Swim with whale sharks, play with wild dolphins and explore World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef on Western Australia's coastline.
By Georgia Rickard
North of Perth you’ll find the Coral Coast: more than 1100 kilometres (680 miles) of white beaches, outback desert, laid-back coastal towns and the world’s largest fringing coral reef: World Heritage-listed Ningaloo. You can play with wild dolphins at Monkey Mia, enjoy some of Australia's freshest lobster at Cervantes, stay at exclusive safari lodge Sal Salis, and swim with the largest fish on earth, the whale shark.
How to get there
The Coral Coast starts just a couple of hours drive north of Perth. You can experience the whole coastline by car (Perth to Exmouth and back again) in a trip of about 10 to 14 days. Or you can fly to one of the regional airports from Perth (Exmouth is just two hours away by plane).
- Snorkel off the beach at Ningaloo Reef
- Swim with whale sharks
- Follow the wildflower trail
Coral Coast highlights
Top things to do on the Coral Coast
Snap a selfie at the Pinnacles
About two hours drive north of Perth you’ll find the Pinnacles, a natural phenomenon of thousands of limestone pillars scattered across Nambung National Park. The Pinnacles were formed about 30,000 years ago and stand as high as five metres (16 feet), creating an otherworldly landscape that resembles something from a science fiction movie. Once you've explored the dunes, visit the park's secluded white beaches where you can swim, snorkel and surf. Just 20 minutes away is laid-back Cervantes, a beach town where you can eat the area's famously fresh lobster, pulled straight from the sea, in several restaurants, including the local icon, Lobster Shack.
Snorkel or dive Ningaloo Reef
Like the Great Barrier Reef, Ningaloo Reef is so big it's visible from space. Stretching 260 kilometres (161 miles), the reef offers a range of unforgettable diving, snorkelling and wildlife experiences in a World Heritage-listed environment. In many places you can wade into the sea, put on a snorkel and marvel at the underwater scenery on the spot. Don't miss a swim at Coral Bay, the small but fashionable beach village at the northern end of Ningaloo Reef. Here you can snorkel the stunning coral gardens directly in front of the main beach. You can also jump on a local tour and swim with resident giant manta rays.
Taste the Outback in a unique way
Located just a five minute drive north of Port Denison, the town of Dongara is home to the Illegal Tender Rum Co – a distillery attracting visitors with their international award-winning spirits. Book a tour and experience a walk through the establishment while learning what it takes to be a master distiller. After viewing their cellar door you can head to the tasting bar for a nip of the spirits on offer. Be sure to try the “Bushtucker Spiced” made with ingredients from Australia’s outback. The distillery is run by a friendly young couple local to the Dongara area, so make sure to ask Codie and Hayley for tips on what to see and do in the area for that true local’s perspective.
'Glamp' in an outback national park
About a one-hour drive south of Exmouth you’ll find one of Australia’s exclusive luxury lodges, Sal Salis, hidden in the sand dunes of Cape Range National Park. Despite its remote location, Sal Salis offers comfortable accommodation in 16 semi-permanent ‘glamping’ (glamorous camping) tents, with three-course meals and fine wines, and beachfront access to Ningaloo Reef. Simply wade out and start snorkelling. Also expect unforgettable wildlife experiences, such as swimming with whale sharks and humpback whales, and safaris to spot Australian wildlife such as rare, black-footed rock wallabies (the smaller cousins of kangaroos), echidnas (similar to porcupines), red kangaroos, emus and many unique bird species.
Swim with whale sharks
There are only a handful of places on earth where you can regularly swim with whale sharks, and Ningaloo Reef is regarded as one of the best. These gentle creatures are most reliably seen here between mid-March and mid-July each year. You can join a day tour from the tourist towns of Coral Bay or Exmouth (both a two-hour flight north of Perth). Whale sharks can grow up to 18 metres (59 feet) in length, but despite their size, they are harmless to humans. It's an experience you'll never forget.
...And with humpback whales
There are only three countries in the world where you can swim with humpback whales, and Australia is one of them. These majestic animals visit Ningaloo Reef each year between August and October, when visitors can put on a snorkel and swim with them in warm, clear waters. Head to either Coral Bay or Exmouth, two popular beach towns at the northern end of Ningaloo Reef, and book a day trip with one of the local operators. Don’t forget your camera.
Play with wild dolphins
Just a two-hour flight north of Perth, Monkey Mia beach is one of the best places in the world for dolphin interaction. Wild, friendly bottlenose dolphins have come to this beach to interact with humans for almost 50 years. They visit up to three times a day, swimming up close - even through people's legs. Monkey Mia is part of the World Heritage-listed Shark Bay area, where you’ll find family-friendly accommodation at Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort and the pretty beach town of Denham.
Admire the sights of Shell Beach
Formed from billions of tiny shells, the aptly named Shell Beach (about a 50-minute drive south of Monkey Mia) is popular for swimming, exploring and relaxing in the sun. Shell Beach is one of only two beaches on Earth where shells replace beach sand in such a dramatic and picturesque way, and it stretches for more than 100 kilometres (62 miles). Afterwards, return to Denham (between Monkey Mia and Shell Beach), and look for those same shells - they were used to construct local buildings, and you’ll see them in the bricks of many town walls.
Experience local Aboriginal culture
There are many places along the Coral Coast where you can gain insight into local Aboriginal culture, particularly in the Shark Bay region (where Monkey Mia and Shell Beach are located). Here you’ll find the multi-award-winning tours by Wula Guda Nyinda Eco Adventures, an Aboriginal-owned business offering kayaking, hiking, snorkelling, camping and 4WD adventures. Darren ‘Capes’ Capewell, a descendant of the local Nhanda and Malgana people, leads the tours. You can learn how his ancestors lived for thousands of years, taste local native foods and gain an understanding of the world's oldest living culture.
Follow the wildflower trail
The wildflower trails of the Coral Coast lead you through some of Australia's most breathtaking wildflower country. Blooms can be seen along the entire Coral Coast, in places such as Lesueur National Park, Cape Range National Park and the Shark Bay World Heritage Area, year round. The flowers are more seasonal in some regions, such as Coalseam Conservation Park, which bursts into carpets of brilliant colour between July and November, with pink, gold, cream and white flowers covering a dramatic terrain of rugged cliffs, rocky outcrops and red soil. Coalseam is just 90 minutes east by car from the fishing town of Geraldton (about six hours drive, or a one-hour flight, north of Perth).
Be dwarfed by cliffs 400 million years old
Less than two hours drive north of the popular seafood town of Geraldton, you’ll find Kalbarri National Park. Here a dramatic terrain of deep, winding gorges and wind-carved cliffs that are 400 million years old offers hiking, picnicking, abseiling, horse riding, canoeing and other activities amid classic outback scenery. Don’t miss Nature's Window, a natural rock arch that perfectly frames breathtaking views of the area. The nearby coastal town of Kalbarri is a favourite holiday destination for locals who go to Chinaman’s Beach for its soft white sands and striking, teal-coloured water. You can also go on a 'pot pulling tour' here, in which a local guide will take you on safari to catch the sought-after regional speciality, western rock lobster. Afterwards, take your catch to a restaurant, such as Kalbarri Edge Resort, where it will be prepared, cooked and served to you. It doesn't get much fresher than that.
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