Brisbane things to do: Five of the coolest islands most visitors miss

You've probably heard of North Stradbroke Island and Moreton Island (home to Tangalooma Resort) but did you know Brisbane's Moreton Bay is home to more than 350 other islands? Here are five to explore.

COOCHIEMUDLO ISLAND

Known as Coochie to its 700 residents, this is the only place in Australia with a Flinders Day holiday (explorer Matthew Flinders stopped here on July 19, 1799). Each year, on the Sunday closest to that date, locals take part in celebrations including outrigger canoe races while a band plays on the shore.

Coochie is the hidden gem of Moreton Bay's islands. It's barely 10 minutes from the mainland, with public ferries running every half-hour from Victoria Point, but hardly anyone has heard of it. Visitors can swim or kayak beneath big red cliffs, swing a club at the bushland golf course (just put $10 for nine holes in the honesty box) and sleep in a heritage cottage by the water (there's also a quaint old beach resort). You can walk from one side of Coochie to the other in 10 minutes, or circumnavigate the island in an hour on a heritage walk. There's a general store and cafe, but not much else, though it does have a website: visitcoochiemudlo.com.

PEEL ISLAND

Peel Islands' clear blue water and flotilla of visiting boats will remind you of the Whitsundays.

Peel Islands' clear blue water and flotilla of visiting boats will remind you of the Whitsundays. Photo: Tourism and Events Queensland

You won't find a prettier Brisbane beach than the one at Horseshoe Bay on Peel Island's south coast – its clear blue water and flotilla of visiting boats will remind you of the Whitsundays. Yet while this island teems with dolphins, dugongs and turtles and is a favourite for Brisbane boaties, it was never a paradise.

From 1907 to 1959, Peel Island was a leper colony, and only after being decommissioned was it discovered that the strain of leprosy suffered by Peel Island patients was not contagious. Prior to that, it had been an asylum for Brisbane vagrants.

These days, you don't need to suffer from leprosy, or be homeless, to get here. But you will need your own boat (there's no public ferry) and can hire one from Smart Power Boat Hire. There's also a day trip available with Aria Cruises. While you can't visit the former leper colony, as it's protected in a national park, there's a shipwreck to snorkel over at Platypus Bay.

MACLEAY ISLAND

This island, one of the largest in Moreton Bay, was once known as Tim Shea's Island for the convict who lived alone on it for 14 years. Now more than 3000 people live here thanks to easy accessibility by ferry from Redland Bay.

It's been a retreat for city slickers since land was first sold here (along with a free trip by steamer and a hot lunch) in 1886. Thanks to its car ferry, many locals commute daily to the mainland, though it's long been a refuge for all sorts of hermits. You can see why; life moves slow here, but it's never dull. There are cafes and restaurants by the water and even an arts complex. There are also B&Bs, cottages and houses to rent, many with the sea beside their front yards. For details, see macleayisland.net.

ST HELENA ISLAND

Interior of the St. Helena Prison on the island in Moreton Bay, Queensland, 1914.

St. Helena Prison on the island in Moreton Bay, Queensland, 1914. Photo: Lydia Lynch/. State Library of Queensland

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Who knew Brisbane had its very own Alcatraz? St Helena Island was home to Queensland's toughest maximum-security prison from 1867 to 1932. It might be only a seven kilometres from the Brisbane suburb of Manly but shark feeding was instigated as a deterrent to any would-be escapees. Only a small section of the prison remains, part of Queensland's first historical national park, and you can see it on a day trip with Cat-o'-Nine-Tails Cruises.

It wasn't all misery on the island – at one stage the prison was considered the best of its kind, with its dairy cows winning awards at Brisbane's RNA show and the oil from its olive groves shipped to Italy. It's a great day out for families and provides an interesting insight into Brisbane's colonial origins, including re-enactments by local actors. More at sthelenaisland.com.au.

KARRAGARRA ISLAND

Karragarra Island is home to some of the bay's best beaches and swimming areas

Karragarra Island is home to some of the bay's best beaches and swimming areas. Photo: Rob Maccoll/ Redlands City Council

Locals say this is the best island to live on in all of Moreton Bay – it has a close community, no crime and almost no traffic. Home to just over 200 people, it's barely two kilometres long and half a kilometre wide, but home to some of the bay's best beaches and swimming areas.

Ferries run seven days a week, and while it's considered more of a day-tripping destination, there are houses for rent. Be warned though, there are no shops or cafes. Instead, just kayak over to Macleay or Russell islands for a morning latte to set yourself up for the rest of day. And be sure to chat with the locals – the island is home to an eclectic mix of European expats, and you'll hear interesting life stories.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale May 2. To read more from Sunday Life, visit The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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