The complete guide to Australian Beaches

With 23,000 miles of coastline, there are an awful lot of beaches Down Under - and most of them are deserted. Kathy Marks heads down to the shore to explore the sand, sea and sun


HOW MANY ARE THERE?

HOW MANY ARE THERE?

Eleven thousand, to be fairly precise, according to Dr Andy Short, a marine scientist who has spent the past decade mapping them all on behalf of the Surf Life Saving Association. Only one in 10 is easily accessible; if you yearn for deserted beaches, get a good map and a four-wheel drive vehicle and set off down any promising-looking dirt track. Dr Short says: "Most of Australia's beaches don't have a name and most don't see a soul." Among the most pristine are those located within the 60 coastal national parks.

Despite Australia's 22,959 miles (36,735km) of coastline, its inhabitants have not always been beach-mad. Bathing was discouraged in the early convict colony as an immoral pursuit and banned in daylight hours until 1904. Even after swimming became respectable, sunbathing was frowned upon; inspectors patrolled beaches with tape measures to ensure costumes did not offend public decency and a bikini-wearer at Bondi, in Sydney, was fined £3 as late as 1961.

In the meantime, though, surfing had become a national passion. The world's oldest surf lifesaving club was founded at Bondi in 1906, beginning a tradition that remains at the heart of Australian beach culture. Volunteer lifesavers, clad in distinctive red and yellow trunks and bathing hats, supervise popular beaches throughout the summer.

IS BONDI THE BEST?

Frankly, Australia's most famous beach is a bit of a let-down if you want to splash about in the ocean. The wide crescent of golden sand looks wonderful from a distance, but at close quarters the beach is rather unprepossessing: crowded, litter-strewn, even a little seedy. The truth is that Bondi was never glamorous; it acquired its popularity because it was the closest beach to Sydney city centre, and the streets just inland from it offered cheap housing in a working-class neighbourhood. (You can get there from Sydney Harbour's Circular Quay on on bus 380, in half an hour.)

The beach used to be infamous for raw sewage floating in the ocean from a nearby outlet pipe; thankfully, the water is clean nowadays. While Bondi remains a down-to-earth place, the influx of celebrities such as James Packer, son of the media magnate, Kerry Packer, has given it a fashionable sheen. Campbell Parade, the main drag, has some good cafés and restaurants overlooking the beach, such as Yulla (00 612 9365 1788) and Sean's Panorama (00 612 9365 4924).

The beach has some treacherous rip tides, but is patrolled between the flags; you can also swim at a saltwater pool carved out of rocks at the Bondi Icebergs club (00 612 9130 3120; www.icebergs.com.au), a Sydney institution that owes its origins to a mad band of lifesavers who were keen to keep fit in winter. Even in July, the coldest month Down Under, club members defy chilly temperatures to bathe.

Bondi is big and brash but never boring; from dawn to dusk it buzzes with activity, from the surfers bobbing in the waves to the in-line skaters skimming along the esplanade and the old Russian men playing chess in the shade of the honey-coloured pavilion.

FOR SUN, SAND AND SEA – WHAT'S THE BEST BEACH IN SYDNEY?

You want ocean or harbour views? Crashing surf or calm, silky water? Vast sweeps of sand or tiny, picturesque coves? Sydney has a beach for every taste, and each has its own personality and devoted cult of followers. Addicts of big waves head to the ocean beaches south of Bondi, such as Tamarama and family-oriented Bronte. A cliffside walk with stunning views links Bondi with the broad arc of Coogee Beach and takes a meandering couple of hours to complete.

On the other side of the harbour is popular Manly Beach, home to the Manly Women's Swimming Club. To the north you can find a 20-mile string of surf beaches that culminate at Palm Beach, a glitzy, gorgeous expanse of red-brown sand at the tip of the Barrenjoey Peninsula. You can visit Palm Beach by seaplane (Sydney Harbour Seaplanes 00 612 9388 1978).

Other outstanding northern beaches include Dee Why, perfect for a bracing stroll, Whale Beach with its dramatic steep headland, and Avalon, whose residents refused to allow Baywatch to be filmed there lest their little tranquil paradise be spoilt. Some Sydneysiders prefer the quieter, sheltered beaches tucked into the bays and coves of the harbour foreshore; the prettiest include Shark Beach at Nielsen Park, which is fringed by bushland, and Balmoral, on the North Shore, where you can buy excellent fish and chips and eat them on the beach. Both Nielsen Park and Balmoral have good restaurants (Nielsen Park Kiosk 00 612 9337 1574, Bathers Pavilion 00 612 9968 1133). Take your pick and enjoy; there are more than 100 beaches in Sydney.

LET'S GO SURFING

Some of the world's best surf beaches are located along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, a spectacular stretch of coastline pounded by the Southern Ocean. They include iconic Bells Beach, a two-hour drive from Melbourne, where the Surfing Classic – a world championship tour event – is held every Easter. Close by on the so-called Surf Coast are Jan Juc and Torquay, also internationally renowned. Torquay, birthplace of such surfing labels as Rip Curl and Quiksilver, has a shopping mall devoted entirely to surfing and a surfing museum. Bells Beach Backpackers (00 613 5261 7070; www.bellsbeachbackpackers.com.au) is a Sixties beachhouse hostel with brightly painted murals.

Margaret River, a charming town south of Perth in Western Australia, is another stop on the world championship tour, with powerful left-handed reef breaks fuelled by the Roaring Forties. In Queensland, the Sunshine Coast north of Brisbane is a virtually uninterrupted string of surf beaches. Burleigh Heads, a legendary surfing spot on the Gold Coast, south of Brisbane, boasts mind-blowing right-hand point breaks. It is far more satisfying than Surfer's Paradise.

Other famous surf beaches include Watego's Beach, near Byron Bay in New South Wales, the most easterly point on the Australian mainland, and Cactus Beach, near remote Ceduna in South Australia. In Tasmania, South Cape Bay has a wild surf beach reached via a boardwalk; surfers cycle on to the beach with their boards and dump their bikes in bushland. At The Fluffies, on the Tasman Peninsula, surfers are taken out by boat to brave death-defying waves, wearing helmets in case they are dashed against the 1,000ft-high cliffs.

I'D LIKE A GOOD LONG BEACH FOR AN EARLY MORNING STROLL

You'll need to be super fit to tackle Seventy-Five Mile Beach on Fraser Island, situated just off the southern Queensland coast. Fraser, the world's largest sand island, is a dreamy place, with rainforests, towering sand dunes and freshwater lakes; it also has an award-winning eco-resort, Kingfisher Bay (00 617 4120 3333; www.kingfisherbay.com).

Eastern Victoria goes 20 per cent better with a Ninety-Mile Beach. It is narrow, windswept and backed by spinifex-spiked dunes that separate the ocean from the coastal lagoons of Gippsland Lakes. The area is good for fishing, boating and water sports; yachts and cruisers can be hired in Metung, one of the lakeside towns.

Robe, 200 miles south-east of Adelaide, is a rugged, scenic spot with 42 miles (57km) of secluded beaches; the area is renowned for its lobster, crayfish and oysters.

The laid-back resort town of Port Douglas in north Queensland overlooks Four-Mile Beach, a beautiful sweep of golden sand fringed by coconut palms. From Port Douglas, you can take a boat trip to the Great Barrier Reef or drive north to Cape Tribulation, where the ancient Daintree Rainforest tumbles down to the long white beaches. The Peninsula (00 617 4099 9100; www.peninsulahotel.com.au) is a classy boutique hotel in Port Douglas, two hops from the beach, while the Thala Beach Resort (00 617 4098 5700; www.thalabeach.com.au), a few miles south, is an upmarket rainforest retreat with fantastic views of the coastline.

I WANT SPOTLESS WHITE SAND BETWEEN MY TOES

Some of Australia's most stunning beaches fall into this category. They include Cable Beach, near the colourful pearling town of Broome in Western Australia, which boasts a 15-mile (24km) stretch of flawless white sand lapped by turquoise water and a dramatic backdrop of red cliffs. Cable Beach is famous for its gorgeous sunsets over the Indian Ocean. Another world-class beach is exquisite Wineglass Bay, on Tasmania's east coast, which can be reached only by hiking through Freycinet National Park. Your efforts are amply rewarded when you see the perfect arc of white sand, with three towering pink granite peaks in the background. Stay at Freycinet Lodge (00 613 6257 0101; www.freycinetlodge. com.au), a much-praised wilderness retreat with wooden cabins set in bushland.

On uninhabited Whitsunday Island near Queensland's Great Barrier Reef, Whitehaven Beach is a four-mile (6km) expanse of pure white silica sand sloping into azure water. The beach, so dazzling that it hurts to look at without sunglasses, can be reached on a day-trip from Airlie Beach on the mainland.

Hyams Beach in the Jervis Bay area of southern New South Wales is famously white, as is Squeaky Beach in Wilson's Promontory National Park, in Victoria, which was named after the sound that feet make upon it. Shelburne Bay, on Cape York peninsula at the tip of Queensland, has dunes so white that the sand is mined and shipped to Japan to make glass.

BUT WHAT ABOUT SHARKS AND OTHER DANGEROUS CREATURES?

There hasn't been a fatal shark attack in Sydney Harbour since a bull shark tore the right leg off an actress in three feet of water in 1963, and there have been no fatalities at the city's surf beaches since protective nets were erected in the Thirties. Elsewhere, Jaws is less of a distant memory. Two surfers were attacked on consecutive days in 2000 off South Australian beaches, while a white pointer killed a man bathing in shallow water off Perth's Cottesloe Beach a few months later.

Despite that spate of incidents, only one person a year on average is killed by a shark in Australia – while lightning kills 1.7 people and bee stings 1.8. Many beaches in New South Wales and Queensland are netted, although debate rages about the effectiveness of nets versus their propensity to trap other species such as whales. Sharks are not the only hazard. Lethal box jellyfish – "stingers" – frequent the waters off northern Australia from November to March, and only the foolhardy swim during those months. Popular beaches have stinger enclosures, but the deaths of two tourists earlier this year highlighted the danger of tiny Irukandji jellyfish, which can slip through stinger nets.

In northern Australia, the saltwater crocodiles that inhabit creeks and river estuaries occasionally sunbathe on beaches. They grow to up to 23ft (7m) long and are highly dangerous.

WHAT ABOUT THE MORE CUDDLY WILDLIFE? WHICH ARE THE BEST BEACHES FOR VIEWING LOCAL FAUNA?

If dolphins make you soppy, head to Monkey Mia in Western Australia, where a pod of bottlenosed dolphins frolics daily with day-trippers in shallow waters. Less crowded is Bunbury, south of Perth, where you can swim with dolphins in waist-high water. Whale-watching boats operate from numerous spots on the east coast, including Jervis Bay, south of Sydney, which has a resident pod of bottlenosed dolphins.

Whale-watching is popular at Hervey Bay in Queensland, where humpbacked whales give birth in the warm shallow waters from July to October.

Montague Island, off southern New South Wales, is a good place to spot humpbacked and southern right whales migrating past with babies in tow; you can also snorkel or dive with juvenile seals there.

Philip Island, near Melbourne, has a nightly Penguin Parade, when hundreds of little penguins gather at the water's edge at sunset and waddle across the beach to their burrows in the dunes.

Mon Repos, near Bundaberg in Queensland, is the site of Australia's largest turtle rookery; you can see female loggerheads laying eggs on the beach and newly hatched young ambling towards the water. Rare cassowaries – tall, ostrich-like birds – are often seen at Mission Beach, south of Cairns, while eastern grey kangaroos congregate at beautiful Pebbly Beach in southern New South Wales.

Kangaroo Island in South Australia, often described as a zoo without fences, is a great place to spot numerous species including kangaroos, wallabies, fur seals and sea lions. Tourism Kangaroo Island (00 618 8553 1185; www.tourkangarooisland.com) can arrange accommodation.

WHICH ARE THE BEST BEACHES FOR DIVING AND SNORKELLING?

Queensland's Great Barrier Reef is justly famous, but few people know about Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, where you can snorkel with whale sharks, the world's biggest fish. Up to 66ft (20m) long, they have gentle natures. The 250-mile (400km) long reef at Ningaloo Marine Park, near Exmouth, is home to dolphins, manta rays, whales, turtles and dugongs as well as hundreds of species of coral. It is far less crowded than the Great Barrier Reef and much closer to shore, accessible from the beach at several spots. Operators in Exmouth run dive charters and open-water scuba courses.

There is also good diving in the clear warm waters off the Whitsunday Islands, while South Australia offers several spots to dive shipwrecks including the Fleurieu Peninsula. At Port Lincoln, on the state's Eyre Peninsula, you can hang over the side of a boat in a suspended cage and eyeball great white sharks; some of the footage for Jaws was filmed in these shark-infested waters. In the Great Barrier Reef, the best islands are Heron, Lizard and Lady Elliott, where you can reach the beautiful coral gardens straight off the beach. Heron has dozens of different dive spots; Lizard is an hour's boat ride from The Codhole, where divers can hand-feed giant potato cod as big as humans.

DO I HAVE TO SPLASH OUT MUCH ON THE FLIGHT?

No. The many airlines that will take you to Australia are not having the best of times. Once Christmas and New Year are out of the way, fares until the end of March may dip below £600, when bought through discount agents.

If you are planning a substantial trip covering several areas, the best bet is to check out prices for a British Airways/Qantas combo or to hop around Australia aboard Virgin Blue (book through www.virginblue.com.au or, at higher fares, through the airline's "Guest Contact Centre" on 00 61 13 6789).

The Gold Coast

Touristy and tacky – but it's got white sand, rolling surf and a perfect climate

Some loathe it, some love it, but few can deny the beauty of the 35 white sandy beaches strung along this 20 mile-stretch of southern Queensland.

They are all immaculately clean, with rolling surf and fresh breezes, and are patrolled throughout the year by bronzed lifeguards. Brash, tacky and overdeveloped, the Gold Coast is unashamedly geared to tourism, a forest of neon jam-packed with amusement parlours, souvenir shops, motels, cheap eateries, bars and nightclubs.

Its gaudy heart is Surfers Paradise, where meter maids in gold bikinis feed coins into expired parking meters and high-rise hotels cast long shadows over the beach during the afternoon. But the climate is perfect and, despite the crowds of tourists who flock here, particularly during school holidays, you'll always find space on one of the wide, long beaches.

If you tire of sand and surf, there is a dizzying array of other activities, including angling, windsurfing, ballooning, jet-cruising and bungee-jumping. The Gold Coast also has 40 golf courses, several wildlife sanctuaries and a large collection of theme parks including Sea World, Movie World and Wet 'n' Wild, which features white-knuckle water rides with names such as Double Screamer and Terror Canyon.

Just north of Surfers is Main Beach, site of the Palazzo Versace hotel (00 617 5509 8000; www.palazzoversace.com.au), an extravagantly opulent resort decked out with Versace furniture, toiletries and artwork. Doubles cost from A$340 (£120). The Gold Coast has a wide range of holiday apartments, such as the Trickett Gardens Holiday Inn (00 617 5539 0988) in Surfers. High-rollers head to Conrad Jupiters Casino in Broadbeach, while the Sheraton Mirage Hotel in Surfers has a delicious and reasonably priced daily seafood buffet.

For more information on the Gold Coast, call 00 617 5531 3810 or see the website www.goldcoastaustralia.com.

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