There are dozens of picture-perfect islands off the east coast of Australia that look like heaven on earth: clear blue water, white sand beaches, adorable wildlife, no humans to be found.
Heaven ain’t cheap. Various packages through tourist agencies often start at AUD$500 per day per person. Getting there and exploring on your own isn’t any more affordable. The ferry rides (or private jet/chopper/yacht) are pricey, accommodations on the islands are extortionate, and many require you to have a 4×4 vehicle. If you don’t have one, don’t worry, there are plenty of rentals starting at AUD$400/day…
With the likes of Fraser Island and Heron Island being off the table, we found one in our van life budget: Great Keppel Island
The main island has pristine beaches with soft sand and unbelievably clear blue water, and it is a gateway for exploring the Southern Great Barrier Reef. You can see the reef via scuba diving, snorkeling excursions, or simply buying your own snorkel gear and swimming. For fellow frugal travelers, I’d highly recommend the later.
We picked up our snorkels and masks at Big W for AUD$26 a pop, packed up a suitcase filled with food and a change of clothes, and headed over for a spot-on 36 hour island experience.
Keppel Konnections, the ferry, leaves from a marina in Yeppon. Round trip tickets are AUD$45/pp, the parking is free, and the ride takes 30-40 minutes. Each passenger is allowed one suitcase, one personal bag, and an Eskey (aka cooler for my non-aussie friends)
TIP: The ferry will give you the number to parking service that offers secure overnight parking for AUD$15 a day. However, there is a massive free parking lot right across from the ferry full of overnight parkers.
There are three accommodation options on the island, and we went with the cheapest: The Great Keppel Island Hideaway, which was AUD$109/night. (The complex in the left side of the above photo). Our “family room” was hostel style, with bunk beds, one twin bed, and one full bed. We had a shared bathroom with a shower, toilet, and sink with the same type of room on the other side. There were a dozen or so of this type of room surrounding a central courtyard with a full kitchen including multiple fridges and freezers, a gas stove, BBQs, kettle, microwave, and any type of utensil you could need.
The oddest thing was that we were the only people… not that I’m complaining.
The room wasn’t what I’d describe as “clean.” Nor was the bathroom. There was dirt in the nooks and crannies and the shower was in need of solid scrub down. While the price tag is cheap by island accommodation standards, it seemed odd that the space wasn’t a bit cleaner given the lack of other patrons and ever-present COVID standards.
A highlight was that we weren’t price gouged or pressured with sales pitches luring us into dropping the big bucks for excursions. Being able to bring all our own food and drinks meant we didn’t have to spend a dime on anything else. Although, how could we say no to an AUD$5 happy hour beer at The Bistro?
The staff were all young and mostly foreign with that undeniable backpacker vibe. It wouldn’t be too bad to live on a tropical island with plenty of diving opportunities in exchange for a few hours work, that’s for sure.
The furthest point on the island was a 6 hour bush walk, but we opted for Monkey Beach; the recommended snorkeling spot. And OH MAN was it great. So great that it was where we spent the majority of both day 1 and day 2. During low tide, the reef is an easy swim away and there is loads to see.
Below: That dark blob is the reef right off of Monkey Beach. The oppose side of that little peninsula is Long Beach
TIP: The route to monkey beach as shown on the map involves quite a rocky, steep hill. Instead, take the path to Long Beach then walk around to Monkey Beach. OR, if the tide is low, you can simply walk along the rocks on the coast line to get around.
We saw colorful schools of all types of fish, giant clams, and even a few clown fish. The highlight was 3 massive turtles. I’d guess each was 1m across, give or take. While the first two swam off in hurry due to our frantic underwater “LOOK TURTLE” communications, the third allowed us to stick around a bit. We swam with it for 15 minutes, watching it eat, pop up for air, and mosey about. I found it fascinating watching the gentle giant aggressively break off pieces of coral with its nose and front flippers, take a little bite of something, then discard the rest.
The Great Keppel Island is an affordable island destination that is perfect for beach and ocean enthusiasts. It isn’t teeming with other tourists, you won’t feel pressured by sales pitches.