Boating is understandably pretty big in the land Down Under. The country counts a mega 34,000km of shoreline, over 1,000 river estuaries, the world’s largest coral reef, and idyllic tropical islands in its roster. But where are the best places to sail in Australia?
Cue this guide. It will aim to whittle down the umpteen options for would-be skippers in the land of kangaroos and Victoria Bitter, offering just seven final choices that we think are the crème-de-la-crème of locations for pulling up the anchor and unfurling the mainsail.
There’s a good mix of spots. Yep, our selection of the best places to sail in Australia brims with exotic islets in the Pacific and wave-washed winelands that poke into the Indian Ocean. There’s also a mention of Tasmania and the famous harbor in Sydney. Let’s begin…
Prepare to be wowed by the landscapes of the Whitsundays. It’s a place beset by swirls of cotton-hued sand that emanate like haloes from the lush jungles, all framed by the salty waters of the Tasman Sea, forever glowing in a patchwork of aquamarine and lapis lazuli when the sun beats down during the day. AKA – it’s pretty breathtaking stuff, and hardly a wonder the beaches here are continually named among the best in the world.
It’s also hardly a wonder that this region is up there with the best places to sail in Australia. Poking from the side of Queensland, it covers 74 islands that fragment from the side of the wild Conway National Park.
Among them is the namesake Whitsunday Island itself. That’s the biggest of the group, and the home of the brochure-fodder of a beach that is Whitehaven (it’s not to be missed on any boat tour). There’s also Hamilton Island, now something of a five-star escape, complete with upscale hotels, wedding venues, and classy restaurants.
The Great Barrier Reef
Sailing in the Great Barrier Reef is the obvious extension to a tour of sailing in the aforementioned Whitsundays. It’s also a real joy to do on its own, since it offers to whisk you away to the single largest expanse of coral garden on the whole planet. In all, the whole thing stretches more than 2,300km through the Aussie Pacific, encompassing 900 islands a over a quarter of a million square kilometers of land.
Day trips are possible thanks to the proximity of marinas in Port Douglas, Gladstone, and Cairns. Boats typically leave very early in the morning and visit one designated part of the reef that keeps them away from other operators, mainly because overcrowding here is strictly controlled.
You can also plan multi-day charters that stop off at some of the islands nestled within. Potential pitstops might include uber-lux Bedarra Island, where there’s a five-star resort shrouded by primeval rainforest, and Haggerstone Island, also home to a luxury hotel.
It might seem cliché, but we don’t think there’s any list of the best places to sail in Australia that could miss out on just a nod towards this iconic stretch of water. Granted, it’s not one for the academic sailors and yachters since it’s both small and protected. However, it is a doozy for sightseers who like to check off their itineraries from the water.
You’ve got plenty of choices when it comes to boats here. Public ferries and charter yachts alike leave daily from Circular Quay and other major marinas in the area. They can take you out to the famous surf beaches of Manly or the uber-cool boho beach hubs of Bondi. Or they’ll provide romantic sunset packages that include dinner and wines with a view of the city as twilight sets in.
Whatever you go for, you can rest assured that the experience will be one to remember. The landmarks are usually enough on their own. Keep watch for the white arcs of the Sydney Opera House, the metal-wrought outline of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the vast green spaces of the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney to name just a few!
The region of Margaret River is mainly famed for two things: Wine and surfing. There are countless cellar doors dotting the bush forests behind the shoreline. Meanwhile, the shoreline itself is a montage of craggy headlands interspersed with wide beaches and reefs, all of which feels the full force of the Indian Ocean swell throughout the whole year.
Sailing isn’t the most popular way to get around this distant and lovely corner of WA but it can be an experience you’ll never forget. Some tours will take you out of lovely Busselton town to see the humpback whales that come in pods at certain times of the year. Others will offer family cruises on proper wind-driven yachts to idyllic Geographe Bay and Cape Naturaliste.
If you’d prefer to go it alone, then know that the main marina is located in aforementioned Busselton. Beyond that, the Margaret River region spans southwards in a series of smaller surf towns and beach villages, many of which have no jetties to speak of.
Not all sailing meccas in the land Down Under are on the open oceans. Cue Lake Macquarie, a sprawling body of water that spreads inland from the New South Wales coastline into the rising hills and eucalyptus woods of the Sugarloaf State Conservation Area. In all, it encompasses a whopping 110 square kilometers, which translates to twice the sailing space of nearby Sydney Harbor!
Boats of all shapes and sizes can be catered to here. There are rental spots for small pedalos but also charter companies that can help you plan multi-day adventures on 40+ footers.
We really like the idea of making it more than just a half-day jaunt, though. Sticking around Lake Macquarie for the long run means you’ll have enough time to alight at the myriad reserves and national parks that fringe the banks. They include Munmorah State Conservation Area, a land of powdery white beaches and koala-filled forests, and the Watagans National Park, which comes webbed with hiking trails on dusty ridges.
Tasmania is the wilder, more rugged fragment of Australia that sits in the cooler waters of the Southern Ocean at the very end of the Tasman Sea. It’s considered a mecca for cruising trips (trips where you live aboard while moving from place to place) thanks to its generous size and diversity of boating areas.
The most popular region to pull up the anchor is the east of Tasmania. That’s not because it’s more beautiful or has any special attractions, but rather because there tends to be better protection from the unceasing swells that roll up from Antarctica. You’ll still need to seek out quieter harbors to stop in, though, which can be done at Wineglass Bay or Orford to name just two.
The northern part of Tasmania is a doozy in the calmer summer months because it offers some top island-hopping opportunities. There’s a whole clutch of rocks speckling the southern end of the Bass Strait, from Cape Barren to Hunter Island. They’re all unique and different, often covered in salt-washed headlands and old-growth rainforests.
Occupying a bend in the Victoria coastline at the western entrance to the Bass Strait, the Gippsland Lakes are a series of waterways fed by the rivers that roll down from the highlands deeper into the state. They can be seen as something like Oz’s answer to the Norfolk Broads of England, only with less of the rural idyl and more of the ocean drama about them.
The three main bodies of water are Lake King, Lake Wellington, and Lake Victoria. It’s possible to navigate through the whole lot because they’re interconnected by canals and riverways that are totally open to boat travelers. As you go, you’ll encounter all manner of marine and riparian habitats, from saltmarsh lagoons to sand dunes to lonely sandbars.
We’d say that the wildlife is the highlight of a sailing trip to Gippsland. Visitors can witness kangaroos on the banks of Rotamah Island. Dolphins often make an appearance in the larger parts of the lakes. And there are chances to see humpback and southern right whales out on the oceanside of the dunes.
The best places to sail in Australia – our conclusion
There’s no hard and fast rule about where you find the best places to sail in Australia. Our list alone offers hints on sprawling lake regions in Victoria, coral reef systems in Queensland, and surf meccas out in lonely WA. To put it another way – you’ve got oodles to pick from if you come to Oz wanting to feel the salt spray and see the wind in the sails! Generally speaking, the best time to launch a boating adventure in these parts is the summertime, which runs from November to March in the Southern Hemisphere.