Australia's Best Weekend Island Getaways
There’s something about the fresh spray of saltwater on your face as you embark on a boat trip that lets you know that the everyday routine is far behind you. It’s almost like if you have to cross the ocean to embark on a holiday then it feels more like a getaway than if you had stayed on the mainland. So we set about finding some island escapes close enough to the city that you can get away just for the weekend but will make you feel like a million miles away when you get there.
Some of our island escapes are already firm favourites with many of their city’s residents. But maybe you’re new to the city or visiting on business during the week and want to extend your stay for the weekend. Our criteria was simple: you must be able to reach your island destination in maximum 2-3 hours travelling time, you must cross a sea, ocean or other large body of water to get there (preferably by boat) and you must be able to stay overnight.
Here are our picks for weekend island getaways from each of Australia’s capital cities.
It’s amazing to think that there is an island so close to Sydney’s CBD that you can paddle there in a kayak, watch the New Year’s Eve harbour fireworks from it and also have the option to camp overnight in a tent. Cockatoo Island is a great weekend escape from Sydney simply because it is in the middle of busy Sydney Harbour. But don’t expect a traditional island holiday with white sand beaches, palm trees and a pool to lounge around. Cockatoo Island is more about simple pleasures. It’s the largest island in Sydney Harbour and is UNESCO World Heritage listed. It takes about 30 minutes on the Parramatta ferry to reach Cockatoo Island from Circular Quay. A good way to kick off your weekend away is to take an inexpensive, self-guided audio tour to learn more about the island’s rich maritime and convict history. Then make your way to a choice of accommodation including a heritage-style holiday house, harbourside apartments, or pre-erected tents (from those with basic equipment to the more luxury style glamping). Dining options are limited to mostly breakfast and lunch but there’s several cafes to choose from during the day. At night head to the Island Café for a very laidback drink and pizza option on the terrace. You can also self-cater within your accommodation or in one of the 10 camp kitchens provided. One of the island cafes also supplies BBQ or picnic packs for this purpose. As far as activities go, choose from a hit of tennis on the wonderful grass courts (complete with harbour views), or hire a small boat for some water-based exploring, or just head out for a leisurely walk. The island is also a regular host of events and exhibitions so check the website for the latest news.
Lord Howe Island
We’re probably cheating a bit by including Lord Howe Island because it’s not a destination you could conceivably reach by boat if you only had a weekend to spare. But the sheer beauty of this island means Sydney-siders can have a fantastic couple of days’ getaway for a less than two hour flight. Lord Howe is not a large island at just 11km long and 2km wide so it’s easy to get around and see the sights by bicycle or by hopping on and off the shuttle buses that regularly traverse the island. Lord Howe was World Heritage listed in 1982 for its rare collection of flora, fauna and marine life which has resulted from its isolation, being about 660km from the mainland. It is one of only four islands in the world that has this listing and it’s a real treat for nature lovers. One of the highlights is fish feeding off Ned’s Beach. You will be literally surrounded by colourful and exotic fish within seconds of entering the water with fish food. Better still you can hire snorkels and get up close and personal with the marine life. We found the idea of an honesty box system to pay for your snorkelling gear and fish food was charming. It gives you an idea of how relaxed the people are on Lord Howe Island, which is probably helped by the fact that the island can only hold 400 visitors at any one time. If it’s something more adventurous you are after, Mt Gower provides a climbing challenge taking eight hours and providing some rope-assisted hair raising moments on the way to its peak. Elsewhere there are a number of more sedate and well sign-posted bushwalks. Most are a stroll through lush canopies of Banyan, Pandanus and Kentia Palms and feature some of the 60 or so other species of flora found on the island. There are plenty of water-based activities including kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, fishing off Blinky Beach for Australian salmon, or a short boat ride to the tiny Admiralty Island for snorkelling in the Island’s Marine Park. There is a wide range of accommodation on the island ranging from 5 star retreats, lodges, apartments and bed and breakfasts. You’re also spoilt for choice with restaurants and self-catering options. Lord Howe provides an opportunity to visit one of the world’s most unspoilt island destinations right in our backyard. The only problem is going to be that a weekend will not seem like enough of an escape from the city. This one may need a few nights more!
Phillip Island may just be one of Melbourne’s most well-known tourist destinations but you may be surprised how few of the city’s residents have actually made it home for a weekend getaway. Located about 140kms south east of Melbourne, the island is accessible by boat or ferry but is also the only island in this feature that you can drive your car to via a bridge connected to the mainland. We hesitated to exclude it from this list because we think its many attractions make it hard to beat for a short island stay so close to the city. Most people know Phillip Island for one of two things: the penguin parade or the annual motorcycling grand prix. Before we get to them, we’re going to focus on all the other things the island has to offer. Firstly, 60% of Phillip Island is farmland devoted to sheep and cattle. One of the highlights of a visit here is the Churchill Heritage Farm which gives a glimpse into what life used to be like before the island became a tourist destination. The daily animal show provides a charming side show to its more well-known attractions. The other benefit of being a farming community is the fresh produce and Phillip Island’s restaurants and cafes provide plenty of opportunities to enjoy local food and wine. Secondly, the island has some of the best and most consistent surf in Victoria. Head out to Nobbies to see nature’s wild coastal scenery in action. If you’re a serious surfer then head to Cape Woolamai while beginners and leisure paddlers will find the more gentle surf at Smiths or Berry’s Beach a better pick. Thirdly, Phillip Island is a cyclist’s dream as it is mostly flat terrain. Other activities include tackling the island’s maze, mini golf, riding in go karts, petting animals at the wildlife park or visiting the Vietnam Veterans War Museum. The heart of Phillip Island is the seaside town of Cowes. It’s a laidback fish and chips type of place. There’s a good choice of accommodation options ranging from budget to luxury resort. Finally, the nightly penguin parade is really worth the visit. These adorable little creatures really do provide some entertainment. Just remember, bring your jumper. And do come to stay a night or two instead of rushing down for just a day trip.
If Phillip Island is one of Victoria’s best known tourist destinations then in contrast French Island is one of its best kept secrets. It is actually the largest island off Victoria’s coast but is not large by island standards. It’s closer to Melbourne than its more famous neighbour and accessible only by passenger ferry from the mainland or from Phillip Island. More than 70% of the island is national park and if it is a tranquil escape you’re looking for then French Island fits the bill. The island itself is quite isolated with no mains electricity or water. There’s one small general store and just a few accommodation options. The options for getting around are by bicycle or walking. But note that the roads are sandy and unsealed so they are better suited to mountain bikes. Bushwalking is very rewarding as the island features more than 600 species of flora and 234 bird species. It is also home to Australia’s largest koala community. This largely unspoilt eco system is perhaps best appreciated in the many wetland areas or during spring when wildflowers are abundant. The island was a penal settlement from 1915 to 1975 and you can still visit the old prison farm or try the Bayview Chicory Kilns for another interesting side trip. Chicory was farmed here until the 1960s and the kilns can still be fired up while you sip a cup of chicory coffee and indulge in a Devonshire tea at the café. The McLeod Eco Farm has rustic accommodation but also features organic produce in their restaurant. There is also several bed and breakfasts on the island. French Island is a wild, incredibly private and back-to-nature experience that is hard to imagine so close to a bustling city like Melbourne.
Brisbane residents are spoilt for choice with more offshore islands in close proximity than any other capital city. But locals are most likely to name Stradbroke Island, or “Straddy” as it is affectionately known, as their favourite. Stradbroke Island can be reached in about 45 minutes by car from Brisbane and then another 25-45 minutes by boat depending on whether you take the passenger or vehicle ferry. There are two parts to the island – North and South – which are split by a narrow body of water. North is by far the more populous with three townships with permanent residents; Dunwich, Amity Point and Point Lookout. Dunwich is the gateway to the island and provides a good overview of its history with its award-winning museum. It is also the access point for the two wonderful inland lakes – Brown Lake, whose water is infused with the tea trees that line it, and the tranquil Blue Lake National Park. Amity Point is roughly halfway between Dunwich and the third township, Point Lookout. It is known for its fishing, family atmosphere and sunsets. This is the place for fresh seafood straight from the trawlers that operate from the jetty here daily. But it’s Point Lookout that many visitors head to for the island’s fantastic surf beaches. The iconic headland pub is a must visit for a casual lunch on the lawn while the local gelati café is too good to miss. There are endless white sand beaches with rolling surf from Point Lookout down the length of the island but from this point on it is 4WD access only with no facilities. The island has a rich Aboriginal history with the carpet snake (rainbow serpent) Kabool a powerful symbol for the island. There is a Heritage Trail in each township highlighting the Aboriginal culture. The thriving artist community’s work is showcased at the Pandandus Palm Resort Art Gallery. During the migration season, Point Lookout is the best land-based vantage point for whale spotting from the Queensland coastline. The North Gorge Walk from Point Lookout is fantastic at any time of year but is particularly good for whale and dolphin spotting. North Stradbroke Island also features many water-based activities – diving, snorkelling, fishing, kayaking and surfing. Accommodation options are many and varied and range from camping to holiday homes, apartments and resorts. South Stradbroke Island is a much quieter alternative to its northern neighbour. There is one main resort on the island with the limited options in other locations being camping or holiday homes. The south island has the same natural features of bushland, wetlands and long white sand beaches as the northern part. However, it is more accessible for boating and arguably better fishing than the north.
Another firm favourite for Brisbane residents is Moreton Island although it’s not as popular as Stradbroke Island simply because it is less accessible with a 4WD being necessary to get around. However, a few more accommodation options with 4WD transport mean it is now easier than ever to visit and stay at this stunningly beautiful island. Moreton Island is 98% National Park. It is the third largest sand island in the world and driving across sand dunes and along beaches is a feature of getting to many places on the island. It is also quite a large island being 44 kilometres long and 13 kilometres wide. The ferry to reach the island takes 75 minutes from its Brisbane bayside departure point. Many people come to Moreton for its fishing and the annual Moreton Island Fishing Classic is a huge drawcard for serious anglers. You may also be attracted by the chance to scuba dive or snorkel around the shipwrecks off its coast. And if those sand dunes make for some adventurous driving they are also heaps of fun to toboggan down. While Moreton Island has traditionally been known as a destination for camping, accommodation options now include glamping and holiday units and there’s also a five star dining option. Finally, Moreton Island has its own resort at Tangalooma on the site of an old whaling station. Tangalooma is known far and wide for its hand dolphin feeding, which occurs nightly along with educational talks on their habitat and protection. This is one of only a few opportunities in Australia to get up close and personal with these beautiful creatures and is worth the trip just to experience it. Tangalooma Resort offers a wide variety of other activities including Segway tours, parasailing, helicopter rides, and ATV quad bike rides. The resort has a number of accommodation options ranging from hotel rooms, villas, apartments and holiday houses.
Kangaroo Island is one of those magical places that you can visit for a couple of days but you’ll left wanting to spend a whole lot more time there. Firstly, it’s Australia’s third largest island after Tasmania and Melville (see our Darwin story). Given its size you need a car or a tour bus to get around. From Adelaide it is a one and a half hour drive and then a 45 minute ferry trip so you need to put aside at least a couple of nights to make the trip worthwhile. The island is about 100km wide and many of its highlights are spread across the island. The main township is Kingscote but accommodation is spread around half a dozen or so coastal and inland locations. Places to stay are varied from six star private lodges to camping and caravanning and everything in between. The island has a strong agricultural focus including commercial fishing. Be sure to follow the Farm Gate and Cellar Door Trail to experience the amazing fresh produce including honey, lobster, oysters, olive oil, native jams, cheese and salt. There are also 30 wineries on the island. But it is the natural wonders of Kangaroo Island that make it so special. Flinders Chase National Park on the extreme south west of the island features breathtaking and rugged coastal scenery including large rock formations where seal colonies dwell. Apart from some fantastic bushwalking opportunities you also need to get out on the water to spot whales, dolphins, sharks, sting rays and a large number of sea birds. Like most other islands, Kangaroo Island benefits from being isolated and thus able to preserve its wildlife species. But given the island’s large size, the sheer number of animals means you will regularly encounter them. Koalas are frequently spotted dozing in gum trees while the large and quite distinctive dark kangaroos are abundant at dusk. The island also plays host to a wildlife park, a fantastic Birds of Prey show, a reptile park, nightly pelican feeding and penguin tours. An absolute highlight for us was the opportunity to walk among a large Australian sea lion colony nesting on a National Park protected beach. Kangaroo Island is known for a number of regular events including its monthly farmers markets, art exhibitions and the annual Kangaroo Island Cup horse race. For its sheer beauty and diversity of geographic features and wildlife this is an island that any visitor to South Australia must visit.
It was a bit of a challenge to find an island getaway from an inland capital city but we managed to find an option within a few hours of Canberra, off the south coast of NSW. Montague Island is a nature reserve run by the NSW National Parks service. Overnight stays are available accompanied by a guide or on a self-guided basis. The guided tours provide an opportunity to spend some time volunteering in conservation efforts for the fairy penguin colony that resides on the island. Both options feature accommodation in the restored Lighthouse Keeper’s cottage which can sleep up to 12 people. This 4.5 star guesthouse features 5 private bedrooms and a smaller assistant’s cottage for more intimacy. There are communal reading rooms, lounges and a large kitchen as well as wide verandahs, secluded courtyards and a view from every room. The lighthouse was built in 1881, stands 21 metres tall and was de-manned in 1987. Montague Island is a wildlife lover’s delight. It is a breeding ground for NSW’s largest colony of fur seals and home to thousands of fairy penguins. Boat tours offer the opportunity to swim with the seals and frolic with pods of dolphins. It’s also a great location for whale watching during migration season (June/July and September to November). Charter fishing trips regularly catch tuna, marlin, kingfish and blue eye cod. Bird watching enthusiasts can identify up to 15 species. Montague Island isn’t a destination suited to everyone but if it’s a very private, quiet and natural escape you’re after it is well worth the trip from Canberra.
About an hour from Hobart lays Bruny Island and while it’s just a short hop away from the capital it feels like it’s another world. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the island’s famous afternoon cruise past some of Australia’s highest sea cliffs to the point that the Tasman Sea meets the Southern Ocean. This is one of nature’s great shows as waves crash against each other and large birds of prey and albatross circle above. Along the way you will cruise past “Breaking Rock”, deep sea caves and large numbers of seals sunning themselves on the rocks. Bruny Island is also famous for its surfing breaks at Cloudy Bay, the ruggedness of the South Bruny National Park and the shallows at Daniels Bay for bird spotting one of 130 species including the Black-faced Cormorants. Right on the southern tip of the island is the iconic Cape Bruny Lighthouse, built in 1838 and one of the oldest continuously operated lighthouses in Australia. Another way to get a feel for the geography of the island is the climb up “The Neck”. It’s a lot of steps to climb but the stunning views in both directions from the top make it worthwhile. From here you can look down on the narrow strip that connects North and South Bruny Island and the location provides a spectacular sunset. There’s a tragic story of some Aboriginal women’s fate on The Neck that only makes the isolated scenery more dramatic. Coming down from The Neck at dusk you may be lucky enough to see little penguins scurrying back to their burrows from a hard day fishing out at sea. After all the outdoor experiences the island has to offer, its fresh produce is a welcome treat. The Berry Farm is a great option for a meal featuring food all grown, harvested or made on the island. Get Shucked Oyster farm is the place to experience the freshest seafood while the cheese factory, winery and smokehouse are also worth a visit. Art lovers should pay a visit to the gallery, Art at the Point. Given its windswept location, accommodation options centre on the cosy self-contained cottages, holiday homes and luxury camping. The island combines the best of what Tasmania has to offer: spectacular scenery, wildlife and fine foods.
The Tiwi Islands are unlike any others featured in this story so far. Just 80 kilometres off Darwin and accessible by boat or plane, their remoteness and natural state provides a unique coastal Aboriginal experience. The island group is made up of the larger Bathurst and Melville Islands and nine smaller uninhabited islands. There are two main reasons to come to the Tiwi Islands; fishing and the cultural experience. There are a number of lodges that organise fishing tours and by all accounts for keen fisherman it’s like fishing heaven. But even the fishing tours combine the cultural experience to help support the local economy and give visitors a taste of an ancient Aboriginal culture. Indigenous Australian art is an important part of this indigenous experience. The Tiwi Islanders produce mainly fabric, pottery and wood carvings. Fabric design, printing and clothing has been produced by the local women since 1969. The fabric design uses wax in the dyeing process to produce an effect similar to the batik of the neighbouring Indonesian islands. Wooden carvings often take the form of birds. The birds feature in Tiwi mythology and can represent natural events such as monsoonal rains or cyclones. Pukumani (burial poles) are another carved item that are unique in design to the Tiwi culture. They feature symbolic and mythological figures. Guests to the island are encouraged to visit the local communities and sample some genuine bush tucker. It’s a hot and steamy climate to a visit to the large swimming holes at Tomorapi and Taracumbie Falls are a welcome relief. The Tiwi Islanders are also passionate about sport and a highlight is to catch a local AFL or cricket game. The Tiwi Islands are a fantastic slice of untouched Australian coastal landscapes with their pristine white sand beaches and jungle environment. But it’s the people that will prove to be the highlight. The Tiwi Islander’s warm smiles and willingness to share an ancient culture are what makes a visit here unique.
Fist Published in Pacific Traveller Magazine Edition 1, December 2016.