Australia's best-kept secret? Kangaroo Island

by Melinda

Kangaroo Island is the Australia that many foreigners think the rest of the country is like - you really can see a kangaroo hopping down the main road, as well as stunning beaches and a unique coast

Growing up in Sydney, I'm ashamed to admit even I hadn't heard of Kangaroo Island until I moved to South Australia 15 years ago.

With beaches that have been voted some of the world's best, the opportunity to see Australia's famous animals in their natural habitat, delicious locally-grown produce and some of the friendliest people you'll ever meet, it continues to surprise that more people don't know about this Down Under gem. But maybe that's for the best, because its "untouched" beauty is one of the things that makes the island (KI to those in the know) so great.

To get to KI, you need to travel via road from Adelaide. If you're coming from overseas, don't forget that Adelaide is a good 1500km or two-day drive from Sydney (or a two-hour plane trip). Adelaide is a great little city to spend a day or two in, and also makes a good starting point if you're planning to make the trek north to Uluru and beyond.

But to KI from Adelaide, you drive south to Cape Jervis, which should take 60-90 minutes and takes you past some beautiful wine country and stunning coastline. The ferry to KI runs a few times a day (www.sealink.com.au) and costs $40 an adult and $80 a vehicle each way. However most Adelaide rental companies won't let you take their cars over, and if you want to see the best bits of the island you'll need a 4WD, so you're probably better off renting a vehicle over there.

The island is bigger than you might think, and there is lots to see, so you need three days minimum, preferably more, to take it all in. If you're looking at doing a package tour, don't be taken in by the promise of a quick one or two day visit - you will be disappointed at all you miss out on. If you're heading over on your own steam, use the 45 minute ferry ride to study a map of the island closely and make sure you mark out all the places you want to see while you're there.

The ferry arrives in Penneshaw, which is a lovely spot for a night's stay and where you can see fairy penguins at night year-round except February. Also on this end of the island are some stunning coastal views from Cape Willoughby Lighthouse and some historical points of interest where both Englishman Matthew Flinders and Frenchman Nicholas Baudin navigated the coast in the 1800s.

Heading west across the island most people choose to stay in either American River (which boasts the high-end Kangaroo Island Lodge) or Kingscote (the main town with a variety of accommodation options to suit most budgets such as the Ozone Hotel or the KI Acacia Apartments). There are also some great bed & breakfasts scattered across the island.

Locals and tourists alike debate which are KI's best beaches, so it's worth visiting a few to make up your own mind. Vivonne Bay was apparently voted best in the world in one survey, with its long curved white sand - the perfect spot for a picnic. However, many locals prefer Emu Bay - it is a little more off the beaten track and there are no nearby facilities, but it's gorgeous. My personal favourite is Stokes Bay where you have to walk through some cave-like rocks before you emerge onto a beach which has its own rock pool, plenty of space for walking and great waves. Stokes Bay is also one of the few beaches out of town where you can buy food; it has a great little cafe with a lovely view - www.the-rockpool-cafe.com.au and camping grounds available.

Flinders Chase National Park, on the far side of the island, contains 32,000 hectares of bush and wildlife heaven alongside stunning coastal views. Most popular are the uniquely beautiful Remarkable Rocks and the place where the seals hang out - Admiral's Arch - both located on the southern tip of the park.

Kelly Hill Caves and Conservation Park showcases a different side of KI, where you can head underground beneath the bush to view the unique limestone cave formations.

Must-tastes on the island include the lavender ice-cream at Emu Bay Lavender Farm, haloumi cheese at Island Pure Sheep Dairy, honey from KI's unique strain of bees at Clifford's Honey Farm, and local seafood in any of the island's restaurants. There are also plenty of wineries to visit on the island.

And of course, on KI it's all about the animals. If you keep your eyes open you'll see plenty, whether a koala in a tree by the side of the road, kangaroos or wallabys bounding down the road at sunset, or snakes and lizards sunning themselves on the sand.

If you love Australia's cuddly koalas (which, by the way, are not bears) then make sure you stop at Koala Walk in the middle of the island. You will see plenty of gorgeous koalas there, and hopefully a baby or two.

In Flinders Chase you can take various bushwalks to different habitats of rarer animals, including echidna and platypus. Seal Bay, a conservation park on KI's south coast, offers the uncommon chance to walk on the beach alongside sea-lions.

There are also a couple of wildlife parks where you are guaranteed to see all your favourite furry creatures up close and personal. If you have kids with you, then be sure to visit Paul's Place, a quirky family run park where you can get hands on with kangaroos, emus, sheep, koalas, possums, birds aplenty and perhaps even a snake.

However long you have to spend on the island, you'll probably find yourself running out of time, and once you leave you will no doubt join the ranks of those who have discovered this well-kept secret and begin sharing it with everyone they meet!