Overseas and even some interstate travel may still be off the menu, but you can still go “over the seas”. These under-the-radar islands are all accessible via a boat trip, no passport required.
An offshore lighthouse: Montague Island
New South Wales
Home to 10,000 little penguins as well as a colony of Australian fur seals and 90 species of birds, Montague Island is a wildlife wonderland just 9km off the New South Wales south coast near Narooma.
Called Barunguba by the local Yuin nation, this remarkable eco-tourism destination is accessible only via guided tours. Snorkel or dive with seals, see schools of dolphin, manta rays, sunfish and sea eagles and, from September to January, watch the return of the little penguins to their burrows. From September to November, you might encounter pods of migrating humpback whales. Groups of up to 12 can stay overnight in the head or assistant lighthouse keepers’ cottages, and explore the walking tracks before the day tours arrive.
A reef-ringed snorkel spot: Fitzroy Island
Coralline beaches lapped by azure waters evoke images of Tahiti, yet affordable Fitzroy Island is just a 45-minute ride from Cairns. This 3 sq km continental island is a rainforest-covered national park with a campground as well as a four-star resort with a pool nestled in the palm trees behind the main beach. With a fringing reef just offshore, there are sublime snorkelling spots at White Rock, Nudey Beach and Shark Fin Bay, as well as kayaks for hire and even a dive centre.
Make time to visit the turtle rehabilitation centre and learn about the island’s reef restoration project. Walking tracks wind through the rainforest and up to the lighthouse and lookout with panoramic views, while the beach bar, Foxy’s, is the place for sunset drinks under the palms.
A koala haven: French Island
To the south-east of Melbourne in Western Port Bay, the 170 sq km French Island may be twice the size of nearby Phillip Island but its comparative obscurity offers both wildlife and visitors a serene habitat. Once a hunting ground of the Bunurong people, and named by French explorer Nicolas Baudin, French Island spent 60 years as a prison farm during the 20th century. As a result, its heathland (covered with wildflowers in spring), open woodlands, saltmarshes and mangroves have been preserved.
Now more than 70% of the island is a national park, which protects Victoria’s largest population of koalas and numerous long-nosed potoroos as well as pelicans, black swans, oyster catchers, mutton birds, sea eagles, ibis and even rare orange-bellied parrots. An ideal getaway for walkers and mountain bikers, there are campsites, a glamping retreat and a guesthouse. Access is via ferry from either Stony Point on the Mornington Peninsula or Cowes on Philip Island.
A private retreat: Picnic Island
Located 800m off Muirs Beach on Tasmania’s Freycinet Peninsula, Picnic Island is a one-hectare rocky island overlooked by the pink granite Hazzard Mountains. Dolphins and seals and occasionally whales swim offshore. Little penguins and shearwaters return to their burrows to feed their chicks at night. Once a prized fishing spot for the Oyster Bay people, shell middens can still be found on the island’s western side.
These days, guests can collect mussels, fish for squid and flathead and, with a licence, dive for crayfish and abalone. Scottish captain Robert Hepburn was granted the island in 1829 and his convict labourers mined sandstone here. A sandstone block from this time now sits as a hearth under the fireplace in the lounge of the architect-designed, copper-clad retreat with fully-equipped kitchen and five double rooms, showcasing the work of Tasmanian craftsmen and artists. A total of 10 guests can stay for as little as $1,100 a night in low season, transfers included. Bring your own kayaks.
A birder’s delight: Troubridge Island
Troubridge Island is a two-hectare crest of sand, anchored by scrub and 8km from Edithburgh, near the heel of South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula. Supporting a large population of black-faced cormorants, silver gulls and several different terns, it’s a conservation park and a BirdLife International-nominated Important Bird Area.
There’s also an active little penguin colony and Sammy the seal has taken up residence. Matthew Flinders discovered the Troubridge Shoals in 1802, but not the island. Those shoals were responsible for innumerable shipwrecks, so a candy-striped lighthouse was built in 1855. It has since been decommissioned. Now a solar-powered, three-bedroom former lighthouse keeper’s house offers accommodation for up to 12 people, with a minimum of four adults for two nights, including transfers. There’s bird watching, exploring, beach games, snorkelling and swimming off white-sand beaches, plus terrific beach fishing with rods supplied. Local fishing charters are also available.
A pirate’s hideout: Woody Island
On Western Australia’s south-west edge, Esperance may have some of Australia’s finest white-sand beaches but equally alluring is Woody Island, one of the 105 islands of the Recherche archipelago, named by French explorer Bruni d’Entrecasteaux in 1792. With rugged granite outcrops, tall eucalypts and secluded bays with little penguin and shearwater rookeries, this A-class nature reserve is surrounded by crystalline waters.
Fish for herring and squid off the pier and see dolphins, sea lions, fur seals and, from June to November, southern right whales while snorkelling and kayaking. All equipment is available for hire. Woody Island Eco Tours provides day tours but, for an extended stay, there is also a couples’ retreat, with safari huts and tents (all with beds, from $165 a night) and standard camping (from $50 a night). A kiosk serves pub food while Blackjacks Bar is named after Australia’s only resident pirate. Black Jack Charters can pick up Woody Island guests for deep sea fishing and cruises to Middle Island to see strawberry-milkshake-pink Lake Hillier.