Surrounded by water, the continent of Australia has more than 8,000 islands within its maritime borders. They range from large land masses like Tasmania, which is comparable to Ireland in size, to rocky islets that disappear into the water at high tide.
Many islands in the land down under are popular holiday spots, attracting visitors from all over the globe. Thanks to their distinctive geological features, flora and fauna, Australia’s islands are full of surprises too. From the powder-soft sands of Whitehaven Beach to the penguin parade on Phillip Island, the best of the bunch offer experiences you’ll find nowhere else.
Located off the southeast shore of Tasmania, Bruny is a popular day-trip destination for those visiting Australia’s largest island. The narrow isthmus that connects North Bruny to South Bruny is the island’s standout natural feature. Midway along the thin stretch of land nicknamed the “Neck” are the Trugani steps, a steep wooden stairway that leads up a memorial to the island’s original inhabitants. Climbing the 279 steps rewards you with amazing panoramic views. Soaring dolerite cliffs and rock formations add drama to the beaches facing the Tasman Sea while the sheltered channel side of the island offers numerous opportunities for boating and fishing.
Situated offshore from the coastal city of Townsville in northeastern Queensland, Magnetic Island is a haven for Australia’s unique wildlife. National parkland covers more than half of the island, providing sanctuary for animals from wallabies to wild koalas. Coral reefs make “Maggie” a popular spot for snorkeling, and the island, named by Captain Cook because of the magnetic effect it had on his ship’s compass, is well-known for fishing too. With more than 20 beaches dotting the coastline, many come to the island simply to relax and soak up the sunshine. The local population, who mostly commute to Townsville or cater for the tourist trade, must pinch themselves as they come home to such a stunning island.
Farther asea than most of Australia’s islands, Christmas Island is located closer to Java and Sumatra that it is to the country’s mainland. Named on Christmas Day in 1615, the island remained largely uninhabited until the late 1800s. Today, the island boasts a culturally diverse population that includes Malaysian Chinese and Indians as well as Australians. The island is known for its biological diversity too. Many of the plants and animals are indigenous to the island, and more than 60 percent of Christmas Island is protected as national parkland. The island’s most famous endemic species is probably the Christmas Island red crab. The annual red crab mass migration to the sea has been called one of the nature’s greatest wonders and takes place each year around November.
Conveniently located near the city of Melbourne, Phillip Island attracts more than three million travelers each year. The opportunity to view penguins in their natural habitat is the main draw. Each evening at dusk, visitors crowd the amphitheater above Summerland Beach to view the penguins parading home to their nesting areas. From wallabies, wombats, kangaroos and koalas to large colonies of fur seals, the island is known for its other animal attractions too. Consistently good surf conditions also make Phillip Island a great place to ride the waves. Other popular activities include hiking, biking, fishing and sailing.
The most famous of the hundreds of islands off the West Australian coast, Rottnest is best known for its population of 10,000 quokkas. The island, which is located near the city of Perth, gets its name from 17th-century Dutch explorers who mistook the cute and friendly marsupials for rats. Only governmental vehicles are allowed on the island, which makes cycling the transportation of choice for most visitors. A self-guided bike tour of the island takes around three hours to complete. Volunteer guides offer free walking tours too. With plenty of sun-kissed beaches, Rottnest Island is also a popular destination for swimming, snorkeling, diving and fishing.
Shaped like a crescent moon, Lord Howe Island is a remote tropical isle located between Australia and New Zealand. Undiscovered until 1833, the island has largely escaped modern development. Today, only 400 tourists are allowed on its shores at any given time. Several upscale resorts offer pampering amenities for those lucky enough to visit the island. Crystal clear waters make Lord Howe perfect for swimming, snorkeling and diving, and the large numbers of birds nesting on the island turn every visitor into an avid bird-watcher. Hardy adventurers can take a guided climb up to the island’s towering peak, Mount Gower, to soak in all the beauty of this protected paradise.
Australia’s third-largest island, Kangaroo Island is the perfect place to view the country’s wildlife up close. More than a third of the island is a national park where thousands of wallabies, koalas and kangaroos roam freely. Seagoing creatures from penguins to fur seals and sea lions are in abundance too. With its windswept cliffs and spectacular rock formations, the island’s landscapes are just as impressive. Clearly marked walking trails take you through sugar-gum forests and mallee scrub to the rugged shoreline. Easily accessible from Adelaide in South Australia, Kangaroo Island is a can’t-miss destination for nature lovers everywhere.
Situated off the coast of Queensland, Australia, Fraser Island is considered the largest sand island in the world. For hundreds of thousands of years, ocean currents have deposited sand on its sunny shores. The island is no desert, however. Fraser is lush with ancient rainforests, fresh-water lakes and wetlands teeming with life. There are also giant sand dunes to explore and long stretches of sandy beaches to enjoy. Animal life is plentiful too. Fraser is famous for its dingo population, and it’s one of the best places in the world to watch humpback whales. Protected as part of Great Sandy National Park, Fraser Island is an environmental treasure.
Remnants of volcanoes that erupted eons ago, the Whitsunday Islands boast some of Australia’s most picturesque landscapes. Situated between Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef, the largely uninhabited isles are popular stopover spots for snorkeling, diving and sailing. Lush rainforests and postcard-perfect beaches attract nature lovers too. For sunseekers, Whitehaven Beach is the star attraction of the 74 islands that make up the Whitsunday archipelago. Composed of silica, the bright white sand doesn’t retain heat, inviting leisurely barefoot strolls along the beach. Boat trips to the Whitsundays depart from Airlie Beach on the mainland or from the resorts on Hamilton Island.
More than 500,000 people call Tasmania home, making it the most populous as well as the largest of Australia’s islands. From the Georgian architecture in the capital city of Hobart to the verdant rainforests and white-sand beaches, there’s a host of both natural and cultural attractions to explore in the island state. Launceston is filled with historic colonial mansions. Port Arthur offers a moving look at Australia’s penal-colony past. Tasmania’s 19 national parks feature some of the most beautiful scenery you’ll find anywhere on the planet. Best of all, the island’s microclimates make Tasmania a great place to visit in every season.