The best islands to visit on the Southern Great Barrier Reef
I can’t believe I am about to say this… yes, the world LOVES the Great Barrier Reef, but if you want to know the best islands to visit, islands that are home to colourful corals and amazing marine life like you see on the front pages of travel brochures, the Southern Great Barrier Reef is for you.
So wriggle into your wettie (wetsuit for those unfamiliar), strap on your fins and follow my bubbles, as we reveal some of the Southern Great Barrier Reef’s best island escapes.
Lady Elliot Island
Lady Elliot Island is regarded as the southern starting point of the reef, or as we prefer to call it, where GREAT begins. Located 46 nautical miles off the coast of Bundaberg, Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort is (as the name suggests) eco-certified and attracts divers from around the world who want to swim with super-sized manta rays.
AND it’s so damn impressive that it has attracted the documentary cameras of the legendary Sir David Attenborough, who simply couldn’t resist this Garden of Eden with its turtles, mantas and stunning coral.
Accommodation ranges from beachside suites to glamping tents. It’s no six-star resort, but you’re not there to sit in your room when you have the reef within easy reach.
Access to the island is super simple with the resort providing return flights to the island from Bundaberg, Hervey Bay, Brisbane or the Gold Coast. If you’re limited for time, you can take a day trip to Lady Elliot Island and swim in the lagoon with turtles for the ultimate animal selfie.
Why it’s awesome: Where do we start?! As well as swimming with giant manta rays and turtles year round, we can think of another 7 epic reasons why you should pick Lady Elliot Island for your next island escape.
Perfect for: First timers who want to snorkel in the protected lagoon or enjoy a glass-bottom boat, right through to professional scuba divers who can swim with megafauna on the surrounding reefs and bommies.
How to get there: Flights are included with accommodation packages. Make sure you bag a window seat as the views over the reef are amazing!
Lady Musgrave Island
Named after the wife of Sir Anthony Musgrave, Lady Musgrave Island is famous for its massive ocean lagoon and is one of the very few islands on the Great Barrier Reef where you can actually camp without a resort guest in sight.
Lady Musgrave is off the coast from Queensland’s birth town, the Town of 1770. This protected pocket of water is like swimming in an ocean aquarium, and its calm waters are perfect for families and swimmers of all abilities to snorkel and explore the colourful reef.
You can take a day trip out to the island with several operators who provide the gear for you to snorkel and scuba. The more adventurous can secure a camping permit and pitch a tent on the island to truly escape and spend a night out on the reef. Campers need to be fully independent (bring all of your gear including fresh water) as the only infrastructure on the island is a composting toilet. #adventure
Why it’s awesome: Where else in the world can you camp on a coral cay?!
Perfect for: The protected coral lagoon is ideal for first-time snorkelers and families. Adventurous campers love this island locale. Be sure to secure a camping permit in advance if you wish to pitch your tent during school holidays.
How to get there: Lady Musgrave Cruises and Lady Musgrave Experience offer day trips and island transfers.
Located 89 kilometres north-east of Gladstone, this coral cay packs a punch with 16 superb dive sites within 15 minutes of the island. Plus, there’s no need for looooooong boat transfers to the reef when you reach this island – you can literally swim off the beach and drift snorkel above colourful coral.
However, it’s not all diving and snorkelling at this island paradise, and you can easily reach your inner nirvana at the on-island spa with a relaxing massage or treatment. If you have kids, plan your visit around school holidays where they can join the Junior Reef Ranger program to learn about the island’s delicate ecosystem and marine life.
Accommodation ranges from family rooms through to romantic suites with reef views. Learn to dive, hire a kayak, enjoy a picnic on the beach or take in a romantic sunset cruise – there are oodles of activities to keep you or your kids busy.
Why it’s awesome: Heron Island is home to some of the best dive sites on the reef (and in the world).
Perfect for: Kids will love the kids program and parents will love kid-free time to dive or relax by the pool. This island escape is perfect for holidaymakers wanting to see the true beauty of the reef with the creature comforts included.
How to get there: Holiday packages often include seaplane flights or boat transfers from Gladstone.
North West Island
Unlike Kim Kardashian’s child, North West, this remote coral cay 75 kilometres off the coast of Gladstone has no crowds or paparazzi to spoil your stay. This is the stuff of dreams for adventurous campers wanting to pitch a tent and surround themselves with nothing but nature.
Forget your thousand-thread-count sheets and day spas, North West Island is all about snorkelling and enjoying the simpler things in life. Between spotting turtles and watching the birdlife (did we mention 70% of the total breeding population of wedge-tailed shearwaters on the east coast of Australia nest on North West Island?), you can also catch your dinner straight from the ocean.
Be sure to check out the Marine Park zoning regulations: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Queensland Government Department of National Parks, Sport and Racing before you leave home.
Why it’s awesome: There are not many day trippers, the fishing’s great and campers generally have the island to themselves.
Perfect for: You don’t need to be Bear Grylls to camp on North West Island, but you’ll have to be fully independent. Pack plenty of fresh water and a sense of adventure.
How to get there: Curtis Ferry Services offer regular island drop-offs from Gladstone right to your beach campsite on North West Island.
Nestled in the Keppel Group of Islands, this new kid on the block (tourism-wise) is set to turn heads on the reef.
Located 14 kilometres off the coast of Yeppoon, you have the opportunity to book this entire island out to yourself (or your small group of friends), staying in their eco-friendly self-contained units that are powered by the wind and sun.
Get in quick as this will be the place stay – or get married.
Why it’s awesome: Where else can you head off on a tropical escape and book THE ENTIRE ISLAND to yourselves?
Perfect for: A great island getaway for romantics, couples and those that want to combine the two and tie the knot. Their Pebble Point accommodation has its own pool on the deck.
How to get there: A quick 24-minute boat transfer from Yeppoon or take to the skies and arrive like a rock star by chopper.
Great Keppel Island
And rounding out these sexy six is an island that offers some serious island chill time. The biggest of the 14 islands that make up the Keppel group, Great Keppel Island has that relaxed feel where you can comfortably wander around in your togs (aka swimmers/bathers/cossie) and lose track of time. A quick hop across the bay from Yeppoon, Great Keppel Island has 17 pristine white-sandy beaches perfect for lounging, sand-castle building and beach cricket.
The protected bays provide safe swimming year round and are perfect for kayaking, snorkelling, water-skiing, wake-boarding and tubing. But there’s no need to stress about packing too much with local legends GKI Adventures and Keppel Water Sports hiring out all the water sport and beach cricket gear you’ll need.
Follow the locals and head to the bar at sunset to enjoy a coldie from the deck at The Island Bar and Bistro.
Why it’s awesome: An affordable island holiday that has plenty of beaches to explore. Get in the car kids, it’s Keppel time!
Perfect for: Families, romantics and couples who are looking for an affordable island escape that offers less bells and whistles and more value for money.
How to get there: Join a ferry transfer, hire a private transfer or take a guided sailing tour to this island gem. Your toes will be in the sand within 30 minutes of departing Yeppoon.
*DON’T FORGET: Some of the islands have seasonal camping closures. Check out the Department of National Parks, Sport and Racing’s website for island updates and online permit information.
Feeling inspired to head out on a Southern Great Barrier Reef island holiday?
*This post was originally published in 2016 and updated in March 2018.