Whatever floats your boat

Deborah Dickson-Smith took her water babies to five Australian island resorts to rate their kid-friendliness - here are the results.

Lady Elliot Island

Lady Elliot Island lies at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef. The continental shelf is only 10 kilometres to the east and it's this geographical position that makes it special.

Being so close to the shelf means the island attracts large numbers of marine megafauna: turtles, manta rays, large wrasses, reef sharks and (depending on the season) whales.

The island is surrounded by beautiful coral gardens and, within minutes of arriving, we're able to grab a snorkel, step off the beach and swim with turtles.

The kids are ecstatic and could spend hours following the turtles around, tickling their shells. The turtles seem to vie for our attention - nudging each other out of the way to have their shells scratched. Further out on the reef, we encounter manta rays, leopard sharks, wobbegongs, bull rays and wrasses of all sizes and colours. The palette is amazing, in both the coral and the thousands of fish swimming around us.

Like most islands, this tiny atoll has an interesting history. It was decimated 100 years ago by early entrepreneurs, who stripped the island bare while mining the guano produced by the thousands of nesting seabirds. A regeneration program has been in place for several decades and the island's plants are thriving, which has brought the seabirds back. It is estimated their population has reached 500,000.

Swimming with the island's turtles is a life-changing experience, for children and grown-ups. The sound of kids squealing with delight through their snorkels makes me grin just thinking about it.

Room rates are from $163 a person a night and $61 a child (three-12 years) for an Eco Hut. Return flights from Hervey Bay or Bundaberg cost $262 an adult and $143 a child.


Top marks Sustainability and accessibility.

Downers If you're a light sleeper, the bird noise might irritate (earplugs are supplied).

Don't miss An early snorkel.

Lord Howe Island

If you were given the task of designing a perfect tropical island, I don't think you would create anything better than nature has managed here.

From the top of Malabar Hill on Lord Howe's northern tip, just 208 metres high, we survey the landscape before us. The lush-looking island sweeps around a turquoise lagoon to the volcanic peak of Mount Gower on its southern tip. Only a 1½-hour flight from Sydney, it is isolated more by exclusivity than distance. The island accommodates up to only 400 guests, and unless you're already a resident or you're lucky enough to marry a resident, it's more or less impossible to move here.

Because of this relative isolation, the island is an important conservation site for many rare and endemic species. Almost half the island's 241 native plant species are found nowhere else.

It is an escape from technology and the hustle of urban life: there is no mobile phone coverage (the islanders voted against its introduction), limited internet access and the easiest way to get around is by bicycle. The challenge facing the kids on this five-day trip: no Facebook, no Minecraft, no Xbox and no texting friends - a thought that makes me deliriously happy.

This is a place to unwind, relax and teach kids to appreciate the natural environment. And, really, Lord Howe Island is what you make of it: a virtual Choose Your Own Adventure destination. There are guided and unguided hikes for all fitness levels, from the relatively easy climb to Kim's Lookout in the north to the eight-hour trek up Mount Gower's 870 metres in the south. But since our kids aren't great hikers (we would have to drag them), we opt for the nearest beach.

On Neds beach, we drop a donation in the honesty box and grab a snorkel and a pair of fins each before entering a natural aquarium of rainbow-coloured wrasses, mullets, garfish, silver drummers and metre-long kingfish. The water is thick with fish and if snorkelling is not your thing, you can just wade in knee-high and feed them.

On the other side of the island, we find turtles on Settlement beach and a lagoon of coral gardens teeming with marine life including clownfish, angels, giant clams, reef sharks and rays. Technology is forgotten.

There is a wide range of accommodation on the island, ranging from budget cabins to family apartments and five-star luxury resorts such as Capella Lodge and Arajilla.

We stay at the family-friendly Pinetrees Lodge, which is one of the oldest family businesses in Australia, and is run by the sixth generation of the original family.

Pinetrees has family packages that include free accommodation and meals for kids under 10 years, starting from $1065 a person for five nights.

QantasLink flights from Sydney to the island cost $1000 return.

Top marks The variety of activities available for grown-ups and kids.

Downers The flight is a bit pricey (but worth it).

Don't miss Fish Fry night at Pinetrees Lodge every Monday.

Heron Island

Our visit to Heron Island coincides with the Heron Island Dive Festival, which is held in July each year.

The man sitting opposite me on the ferry has a camera with underwater housing and so many arms and attachments that it looks like one of those giant Japanese spider crabs.

I look down at my little Canon S100 and its new (single) arm with new underwater torch attached, which I'm very excited about using for the first time.

I expected to see impressive camera equipment on this trip and I'm not intimidated. What I don't expect to see are large numbers of kids. I thought Heron Island was out of reach for most families, geographically and economically.

Apparently not. The geographic part just shows my own ignorance; it's a two-hour ferry trip from Gladstone on the lower reaches of the Great Barrier Reef.

In fact, a lot of the divers here have brought their families with them - the older kids come diving with their parents, some snorkel in the lagoon and some go for reef walks with the Junior Rangers kids' club.

Heron Island's "signature" dive is the Heron Bommie, a vast underwater island of spidery hard corals teeming with life. We end up there first, before exploring Tenements, Coral Cascades (my favourite), North Bommie and a few other wonderful dive sites.

The most memorable is a night dive on Heron Bommie. My first night dive is nowhere near as scary as I have feared; in fact, it isn't scary at all. The best experience by far is finding a sleepy turtle in a coral cave, and following him (video recorder running) as he gracefully does a little spin for me. He's beautiful.

Rooms start from $398 a night and include three (cooked) meals a day. Kids stay and eat free. Boat transfers from Gladstone cost $99.50 each way an adult and $49.75 each way a child.

Top marks Accessibility, both the destination and the snorkelling.

Downers Make sure the kids take seasickness tablets for the ferry trip.

Don't miss Night diving.

Magnetic Island

Just off the coast of Townsville, Magnetic Island looks almost close enough to swim to (if it weren't for the stingers). It's a short, smooth, 20-minute ferry ride, so don't worry about seasickness or boredom on the way over.

It is a stopping point on the backpacker route up the east coast, and famous for its full moon parties, so it will be interesting to see what the island has for families.

Transport on the island is by rental Mini Moke or beach buggy, and our choice is a pink buggy that looks as though it should be driven by tour-guide Barbie. The kids approve heartily. I hope it doesn't rain.

The island is mainly national park, with a few residential clusters surrounding the more popular beaches. One of the main attractions for kids is the large population of koalas. The animals were introduced to Magnetic Island in the 1930s as part of a conservation program and they have thrived. A short stroll along one of the island's many bushwalks and you're pretty much guaranteed a sighting.

To get even closer to the furry creatures, we visit Bungalow Bay Koala Village, one of the few places in Australia where you can hold a koala.

Getting closer to the island's marine life is best done by kayak. Magnetic Island Sea Kayaks does a sunset tour of Horseshoe Bay, which comes complete with dolphins, turtles and a bottle of champers to quaff while watching the sunset.

Because we're here in stinger season, we're provided with head-to-toe stinger suits and even don football socks and gloves - our tour guide is taking no chances.

A few dolphins join us along the way and the kids have a great time turtle-spotting ("I saw it first!") but not much time actually paddling.

The island has plenty of safe swimming beaches - each with a stinger net - and the water is warm year-round.

There is a wide range of accommodation, from cabins and holiday houses to five-star villas. We stay at Pure Magnetic villas - beautiful Balinese villas overlooking a beach lined with coconut palms.

Transfers from Townsville are $13 each way. Accommodation ranges between $200 and $400 a night for a house that will sleep up to six.

Top marks Lots of easy bushwalks with great views.

Downers The stingers.

Don't miss The chance to cuddle a koala.

The writer was a guest of Lord Howe Tourism and Tourism Queensland.