Australia's best islands for a holiday: How to choose the perfect island for you

There's something about an island that immediately puts you in holiday mode. It's the feeling of isolation, of being far from worries or cares. It's the idea of being in your own little world, a self-contained paradise where there's nothing to do except - well, whatever it is you want to do.

An island getaway can be so many things to so many people. It can be the Platonic ideal of tropical paradise, with swaying palm trees and white-sand beaches and resorts with infinity pools. But it can also be an adventure-lover's dream, it can be a place to spot wildlife, somewhere filled with culture and characters, and it can provide access to an underwater wonderland.

Australia is blessed with so many islands, many of which fill a unique niche. It doesn't matter what you're into or what you love doing on holidays. In Australia, there's an island for everyone.

THE ECO-WARRIOR

HERON ISLAND, QLD

Aerial of island in the Great Barrier Reef tra20coverislands
Heron Island

Heron Island. Photo: TEQ

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT Heron Island, at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, has so much going for it, not least its green credentials. Heron Island Resort has been awarded an Advanced Eco-Certification by Ecotourism Australia; it runs its own power generator, produces its own potable water, treats its wastewater, and provides those services to the Heron Island Research Station and the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Ranger Station.

DON'T MISS Though the underwater attractions at Heron are incredible, this is also an important turtle nesting site, and if you're on the island from November to March you will be able to witness green and loggerhead turtles laying and hatching.

ESSENTIALS Heron Island is accessible via ferry or helicopter from Gladstone in Central Queensland. Rooms from $358 per night. See heronisland.com

THE DIGITAL DETOXER

WESSEL ISLANDS, NT

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT Your phone will be good for many things in the Wessel Islands, off the coast of Arnhem Land. It will make a very handy camera, to capture the sights of this remote and untouched part of Australia, the rivers, the estuaries, the beaches, the hikes, the kayaking adventures, the fishing trips. It will make a good torch on dark, dark nights. It will be perfect for jotting down notes, too, recording the adventure. The only thing it won't be good for is being a phone. You're off the grid in the Wessels.

DON'T MISS This is a great place to learn from local Yan-nhagnu people, the original owners of the Wessels, and its sole inhabitants these days. Many tours here include Indigenous experiences.

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ESSENTIALS The Wessel Islands are only accessible via private cruise, which usually begin from the town of Gove. Crooked Compass has an eight-day itinerary in East Arnhem Land and the Wessels, starting from $13,795 per person. See crooked-compass.com

THE CULTURE SEEKER

TIWI ISLANDS, NT

 
Jilamara Arts and Craft Association is located at Milikapiti, on the shores of Snake Bay with glorious views of the Arafura Sea, and is home to 500 Tiwi.<br /><br />Jilamara artists produce innovative and contemporary works based on traditional body painting designs, using natural ochres found on the island. tra20coverislands

Jilamara Arts and Craft Association is located at Milikapiti, on the shores of Snake Bay. Photo: Tourism NT

 
WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT So, you want to get away from the Australia you know? You want to immerse yourself in an unfamiliar culture while living the island dream? Then Bathurst and Melville islands, collectively known as the Tiwis, are for you. The culture up here is unique, and with 90 per cent of the islands' inhabitants claiming Indigenous heritage, it's also deeply immersive. Learn a few words of the local language and you'll fit right in.

DON'T MISS Tiwi culture is probably best experienced through its artistic community, which has achieved recognition well beyond its modest size. The Tiwi Art Network is an alliance between the islands' three art centres – Munupi Arts and Crafts, Tiwi Design and Jilamara Arts and Crafts – and is the perfect place to learn and purchase.

ESSENTIALS The Tiwi Islands are a 2.5-hour ferry ride from Darwin, and entry is by permit only, usually secured through an organised tour. See aatkings.com

THE FLY-AND-FLOPPER

HAMILTON ISLAND, QLD

Views from the Beach Club
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Catseye Beach, Hamilton Island, Queensland

Catseye Beach, Hamilton Island, Queensland.

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT The Whitsunday island affectionately known as "Hammo" is absolutely ideal for those who want to arrive by plane, drop their bags and find themselves on a sun-lounger, cocktail in hand, within minutes. There's a huge range of accommodation options here, from classic hotel rooms to family-friendly holiday houses, beachside bungalows, and the luxurious qualia resort. All have pool and cocktail access.

DON'T MISS If you really did just come here to flop, then do that. If, however, you have the itch for an activity, you could choose a cruise of the Whitsundays, a visit to Whitehaven Beach, a snorkel on the reef, or even a scenic helicopter flight.

ESSENTIALS There are direct flights to Hamilton Island from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Cairns. Rooms at Reef View Hotel start from $351 per night; qualia from $1300 per night. See hamiltonisland.com.au

THE WILDLIFE LOVER

KANGAROO ISLAND, SA

tra20coverislands
Remarkable Rocks, Kangaroo Island, South Australia 

Remarkable Rocks, Kangaroo Island, South Australia. Photo: SATC

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT Though it was hit hard by the bushfires of late 2019, Kangaroo Island is very much open for business, with green shoots appearing on scorched earth (and about half the island untouched), and for wildlife spotters this remains one of Australia's best destinations. Spend time in any of the island's 24 protected areas and you're likely to see koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas, goannas, wedge-tailed eagles and so many more.

DON'T MISS Take a break from the Aussie icons for a few hours and stroll the boardwalk at Seal Bay, which is actually home to a huge sea-lion population, the world's third-largest colony. Walks on the beach are available with a guide.

ESSENTIALS Kangaroo Island is accessible via car ferry from Cape Jervis in South Australia; Rex also has daily flights from Adelaide. Accommodation ranges from campgrounds and B&Bs, up to resorts and luxury hotels. See tourkangarooisland.com.au

THE THRILL-SEEKER

FRASER ISLAND, QLD

Fraser Island tra20coverislandsMaheno Wreck
Fraser Island

Maheno Wreck, Fraser Island. Photo: TEQ

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT The world's largest sand island is a playground for adventure lovers, who can drive the long beaches in 4WDs, swim in freshwater lakes, float in rivers, explore rainforests, go whale-watching or dingo-spotting, camp out in the forest, fish off the beach, check out the Maheno shipwreck, climb up Indian Head, or take a scenic flight over the top. Never a dull moment.

DON'T MISS Fraser, or K'gari, is criss-crossed with walking tracks that traverse beaches and forest; the pinnacle of the island's hikes, however, is the 90 kilometre Fraser Island Great Walk, a week-long wander with campsites to stay in along the way.

ESSENTIALS Fraser Island is accessible by ferry from Hervey Bay. Accommodation ranges from campsites to backpacker hostels to villas and beach houses at Kingfisher Bay Resort. See visitfrasercoast.com

THE UNDERWATER EXPLORER

LADY ELLIOT ISLAND, QLD

Snorkelling with a turtle on the Great Barrier Reef Lady Elliot Island, Queensland
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Photo: TEQ

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT Scuba-divers, free-divers and snorkellers - welcome to heaven. Lady Elliot Island, on the surface, is really something, a laidback resort set on a gorgeous coral cay in the southern Great Barrier Reef. Below the surface, however, it is truly incredible: manta rays the size of light aircraft glide by; serene turtles flap past; leopard sharks fix you with beady eyes; clown fish dart out of anemones. The water is clear, the coral is colourful, the marine life is astounding.

DON'T MISS Snorkellers can have a great time here straight from the beach, with no boat necessary. Experienced divers will want to check out the Blowhole, an L-shaped cave with an opening at 14 metres deep, and an exit at 22 metres. One of Australia's great dives.

ESSENTIALS Lady Elliot is accessible via light plane from Hervey Bay, Bundaberg, Brisbane and the Gold Coast. A range of accommodation is available, with prices from $199 per night, twin share. See ladyelliot.com.au

THE LUX TRAVELLER

LIZARD ISLAND, QLD

H7X29D Coral reef, Lizard Island National Park, Great Barrier Reef, Australia tra20coverislands

Photo: Alamy

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT If you enjoy true luxury, a sense of seclusion, an experience of boundless beauty, the kiss of the sun and the taste of salt complimented by indulgent accommodation, world-class cuisine and high-quality service, then yes, you're going to like Lizard Island. Of course, you will have to pay handsomely for these things, but as you sit there on your private island on the Great Barrier Reef, enjoying the day spa, lying by the pool, drinking fine wine and eating delicious food, I'm sure you'll see it was worth it.

DON'T MISS Get active during the day, relax at night. Go fishing, or diving, or hiking, or take a private boat trip; then enjoy a seven-course degustation dinner in a private pavilion while watching the sunset.

ESSENTIALS Lizard Island is accessible by air from Cairns. The resort only has 40 rooms, which start from $2029 per night (Gardenview Rooms), and go up to $6299 per night (The Villa). See lizardisland.com.au

THE SOUTHERN SPECIALIST

BRUNY ISLAND, TAS

Bruny Island Cruises is an award-winning 3 Hour Wilderness Cruise exploring the rugged coastline of Bruny Island in southern Tasmania.  <br /><br />Cruise alongside some of Australia's highest sea cliffs, beneath towering crags and drift up close to listen to the awesome 'Breathing Rock'. Enter deep sea caves, pass through the narrow gap between the coast and 'The Monument' and feel the power of nature at the point where the Tasman Sea meets the might of the Southern Ocean. tra20coverislands

Exploring the rugged coastline with Bruny Island Cruises.

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT Islands don't have to be all swaying palm trees and bright, sunshiney days. If you fancy the idea of beaches that are windswept and interesting, towering sea cliffs, huge colonies of seals, historic sites, plus some of Australia's finest seafood, cheese and whisky, you're going to love Tasmania's Bruny Island. Just a short drive and a ferry ride from Hobart, a whole new world awaits those keen on scenery, wildlife and something good to eat.

DON'T MISS Take yourself on a degustation tour of Bruny's finest producers. Hit up the cider makers, the oyster farmers, the cheese makers, the whisky distillers, the beer brewers, the chocolatiers, and more.

ESSENTIALS Bruny Island is accessible via a car ferry from Kettering, a half-hour drive south of Hobart. Accommodation is available at a range of price-points. See brunyisland.org.au

THE WANDERLUSTER

NORFOLK ISLAND

iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. Norfolk Island, Anson Bay

Photo: iStock

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT Those with itchy feet might not be able to leave Australia right now, but this is the next best thing. Norfolk Island is steeped in unique history, an outcrop far out in the Pacific that was set up as a penal colony after Captain James Cook landed, and was later settled by Pitcairn Islanders (including mutineers from the Bounty) who had outgrown their own small isle. These days visitors can tap into that history with visits to sites that date back to early Polynesian settlement.

DON'T MISS Norfolk's best-known historic attraction is probably Kingston, a heritage-listed series of military and government buildings on a site founded in 1788 – the old town ruins here date back to that time.

ESSENTIALS There are regular direct flights from Brisbane and Sydney to Norfolk Island. Accommodation ranges from self-contained apartments to hotels to B&Bs. See norfolkisland.com.au

FIVE MORE AUSTRALIAN ISLANDS TO VISIT

Quokka (Setonix brachyurus) on Rottnest Island. one time use for traveller only
Ben Groundwater story
images from Contiki

 

ROTTNEST ISLAND, WA

It's all about the quokkas. You might enjoy other experiences while you're on Rottnest Island. You might come here for the swimming, the cycling, the surfing, the fishing, the Indigenous culture, the excellent accommodation options. But what you're also here for is a selfie with a quokka. Snap away.

See rottnestisland.com

COCKATOO ISLAND, NSW

This UNESCO World Heritage Site, smack bang in the middle of Sydney Harbour, has plenty to offer those who take the short ferry ride over, including guided tours through historic convict and maritime sites, ghost tours, drinks and food at on-site venues. And the chance to camp out overnight with harbour views.

See cockatooisland.gov.au

MAGNETIC ISLAND, QLD

Here's a classic Australian holiday destination experiencing a modern-day revival, with travellers flocking once again to hang out with the koalas, lie on palm-fringed beaches, hike scenic trails, go snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef, and more. Magnetic is living up to its name, and it's not hard to see why.

See townsvillenorthqueensland.com.au

LORD HOWE ISLAND, NSW

"Paradise" is a difficult term to define, and one people might see in different ways – however, few could argue that Lord Howe Island fits the bill. This place is truly stunning, a visual feast of landscape and wildlife, a place to go bird-watching, scuba-diving, scenic cruising, hiking, or just lying on a white-sand beach.

See lordhoweisland.info

NORTH STRADBROKE ISLAND, QLD

The island east of Brisbane known as Minjerribah to its original inhabitants, the Jandai people, and "Straddie" to many of its modern-day visitors, is an adventure lover's playground. There's great surfing here, hiking, fishing, kayaking, whale-watching, and high-quality campgrounds in which to pitch a tent and enjoy nature.

See visitbrisbane.com.au

FIVE ISLANDS WE HOPE TO VISIT IN THE 'BUBBLE'

Waiheke Island vineyard and winery. The netting protects the vines from birds who eat and destroy the grapes. The vineyard overlooks a turquoise blue bay. tra20coverislands

Photo: iStock

WAIHEKE ISLAND, NEW ZEALAND

It's impossible to overstate the innate greatness of Waiheke Island, just a short ferry ride from Auckland. This is a world within a world, a place where you'll find lovely beaches, all but deserted; where you can visit excellent wineries and dine on outstanding cuisine; where you can shop for local artworks, and explore charming villages. Brilliant.

See newzealand.com

VITI LEVU, FIJI

The classic destination for family travel will hopefully be accessible to Australians once again before the year is out. Fiji's main island, Viti Levu, is packed with family-friendly resorts offering family-friendly activities, which includes time spent with the wonderful people of this fine nation. Plenty of Australians will be very happy to hear a big, hearty "Bula!" in the near future.

See fiji.travel

AITUTAKI, COOK ISLANDS

The Aitutaki lagoon is almost too good to be true. If you weren't seeing it with your own eyes you just wouldn't believe how clear it is, how beautiful it is, how perfect this entire place seems to be. Those pining for tropical island paradise once the Pacific bubble opens should look no further.

See cookislands.travel

NEW CALEDONIA

OK, you aren't going to France any time soon, but maybe you will be able to access the next best thing. New Caledonia is a French territory that oozes Gallic charm, a drop of Pacific paradise where you can always find a decent baguette and a glass of wine. Sharpen up your Franglais, pack your beach towel and get ready for island adventure.

See www.newcaledonia.travel

TANNA ISLAND, VANUATU

Travellers hoping to get away from it all – as in, really get away from it all – should head directly to Tanna Island in Vanuatu as soon as it's possible. On Tanna you can climb a live volcano and stare into the abyss; you can soak in hot springs and explore caves; you can spend time in remote villages and dive in underwater wonderlands. Incredible.

See vanuatu.travel

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