Your Ultimate Guide to Kangaroo Island
23rd November 2021
Kangaroo Island in a nutshell
Kangaroo Island is an oasis of native bushland, wildlife and dramatic coastline measuring 509km. Raw and rugged in nature, it’s a nature-lovers playground. Well known for its incredible beaches featuring gorgeous clear water and breathtaking scenery, tracing the best bits of the coastline alone will keep visitors occupied for days on end. Yet on top of its natural beauty, Kangaroo Island also boasts strong local pride, a friendly community and plenty of local business to make a trip truly special. From local wineries to cosy cafes, chic distilleries and all the activities you could ask for, Kangaroo Island has it all!
Known as Karta Pintingga – literally meaning the Island of the Dead in local Kaurna language – it might surprise you to know that South Australia’s precious island destination is the country’s third largest island after Tasmania and Melville Island. Accessible by ferry from the foot of the Fleurieu Peninsula and by plane from Adelaide, a day trip here (or even a short weekend trip) is simply not enough.
A brief history of Kangaroo Island
Following rising sea levels associated with the Last Glacial Period around 10,000 years ago, the population of Aboriginal People of Kangaroo Island is thought to have disappeared. In the 1800s, the island was then subsequently settled by whalers and sealers who formed a permanent base. Having said this, there is some debate as to whether this is correct. In the 1930s Aboriginal campsites were discovered in a handful of locations around the Island, including one near the current fur seal colony of Cape du Couedic.
On Kangaroo Island today, the economy has been largely reliant on agriculture, fishing and increasingly, tourism. In 2020, devastating bushfires took out a great deal of the island’s native bushland and destroyed the livelihoods of many people, also wiping out a great deal of precious wildlife. Approximately 52% of the island was burnt. Today, Kangaroo Island is and for many years will be recovering from these bushfires.
Things to do on Kangaroo Island
In this Ultimate Guide to Kangaroo Island, we share the very best things to do, see, try, taste and discover as you explore this beautiful corner of South Australia. We’ve taken care of everything. All you have to do is read and then book your perfect Weekend Escape to Kangaroo Island!
Drop by some wineries
Kangaroo Island is a lesser known but excellent wine region in South Australia. The region offers a handful of wineries which are perfect to pop into as you explore the nooks and crannies of the beautiful island. Here are a few of our favourites:
Bay of Shoals
Established in 1999, False Cape Vineyards was established in 1999 with the Folletts of Lake Breeze Wines in Langhorne Creek. The winery is found between Penneshaw and Cape Willoughby and is lucky to have an excellent north facing slope, ideal for growing quality fruit. False Cape Vineyards is today the largest vineyard on the island at 60 acres. Organic, naturally produced, sustainable products are integral to the business’ ethos.
Taste some gin and other KI spirits
Did you know that Kangaroo Island is the birthplace of Australian gin? It’s home to the country’s first dedicated gin distillery – Kangaroo Island Spirits! With an ethos that Australian native botanicals combined with a sense of craft can make the perfect gin, Kangaroo Island Spirits makes spirits that capture the essence of their surroundings.
Book a table in the Gin Garden during your trip and grab a tasting flight, or dive right in and try your own cocktail making class or gin making experience. This is one of the best things to do on Kangaroo Island if you love a good tasting experience!
Watch sea lions and Seal Bay
During a trip to the island, don’t pass up the chance to see the Sea Lions at Seal Bay. Embark on an 800m wheelchair accessible boardwalk which winds through dunes and which leads to a handful of viewing platforms. From here, you’ll see sea lions going about their daily lives. In fact, sea lions have lived in this area for thousands of years and their large population makes them a part of one of the most amazing wildlife experiences in the world.
If you’re looking to walk the boardwalk, tickets can be purchased at Seal Bay Visitor Information Centre and you can start your journey between 9am and 4pm. On the other hand, those looking for a guided experience and up-close tour will need to book with a guide.
Kick back on some Kangaroo Island beaches
Let’s face it, one of the best things to do on Kangaroo Island is to sit back and revel in the beauty of its beaches. Turquoise water and white sands – the scenes on KI are what dreams are made of. Here are a few of our favourite beaches on Kangaroo Island:
Incredible Emu Bay is one of Kangaroo Island’s best beaches and most idyllic spots. The long sandy white stretch, the picture-perfect water and surf protected from the elements makes it ideal for families and those looking for relaxing afternoons. On this beach, you’re also able to drive onto the sand, making it super convenient.
This perfect little gem of a beach was once voted Australia’s best beach. Six kilometres long and wonderfully U-shaped, the white sand and gently waves are perfect for families. The water is also waist deep, so you don’t have to be the best swimmer to enjoy the sea. At one end, the jetty at Vivonne frames your view, whilst at the other end the dunes of the north are just in sight. Get lost for the day at Vivonne Bay during your stay on the island.
For something a little different, choose to spend an afternoon at Stokes Bay. Upon arrival, you’ll have to weave through a little maze of caves, before arriving at a beach that will blow your mind! This beach doesn’t tend to be particularly busy, but that’s what makes it so special.
Penneshaw Beach is accessible – right in the little town of Penneshaw – and is ideal for a swim. If you look hard enough, you’ll probably find dolphins frolicking in the water just a little way out. Drop by Penneshaw Beach for a picnic and a swim between activities on the island.
Hike from Kelly Hill Caves to Hanson Bay (and back)
For the active holiday makers among us, Kangaroo Island is your heaven on earth! Hikers will delight in the great selection of trails and gorgeous scenery. Whilst the multi-day Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail might sound appealing, you might not have the time to spend on such a lengthy journey. Instead, spend a day during your Weekend Escape to Kangaroo Island hiking a shorter section of the trail. Starting at Kelly Hill Caves and arriving at Hanson Bay, this hike is a 18km return journey passing through Pink Gum woodlands, mallee and coastal heath as well as freshwater lagoons and dunes. Upon arrival at the beach at Hanson Bay, take the plunge before preparing to journey back!
One of the best things to do on Kangaroo Island, has to be booking in for an experience with Little Sahara Adventure Centre. As a family owned business since 2007, Little Sahara is a dedicated team with a love for its surroundings and a vision to protect the natural world. Providing awesome eco experiences and hire equipment in Vivonne, these guys will help you enjoy KI the best way they know how! As well as buggy tours, guided walking tours and other kinds of experiences, one of the highlights is certainly the sand boarding. Hire a toboggan or sandboard and surf the soft dunes to your heart’s content! Varying sizes of dunes and steepness mean that there’s something for everyone to try.
Find some local art galleries
With its remarkable population of native wildlife, unspoilt environment and picture-perfect beach views, Kangaroo Island is home to a disproportionately large art community. In fact, almost 10% of the Island’s population identify as involved with the creative community. As a result, visitors who love the arts will delight in the attractions available on the island. Visual arts, sculpture, craft, drama, music and writing are all found inside galleries, studios and markets here. Try Fine Art Kangaroo Island for an exclusive blend of locally inspired artwork or Artworks Gallery Baudin Beach for a friendly, informal community gallery run entirely by the local artists themselves.
Drive to Cape Willoughby
Found in the eaternmost point of Kangaroo Island, Cape Willoughby and the lighthouse which stands there is a beautiful spot for looking out over the ocean. Built in 1852, the Cape Willoughby Lighthouse stands at 27 metres tall and has 102 steps which can be climbed up to a lookout tower. Stunning panoramic views across Backstairs Passage and along the rugged coastline are best seen from this spot. Book onto a guided tour of the lighthouse or simple take a stroll around the area. Self-guided walking trails are perfect for those looking to take their time and soak up the beautiful views.
See Remarkable Rocks
Within Flinders Chase National Park, you’ll find a striking rock formation – one that looks nothing like anything you’ve seen before. What seem to be precariously balanced heavy boulders here are Remarkable Rocks – granite rocks formed over many years by the forces of the sea and wind. In fact, over a whopping 500 million years, the elements on Kangaroo Island have shaped these fascinating rocks into intriguing shapes. Head to Remarkable Rocks with your family, friends or whoever you’re with on KI and explore the nooks and crannies of the impressive boulders. Information signs are available along the way.
Meet the wildlife at Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park
Kids, parents, grandparents – everyone loves a wildlife park. Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park in Duncan is no exception to the rule. Boasting over 150 species of Native Australian Wildlife and around 600 animals, the wildlife park offers everything you could wish for from a day out with the family. Various encounters, feeding sessions and informative talks provided by friendly and knowledgeable staff will help you make your experience even more special. Whilst you’re here, don’t forget to ask staff about the Kangaroo Island Koala and Wildlife Rescue Centre. Established in response to the tragic bushfires of 2020, KI Wildlife Park has been rescuing animals and raising finds from harsh weather conditions and accidents. On your way out, pay a small donation and contribute to the great efforts by the park.
Go snorkelling or scuba diving
The sparkling seas surrounding KI will entice you in someway or another. Many people like to jump on in with snorkelling or scuba diving gear, in order to discover what lies under the pristine water. Of course, when snorkelling there are a few things to take into account when it comes to your safety. Firstly, make sure that when you’re out in the water, someone knows that you are there and secondly, check wether conditions before taking the plunge. Also, don’t touch any animals, some can sting or bite! At Western River Cove in particular, find a collection of amazingly colourful reef fish just east of the beach.
If you have plenty of time to enjoy the ocean during your getaway to Kangaroo Island, you won’t mind figuring out the best spots as you go. Otherwise, try Kangaroo Island Ocean Safari’s 2-hour snorkelling adventure. Swim with the marine life, head to all the right spots and spend two hours is ocean safari heaven!
Cafes and restaurants on Kangaroo Island
Casual, family-friendly cafe selling local products
Hidden gem Emu Ridge Cafe is a unique little eatery within Emu Ridge Eucalyptus Oil Distillery; a family-owned business and a popular Kangaroo Island tourist attraction since 1991. In the sweet little cafe find delicious meals, barista coffee and plenty of cake! Drop by for a great selection of local beer, ciders and wine and grab lunch after exploring the on site shop and farm.
Tasty food at a modern cafe
Cactus Kangaroo Island is a cafe and restaurant in Kingscote. Full licensed and with plenty of outdoor seating (featuring gorgeous sea views), Cactus is one not to miss during a trip. Try the venue’s delicious freshly baked cakes or opt for a great meal put together using locally sourced produce. The juices here are incredible and the coffee is some of the best around!
Local produce with a fine-dining feel
Reflections Restaurant is sure to be a highlight of your visit to Kangaroo Island. The chef at this locally-renowned spot has some great dishes up their sleeve and focuses solely on Australian flavours. Indulge in a big breakfast or head here for dinner. Try the American River Oysters or perhaps King George Whiting. This KI restaurant was recognised for two years in a row as the best dining on Kangaroo Island and also earned the 2018 Judges Commendation in the AHA South Australia Awards.
Creative, indulgent food and wine bar made for sharing
The Odd Plate, is on a mission to bring people together over a delicious meal. Their menu is best experienced shared with friends or family, so bring your group and immerse yourself in a memorable KI food experience. Located inside a heritage guesthouse built-in 1927 and overlooking the beautiful Napean Bay in Kingscote, this spot is one not to miss!
SA Weekend Escapes’ Top Hotel Pick!
During a Weekend Escape to Kangaroo Island, you’ll be looking for convenience, comfort, a great location and friendly hospitality. At four-star accommodation Mercure Kangaroo Island Lodge, find not only great comfort but an award-winning restaurant in an excellent location. This hotel fronts the beautiful ocean waters of American River, making it somewhat unbeatable for weekend travellers.
Rooms at Mercure Kangaroo Island Lodge cater to groups of different sizes and offer either pool or ocean views. All rooms feature large windows that fill the living spaces with natural light and views of the pool or river. In every room, you’ll find private bathrooms, Wi-Fi, a refrigerator, flatscreen TV and in some rooms – a kitchenette.
For more information about Mercure Kangaroo Island Lodge, click here.