The best spots for water sports in Australia

Water sports in Australia

Enjoying the best spots for water sports in Australia takes you around the country, from Sydney’s best surfing beaches to remote coral reefs. 

Splashing into the sea is as much a beloved symbol of Australia as laughing kookaburras, the smell of eucalyptus, and sunsets on Uluru. There are so many ways to enjoy the Pacific and Indian Oceans, Tasman and Timor Seas, and the country’s various other bodies of water, too – from sailing to kitesurfing. Surfing is so popular that kids in spots such as Wollongong and Toowoomba learn to handle a board before they can walk – and choosing the finest surf beach is harder than selecting the Australian Open’s best serve.

But it’s not all about Oz’s globally famous surf breaks and dive sites, with intrepid kayakers exploring Outback rivers and desert islands, while stand-up paddleboarders glide around Sydney Harbour and the Noosa Everglades. In this outdoorsy nation, every state has its favourite places to cool off with a snorkel or on a windsurf board. Indeed, our list of best surfing beaches, classic sailing routes, and more shows that Australia’s awesome natural diversity is vividly reflected by its glorious rivers, lakes, lagoons, and oceans.

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Things to do in Surfers Paradise: join the tanned crowds on the sand

This hub of Queensland’s beloved Gold Coast, the holiday strip that attracts most of Brisvegas to its condos and theme parks, is a mellow spot for surfers of all levels. You’ll catch easterly swells during the windier months of February to July, with sand bars contributing to a straight beach break, but this is not the place to ride bravely into a 50-year storm. There are plenty of newbies in the lineup, while experienced surfers warm up in these gentle waves before heading to the likes of Narrowneck, Burleigh Heads, Currumbin Point, and Kirra.

Things to do in Phillip Island: surf the windblown promontory of Cape Woolamai

While many surfers find bliss at Byron Bay and Bondi Beach in the east, pro riders head south on the Great Ocean Road to Bells Beach – the setting for the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach and the end of Point Break – and Melbourne’s favourite island. The highest point on Phillip Island, Cape Woolamai is a wild peninsula with a long beach between rolling waves and a nature reserve. Its exposed position on the Bass Strait leads to volatile conditions and dangerous rips, but a southwest swell combined with an offshore wind from the northeast creates clean waves for longer rides.


Things to do in Nitmiluk National Park: explore the gorge’s gnarly sandstone cliffs

Deep in the vast Northern Territory, this lesser-known southern neighbour of Kakadu National Park is home to some 2,900 square kilometres of arid sandstone landscape, riven by the Katherine River. Kayaking the resultant Katherine Gorge – actually a string of 13 looming canyons – is a dinky-di Outback experience, which may involve carrying your boat between the upper gorges. Stop at the visitor centre for info, permits, and tours, such as the two-day Barrak Barrak adventure, during which you’ll camp in the wilderness.

Things to do in the Whitsunday Islands: paddle to remote beaches and see rock art

See a wilder side of tropical Queensland’s famous island group on the Whitsunday Ngaro Sea Trail, a kayaking and hiking loop around Whitsunday, South Molle, and Hook Island. Named after the Ngaro people who have called the area home for more than 9,000 years, this adventure will take you from hidden seaways to winding paths, surrounded by azure waters and secluded forests. Camping in remote coves, Airlie Beach and mainland Australia seem very far away indeed.

Diving and snorkelling

Things to do in Exmouth: swim with whale sharks on the Ningaloo Reef

With the Great Barrier Reef topping must-dive lists, Western Australia’s underwater beauts are sometimes overlooked; which is a shame because, like the rest of Oz’s largest state, sites such as Rowley Shoals – three coral atolls, some 300km offshore – are truly epic. More accessible is Australia’s second –largest, and a UNESCO World Heritage-listed, reef, 260km-long Ningaloo, where divers can swim with whale sharks, humpback whales, and manta rays. On one of the world’s largest fringing reefs, snorkelers can look forward to floating over verdant coral gardens among shoals of iridescent fish.

Things to do in Port Douglas: pull on your mask to experience the Ribbon Reefs

Dive sites are thicker than reef sharks along the legendary Great Barrier Reef, but few can compete with the Queensland town of Port Douglas, surrounded by the biodiverse tropical ecosystems of Daintree National Park and Agincourt Reef. The Ribbon Reefs are one of the most beautiful parts of the Great Barrier Reef, running parallel to the continental shelf with a 500m drop into the blue depths beyond. More than a dozen dive sites boast caves, swim-through channels, and green sea turtles hiding on plate corals, while snorkelers can also see stripey butterfly fish, neon-blue damsel fish, and shimmering parrotfish.


Things to do in Hobart: see the rugged coastline by sailboat

The Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race’s finishing line is in the Tassie capital for good reason. Casting off from Constitution Dock and gliding down the River Derwent estuary to Storm Bay, surrounded by the island state’s knotted bays and islands, is one of the world’s classic sailing experiences. The most popular route takes you through the majestic D’Entrecasteaux Channel to Bruny Island, where you’ll see dolphins, seals, and whales beneath some of the southern hemisphere’s tallest sea cliffs.

Things to do in Airlie Beach: set sail to the idyllic Whitsunday Islands

The jelly wrestling and foam parties are just a sideshow: it’s sailing that draws streams of Aussie holidaymakers and pasty backpackers down the Bruce Highway to this end-of-the-road beach town. Neighbouring Shute Harbour is the launchpad for brochure-perfect days spent on deck; enjoying the warmth of the sun on your face while sailing away to a desert island. With some 74 Whitsunday Islands scattering the dazzling turquoise waters of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, you can choose between relaxing sunset cruises and multiday adventures.

Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP)

Things to do in Sydney: see the famous harbour by paddleboard

SUP is a slower-paced activity than many water sports in Australia, giving nature lovers time to take in the scenery – which is why New South Wales’ number one city is a paddleboarding stunner. You can hop straight off the plane and onto a board at dinky Malabar Beach, just around the corner from Botany Bay, while nearby Cronulla is another popular paddling spot. On Sydney Harbour, Watsons Bay offers a sheltered location on the landward side of South Head, Manly Beach has challenging waves, and you can do SUP yoga at calm Balmoral Beach.

Things to do in Noosa: drift down the river

SUP boards are as familiar to this chichi Sunshine Coast holiday haven as sunnies, cozzies, and Aussie celebs. And for good reason: the southern Queensland getaway’s prime position amid the coastal lagoon system of Noosa River Mouth, backed by the only Everglades wetlands outside of Florida, creates a glorious network of waterways for paddleboarding and kayaking. Relax on the lazy river or strike out on a tour to the Great Sandy National Park.

Kitesurfing and windsurfing

Things to do in St Kilda: kitesurf on the sheltered bay of Port Phillip

Kitesurfing has taken off faster than a volleyball on Australia Day, with kites flecking the skies from Noosaville (QLD) to Safety Bay (WA), but the boho Melbourne suburb of St Kilda has developed a rep for the sport. With its location on Port Phillip and easy access to a string of beaches that collectively offer flat water for all wind directions, it’s no surprise that the chilled spot has produced enough freestyle kiting champions to fill a ute.

Things to do in Lancelin: attempt a back loop before breakfast

While windsurfing experts head south to Margaret River, the beach town of Lancelin, just a couple hours’ drive north of Perth, offers perfect conditions for beginners and gurus alike. With its 12,000km coastline, Western Australia is prime windsurfing territory, and Lancelin Wind Festival (formerly Lancelin Ocean Classic) celebrates the sport every January, culminating in a race from neighbouring Ledge Point. Lancelin’s calm water and reef breaks will make you fall in love with windsurfing all over again.

James Bainbridge

James is a travel and lifestyle writer with 20 years’ experience, many of them spent updating Lonely Planet guidebooks. Contributing articles to publications such as the UK Guardian and Condé Nast Traveller has taken him all over the world, from Timbuktu to Tasmania, and you can read his stories at:

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