Australia's best islands
Published: 23 October 2012 Editor: Alex Stewart
With more than 8,000 islands fringing Australia's spectacular coastline, we couldn't possibly find room to mention all of them. However, below we round-up a few of our island favourites for you to visit.
Known for its rare bird and plant life, and fringed by the world's southernmost coral reef, Lord Howe Island is unquestionably among the most beautiful islands in the Pacific. Yet - despite flights from both Sydney and Brisbane taking just a few hours to reach it - the tiny, boomerang-shaped island remains well off the scopes of your typical tourist, with no more than 400 visitors allowed here at any one time.
Such careful monitoring of visitor numbers, together with the far-flung setting and tropical climate, has enabled a number of unique species to thrive on Lord Howe, including 241 native plants and several species of flightless bird.
Green and loggerhead turtles nest on the beach in February and March. Humpback whales can be spotted from the shore in June and July. Maori wrasses, manta rays, white-tipped reef sharks, barracuda, porcupine fish and shoals of fusiliers can be sighted at dive sites close to the island. And wedgetailed shearwaters and black noddy terns are among the 20 or so bird species that call Heron home.
Tiny and tropical Wilson Island in the Great Barrier Reef is the very embodiment of an island escape. Only accessible from Heron Island (see above), Wilson caters for a maximum of just 12 guests who play out their island dream in six permanent walk-in tents surrounded by foliage and a generous sweep of sand.
Tents are fitted with king beds, pillows and soft duvets, and boast hammocks, sun decks and panoramic views. Each has its own private shower and dressing area in the Washhouse, a short stroll away. Dining and the communal 'help yourself' bar is in the central Longhouse, but private picnics on the beach can also be arranged for an extra-special experience.
Like on Heron, turtles lay their eggs on Wilson's quiet shores and migratory whales can be seen heading south with their calves in tow. This is the Great Barrier Reef as nature intended it.
The underwater realm is a particular highlight and there are daily boat trips to the local dive sites. Many a diver has developed a soft spot for the inquisitive potato cod that greets visitors at the Cod Hole, while metre-long clams lie like dinosaur eggs amid the vivid coral gardens. For non-divers there is equally good snorkelling off Lizard's 24 unspoilt beaches.
The Whitsunday Islands in the Great Barrier Reef are among Australia's greatest natural attractions. For many snorkellers, sailors and beach lovers, the mosaic of coral platforms, turquoise lagoons and sandy cays are about as close to travel heaven as one can get.
The 74 islands are most commonly accessed from Queensland's Airlie Beach and contain some of the country's most celebrated beaches. Whitehaven, for example, is a dazzling sliver of white silica with sand so pure it squeaks as you walk across it.
Many islands are uninhabited and best suited to multi-day sailing trips. Some are even designated national parks but a precious handful offer luxury resorts and some of the best views you're likely to come across.
Rottnest Island, Western Australia
Some 18km off the coast of Perth in Western Australia is Rottnest Island, a car-free haven with a stunning coastline of 63 gorgeous white beaches, superb offshore reefs and an array of special flora and fauna.
It's all about the outdoors here so hire a bike and peddle around the island, keeping an eye out for quokkas, small marsupials related to kangaroos, which live almost exclusively on 'Rotto', as the locals call it.
When out of the saddle, go surfing, kayaking, swimming or fishing, take a guided tour of the Aboriginal prison, or simply sit back and enjoy this gorgeous natural refuge.
Maria Island, Tasmania
A few kilometres off Tasmania's eastern coast, carefree and car-free Maria Island (pronounced 'Ma-rye-ah') was declared a national park back in 1972 and is quick to reward visitors with an array of spectacular scenery.
Pristine white beaches are bordered by granite boulders carpeted in startling red lichen. Dramatic mountains are cloaked in forests that change with the altitude from tall eucalyptus to alpine scrub. And sandstone cliffs are studded with fossils that have lain still for centuries.
Living among it all is a stunning amount of native wildlife, including wallabies, wombats, cockatoos, penguins, seals, dolphins and Cape Barren geese, all of which can often be seen from the island's many trails, the most famous of these is the Maria Island Walk, a multi-award-winning, four-day guided hike.
For an unspoilt island experience just a stone's throw from Hobart on Tasmania, you can't beat Bruny Island. Barely joined by a thin sandy isthmus, Bruny is closer to two islands than one and its landscape varies from verdant rainforests to dry-as-a-bone beaches and towering cliffs.
From October to April, highly recommended cruises tour the south-east coastline, taking in rookeries, seal colonies, bays, caves and towering sea cliffs. You may even catch sight of humpback or southern right whales on migration.
If you can spare more time than there are self-contained cottages and guesthouses to stay in, so as to properly explore the island's coastal enclaves, swimming and surf beaches, forests and walking tracks.
Kangaroo Island is thought of by many as a zoo without fences and anyone looking to combine wildlife-spotting with island living should make the short flight from Adelaide or ferry ride from Cape Jervis.
See pink pelicans wheeling through the air, sea lions sunbathing on the sand of Seal Bay, sleepy koalas clinging to the trees and hundreds of kangaroos quietly grazing in the open.
All the island essentials are here too - fishing and diving, swimming and snorkelling, sunbathing and beachcombing. And this being South Australia, there's also wine produced by more than 30 different growers and ample opportunity to load up on fresh produce, from sheep's milk cheese and Nepean Bay oysters to highly regarded Ligurian honey.
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