Play castaway on one of these unmissable islands to visit off the coast of Cairns.
Take a patch of white sand, add a few palm trees, some crystalline waters, fringe it with coral formations and you have yourself a tropical island paradise. But rather than just dreaming about your island idyll, why not start planning the perfect escape to one of these unique islands off the coast of Cairns.
The fact that 95 per cent of Fitzroy Island is a designated national park only adds to its allure. There are two sides to the islands: there are the beaches lined with swaying palms, and the jade-green rainforest crisscrossed with walking tracks. The four-kilometre path to the summit takes about two hours return and includes a loop to the historic lighthouse, which was an observation point for ships coming into Cairns Harbour during the Second World War. From the top of the craggy peak you can see all the way to the outer reef.
Distance from Cairns: 15 nautical miles (38 kilometres) away from Cairns by boat.
Getting there: Get there in your own yacht or catch a ride on the Fitzroy Flyer, which takes about 45 minutes.
Best for: Families and those who suffer from sea sickness as it is only a 45-minute boat ride from Cairns.
Highlight for visitors: Fitzroy Island is home to Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre, which is dedicated to the conservation of sick and injured turtles.
Michaelmas Cay is a sand island curled like a comma in the middle of the Coral Sea, on the western tip of Michaelmas Reef. The island, which was formed by the accumulation of broken coral, has a tangle of vegetation and stretches for 1.8 hectares in the middle of the Coral Sea, making it paradise for first-time snorkelers and divers. In addition to having great cultural significance to the local Gungandji, Mandingalbay-Yidinji and Yirriganydji indigenous peoples, the island is a sanctuary for migratory sea birds.
Distance from Cairns: 43 kilometres northeast of Cairns (about two hours by boat).
Getting there: Get onboard Reef Runner Charters, which travels to the cay and beyond.
Best for: Inexperienced snorkelers and first-time divers and keen fisher folk.
Highlight for visitors: Spotting turtles and swimming with giant trevally around the shallow waters off the island.
Woody Island and Low Isles are the two islands that make up Low Isles, which are considered important cultural sites for both the Kuku Yalanji and Yirraganydji tribes. Surrounded by 22 hectares of reef, the island’s proximity to the coastline makes it perfect for either a full or half-day adventure. There are about 150 different species of hard corals in the waters off the two small islands, as well as 15 species of soft corals. You can swim or snorkel straight from the beach at Low Isles, where you are likely to spy species such as parrotfish, angelfish, clownfish, trevally and moon wrasse. The isles are also a protected paradise for nesting turtles.
Distance from Cairns: Low Isles is located 9.1 nautical miles (15 kilometres) off the coast of Port Douglas.
Getting there: The sandy coral cay islands that make up Low Isles are best reached by driving to Port Douglas, from where it is just a short sailboat ride to Low Isles with a local operator such as Wavedancer.
Best for: Families with first-time snorkelers who will appreciate the shallow waters and wide stretch of sand.
Highlight for visitors: The old heritage lighthouse on Low Isle, which has been operational since 1878.
The traditional owners of Dunk Island are the Bandjin and Djiru people, who have lived in this pocket of Tropical North Queensland for tens of thousands of years. The Indigenous name for Dunk Island is Coonanglebah (which translates to ‘the island of peace and plenty’) and you will gain an understanding of why when you explore the island, which is home to a diverse array of marine life, such as crabs, shellfish, sea turtles, fish and dugongs. Keep an eye out for the incredible Ulysses butterfly – which has become the emblem for the island – and about 150 different species of birds.
Distance from Cairns: It takes about two hours to drive to Mission Beach from Cairns, which is 138.9 kilometres north.
Getting there: Catch the Mission Beach Dunk Island Water Taxi for the 10-minute ride from Wongaling Beach to Dunk Island.
Best for: Active types who are missing their elliptical trainer and want to burn off a few calories hiking to the summit of Mt Kootaloo.
Highlight for visitors: Play castaway for a few days and choose from one of just eight camp sites for an overnight stay on the island. While in the area, take up Fozzy’s 3-hour, 3-island tour which takes in Kumboola, Timana and beautiful Bedarra.
As well as being a protected marine park, Green Island has a luxury eco-certified resort that will help you get into go-slow holiday mode. As well as the eco attitude of the resort, the fact that you can roll out of bed and be on the beach before the day-trippers descend is heavenly. Continue that feeling of castaway cool by padding from the beach to the poolside bar for cocktails and then back to your room overlooking the island’s emerald-green rainforest. Write your Out of Office memo in the sand and stay a few extra days so you can take up some windsurfing lessons, enjoy an evening nature tour and daily fish-feeding presentation.
Distance from Cairns: Green Island is located 14 nautical miles (27 kilometres) off the coast of Cairns.
Getting there: Get onboard the Great Adventures fast catamaran for the 45-minute journey to the 6000-year-old coral cay.
Best for: Romantics who are partial to a luxury resort after lazing on white coral sand beaches.
Highlight for visitors: There are a wide range of activities on offer on the island – from glass-bottom-boat tours to walking underwater with Seawalker helmet diving – but the daily crocodile show at Marineland Melanasia Crocodile Habitat is a must.
The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living structure on the planet so if you’re going to see this natural wonder of the world, do so in the pristine environment around the Frankland Islands’ archipelago where the reef is psychedelic. The Frankland Islands includes Normanby, High, Russel, Round and Mabel Islands, which are all uninhabited islands in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Snorkel or dive with Frankland Island Reef Cruises and see giant pink-rimmed clams and a technicolour kaleidoscope of coral and reef fish.
Distance from Cairns: The Frankland Islands is about 45 kilometres southeast of Cairns by road and just 5 nautical miles (10 kilometres) offshore.
Getting there: You must drive to the township of Deeral before detouring to the coast where you will find the jumping-off point for the islands.
Best for: Lovers of nature and wildlife. The fringing reefs around the Frankland Islands are home to green sea turtles, feather stars, butterfly fish, manta rays, wrasse, stingrays and more.
Highlight for visitors: Frankland Island Reef Cruises is the only company with a permit to visit Normandy Island so if this snorkelling experience here feels exclusive it is because it is. The guided walk by a marine naturalist another highlight.
For more travel tips and itineraries read our Ultimate travel guide to Cairns here.