Widely regarded as Australia’s Galapagos, Kangaroo Island is the best place in Australia to see the widest range of free roaming native animals in their natural habitat – kangaroos, koalas, wallabies, seals, sea lions, penguins and platypus, to name but a few.
Situated in South Australia and seven times the size of Singapore, the island was separated from the mainland over 10,000 years ago. Animals and plants have evolved differently over this time creating species found nowhere else in the world, such as its own sub species of kangaroo.
The 335-mile coastline provides visitors with many stunning beaches and almost a third of the island is pristine wilderness or conservation parks, twenty one in total, with a rich diversity of flora and fauna, much of which is not found on the mainland. This is why Kangaroo Island is considered a ‘must see’ destination for all first time visitors to Australia.
Captain Matthew Flinders recorded the first European sighting of Kangaroo Island in March 1802 during an exploration along the Australian coastline on behalf of the British Government. The following month information was exchanged with Nicolas Baudin, commander of the French corvette, Le Geographe, who was also exploring the area. Baudin visited Kangaroo Island that summer and mapped much of the south and west coastlines which today still bear a number of French names.
Sealers, escaped convicts and runaway sailors were among the first Europeans to live on the island during the early 1800s. They were joined by Aboriginal women transported from Tasmania and mainland Australia to help with the difficulties of a self-sufficient life in a remote location.
In July 1836, the island’s first official settlers arrived on board the “Duke of York,” creating Australia’s first free settlement at Kingscote. However, lack of water and suitable building materials resulted in the settlement being abandoned in favor of Adelaide.
Sheep farming became the core industry during the late 1800s as wool could be shipped easily to the mainland. Barley and other grains were grown and the island’s residents made use of the natural resources, felling timber, snaring possums, kangaroos and wallabies and distilling eucalyptus oil. After World War Two, the population of Kangaroo Island increased as a result of the government’s war service land settlement program. Ex-soldiers and their families arrived to farm undeveloped land in the island’s central plateau and the numbers of inhabitants rose.
Kangaroo Island has preserved a number of its historic attractions, allowing visitors to delve more deeply into its past. These include South Australia’s oldest lighthouse, Cape Willoughby, built in 1852 and standing 89 feet high on the island’s most easterly point, as well as The Maritime and Folk Museum housed in the Old Penneshaw School, which highlights the numerous ships wrecked off the coast, the first of which was recorded in 1847.
Flinders Chase National Park is set in 74,000 hectares and is internationally renowned for its array of native Australian animals. It is also home to the instantly recognizable Remarkable Rocks and Admiral’s Arch. Remarkable Rocks consist of huge granite boulders shaped over centuries by the weather and perched on a dome that rises 240 feet out of the sea. Further along the rugged southern coastline at Cape Du Couedic, Admiral’s Arch is an impressive landmark that leads the way to a nursery of around 6,000 native New Zealand fur seals. Here visitors can watch the seals bask on the sun-drenched rocks or dive into the sea.
North east of Cape Du Couedic is Kelly Hill Conservation Park, where a network of walking trails lead along an undulating limestone ridge towards sinkholes and caverns until they reach the surreal Kelly Hill Caves with their amazing limestone formations.
Further east along the south coast, Seal Bay Conservation Park is one of only two places in the world in which visitors have the opportunity to walk amongst a breeding colony of rare Australian sea lions. National Park Rangers guide people on to the large sandy beach, through dune areas and a boardwalk, to view the beautiful creatures as they nurse their young or rest in the sun after feeding at sea for days at a time.
Nearby, the area known as Little Sahara provides a stark contrast to the lush conservation areas and rugged coastline. A series of expansive white sand dunes surrounded by bush vegetation give the impression of being in the middle of an inhospitable desert, rather than a flourishing island.
Ornithologists will find much to delight in on Kanagaroo Island. Located on the edge of the Cape Gantheaume Conservation Park, Murray Lagoon features a network of walking trails that highlight the habitats of numerous species of water birds. Duck Lagoon is yet another area in which naturalists delight. Koalas can often be seen in the trees and there are many opportunities for bird watching. The unspoiled area of D’Estrees Bay also attracts visitors who come to see the shore wading birds and pelicans feeding on long stretches of beach and to hunt for shells along the shoreline.
The towns of Penneshaw and Kingscote both lay claim to colonies of little penguins that nest in sandhills and rockfaces and can be seen as they return to the burrows at dusk, after fishing off shore. Penneshaw is a pretty Cornish-style settlement known for its safe, clean beach, while Kingscote is the island’s commercial hub and largest town.
They say nature makes a fine muse, so it is little wonder that the island inspires so many fine artists. From painters to potters, writers to woodworkers and spinners to silk painters, the art and crafts of local artists very much reflects their island life.
Fine Art Kangaroo Island and the Kangaroo Island Gallery in Kingscote and KI Artworks in Baudin Beach exhibit and sell only island-made works. There are over half a dozen other galleries visitors can pop into.
SouthAustralia.com is a good resource to the island’s sights and is invaluable for trip planning.
March – May (Fall)
June – August (Winter)
Getting There: Regional Express and Air South fly daily from Adelaide. SeaLink (website) operates up to ten daily 45-minute passenger and vehicle ferry crossings from Cape Jervis, a ninety-minute drive south of Adelaide, to Penneshaw. Ferry prices are $43 AUS ($2 off if booked online in advance) per person, one-way; $127 AUS for a car and 1 passenger ($121 online).
A coach service runs twice daily between Kingscote, American River and Penneshaw connecting with SeaLink ferry services. A transfer service operates between Kingscote Airport and Kingscote township and other locations on request. Bookings for both services are necessary.
Kangaroo Island Transfers, 0427 887 575, website
Smartcar Kangaroo Island, 1300 887 121, website
Driving Tips: Make sure to fuel up in towns before leaving as gas stations are limited and some close at 6pm. Watch for wildlife at all times – especially at night – and drive slowly. Some roads are unpaved so travel with caution and always make sure you have a spare tire.
Weather: If you wish to see wildlife, the best time to visit is the winter (June – August) though it can be cold and rainy and many smaller businesses are closed. Summer heat (January – February) means less wildlife during the day, but temperatures are cooler than on the mainland. October and November are good months to visit – before the summer school holidays.
Currency: Australian Dollar (AUD); rates in this article are quoted in AUD
Eat & Drink
Kangaroo Island, home to 30 vineyards and 18 wineries, already has a reputation for its dynamic food and wine culture, including pure Ligurian honey, exceptional seafood, cheese and olive oil. Restaurants and cafes feature many Kangaroo Island (KI) products so be prepared for kangaroo, emu, marron (crayfish) and more.
2 Birds And A Squid and Fish (North Terrace, Penneshaw, website) are both set up and run by renowned British born chef Sue Pearson (formerly of The Ivy Room in London). Fish is a takeout fish and chips shop while 2 Birds and A Squid caters for visitors and events. On the last Friday of each month (December – March), Pearson holds cooking demonstrations in the shop. Open October – April only.
Sorrento’s Restaurant, (Kangaroo Island Seafront Resort, North Terrace, Penneshaw, (08) 8553 1028, website), is slightly more up-market than the other restaurants on the Island. A specialty is the ‘Outback Taste’ – kangaroo, crocodile and emu with dipping sauces ($18 AUD appetizer). For a taste of local seafood, try the Ocean Experience – KI lobster, KI whiting, KI yabbies, KI squid, KI oysters, KI marron, a side salad and dipping sauces ($120 for two). Expect to pay $80 – $100 AUD for two (including a bottle of wine).
Andermel Marron Café, (Harriet Road, Central Kangaroo Island, (08) 8559 4114, website), located in the heart of the island, is a great place to try the local marron (freshwater crayfish). The grounds also are home to Two Wheeler Creek Wines cellar door and a marron farm. Try the ‘Poaches Platter’ – Andermel marron, scallops, prawn skewers, served with trio of homemade sauces – $70 AUS for two. The platter pairs perfectly with their Two Wheeler Creek Sauvignon Blanc ($25 AUS).
Located in the heart of Kingscote, the Aurora Ozone Hotel Restaurant (The Foreshore, Kingscote, (08) 8553 2011, website), has been a long-standing favorite with locals. Try the KI Kangaroo – rare with red currant jus and rocket oil on a bed of crushed baby potatoes, green beans and a red onion for $26 AUS. Dinner for two around $80 AUS.
Kangaroo Island Fresh Seafood & Takeaway (Telegraph Road, Kingscote, (08) 08553-0177) is a fish and chip shop with arguably the best, freshest seafood on the island, located somewhat incongruously next door to the Caltex Petrol Station. You can either buy the fresh fish and cook it yourself or you can have them cook it. $15 AUS for two will fill you up.
Chapman River Cellar Door (Off Cape Willoughby Road, Antechamber Bay, (08) 8553 1371) is a cellar door located in an old airport hangar decorated in a bohemian style. Here you can grab a bottle of wine and enjoy a platter of local seasonal products. Expect to pay $50 AUS for a platter and bottle of wine.
Restaurant Bella (Dauncey Street, Kingscote, (08) 8553 0400) delivers fresh, seasonal ingredients with a Mediterranean and Asian sensibility. The often-changing menu also features pizzas. A local favorite is the Kangaroo Island King George Whiting. Expect dinner for two with wine to cost $70 – $90 AUS.
Run by Head Chef Sam Tapscopp, Nicolas Baudin Restaurant (South Coast Road, Flinders Chase, (08) 8559 7275, website), prides itself on sourcing the very best KI ingredients. This is a beautiful little restaurant that is surrounded by native bushland, and the wildlife that lives there. It’s also one of the few places you can eat on the West End of the Island. Don’t miss the Three Cheese Soufflé, featuring two cheeses from Island Pure Sheep Dairy or the Marron Stack, local whiting, scallops on a coriander and corn fritter with mustard cress, wild rocket and local lemon myrtle dressing ($38 AUS). To finish the meal, try the delicious Two Layer Panna Cotta – the bottom layer is infused with wild rosella flower and the top is made with KI honey and its all finished off with a passion fruit curd ($12 AUS). Expect to pay around $80 to $90 for two with wine.
Wine & Liquor
In Australia, a tasting room is referred to as a “cellar door” and many, but not all wineries have cellar doors open for tastings. Sunset Winery, about 6km from Penneshaw, was the island’s first commercial winery and the first to open to the public.
Other places where visitors can sample the local wines and enjoy a platter of local produce, including Bay of Shoals (Kingscote), Two Wheeler Creek (Andermel Marron), Dudley Wines (Penneshaw) and Chapman River Cellar Door on the Dudley Peninsula at Antechamber Bay. Tastings at each are free.
Kangaroo Island Spirits, a recently established distillery on Playford Highway in Cygnet River, is South Australia’s first and only boutique distillery producing a range of quality liqueurs and spirits including some made from local ingredients including honey, walnut, vanilla and anise. Open Wednesday to Sunday from 11am – 4pm, free admission.
Kangaroo Island’s Food & Wine Trail (website) highlights food producers and the growing wine industry, and gives Internet users the chance to view video and audio interviews, together with still images and 360-degree virtual reality scenes designed to showcase the best the island has to offer.
Andermel Marron Farm (Harriet Road, Central KI, (08) 8559 4128, café (08) 8559 4114) features a great cafe and interesting dishes using native herbs grown on the property. Marron (freshwater crayfish) used in the café’s dishes are viewable in their tank on the farm’s grounds. Open daily from 10:30am – 4:30pm (last café order 4pm); closed June 9 – 28.
The Penneshaw Farmer’s Market takes place in the center of town at the Penneshaw Oval the first Sunday of the month from May to October and various days November to April. Local produce and artisanal products are on display but get there early for the best selection.
Island Pure Sheep Dairy (Gum Creek Road, Cygnet River) offers visitors the chance to observe sheep milking and cheese production demonstrations and to try some of the special cheese and yoghurt produced on the farm. Open daily 1pm to 5pm, afternoon milking between 3pm and 5pm. Tours are $5.50 AUD for adults, $4.50 for students, Free under 5.
Kangaroo Island is thought to be the only place in the world where a pure strain of the placid Ligurian bee exists. Established in 1993, Clifford’s Honey Farm (Elsegood Road, Kingscote) is a 600-hectare property where more than 11 tons of honey is produced each year and Island Beehive (1 Acacia Drive, Kingscote) produces organic honey extracted at low temperatures to retain the natural colors and flavors, and to protect the many nutritional qualities.
Emu Ridge Eucalyptus Distillery in Kingscote gives visitors a behind-the-scenes look at the processes involved in transforming one of the island’s natural assets into an oil that can be used as a solvent, cleaner, disinfectant and insect repellent, to name just a few of its uses.
Epicurean Adventure is a food safari tour from Exceptional Kangaroo Island focusing on the island’s diversity of produce and the passion of the producers. A full day can incorporate seafood, artisan cheese, olive oil, honey, marron (an Australian freshwater crayfish), native spices, yogurt and wine. Sue and Dan Pattingale are renowned olive oil producers – their herbaceous, peppery oil is harvested from ancient, gnarled tress from across the Island.
Where to Stay
An extensive range of accommodations exists on the island with everything from campgrounds and hostels to B&Bs and high end hotels.
Aurora Ozone (The Foreshore, Kingscote, (08) 8553 2011, website) is conveniently located in Kingscote. The hotel has two buildings – the new one being fancier and more expensive. Rates start at around $200 AUD in high season.
KI Seafront Resort (49 North Terrace, Penneshaw, (08) 8553 1028, website) is a four-star hotel with 25 rooms and cottages suitable for families. At night, you are likely to see little penguins returning from the sea if you walk along the hotel’s beach. Ocean view rooms are $220 AUD in high season but two-night packages, including breakfast, range from $320 AUD – $410 AUD, some including penguin tours. The hotel also has a “stay 3 nights, get the 4th free” package.
Stranraer Homestead in MacGillivray (08) 8553 8235, website), run by Lyn and Graham Wheaton, is situated in a restored house dating back to 1920. The setting is bucolic with the family also raising lamb and grain on their 1290 hectares. Three rooms are available, each with a working fireplace. $280 AUD per night including breakfast.
Nestled in 7 acres of coastal vegetation, Kangaroo Island Lodge (American River, 08 1800 355 581, website) is a good hideaway with affordable rooms – standard rooms start at $159 AUD per night, including breakfast and tax, two-night minimum. Packages including ferry connections from the mainland for 2 adults plus car start at $337 per person for 2 nights.
Kangaroo Island Wilderness Retreat (South Coast Road, Flinders Chase via Kingscote, (08) 8 8559 7275, website) is located adjacent to the island’s most popular destination, Flinders Chase National Park. Various levels of accommodation are available, starting with 3-star level lodge rooms at about $160 AUS ($180 in high season). Lodge apartments are $210 AUS ($250 AUS in high season). Rates include tax.