6 Lesser-Known Australian Islands Worth a Visit

Been to Hayman, Hamilton, Daydream, and Kangaroo? Seen Fraser and Phillip? Australia’s high-profile islands are popular for good reason, but there are plenty of others that afford an equally alluring union of beaches, wildlife, and history—minus the crowds. From the Northern Territory to Tasmania, here are six lesser-known islands to add to your next adventure Down Under. 

A pristine corner of Western Australia’s Dirk Hartog Island.

1. Haggerstone Island, Queensland 

After becoming the sole inhabitants of this jungly speck of land in 1985, bushman Roy Turner and his English wife Anna spent six years crafting an intimate resort from driftwood and alang-alang thatch. “We were looking for a place to live a dream,” Anna recalls. “It had to be remote and wild.” Haggerstone is both.

Situated at the top end of the Great Barrier Reef, the 42-hectare island is reachable only by charter plane from Cairns, a two-hour flight that deposits you at nearby Hicks Island for the onward boat transfer. The resort itself comprises just three breeze-cooled “huts” and a larger Moroccan-style villa called House Mawu, plus a communal main building with a library, bar, and restaurant where your hosts prepare meals that feature freshly caught seafood and produce grown in their gardens. “We encourage guests to pick fruit from the orchard for breakfast,” says Anna. You can also forage for oysters and mud crabs, or fish for the day’s dinner.

Despite its hilly and overgrown terrain, the island is easy to explore on foot; one highlight is visiting a protected beach where newly hatched turtles make evening pilgrimages to the ocean. A charter helicopter can take you farther afield to isolated mainland waterfalls or to Cape York’s Shelburne Bay, whose mountainous white sand dunes beg to be tobogganed (from US$600 per person, all-inclusive).

The dining and lounge area of the Moroccan-inspired House Mawu, Haggerstone Island resort’s premium accommodation.

2. Dirk Hartog Island, Western Australia 

In 1616, a century and a half before Captain Cook landed on the east coast of Australia, Dutch
explorer Dirk Hartog arrived at this west-coast island that now bears his name. Eighty kilometers long, it sits in the middle of Shark Bay, a World Heritage area some 800 kilometers north of Perth. On arrival, you can boast you’ve visited the country’s most westerly point.

Over the years, industries here have included guano mining, pearling, and sheep farming. As part of Return to 1616—a recent eco-initiative aimed at restoring the island’s vegetation and habitats to their original state—feral sheep and goats have been removed from the island and environmentalists expect to declare Hartog free of non-native animals by mid-2018. They also plan to repopulate it with creatures that did not survive human encroachment; already, a number of rufous and banded hare-wallabies have been translocated from nearby islands, with other “lost species” due to follow.

For more than two decades now, the island’s 1869-built homestead and shearers’ quarters have been run as an eco-lodge by Kieran Wardle, whose family has owned Dirk Hartog since the 1960s. There are basic but comfortable rooms as well as a self-contained cottage by the sea and spots for camping along the coast.

“Every visitor should stand on the cliffs of Herald Heights, 180 meters above the Indian Ocean, and watch the last sunset in Australia,” suggests Kieran, one of five residents on the island today (the others: his wife, Tory, and their children). Trekking along the coast en route to Australia’s largest breeding colony of loggerhead turtles, you’ll also likely spot humpback whales, dugongs, and dolphins (three-night stays from US$1,006 per person, including all meals).

The seaside guest quarters at Tasmania’s Picnic Island, outside and in.

3. Troubridge Island, South Australia

There’s not a lot to do on Troubridge Island, a slip of land off South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula. But therein lies its appeal. Expect complete desertion save for an old candy-striped lighthouse and a heritage-listed keeper’s cottage that  today provides rustic accommodate for a single party of up to 12 people.

The island’s caretakers, Judy and Chris Johnson, meet guests dockside in the coastal town of Edithburgh, 60 kilometers west of Adelaide, for the short boat ride across Investigator Strait. Days are spent strolling beaches and sandy dunes laced with saltbush and spinifex, the habitat for more than 60 native birds including crested terns, pied cormorants, and little penguins. There are also passing pods of dolphins to look out for, as well as a resident sea lion.

The lighthouse (the first in Australia to be made of cast iron) was built in the mid-18th century to alert ships to the treacherous Troubridge Shoals; automated in 1981, it was decommissioned two decades later when an electronic beacon replaced it at sea. But it’s as charming as ever, and comes with plenty of tales and legends —just ask the Johnsons (US$90 per adult and $45 per child for two nights, minimum four adults).

The seaside guest quarters at Tasmania’s Picnic Island, outside and in.

4. Picnic Island, Tasmania

Australia’s smallest state may take its name from the country’s largest island, but Tasmania in fact encompasses hundreds of islands. Most are tiny, remote, and inaccessible, and only about a dozen are freehold—Picnic is one of them. After he bought this rocky islet more than a decade ago, former barrister and politician Clem Newton-Brown visited regularly, camping on dramatic sandstone cliffs with his family. In 2016, he enlisted Hobart-based architect John Latham to create a copper-clad lodge, which can now be rented for the exclusive use of 10 people. While rooms are basic, the communal living area—dubbed the Birdhouse—comes with a well-equipped kitchen and leather sofas arranged around a suspended fireplace.

A 2.5-hour drive from Hobart, Coles Bay on the Freycinet Peninsula is the transfer point for water taxis to the island. It’s a brief but scenic jaunt backdropped by the pink-hued Hazards mountains, and it offers a good chance to spot  dolphins, seals, and whales. Picnic is also a rookery for little penguins, hundreds of which waddle from the water to their burrows each evening.

Daytime diversions range from foraging for mussels and sea urchins to diving for abalone and crayfish; guests can also arrange a boat ride to nearby Wineglass Bay, regularly voted one of the world’s best beaches. Soon, you’ll also be able to wander among installations by Patricia Piccinini, a Melbourne-based artist commissioned to create a series of environmental sculptures around the island (exclusive rental from US$3,325, three-night minimum).

5. Groote Eylandt, Northern Territory

It’s the largest of around 40 islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria and the fourth largest of its kind in Australia, so it perhaps comes as no surprise that Groote Eylandt means “big island” in Dutch. Named by Abel Tasman in 1644, Groote has been inhabited (and owned) by the Anindilyakwa people for more than 8,000 years and is part of the Arnhem Land Aboriginal Reserve.

The island is reached via daily flights from Darwin, 650 kilometers to the west. Touching down, you’re welcomed by a remarkably pristine landscape of paperbark swamps, monsoon vine forests, deserted beaches, and sandstone plateaus. For decades, Groote was off-limits to tourists, and even now visitor activities remain low-impact and eco-sensitive, using the 60-room Groote Eylandt Lodge as a base.

Cultural tours explore centuries-old rock art sites and other aspects of Aboriginal life, while anglers and divers will be mesmerized by the abundance of marine life, which includes marlin, barramundi, sailfish, dugongs, and five species of turtles. Groote is also an Important Bird Area (IBA) thanks to an offshore islet that has become a globally significant breeding site for the roseate tern (doubles from US$210).

A remote Australian external territory located 1,400 kilometers east of the New South Wales mainland, Norfolk Island combines a colorful history (it was once a penal colony and a refuge for descendants of the HMS Bounty mutineers) with well-preserved natural assets ranging from the lush local flora to beautiful beaches and picturesque sea cliffs.

6. Norfolk Island, External Territory

One of Australia’s most geographically isolated communities, Norfolk is a dot of volcanic history in the middle of the Pacific. Previously occupied by seafaring Polynesians, the island was turned into a British convict settlement in the 18th and 19th centuries, developing a reputation as “Hell in the Pacific.” Today, the former prison site in Kingston, the territorial capital, is idyllic: a row of heritage-listed Georgian buildings looking out to Emily Bay, where locals dive from a pontoon into clear water that fades into a shallow reef.

The only way to get here is by plane, with two flights a week from both Sydney (1,600 kilo-meters to the southwest) and Brisbane; supplies are brought from the mainland by boat, which docks monthly. This isolation means Norfolk’s dramatic natural assets are well preserved, with stunning surf beaches, calm lagoons, and dense pine forests among the attractions.

When not hiking, swimming, or surfing, visitors can sample local wine at Two Chimneys vineyard, tour cheese makers, and enjoy island-inspired meals at a handful of good cafés. Among a number of excellent places to stay is Forrester Court, a clutch of self-contained cottages overlooking Cascade Bay. Also be sure to visit the former home of Colleen McCullough: the celebrated author was a Norfolk resident until her death in 2015, and her estate has been preserved as a museum packed with art and literary treasures (cottages at Forrester Court from US$265).

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Isles Apart”).

Share this Article