family islands great barrier reef safaris

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8 islands south of Cairns to explore


TNQ Writer

The Sunshine State might have 900 tropical islands off its coastline, but there’s one stretch of coast that’s overrepresented when it comes to idyllic island-oasis. Enter Southern Cairns and the Cassowary Coast, whose offshore attractions are as much of a drawcard as its mainland namesake.

Find your own definition of island paradise in Southern Cairns and the Cassowary Coast, a palm-fringed shoreline which stretches from Bramston Beach in the north, to Cardwell in the south.

The island selection ranges from the Goold Island sublime (read: off-grid camping) to the Bedarra Island Resort ridiculous (read: uber luxe, all inclusive) – and cater for just about everything else in between.

If you’re eager to experience the best of this destination, island hop your way around the Cassowary Coast and southern Cairns with this guide.

Barnard Islands

The Barnard Islands are raw and rocky

The Barnard Islands might be 420-million-years-old, but they certainly attract the young (and young at heart) with an array of adventures on offer. Rising out of the Coral Sea to heights of 19-95 metres, these rocky outcrops of islands are defined by dense rainforest and colonies of seabirds who come to this island group to breed.

Bush camping is available on Stephens and Kent islands within the group but is only accessible to those with their own boat.

Not much of a camper? No worries. You can visit the Barnard Islands with Great Barrier Reef Safaris from Mission Beach for a secluded beach picnic, or private island camping, and experience this ancient landscape for yourself.

Hinchinbrook Island

Hinchinbrook Island is to home to many stunning spots, including Zoe Falls

Australia’s largest national park needs little introduction for those that like hiking.

Its Thorsbourne Trail is rated as one of the top 10 hikes on the planet, and the fact National Parks has capped visitors to just 7,000 people per year, makes this destination all the more appealing.

Hikers are rewarded for their effects with a landscape that turns on a dime from cloud-kissed mountain peaks to lush rainforests and strikingly white sandy beaches.

If you’re not keen on doing the hike exclusively on foot, if you’ve got sea legs, strong arms and a sense of adventure, you can join Coral Sea Kayakers for a seven day kayak around the island from Mission Beach.

Alternatively, for those short on time, day trips are available with Hinchinbrook Island Cruises from Cardwell, taking you through the mangrove system off Missionary Bay before exploring Ramsay Bay’s pristine beach.

Bedarra Island

Bedarra is the epitome of island luxury

Few islands in the line-up of 900 that sit off the Queensland coast come even close to the level of luxury found at Bedarra Island Resort.

This luxurious island is home to just 12 private villas, with most of its 18 guests arriving by helicopter as their transport of choice to this island off the coast of Mission Beach.

The island is the ultimate definition of luxury, with an all-inclusive tariff which includes chef prepared meals, gourmet picnics, open bar and use of facilities including private boat hire to explore Bedarra’s neighbouring islands.

Dunk Island

Dunk Island is just a ten minute water taxi from Mission Beach

For nature dished up as raw and rugged as mother nature herself intended, take the quick water taxi trip from Mission Beach to Dunk Island.

Made mostly of national park, visitors to Dunk Island can expect rainforest clad hills that run directly down to the pristine sand. Fringing reefs make snorkelling steps off the shoreline a possibility – proving this island is truly the definition of paradise.

While you can certainly do Dunk Island in a day trip with transfers offered by Great Barrier Reef Fishing and Great Barrier Reef Safaris, don’t underestimate the things to see and do island-side. There are nine campsites to stay the night – a great option if you find island time got the better of you.

Family Islands

The Family Islands are a group of islands off Mission Beach

You know the island experience is going to be good when its history includes the favourite fossicking grounds of Australia’s original ‘beachcomber’, E.J. Banfield. Today, you can have your own naturalist escape to this chain of continental islands found off Mission Beach, joining Great Barrier Reef Safaris tour to Family Islands.

Their three-hour tour is as much a choose your own adventure style as organised, led by a marine biologist who leads the first hour as a guided tour of the fringing reefs. For the remaining two hours, you set the pace – more snorkelling, secluded beaches – the choice is yours.

If you want to stay longer and explore more, spend the night on Wheeler Island or Coombe Island (accessible by own boat), where designated bush camp sites guarantee your tent a room with a view.

Goold Island

Sitting 17km offshore from the town of Cardwell, Goold Island is one of the lower profile islands on the Great Barrier Reef, but it shouldn’t be. This tropical island is postcard worthy in its own right, defined by granite outcrops, eucalypt woodlands and sandy beaches.

The area is significant to the Indigenous community, with reminders of their cultural connection to this land seen through middens and ancient fish traps. Camping is the only way to stay island side, with three campsites available – Spit (Western Beach), Wilderness Cove and Southern Beach. You can expect loos at two of the three campsites, but you’ll go without showers for your time island side, unless you BYO.

Frankland Islands

Snorkel straight off the beach on Normanby Island

Haven’t heard of the Frankland Islands? You’re about to get acquainted with this secluded, unspoilt national park island on the Great Barrier Reef. Playing host to not just one island, but five (Normanby, High, Russell, Round and Mabel islands), this archipelago remains uninhabited making it ripe for exploring.

Find the Frankland Islands about 10-kilometres off the coastline, defined by national park, vibrant coral reefs, and some of the best snorkelling action, especially if you’re in the mood for finding Nemo. Join Frankland Islands Reef Cruises to explore Normanby Island on their day tour (they have the exclusive permit to the spot), which will have you exploring this island paradise both above and below water for up to four hours.

High Island

If you like your islands remote, private and camp sites off-grid, may we introduce your new go-to, High Island. It’s only accessible by private boat, with one group (up to 11PAX) allowed island-side at a time.

With no amenities on offer besides picnic tables, this is one island campground that’s reserved for experienced island campers only. Round up your favourite camping scallywags and maroon yourself here. Just don’t forget to BYO, well, everything.

Land Ahoy

Put aside some time on shore to explore more of Mission Beach & the Cassowary Coast.

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