One of the best wilderness escapes in Australia; a Kangaroo Island Holiday offers remote beauty, amazing wildlife, and fabulous food and wine. Below we share tips from our May 2021 road trip to help you plan your own Kangaroo Island holiday.
TIPS FOR A FUN SELF DRIVE KANGAROO ISLAND HOLIDAY
We recently spent five days exploring the island and while you can see a lot in 2 or 3 days, having the fourth day meant we could take our time lingering when we found a special place, waiting for the right light or giving the animals more time to come out and play. The fifth day allowed us to learn more about life on the island on a guided day tour.
Planning your Kangaroo Island driving holiday
A Kangaroo Island holiday is on most Aussie’s bucket lists, and it should be; it’s an extraordinary place, but a visit here for most of us is a one-time thing, so there is pressure to get it right. We had many questions before our trip, so I have pulled together the answers to help you plan.
Karta Pintingga – Island of the Dead is the name given to Kangaroo Island by the Kaurna People.
How to get to Kangaroo Island
You can fly to Kangaroo Island, and the flight takes 35 minutes from Adelaide, and there are also some direct flights from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane in season. However, most visitors arrive on the island via the ferry terminal at Penneshaw.
Ferries depart from Cape Jervis, which is about one hour and 30 minutes south of the South Australia capital of Adelaide.
Two ferry companies offer connections from the South Australia mainland to Kangaroo Island. The Sealink ferry, which offers 10 services a day, and allows you to take your vehicle and a once a day passenger-only service offered by Kangaroo Island Connect. The most popular times go quickly, so don’t wait too long to book.
What we did: We booked the 9am Sealink ferry and spent the night before at Port Elliot, which is about 60km from the Cape Jervis and an easy drive to the terminal in the morning. This gave us a day to see Victor Harbor and the wonderful Port Elliot.
What’s it like taking the Sealink Ferry with a car?
Honestly, it’s a straightforward process. If you are taking your car on the ferry, you will see signs when you arrive at the wharf telling you where to queue. Park in the line and head inside the terminal to check-in.
When you check-in, they will issue you a boarding pass. Only the driver returns to the car; passengers are required to walk onto the ferry. Staff direct you on where to park and make it super easy. It’s a tight squeeze but a team member will help if you are having any trouble.
Tip: You cannot bring unwashed potatoes or honey onto Kangaroo Island to protect these industries from pests. Throw them out before you board.
Once aboard the ferry, you will find plenty of seating. Head upstairs if you want to enjoy the sea breeze on deck. The top deck is also where you will find any pets on the trip. We decided to spend most of the trip up here to take in the view.
There is a kiosk on board for light refreshments on the main deck, and to keep you entertained, they play a video about the island, which is perfect for anyone who has done little planning – or for partners who like to let someone else do all the research 😉
Free wifi is also available if you need something to do, but it is a quick trip – I mean, the famous Manly ferry in Sydney takes 30 minutes, so this is not a lot longer.
The previous day’s ferry was cancel due to rough weather, so it might be best to factor a little wriggle room into your plans as this can happen.
Looking at the number of white paper bags around the cabin, plenty of people must feel a little seasick on the quick trip across to the island. Luckily for us, it was not too rough, and we were fine.
Getting around Kangaroo Island
It’s not the easiest place to get around for those without a car. There is no public transport on the island, not even taxis! A couple of shuttle buses make the trip to American Bay and Kingscote from the ferry. If you are arriving on foot, it would be a good idea to have a shuttle booked.
You can either bring your own car or rental car over on the ferry or hire one on arrival. Three rental companies operate on the island, Budget, Hertz and Kangaroo Island Connect who also rent campervans.
Alternatively, there are several tour operators who offer multi-day tours if you prefer not to drive.
On a practical note, many car rental companies will not insure your vehicle after dark on KI roads. Make sure you clarify this when you pick up your car if you rent on the mainland. Also, before you book your vehicle, confirm you are permitted to take it on the ferry. We rented from Budget in Adelaide with no issues, but some budget-priced companies restrict you to the mainland.
What’s it like driving on the island?
The roads on Kangaroo Island are generally are in pretty good condition. The South Coast Road, West End Highway, Playford Highway, and Stokes Bay Road are all sealed roads. Many roads are not. However, they are well maintained and at least on our visit surfaces were good.
We rented an SUV, and it was all we needed to visit the main sites; although there were some 4WD tracks in Flinders National Park, you need a 4WD to access.
Take extreme care driving here; the amount of roadkill we saw was alarming, particularly given how many creatures they lost in the bushfires. Avoid driving at dawn and dusk and if you do need to be on the roads at those times, drive slower than you might usually and keep your eyes peeled for wildlife.
A four-wheel drive would be great to have on a longer stay as it would allow you to explore some of the less-visited spots.
When is the best time to visit Kangaroo Island?
Kangaroo Island is a year-round destination but there are pros and cons to each season so let’s go over them.
Summer – it never gets really hot on Kangaroo Island – 35 degrees is the maximum and not all that common; average summer temps are closer to 25 degrees. February is the hottest month, and this is really the only time of year that swimming is attractive for the average visitor. While it’s great beach weather but much of the wildlife spend days hiding from the heat. Summer sees accommodation prices hit a premium.
Spring – Our pick of the best time to visit, spring sees wildflowers, baby animals, and great hiking weather.
Winter – A winter visit will save you $$$, and while it’s cold, it’s not too bad. July sees the most rain, but on the positive side, koalas and kangaroos are born at this time of year. The coast looks just as spectacular, and bookings for attractions and restaurants are easier to come by.
Autumn – May to June – We visited in May; the temperatures range from 18-25 degrees. This is the second most popular time to visit, it’s not too crowded, and the weather is reasonable.
How long should you stay on Kangaroo Island?
It is not a question of whether you can see Kangaroo Island quickly, in a day or even two days; it is about what you will miss if you don’t fully explore the island.
- If you only have one day – do a guided tour of the natural sites – these include wildlife spotting or parks.
- If you have two days – you can see all the best known natural attractions and spend some time sampling the local food and wine.
- If you have three days – you have time to self-drive – spend at least one night on the western end of the island
- If you have four nights – do the first 4 days of our 5-day itinerary.
- If you have longer – you have time to swim, linger over wine tasting with a view, book a couple of adventure activities. You could even attempt the 5-day Kangaroo Island Wilderness Walk.
Our self-drive itinerary was a slow-paced 4-day visit with an added day tour to make 5 days. You could certainly speed it up and have less dining and relaxation time and cover the key sites in three days.
If you have two days or fewer a guided tour is your best bet.
How big is Kangaroo Island?
Kangaroo Island is Australia’s third-largest island, after Tasmania and Melville Island. It is a similar size to Bali with a LOT fewer people. The island is 160km long from east to west and takes about two and a half hours. From North to South, it is 55km, and the drive takes about 45 minutes. All up there is 500km of coastline. More than half of the island is declared a National park or conservation area.
Deciding where to stay on Kangaroo Island
Choosing a base was a tough decision. After spending some time there we think it’s worth splitting your time on the island, so you don’t have a long drive to see the attractions at either end.
Two nights in the south or south-west at Vivonne Bay or at Western KI Caravan Park, which we loved and then two days in the east is what we recommend. We chose Kingscote this time, but American Bay might be my choice if I return.
Key areas to stay on the island
This is our personal take on the various towns on the island
- Penneshaw – The second biggest town (pop 300) and location of the ferry terminal – good for short visits or early morning departures. Lots of accommodation, a supermarket and several shops and restaurants.
- Kingscote – 60km from Penneshaw, the biggest town on the island, with a range of dining and shopping. The closest town to the airport.
- American River – An excellent choice for anglers, seafood lovers and boaties. Its location halfway between Penneshaw and Kingscote make it a very suitable base for a long stay if you don’t want to split your stay between two properties. Visit American River to eat your fill of delicious fresh oysters.
- Vivonne Bay – Best area for adrenalin and animal lovers – between Seal Bay and Flinders Chase.
- Western KI – Limited shops, no restaurants but plenty of nature and some of the best views, we loved our stay here. The Caravan Park is great but if you want something a little special Hanson Bay Cabins are the go.
- Emu Bay – 5km long beach just a 15-minute drive from Kingscote – Cafe and brewery an easy drive. Best for summer stays and getting away from it all.
Where did we stay?
Western KI Caravan Park is the perfect choice for wildlife lovers and is fabulous value for money. Since the 2020 bushfires destroyed nearby Southern Ocean Lodge, this is your best bet for accommodation on this end of the island.
We highly recommend splitting your time between the east and west of Kangaroo Island. It saves you big days of driving and gives you a chance to get closer to the wildlife in their natural habitat. Within minutes of arriving at the park, we spotted koalas in the tree right by our cabin.
Kingscote is a completely different experience and a better for exploring the local food and wine offerings. We would probably look for something self-contained if we visited again rather than stay in a hotel.
Choosing Which Things to do on Kangaroo Island
There likely won’t be time to do everything on this list, so read up and see which things appeal. While everyone’s idea of a must-see differs, I think the national attractions listed below should make every itinerary of Kangaroo Island.
Is it worth visiting KI after the 2020 bushfires?
In a word, absolutely! At the time of our visit in May 2021, life is pretty much back to normal. 2,100 square metres (about 45%) of the Island burned in the summer 2020 fires. This was mainly at the western end, and Flinders Chase National Park saw most of the devastation.
The luxury property The Southern Ocean Lodge on the western tip of the island was totally destroyed, but they have approved plans for its rebuild. Hanson Bay cabins have reopened, and the Western KI Caravan Park, which saw the least damage of the properties at this end, has a brand new state of the art camp kitchen and operating its shop and office from a temporary structure.
Kangaroo Island Wilderness Retreat will not reopen. The land has been purchased for the new Flinders Chase National Park Visitors Centre.
Wildlife numbers are down but there is still plenty to see. The bush is regenerating and the key attractions in Flinders Chase have reopened to visitors. The only thing we were sad to have missed was the Platypus walk as it was still closed. You can keep up with the latest on the parks recovery here.
All the food and dining is back to normal and the locals are keen for visitors.
- We thought the Drakes Supermarket in Kingscote had the lowest prices. Good range of vegan food and local produce. Prices were not much different from the mainland.
- Arrive with a full tank of petrol – it was $1.72 during our visit and only $1.41 on the mainland.
- There are no shops between Penneshaw and Western KI other than the tiny General Store at Vivonne Bay. Make sure you bring food if you are heading this way. The caravan park sold essentials at pretty reasonable prices if you run short.
Ready to start planning your trip?
- Check out our tried and tested five day KI itinerary
- Take a look at the attractions on KI and decide what to include in your visit
Not sure where to head next?
Explore our Great Ocean Road itinerary if you are heading to Melbourne