A couple of centuries ago, the Brits were attempting to solve their crime and poverty problems by shipping poor, hapless pilferers and other social misfits Down Under.

One prime destination was Moreton Bay – considered a godforsaken place, swarming with mosquitoes, sharks and other nasties. You’ve got to hand it to the colonialists – only they could turn a paradise into hell.

Moreton Bay is an aquatic Eden, blessed with stunning islands, miles of pristine beaches, giant sand dunes and colourful reefs. Smack bang on Brisbane’s doorstep, a mere 30-minute train trip from the CBD, it’s no wonder the locals have kept this treasure under their hats for years.

The two major destinations are Moreton Island and North Stradbroke Island (“straddie” as the locals affectionately call it) which form the eastern boundary to the bay.

I had a number of transport options to get over to Moreton Island. I could take the vehicle ferry, a super-fast Cat, or sail across on a world champion yacht. Not much of a choice…

After taking the early red-eye train to Manly, followed by a caffeine hit at the tapas bar below a laidback local hostel, I set sail on Solo, a vintage ocean racing yacht. It was built in the early 1950s by a guy with a worrying penchant for all-female crews.

Within minutes of setting out, a pod of show-off dolphins were diving and tumbling under the boat’s prow. The excitement caused a rush to the boat’s honesty bar. Not a bad start…

Getting the hump
The amazement Richter Scale took a massive hike when a giant rock suddenly moved metres from the boat. Only it wasn’t a rock – it was a humpback whale and her baby, taking a breather before their annual migration south to the Antarctic.

The crew told us whales had started to appear inside the bay in recent years, oblivious to Moreton’s dastardly past as a whaling station right up until the 1960s.

As you approach the island, one of its most striking features are the giant sand dunes which rise almost vertically from the water’s edge. This isn’t surprising as Moreton is basically a primeval chunk of sand, around 38km long and home to the world’s largest sand hill, Mt Tempest. I’ve heard some travellers call it “Fraser Island without the crowds,”
and after this trip, I’m inclined to agree.

We moored just beyond Tangalooma, the site of the old whaling station, behind some sunken wrecks. The wrecks are now artificial reefs boasting a psychedelic array of coral, fish species and other marine life, as we discovered snorkelling along the inner edges. The water is beautifully clear, with a shifting palette of blues and greens.

One of the best things about Moreton is its controlled development – over 95 per cent of the island is still national park. Accommodation for backpackers is limited to either camping at one of the secluded sites along the bay and ocean beaches, or in dorms at Tangalooma or Bulwer, a small fishing village to the north of the island. On land, the only real way to get around the island is by 4WD. Walking is for the seriously dedicated, or the seriously demented.

The island holds plenty of surprises: spectacular fresh water lakes, such as Blue Lagoon; fields of alien-like grass trees, with giant phallic spikes protruding from their green mops and massive sand dunes, which you can hurtle yourself down at stupid speeds on bits of construction board.

If you’re staying in Tangalooma, you can book an insane quad-bike tour. These tricky four-wheelers seem to defy gravity. As you plunge down a near-vertical slope, you regret eating lunch and pray you don’t end up in the local rubbish tip!

But it’s nature, bold and beautiful, that is the real drawcard to Moreton. At the northern-most tip you can watch migrating whales (in season) from the old stone lighthouse, or you can hike to pristine, virtually uninhabited beaches.

Perhaps best of all is the opportunity to hand-feed dolphins!

Let me tell you, standing ankle-deep in water, as the sun is setting, with these beautiful creatures nudging your feet, is about as good as it gets.

Sand ahoy
North Stradbroke Island, like Moreton, is a fabulous chunk of sand that seems purpose-built for natural hedonism.

Seriously, how on Earth did the colonials manage to turn this island with all its obvious natural assets into a convict settlement, a nuthouse, a leper colony and Catholic mission? Add to this sand mining and you’d think the island would have gone to wrack and ruin.

Thankfully, it hasn’t happened. Those dubious institutions have disappeared and sand mining is now under strict environmental controls. In fact, pretty much all of the sand for Hawaii’s famed beaches comes from Straddie!

The point on the mainland to get to Straddie is Cleveland, a bayside suburb, accessible by train from the city. Or better still, stay overnight in a Manly hostel and cut the trip time down. All modes of transport arrive in Dunwich, a small mining town and home to much of the island’s Aboriginal community. A 20-minute bus ride will take you to the most popular spot on the island, Point Lookout, as named by Captain Cook in 1770.

There are a few hostels and cheap apartments on the island, and I was lucky enough to stay within spitting distance of the beach, just behind an eerie paperbark grove.

Although not the most imaginatively named place in Australia, Point Lookout is stunning. On the North Gorge walk, you can hike around the foreshore, crossing beautiful beaches, bays and rocky outcrops. With spectacular views to Moreton, you may even spot one of those migrating whales – or a dolphin, turtle, shark or manta ray.

Nature is out there in rude abundance, as I discovered after an evening at the local Point Lookout pub. Wearing vodka goggles, I spied a large ginger-striped animal sitting by the roadside. This mother was as big as a dingo, with a fatter head.

Does Straddie have its own Tasmanian Tiger? The big brute fixed me with an evil glare as I scurried back to the hostel like a true coward.

Make tracks
On the 4WD tour the following day, my guide Barry said it was probably a feral cat, which cause real problems for the native wildlife on the island. I wasn’t keen to run into that beastie again, nor was I eager to meet the swamp tiger snakes who slither around in the Yarraman swamps, where a mysterious Spanish galleon is said to be buried. Or encounter one of the grisly tiger sharks and white pointers who have been known to cruise by the main surfing beach!

Our off-road rumble began on Main Beach, which is just miles and miles of pure white sand seemingly without end. From there, well-prepped roads took us to one absolutely spectacular site after another: the Keyholes, a 4.5km string of lakes and lagoons, the breathtaking Brown Lake, named for its tea tree- coloured waters and Myora Springs, where a continuously bubbling fresh spring meets salt water.

It was a real buzz, sliding around winding sandy tracks, past scribbly bark gums whose trunks look like they have been attacked by a tribe of acid-crazed calligraphers.

Suddenly our hearts missed a beat as Barry tooled the shuddering 4WD up a very steep, narrow sandy road.

We didn’t make it and had to reverse all the way down, slowly and stretching our seat belts. Only a few minutes before, Barry had gleefully related the tale of the television presenter who managed to flip a brand new car while attempting a similar manoeuvre. Great news, eh?

I was only sorry my trip was so short. In two days of bliss I’d only sampled a fraction of what Straddie has to offer. You can also learn to surf, go sand-boarding (standing up rather than belly down), join a dive or snorkelling tour to the spectacular reefs off Point Lookout, check out the island’s fishing villages or just veg out in this little slice of paradise.

I’m already plotting my return for mantaray season when the gentle, caped crusaders can be spotted surfing the glassy waves!

The experience: Moreton Bay Escapes, Ph: 1300 559 355; Stradbroke Island Holidays, Ph: (07) 3821 0266.

The accommodation: Moreton Bay Lodge, Manly, Ph: (07) 3396 3824; Tangalooma Wild Dolphin Resort, Ph: (07) 3268 6333 (booking is essential); Stradbroke Island Guesthouse, Ph: (07) 3409 8888.