, dotted around 60,000 kilometres of coastline. They include some of our most lauded holiday destinations – bustling places with waterfront bars and restaurants and activities for everyone; others remain hidden gems, quiet, solitary spots with barely another tourist, the ultimate escape into our vast wilderness. Whatever you desire most on holiday, the chances are you can find it on an Australian island. Here we investigate the best of them.

Hamilton Island

Where The Whitsunday Islands. With its own airport (direct flights to Hamilton take just over two hours from Sydney and less than three from Melbourne), it's the most accessible Barrier Reef island.

What's so special Cars are banned – a golf cart (generally) comes with your room – so getting about is half the fun. You could never be bored with over 60 activities on offer, from jet-ski tours to boat trips to Whitehaven Beach. There are also plenty of bars and restaurants to choose from, though nature lovers will love the 20-odd kilometres of hiking trails to remote beaches and look-outs, and snorkelling with turtles.

Who It's for everyone. One of Australia's most talked about five-star resorts, Qualia, is here, but you'll also find bakeries selling $5 pies. It's as easy to charter a superyacht as it is to take your kids for a game of minigolf.

Must do Gather at the island's highest road-accessible spot for sunset drinks. One Tree Hill offers the best sundowner location in the Whitsundays – hit the bar or sit on a grassy area nearby. hamiltonisland.com.au

The Mackerel Islands

Photo: Nick Cooper/Tourism Australia

Where Fly two hours north of Perth to Onslow, in the Pilbara, then take a short ferry ride.

What's so special These are Western Australia's best-kept secret, a group of 10 islands that are an ocean lover's fantasy. Here you'll find the Pilbara's fishiest waters, with yellowfin tuna, coral trout, spanish mackerel, red emperor, even marlin – while coral reefs provide calm waters ideal for swimming, snorkelling and kayaking. You'll see humpback whales, pilot whales and orcas, and lots of turtles. Only two islands are inhabited, leaving plenty of wilderness to disappear into.

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Who It's a safe swimming environment for families, and there are plenty of activities to suit even the youngest children. But couples and Robinson Crusoe wannabes will love it; there's even a private island for hire.

Must do Get out on the water – whale watching tours run in July and August when humpback whales visit the area (a short tour is included in your ferry transfer). Or take a fishing charter in one Australia's best fishing zones. mackerelislands.com.au

Kangaroo Island

Photo: Getty Images

Where Fly half an hour from Adelaide, or take a 45-minute ferry from Cape Jervis, two hours' drive south of Adelaide.

What's so special Not until you're here do you appreciate the size of Australia's third-largest island. There's a feeling of isolation you only really get in the outback (it's 155 kilometres from coast to coast, often down red dirt tracks). But there are also 509 kilometres of coastline, from the squeaky white sands of Vivonne Bay to the wild surf of Cape Du Couedic, frequented by sea lions, fur seals, dolphins and passing whales. Restaurants serve gourmet local produce, with wineries and accommodation by the beach.

Who Southern Ocean Lodge established Kangaroo Island as a luxury destination. But that's only a small part of its appeal – families have an enormous playground, while nature lovers consider it Australia's answer to the Galapagos Islands.

Must do It's all about the animals. Come face to face with sea lions at Seal Bay on a guided tour, swim with dolphins on a boat tour, and meet the numerous wallabies on the island. tourkangarooisland.com.au

Lord Howe Island

Photo: Getty Images

Where Located east of the NSW town of Port Macquarie, Lord Howe Island is a two-hour direct flight from Sydney.

What's so special This is one of only four island groups in Australia to be awarded a World Heritage listing for its natural beauty and the waters surrounding the island are home to over 500 species of fish and 90 species of coral. With two massive mountains to the southern end and Balls Pyramid, the tallest volcanic stack in the world, Lord Howe isn't your typical island paradise. But its beaches are stunning – there's even surf and a lagoon. And only 400 tourists can visit at a time.

Who Two luxury lodges means couples are well catered for; but Lord Howe Island has always been a family favourite, a safe haven where everybody waves and no one locks their doors.

Must do The eight-hour return hike to the cloud forest at the top of the 875 metre-high Mount Gower is one of the world's top day hikes. And the absence of commercial fishing makes this one of the safest bets in Australia if you want catch a fish, either from a boat or the shore. lordhoweisland.info

Flinders Island

Photo: Getty Images

Where Located off Tasmania's north-east coast, fly direct from Melbourne, Hobart, Launceston or Bridport, or take a boat from Bridport.

What's so special Even if you've heard of Flinders Island, do you know anyone who's been there? One of 52 islands in the Furneaux Group in Bass Strait, only about 1000 people (farmers and fishermen mostly) live on this wild, rugged land, where mountains jut straight up from the beaches and there are over 200 beaches. Once a farming outpost, now you can dive, surf, ride a mountain bike and hike while staying at isolated B&Bs and lodges.

Who There are activities on offer for families but Flinders Island best suits those seeking romantic isolation. With 400 kilometres of roads taking you to deserted coastline between craggy ranges, it's easy to drop off the radar.

Must do Take a kayak tour, ride a mountain bike (or, for something less taxing, try a vineyard tour by bike), go fishing with a local operator and surf the wild swells of the Great Southern Ocean. visitflindersisland.com.au

Tiwi Islands

Photo: Elise Cook

Where Eighty kilometres north of Darwin, you can fly in 30 minutes while the ferry takes 2½.

What's so special Few other places in Australia offer this sort of insight into life before Europeans came. Home to mostly Indigenous Australians (over 90 per cent) living traditional lifestyles, intrepid travellers have a window into the world's oldest living culture. There are crocs, bull sharks and box jellyfish; avoid them by staying at fishing lodges, which will steer you clear of danger.

Who Those seeking an off-the-beaten-track experience. Fishermen will think they've died and gone to fishing heaven, with some fishing lodges located beaches which can be only reached by propeller plane, then boat. The less intrepid can take a day tour by boat to Tiwi Design, one of Australia's oldest Indigenous art centres.

Must do Visit freshwater streams and waterfalls. The Tiwis are home to the Top End's most stunning beaches – but only go in if a guide gives the okay. Watch an Aussie rules game (the islands have produced some major AFL stars), or book a multi-day fishing tour. northernterritory.com

Phillip Island

Photo: Getty Images

Where Located 90 minutes south-east of Melbourne, you can drive to Phillip Island across a bridge.

What's so special Phillip Island is one of Victoria's most popular tourist attractions for a reason. It's got great surfing beaches (bring a wetsuit!), with calm-water swimming on the other side. Wildlife lovers can watch little penguins come ashore or take a boat to one of Australia's largest seal colonies. There are coastal walks, wineries (many with restaurants), whale-watching tours and a range of waterfront cafes, bars and restaurants in its main town, Cowes.

Who Couples can choose from isolated country cottages and seaside villas with their own beaches, but Phillip Island is widely regarded as the ultimate Australian family holiday destination.

Must do Don't skip the Penguin Parade as hundreds of little penguins come home each evening to roost in the sand dunes. You can also walk along Cape Woolamai or past Pyramid Rock, watching whales breach in winter, and follow a touring trail to local arts, wildlife and nature reserves. visitphillipisland.com.au

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale May 23. To read more from Sunday Life, visit The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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