Tropical Island 101: Your guide to discovering Queensland’s islands
We don’t want to brag, but when it comes to discovering the Sunshine State, size matters.
- Queensland covers approximately 1.853 million km²
- Covers almost a quarter (22.5%) of the land mass of the Australian continent
- Provides visitors with 6,973 km of coastline
- 2300km of which is Great Barrier Reef
- And to really blow your mind, has over 900 tropical islands dotted along its coast, from the Southern Great Barrier Reef to the tip of Cape York.
Talk about well-endowed with natural assets.
So, if you want to hit the ground
running swimming on your tropical island escape, you need this pocket guide to discover Queensland’s best:
1. Lady Elliot Island
First impressions: Consider Lady Elliot Island the welcome mat to the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef. It’s the first or the last island in the reef, depending if you’re travelling north or south.
Travel details: It’s seaplane or nothing when it comes to getting to this famous find. The island is so remote you can’t take a boat there … or at least, visitors can’t. All that’s left to do is grab a window seat for a scenic flight from Bundaberg, Hervey Bay, Brisbane or Gold Coast.
Island size: If good things come in small packages, Lady Elliot Island is the poster child for the proverb. It spans just 110 acres, which is small enough to circumnavigate on foot in just 40 minutes.
Best known for: Manta rays are to Lady Elliot Island, what orchids are to Singapore – everywhere! In fact, over 700 individual rays are known to live in Lady Elliot’s waters. You can read more about the manta experience over here.
Native flora and fauna: It’s all about birds on Lady Elliot, and even though the island may only sleep 41 people, the birdlife seems nearly ten times that, with over 105 different species of birds also holidaying here. If you’re keen to know more, check out this post about twitching your way around the island.
It’s more than just birds who come ashore too. Between November and February, the island plays host to a different type of guest as the loggerhead, hawksbill and green turtles nest ashore. For more information on the ultimate turtle experience, you’ll want to read this post.
What’s on the menu: It’s all about the buffet, which is served each day at the resort’s Beachfront Dining Room. The feed promises to fuel an adventurer’s appetite – think carbs, salads, burgers and no shortage of drinks.
Pillow talk (aka how can you stay here): Living up to its eco reputation, you’ll find no telephones, televisions or iPads in the accommodation on this tropical isle. Instead, you’ll find clean and comfortable cabins with mere steps between cabin and coral, so you’re as close to sleeping with the fish as accomodation comes on this list.
Most Instagrammable spot: Capture the #perfectmoment at the Fish Pool. Not only will your instagram feed dominate with sparkly blue waters, the silver drummer fish will even pose for the camera.
Can’t forget to pack: A waterproof camera! You’re going to want to try and capture the ultimate #turtleselfie. To see if you have got what it takes, check out this post.
Fun fact (try impressing the hotel reception with this!): Almost daily between June and October each year, you can hear whale song underwater, as the migrating humpbacks migrate past the island.
Best time to see it: Pay a visit between November and February each year to watch as turtles come ashore to lay their eggs in the island’s rolling sand dunes. Between February to April, you can catch the encore performance as the turtle hatchlings make their dash back to sea.
Want more? These eight reasons to visit will convince you.
2. Lady Musgrave Island
First Impressions: The water at Lady Musgrave Island is so unbelievably clear, you could confuse it for an aquarium.
Find it: 52km north of Bundaberg in the Southern Great Barrier Reef, like a red rag to a snorkeller’s bull.
Travel details: Two boats make bow waves to Lady Musgrave, leaving from Bundaberg and 1770.
From Bundaberg, climb aboard the aptly named Main Event with Lady Musgrave Experience. This luxury, high-speed catamaran provides not only a comfortable transfer to the island but refreshments island side too. It’s truly the main event when it comes to things to see, do and eat on the island.
Further north, 1770 Reef Tours run day tours to the island aboard their luxury catamaran – promising more island time than travel time (70 minutes, each way).
Island size: Small on size and big on nature, Lady Musgrave Island is approximately 35 acres (or 14 rugby fields) big in size.
Best known for: What’s below the surface, with an array of marine life luring serious snorkellers and scuba divers from around the world to its shores.
Native flora and fauna: Keep an eye out for leopard and whitetip reef sharks that play in the waters surrounding the island. Don’t worry, there are no JAWS storylines here – they don’t have a taste for humans.
What’s on the menu: If you’re here for a day trip, tuck into fresh seafood and Bundaberg produce with compliments of Main Event in between snorkelling and glass-bottom boat trips. Introductory dives are also available or if you’re already qualified, you can dive for an additional fee.
If you’re planning on staying for longer than just the day trip, we suggest packing your own provisions.
Pillow talk (aka how can you sleep here): In keeping with its nature focus, the only way you can stay on Lady Musgrave is by camping. It’s just you and a maximum of 39 other people at any one time. Camping requires Bear Grylls levels of preparation as you’ll need to take everything with you, including water supplies.
Permits can be arranged through National Parks, and you’ll need to arrange your island transfer whether it be by tour boat or private dinghy. Don’t worry if you don’t have your own set-up for this CastAway experience – Lady Musgrave Cruises hires camp equipment but limits transfer space to 1/3 cubic metre, so don’t expect to pack everything including the kitchen sink.
If camping is not your jam, you can turn your day tour into an overnight expedition by letting Main Event become your hotel for the night – with a liveaboard adventure sleeping on the reef. If this idea floats your boat (pun intended!), check out this post about how to sleep on the reef for more ideas.
Most Instagrammable spot: Make like Aerial in The Little Mermaid and head under the sea. The best photos are under the water with your new fishy friends.
Can’t forget to pack: Sea sickness tablets – the boat ride can get a little topsy-turvy.
Fun fact (try impressing the hotel reception with this!): Lady Musgrave Island is referred to as ‘Wallaginji’ by the local indigenous community, which means ‘beautiful reef.
Best time to see it: Between April and September each year when your camping adventure is likely to be more sunny than soggy.
3. Hamilton Island
First impressions: This aquatic playground is not just the jewel in the Whitsundays’ crown but arguably the most famous Great Barrier Reef island.
Travel details: Unlike the other islands on this list, you can actually take a commercial flight to Hamilton Island.
With a boarding pass to Paradise (aka airport code HTI), you can take a direct flight from Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne or Cairns, or charter your own private jet for a direct flight to this tropical real-estate.
Those coming from Airlie Beach can skip the airfares and jump aboard Cruise Whitsundays, who run more than a dozen passenger ferries each day from the mainland to the island.
Of course, for those who prefer to captain their own ship, private boats are welcomed at the Marina, which provides boatyard services with access to the luxury resort facilities. Find our more about sailing The Whitsundays over here.
Island size: It’s the biggest island in this list, sitting at 740 hectares – large enough that you’ll want to hire a golf buggy to get around.
Best known for: A smorgasboard of island activities. From teeing off on one of Australia’s premier golf courses, to relaxing by one of the resort’s spa or pool facilities or tackling the 20kms of walking trails across the island, you won’t be short for ideas to pass the time. For more info on what to do on Hamilton Island, check out this 48 hour guide.
Native flora and fauna: WILDLIFE Hamilton Island is as cute koala experiences come in Queensland. Here you can have breakfast (and not the eucalyptus leaf kind) with the koalas in Hamilton Island’s own sanctuary.
What’s on the menu: Your tastebuds will be suitably tickled at Hamilton Island – with everything from casual bites at Beach Club to long lunches at the Hamilton Island Yacht Club. Throw in fine-dining options like Coca Chu and Bommie Restaurant, and that’s only scratching the surface of the 14 eateries you’ll find island side.
Pillow talk (aka how can you sleep here): How Hamilton Island manages to cater for everything from a romantic weekend away to a school-holiday family trip all on the one island is sheer resort mastery. If you’re looking for romance, there are options ranging from Qualia to The Palm Bungalows, so you can let your purse strings decide where to stay.
Most Instagrammable spot: Take a 30-minute high-speed catamaran trip from Hamilton Island to the pristine Whitehaven Beach. Voted Australia’s Best Beach, it offers unrivalled views, and pure white sands that stretch seven kilometres touched only by the glassy, turquoise waters that surround it. Find out how to discover it over here.
Can’t forget to pack: Your swimmers! With everything from snorkelling to water-skiing bookable at the activities desk, you’d be kicking yourself if you forgot them.
Fun fact (try impressing the hotel reception with this!): In late August each year the island plays host to the Audi Hamilton Island Race Week, where over 250 yachts gather for a week of racing around the Whitsunday Islands.
Best time to travel: All hail the endless summer! Hamilton Island is one of the blessed islands with temperatures that rarely, if ever, drop below 23 degrees Celcius in winter. Of course, if you’re travelling with kiddies, time your trip for school holidays where the island puts on a variety of family-friendly events.
4. Magnetic Island
First impressions: With rugged terrain and a secret side of the Great Barrier Reef, Magnetic Island is popular with visitors who like their holiday served with a side of adventure.
Find it: Just a stone’s throw, 8km, from mainland Townsville, North Queensland.
Travel details: A 20-minute passenger ferry or 40-minute vehicle ferry from Townsville will have you stranded faster than an episode of Survivor. There’s also the option to moor your own yacht at the island if you prefer to kick it like Jay-Z.
Island size: 52km2, or about three-times the size of LAX… but that’s where the similarities stop with the famous USA concrete jungle.
Best known for: Its rocky landscape – because unlike most of the other islands on this list, which are blanketed in tropical rainforest, Magnetic Island is filled with large granite boulders and eucalyptus woodlands. To discover them, check out this 48 hour guide.
Native flora and fauna: Take a walk on the wild side with the island’s large colony of rock wallabies who are known for indulging in human interaction along with any root vegetables you feed them. Your best bet to see them is sunset – check out this post for details.
What’s on the menu: With more dining options than your average cruise ship, you won’t go hungry on Magnetic Island. Locally-owned Cafe Nourish does a great morning coffee and The Early Bird has the locals’ tick of brunch approval. For dinner, Boardwalk Restaurant dials up the romance with water views and modern Australian nosh – think artisan baked goods, pan seared scallops and decadent dark chocolate and espresso pannacotta.
Pillow talk (aka how can you sleep here): From budget backpacker accommodation to resort-style villas Magnetic Island bats for every team of traveller. Intrepid travellers looking for bang for buck, should check into the Bungalow Bay Koala Village youth hostel. If your dorm room days are done, Peppers Blue on Blue is full of ‘grown up’ luxuries like restaurants with waterfront views, a spa and spectacular swimming pool that wraps around the resort.
Looking for more accomodation inspo? We’ve got you covered over here.
Most instagrammable spot: Sphinx Lookout over Alma Bay. The boulders looked like they’ve been scattered from the sky and its elevated position provides the best water views on the island.
Can’t forget to pack: A backpack because this is bushwalking territory. Sunscreen wouldn’t go astray either given this is one of Australia’s sunniest spots #slipslopslap.
Fun fact (try impressing the hotel reception with this!): Magnetic Island was named by Captain Cook in 1770 when he was drawn toward it by the magnetic compass on his ship. After two minutes ashore, it’s easy to see why he felt obliged to make the pit-stop. We’re onto you, Cooky!
Best time to travel: Unless you live for humidity, we suggest timing your visit between April and August, when temperatures have cooled down to an autumn/winter average of 25 degrees Celcius. It will also save you from wearing a lycra stinger suit, which you have to wear in the water during summer.
5. Fitzroy Island
First impressions: Picture lush rainforest meeting crystal-blue waters, a beach called Nudey, and you’re starting to see why this island is the most Instagrammed island in Tropical North Queensland.
Find it: This little slice of paradise is positioned approximately 29km south-east of Cairns.
Travel details: A 45-minute Fiztroy Island Fast Cat ride will take you from Cairns to the island. Or, pop on your captain’s hat and steer a private yacht to one of the secure public moorings around the island.
Island size: 838 acres, almost the exact size of Central Park, New York – and trust us, it’s just as mindblowing.
Best known for: Its periwinkle blue seas which lap into white sandy shores. The kind of contrast that looks photoshopped because it’s so unnaturally beautiful. For information on the best way to soak it all in, you’ll want to scour this 48 hour guide.
Native flora and fauna: Buried within the depths of the casuarina and pandanus palms that blanket the island, you’ll find sulphur crested cockatoos, kingfisher birds, and emerald doves. Beyond birds, wildlife warriors should tour the Turtle Rehabilitation Centre, a volunteer-operated organisation on the island dedicated to recuperating sick and injured turtles.
What’s on the menu: You won’t be on island rations on this tropical island. Zephyr Restaurant packs a modern Australian punch with a menu with show-stopping local ingredients.
Pillow talk (aka how can you sleep here): There are two ways you can skin this island cat. The most popular undoubtedly is booking a room at Fitzroy Island Resort. If you’re looking for something cheaper, you can camp too – with the resort restaurants on your tent’s doorstep.
Most Instagrammable spot: The 1.2km rainforest track to the picturesque Nudey Beach (nudey by name and not by nature – keep the kit on, folks) is well worth the hike for the best snapshot of Fitzroy Island.
Can’t forget to pack: A pair of binoculars. A hike up the Lighthouse Road Trail will give you the best lookout on the island.
Fun fact (try impressing the hotel reception with this!): Back in the day, Fitzroy Island was connected to Cairns, but became isolated when waters rose over 8000 years ago.
Best time to travel: Winter, when temperatures are comfortably cool but never come close to dipping into single digits like Australia’s southern cities.
6. Bedarra Island
First impressions: If you’re looking for your own private patch of island-utopia, in a place where time is measured only by the passage of the sun, Bedarra Island is as good as it gets.
Find it: Just 10km from Mission Beach (140 km south of Cairns), Bedarra Island is just far enough from the mainland that you can no longer see it – giving it real castaway vibes.
Travel details: When you decide you want to disappear for a while, jump aboard a 20 minute water taxi journey from Mission Beach. Alternatively, embrace your inner Hollywood A-Lister and heli from Cairns Airport direct to Bedarra’s beach heli-pad.
Island size: Bedarra Island is 45 hectares, or two and a half times the size of Buckingham Palace. This analogy is fitting, because you feel like a king or queen as soon as you step foot on Bedarra’s sandy shores. The island is so damn magical, it makes an appearance in every Queensland blog luxury list – here, here, and here.
Best known for: Its serious seclusion. With only 10 villas on the island, you’re unlikely to catch sight of any other guests but if that’s not enough of a guarantee, there’s also the option to book out the whole island like a rock star.
Native flora and fauna: It’s all about the landscape here – the island is dotted with coconut palms and pandanus palms just to remind you (in case you’d forgotten) that you’re holidaying in a tropical oasis.
What’s on the menu: Perhaps a better question, is what’s not on the menu? Guests can expect a tropical breakfast buffet, customised lunch and multi-course dinner experience. We also recommend packing one of the restaurant’s gourmet hampers into your own dinghy and venturing out to one of the deserted islands that surrounds Bedarra for a romantic picnic.
Pillow talk (aka how can you sleep here): Bedarra Island Resort takes ‘fabulous’ to a whole new level. Each individual villa offers a different but equally spectacular view. What connects them is their contemporary plantation style architecture, spacious balconies and sky-high ceilings.
Most Instagrammable spot: Your candlelit dinner on a private beach. If you don’t ‘gram it, did it even happen?
Can’t forget to pack: Slip-on shoes because this resort prides itself on its barefoot luxury.
Fun fact (try impressing the hotel reception with this!): Bedarra Island is known as the ‘Mother Isle’ of the Family Group of Islands, which were placed on the map by Captain Cook. Dunk Island is referred to as the ‘Father Isle’, and the remaining islands are known as ‘the children’. Perhaps that’s why Bedarra has a strict no children (under 16) policy.
Best time to travel: April through to November is known as the dry season, when Bedarra Island sparkles in sunshine. The resort is closed for a few weeks from late January to March each year.
7. Orpheus Island
First impressions: If you haven’t heard of Orpheus Island, you’re missing out on one of Queensland’s best-kept secrets. It’s the kind of place where your every whim is catered to – and everything from dining to snorkelling is done in perfect seclusion.
Find it: 80km north of Townsville.
Travel details: A daily helicopter transfer (1.5 hours) from Townsville or Cairns will transport you from the hustle and bustle of everyday life into Orpheus’s arms.
Island size: Spanning 11km in length, Orpheus is more substantial than other islands on this list. The island will take you around two hours to circumnavigate, before retiring to your beachfront bunk for a well-earned siesta.
Best known for: Romance levels that are off the richter scale. Think candlelit dinners on the pier, relaxing resort-style spa treatments and enchanting snorkelling adventures.
Native flora and fauna: If you’re in the mood to tick off the Great Eight, Queensland’s marine-animal bucket list, you’re in luck. This is clam country and the chinchilla lipped clam garden on Orpheus Island is a must-see. You can access it by hiring one of the resort’s motorised dinghies and dropping your anchor close to the 300-strong nursery of molluscs.
Known for their huge, ruffled lips that make Kylie Jenner’s look small, these 200kg clams love to play games – opening and shutting when you get close – showing off their purpley-green mantles for curious snorkellers. Bring your camera as the clams pucker up.
What’s on the menu: Showcasing the riches of the region, chefs serve up a daily degustation of flavours. Think Moreton Bay bugs, roasted duck breast and dark chocolate creveux, each paired with one of Australia’s finest drops. To dial up the romance, choose to ‘dine with the tides’ on Orpheus’s pier in a setting that’s ripe with promise to pop the question.
Pillow talk (aka how can you sleep here): Sure you can camp at one of the island’s three campsites: Yanks Jetty, Pioneer Bay and South Beach, but our bet is that you didn’t come this far not to experience the luxury of Orpheus Island Resort. Here you’ll find contemporary suites, villas and beachside bungalows are steps from the water’s edge.
Most Instagrammable spot: The beauty of arriving by helicopter to any island is the opportunity for aerial photography. Try to capture Orpheus’ famous pier from above – it’s one of the most ‘grammed shots of the island, which says a lot when you see its beauty.
Can’t forget to pack: A hat! With what’s on offer, you’ll only be in your room to siesta and sleep.
Fun fact (try impressing the hotel reception with this!): Not just a haven for animals who live under the sea, Orpheus Island is also a hot spot for researchers who study what’s under the sea. The Orpheus Island Research Station is operated by James Cook University and they run tours for people who want to learn about their research and conservation efforts.
Best time to travel: Wearing the region’s title of the sunniest place in Queensland with 320 days a year, we’ll put our money where our mouth is, and say there’s no bad day to see Orpheus Island.
Want more? These seven reasons to visit will have you calling “hunny, where’s my credit card?”
8. Green Island
First Impressions: Green Island is aptly named because everything about the island is green – from the forests that cover the island to the emerald waters that surround it. Put it this way, if Kermit came to Queensland, we know where he’d holiday.
Travel details: All it takes is 45 minutes and a fast catamaran to ride out of Cairns and arrive on this island. Alternatively, kick it James Bond style with a helicopter arrival from Cairns Airport.
Island size: With a total area of just 37 acres, Green Island is about a quarter of the size of Disneyland. Despite its size, it packs just as much holiday spirit and is known for creating just as many smiles.
Best known for: Windsurfing! Did you know Green Island is so well known for the sport, it even hosts the Australian Windsurfing Championships each year? Guests have complimentary access to windsurfing equipment and the island offers lessons, so you’ll feel comfortable to give it a go.
Native flora and fauna: Like a Christmas tree wrapped in tinsel, Green Island is decorated in coral reef. Don a wetsuit and dive below the water’s surface. The jetty is the best spot to find colourful creatures lurking during the day.
What’s on the menu: Plenty of seafood! In keeping with the green theme, Emeralds Restaurant and Bar dishes up seafood delights like fresh oysters, smoked mussels and butter poached bay lobster tails for lunch and dinner. The Canopy Grill is a more casual affair with options for the little ones including cafe-style wraps and fish and chips. Either way, there’s no need to pack deserted tropical island supplies for this adventure.
Pillow talk (aka how can you sleep here): Space and sustainability are at the forefront of the 46 luxurious hotel suites clustered under Green Island Resort‘s rainforest canopy. The rooms don’t scrimp on size, ranging in size up to 66m2, almost like mini-apartments than hotel rooms. Every room comes with its own private balcony to soak up the tropical atmosphere too.
Most instagrammable spot: Snap a pic with Gavin the photobombing parrotfish on the Seawalker experience. Wearing a helmet, astronaut-style, you’ll submerge underwater without getting your hair wet. Your guides will throw fish food at you, triggering hundreds of coloured fish to dance in front of your helmet.
Can’t forget to pack: A sense of adventure! There is so much on offer here – you’ll be begging for more hours in the day.
Fun fact (try impressing the hotel reception with this!): The world’s first glass-bottom boat launched off Green Island in 1937. Lucky for visitors who want to see the reef without getting wet, these tours now depart regularly throughout the day.
Best time to travel: While there is no ‘bad’ time to see the reef, the wet season or summer months promise smaller crowds and more availability on snorkel tours if you’re looking for a more secluded Green Island experience.