South Australia’s sublime Kangaroo Island sits just 13.5 kilometres off the coast of the mainland, yet seemingly just beyond the consciousness of many Australian travellers.
While the island is well patronised by South Australians themselves, the number of international visitors has historically outstripped that of interstate Aussie travellers. That’s difficult to fathom, given what this incredible destination has to offer — including some of the country’s most wondrous wildlife viewing opportunities. There are no foxes or rabbits on the island, and from walking along a beach occupied by wild sea lions to spotting dolphins cavorting off the coast, or extra furry black-faced Kangaroo Island kangaroos (a sub species of the mainland western grey kangaroo) grazing at dusk, there are seemingly endless opportunities to mingle with the furry and feathered locals.
Add to that Kangaroo Island’s spectacular windswept natural beauty, a rich history to explore, and an exciting gourmet food and wine scene, and you have all the makings of a truly extraordinary holiday.
Kangaroo Island (known simply as ‘KI’ to the island’s residents) does take a bit of effort to get to — and some forward planning for getting around once you’re there. There are 30-minute flights from Adelaide (and seasonal flights from Melbourne), but you will need to pick up a hire car on arrival. At 4,500 square kilometres in size, the island is the third biggest in Australia (behind Tassie and Melville Island in the Northern Territory) and the best bits are impossible to reach without wheels.
For that reason, many Adelaidians favour doing the 1.5-hour drive from the capital to Cape Jervis through the stunning Fleurieu Peninsula and taking their car across the Backstairs Passage on the SeaLink ferry, which docks at the island’s port town of Penneshaw. That’s obviously not an option for most other visitors, and it’s worth noting that hire cars from the mainland generally can’t be taken across to the island. Therefore, book your car hire on the island well in advance to get the best price.
Here are ten top things to do on Kangaroo Island.
Take a walk on the wild side at Seal Bay Conservation Park
Located on the southern flank of the island and with nothing but ocean between them and Antarctica, the Australian sea lion colony that calls this dramatically beautiful spot home seem more than happy to share their space with the small groups of human visitors that troop down onto the beach at regular intervals with a Parks SA ranger. There are no fences or enclosures at Seal Bay Conservation Park; it’s just you and the sea lions — some of them up to 350 kilograms in weight. Tours run for 45-minutes and include commentary from your ranger guide. Officially, ten metres is as close as you’re allowed to get to the animals but try explaining that to an inquisitive adolescent sea lion!
Watch our video of ten top things to do on Kangaroo Island:
Welcome to The Big Bus tour and travel guide. In this video, we bring you a handy checklist of ten amazing things to do on Kangaroo Island, located just off …
Explore Flinders Chase National Park
Regardless of how busy your ferry is, one of the beauties of holidaying on Kangaroo Island is that once everyone disperses from the port, you’ll literally feel like you have the entire place to yourself. That’s certainly the case in Flinders Chase National Park, located at the wild and woolly western end of the island. Check out the historic Cape De Couedic Lightstation, which marks the start of the walk down to Admirals Arch — home to an aromatic colony of New Zealand fur seals. The park is also populated by the aforementioned KI kangaroo, the tammar wallaby, Cape Barren geese, koalas, echidnas and many more species of wildlife. Walking is a great way to immerse yourself in the beauty of the landscape and there are plenty of memorable hiking trails to choose from.
See the Remarkable Rocks at sunset
Also located in Flinders Chase National Park are the Remarkable Rocks — a collection of giant natural sculptures that perch atop a rocky outcrop on the island’s southwest coastline. Worn smooth over millennia by the howling winds that sweep up from Antarctica, these pieces would look right at home in any of the world’s top art galleries. They’re absolutely exquisite at sunset. The sinking sun to the west bathes the rocks in a warm orange and pink glow. Hold on to your hat when the wind is up!
Go below at Kelly Hill Caves
For a more in-depth introduction to the island’s geological makeup, pay a visit to the fascinating Kelly Hill Caves. The small visitor centre and cave system entrance sit on the edge of the Cape Bouguer Wilderness Protection Area — 5,300 hectares of pristine coastal habitat — part of which can be traversed on the epic 5-day Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail (the trail finishes at the caves). Guided tours of the limestone cave system are offered daily. The Show Cave Tour takes around 40 minutes and includes commentary from your expert guide. See a magnificent array of rock formations, including spectacular coloured shawls.
With its crashing waves, windswept beauty and rugged charm, you’d be hard pressed to find a more inspiring setting than Kangaroo Island to fuel the work of creatives. The island is a haven for artistic types and harbours a vibrant arts scene. Drop by Fine Art Kangaroo Island in Kingscote — a one stop shop, to view the work of around thirty fine artists, sculptors, potters and jewellery makers.
Try some top local drops
KI’s delights are not solely those of the natural world. However, it does play an important role in flavouring the island’s flourishing winemaking, brewing and distilling scene. Wine lovers are well catered for at The Islander Estate’s cellar door, which can be found in the island’s northeast — just a short drive from the relaxed town of Kingscote. Enjoy a tasting of the zesty reds and whites, accompanied by a bite to eat from the onsite food van (seasonal). Located within easy reach of Penneshaw, Dudley Wines’ cellar door at Cuttlefish Bay is also well worth a visit. Do a wine tasting, then relax on the deck with a bottle of your favourite drop and enjoy the spectacular views.
Beer lovers should make a beeline for the rustic Kangaroo Island Brewery — a micro brewhouse that produces 100% Kangaroo Island originated beers. Nearby, KI Spirits has a rustic country setting that underscores the traditional processes used to distil its small batch spirits — including a superb range of gins infused with various local botanicals.
Taste-test KI’s best
European settlement of Kangaroo Island occurred as part of the establishment of the colony of South Australia in 1836, and from the get-go the island’s relative isolation necessitated a robust culture of food production. Today, KI is renowned for the quality of its produce and there are plenty of delicious opportunities to taste test the island’s best. For bounty from the surrounding ocean, drop by Kangaroo Island Fresh Seafoods in Kingscote. Buy fresh or opt for freshly cooked takeaway. Much of what you see in the cabinet is caught by local fisherman.
Down by the sheltered waters of American River, The Oyster Farm Shop operates as a farm gate for Kangaroo Island Shellfish (located straight over the road from the shop), which farms native KI oysters, pacific oysters, abalone and more. The low-key setting belies the quality of the produce. Dine in with a choice from the mouth-watering tasting menu or take away and savour at your leisure.
There are a number of honey producers on the island, but Clifford’s Honey Farm is a firm favourite with locals and visitors alike, not least of all because of proprietor Jenny Clifford’s famous honey ice cream! Visit the shop and browse the array of honey-based products. Guided tours of the farm are available by appointment.
A local’s tip… If you happen to be driving along Cape Willoughby Road in the hills behind Penneshaw, pull off at number 249 and check out Hut 249 — a roadside larder of local delicacies, housed in a small yellow hut. The hut is usually stocked with all manner of honeys, sauces, preserves and the like, and operates on an honesty system. Shoppers record their purchases in the book and deposit their payment in the money box. We kid you not. Check it out!
Step back in time at the Penneshaw Maritime and Folk Museum
Life on KI today undoubtedly presents many challenges for the island’s 4,500 or so permanent residents, but one can only wonder what the isolation must have been like for the early pioneers. Find out at the fascinating Penneshaw Maritime and Folk Museum. Managed by the National Trust, the museum is open Wednesday to Sunday from September to May, between 3 and 5pm. If those hours don’t work for you, it’s possible to arrange a viewing by appointment. The displays are comprehensive and well-presented. It will take you a couple of hours to really do the collection justice.
Enjoy some café culture
Café culture is alive and well on the island and there are plenty of great cafes to check out during your stay. In Kingscote, swing by the super popular Cactus on Dauncey Street. Get there early for brunch (try the mind-blowing sweetcorn fritters!) or be prepared to wait for a table. In Penneshaw, there are plenty of waist-expanding reasons to visit The Fat Beagle Coffee Shop, including their indescribably good house-made vanilla slices. Snaffle a sunny spot on the lawn and enjoy your creamy indulgence as you watch the world drift by. In American River, The River Deck Café is quirkily cool. The work of local artists adorns the walls and the eclectic range of souvenirs is fun to browse. And finally, get on the trail of the Beach Barista. This blue and white-striped cara-coffee-van can normally be found in the carpark at Pennington Bay on the south side of the island (off Hog Bay Road), but also pops up at special events.
Shop ’til you drop at the Penneshaw Markets
If you happen to be in town on the first Sunday of the month between October and April, check out the fabulous Penneshaw Markets. Meet local food growers and producers and peruse the wares of a variety of artisans. The atmosphere is festive and relaxed. Markets are also held on days when cruise ships dock at the island.
Infinity Beach House
At Infinity Beach House just outside Penneshaw, the aqua blue waters of the Backstairs Passage and the Great Australian Bight seem to literally fill the entire living space. This is self-contained, absolute oceanfront accommodation at its finest, and offers unobstructed clifftop views across the Bight towards the shimmering Australian mainland. Infinity Beach House can comfortably sleep up to eleven guests, spread across four bedrooms — two queen rooms (one with a luxury ensuite and deck access) and two single rooms with two bunk beds in each. The stylish open plan kitchen, dining and living space (complete with an amazing artwork by celebrated Kangaroo Island artist Janine Mackintosh) flows seamlessly out onto the full length deck, while the separate recreational space downstairs would work perfectly as a teens’ retreat.
You can roll off the ferry at Penneshaw and be at Infinity Beach House with your feet up in minutes. The walk into town will take you around 10 minutes each way, but prising yourself away from that extraordinary view won’t be easy!
For more information, please visit www.authentickangarooisland.com.au.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do on Kangaroo Island? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image: Chris Bray. Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Australia, Europe, Asia, North America, parts of South America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the Tour the World travel TV series on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.