Whether it's surfing, sunbathing or water sports you want to do, use our guide to the best beaches in Australia to decide where to lay down your towel.
Bondi Beach is synonymous with Australian beach culture, and indeed, the 1.5km-long curve of golden sand must be one of the best-known beaches in the world. It’s also the closest ocean beach to the city centre; you can take a train to Bondi Junction and then a ten-minute bus ride, or drive there in twenty minutes. Big, brash and action-packed, it’s probably not the best place for a quiet sunbathe and swim, but the sprawling sandy crescent really is spectacular. Surfing is part of the Bondi legend, the big waves ensuring that there’s always a pack of damp young things hanging around, bristling with surfboards.
Here sandy Thornton beach is only a few kilometres from the Marrdja Botanical walk, where concrete paths and boardwalks follow the creek through a mixture of forest and mangroves at the river mouth on Noah Beach. North of Noah Beach, there’s a natural swimming hole in the forest close by the Cape Trib Store; opposite a short road heads through thick forest to Myall Beach.
There are two sections of beach at Balmoral, separated by Rocky Point, a picturesque promontory and noted picnicking spot. The bush of Middle Head provides a gorgeous backdrop to the shady, tree-lined sands at Hunters Bay, which is very popular with families. Fronting the beach, there’s something very Edwardian and genteel about palm-filled, grassy Hunters Park and its bandstand, which is still used for Sunday jazz concerts and Shakespeare performances in summer. The antiquated air is enhanced by the pretty, white-painted Bathers Pavilion at the northern end, now converted into a restaurant and cafe.
Manly, just above the North Head of Sydney Harbour, is doubly blessed, with both ocean and harbour beaches. It is this combination, and its easy accessibility from central Sydney, that give it the feeling of a holiday village still within the city limits. The South Steyne beach is characterized by the stands of Norfolk pine that line the shore.
Bronte Beach is a family affair, with a large green park, a popular cafe strip and sea baths. The northern end as you arrive from Tamarama has inviting flat-rock platforms, popular as fishing and relaxation spots, and the beach here is cliff-backed, providing some shade. At the southern end of the beach, palm trees lend a holiday feel as you relax at one of the outside tables of Bronte Road’s cafes. A natural rock enclosure, the “Bogey Hole”, makes a calm area for snorkelling and kids to swim in, and there are rock ledges to lie on around the enclosed sea swimming pool known as Bronte Baths, often a better option than the surf here, which can be very rough.
The smaller, less brazen but very lively cousin of Bondi Beach, Laidback Coogee is a long-popular seaside resort and teeming with young travellers who flock to the backpackers’ hostels here. The imaginatively modernized promenade is a great place to stroll and hang out; between it and the beach, a grassy park has free electric BBQs, picnic tables and shelters. The beach is popular with families (there’s an excellent children’s playground above the southern end), while at the northern end you’ll find the Beach Palace Hotel, a 1980s restoration of the 1887 Coogee Palace Aquarium.
The fast-growing town of Port Macquarie, at the mouth of the Hastings River, has a beautiful natural setting. Long, sandy beaches extend far along the coast, while the hinterland is dotted with forests, mountains and pretty towns. A string of fine beaches runs down the ocean-facing side of town (Town, Flynn’s and Lighthouse are patrolled); perhaps the best way to spend a day in Port Macquarie is to rent a bike and explore the cliff-top paths and roads that link them all.
Some 500m northwest of the centre, Ned’s Beach is a popular place to feed trevally, whiting and kingfish; the best way to experience the frenzy is to snorkel. Harmless but menacing-looking, metre-long Galapagos sharks are usually around, and coral lies only ten metres from the shore. Consider returning at dusk for the clumsy arrival of the muttonbirds (sooty shearwaters; here Sept–May) at their burrows among the palms at the back of the beach.
The Kingston area is the site of Norfolk Island’s main swimming beaches, protected by a small reef. Immediately in front of the walls of the ruined barracks is Slaughter Bay, which has a sandy beach dotted with interesting gnarled and eroded basalt rock formations; the small hard-coral reef is excellent for snorkelling. At low tide you can take a glass-bottomed boat cruise from nearby Emily Bay, which is also a beautiful, safe swimming area backed by a large pine forest.
At the northern point of Barrenjoey Peninsula is Palm Beach, a hangout for the rich and famous and a popular city escape. It’s also the location of “Summer Bay” in the long-running Aussie soap Home and Away, with the picturesque bush-covered Barrenjoey Head – part of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park – regularly in shot.
The long, beautiful sweep of Collaroy Beach shades into Narrabeen Beach, an idyllic spot backed by extensive, swimmable and fishable Narrabeen Lakes, popular with anglers, kayakers and families. Beyond Narrabeen, Mona Vale is a long, straight stretch of beach with a large park behind and a sea pool dividing it from sheltered Bongin Bay.
The Barrenjoey Peninsula has calm Pittwater on its western side and ocean beaches running up its eastern side. Unassuming Bilgola Beach, next door to Newport and nestled at the base of a steep cliff, is one of the prettiest of the northern beaches, with its distinctive orange sand. From Bilgola, a trio of Sydney’s best beaches, for both surf and scenery, runs up the eastern fringe of the hammerhead peninsula. One of the most convenient is Avalon Beach, popular surfer territory backed by a set of shops and the Avalon Beach Backpackers.
On the ocean side of the Kurnell Peninsula sits Sydney's southernmost beach suburb and its longest stretch of beach – just under 5km; the sandy stretch of Bate Bay begins at Cronulla and continues as deserted, dune-backed Wanda Beach. This is prime surfing territory – and the only Sydney beach accessible by train. Steeped in surf culture, everything about centres on watersports and a laidback beach lifestyle, from the multitude of surf shops on Cronulla Street, to the outdoor cafes on the beachfront and surfrider clubs and boating facilities on the bay.
The cliffs of King Edward Park are momentarily interrupted by Susan Gilmore Beach, arguably Newcastle’s most beautiful beach, and definitely its most visually unadulterated – cliff-rimmed and secluded enough to indulge in some nude bathing, this is a great place for a swim.
Horseshoe Bay, the island’s longest and busiest beach, half of which is developed and half of which remains blissfully secluded, with views north beyond the bobbing yachts to distant Palm Island. The beach, which is good for swimming most of the year, is backed by cafes and is a great place for activities. From Horseshoe's eastern headland, walking tracks lead over to Radical Bay by way of tiny Balding Bay, arguably the nicest on the island; you can spend a perfect day here snorkelling around the coral gardens just offshore and cooking on the hotplate provided. Radical Bay itself is another pretty spot; half a kilometre of sandy beach sandwiched between two huge, pine-covered granite fists.
Main Beach in town is as good as any to swim from, and usually has relatively gentle surf. One reason why Byron Bay is so popular with surfers is because its beaches face in all directions, so there’s almost always one with a good swell; conversely, you can usually find somewhere for a calmer swim. West of Main Beach, you can always find a spot to yourself on Belongil Beach, from where there’s sand virtually all the way to Brunswick Heads. To the east, Main Beach curves round towards Cape Byron to become Clarke’s Beach. This and neighbouring Watego’s Beach – beautifully framed between two rocky spurs – face north, and usually have the best surfing.
East of Hastings Street is the headland itself and Noosa National Park, worth a look for its mix of mature rainforest, coastal health and fine beaches – Tea Tree Bay and Alexandria Bay (“swimwear optional”) have good sand pounded by unpatrolled surf – all reached along graded paths with gorgeous views.
If you want to really escape for a few days, you couldn’t ask for a finer place to unwind than Ellis Beach, thirty minutes north of Cairns on the way to Port Douglas (it is, unfortunately, beyond the reach of bus services). Beside the popular Ellis Beach Bungalows, there’s really nothing more than an endless strip of sand and coastal belt of trees.
Across the Esplanade, the beach at Surfers Paradise is all you could want as a place to recover from your night out; it runs 5km or more north from here via Main Beach to the Spit, so finding empty sand shouldn’t be too difficult. If you’re feeling energetic, seek out a game of volleyball or head for the surf: the swell here is good in a northerly wind, but most of the time it’s better for boogie-boards.
Rainbow Beach is a very casual knot of streets set back from a fantastic beach facing into Wide Bay. The main recreations here are fishing, surfing and kiteboarding – there’s almost always a moderate south-easterly blowing – which can be arranged through your accommodation. The township itself lies either side of Rainbow Beach Road, which ends above the surf alongside a shopping centre housing a post office and store, as well as cafes, a pub and a service station. You can take a 4WD (when the ide is right) or walk 10km south along Rainbow Beach to the coloured sand cliffs at Double Island Point, whose streaks of red, orange and white are caused by minerals leaching down from the cliff-top. On the far side of the point lies the rusty frame of the Cherry Venture shipwreck, beached during a storm in 1973, then – for 4WDs only – it’s a clear 40km run down the beach to Tewantin.
Mon Repos Beach is 14km east of Bundaberg, reached by initially following Bourbong Street out of town towards the port and looking out for small brown signposts for the beach. Once the site of a French telegraph link to New Caledonia, today Mon Repos’ reputation rests on being Australia’s most accessible loggerhead turtle rookery.
Seventy-Five Mile Beach runs down the entire length of Fraser Island, and is washed on one side by the pounding surf. This is Fraser’s main road and camping ground, and one of the busiest places on the island. Vehicles hurtle along, pedestrians and anglers hug the shore, and tents dot the foredunes; this is what beckons the crowds over from the mainland.
The largest island in the group, National Parks-run Whitsunday Island, is also one of the most enjoyable. Its east coast is home to the 5km-long Whitehaven Beach, easily one of the finest in all the islands, and on the agenda of just about every cruise boat in the region. Blindingly white, and still clean despite the numbers of day-trippers and campers, it’s a beautiful spot with blissfully little to do. The headland off the southern end of the beach facing Haslewood Island is the best place for snorkelling. On the beach’s northern end, a short track winds up to popular Hill Inlet Lookout for keenly photographed views of the sand-ridden bay.
The more developed and upmarket tourist areas of Trinity Beach and Palm Cover both have spotlessly clean, palm-fringed beaches and lots of luxury holiday apartments, beach resorts, cafes, boutique shops, restaurants and watersports. You can expect to pay well over $200 per night at the resorts here, with minimum stays enforced during the high season.
South Head sits at the lower jaw of the harbour mouth affording fantastic views of Port Jackson and the city, via Sydney’s best-known nudist beach, “Lady Jane” (officially Lady Bay). From here, it’s a further fifteen minutes’ stroll along a boardwalked path to South Head itself, past nineteenth-century fortifications, lighthouse cottages, and the picturesquely red-and-white striped Hornby Lighthouse.
South of the headland and national park is the Pacific-coast suburb of Sunshine Beach, which features Noosa’s longest and least crowded stretch of sand, plus some of the town’s cheapest places to eat and stay.
Buzzing with backpackers, Airlie Beach is nestled between the sea and a hillside covered in apartments blocks, with all services crammed into one short stretch of Shute Harbour Road and the 100-metre-long Esplanade. Despite the name, Airlie Beach has only a couple of gritty stretches of sand, which get covered at high tide – though the view of the deep turquoise bay, dotted with yachts and cruisers, is gorgeous.
Newcastle Beach, only a few hundred metres from the city on Shorthand Esplanade, has patrolled swimming between flags, a sandy saltwater pool perfect for children, shaded picnic tables and good surfing at its southern end. At the northern end, the beautifully painted, Art Deco-style, free Ocean Baths houses the changing pavilions for the huge saltwater pool, which has its own diving board.
Top image: Bondi Beach, Sydney © Gavin Morrison/Shutterstock