Family holidays unplugged: Australia's last data-free zones

Image: Heron Island, Shutterstock
Image: Heron Island, Shutterstock 

Have you ever considered going "out of range" on holiday to completely disconnect from the real world and connect with your family instead? 

Limiting screen time is now our second highest parenting concern, according to a recent Queensland survey of almost 2,000 parents. But Dr Justin Coulson, Australian parenting expert (and father of six), says that parents' phone habits are also an increasing problem.

"Research evidence over the last couple of years has accumulated to highlight that children want more than anything for their parents to give up their devices. Parents are constantly on their kids' cases to give up their devices, but are mindlessly still staring at their own," he says.

Do we parents really use our phones and tablets that much? A 2016 survey suggests we do, reporting that on average we touch our phones a sobering 2,617 times a day.

And this distraction impacts our relationships. Dr Coulson reminds us, "One of the things that makes families happiest is the opportunity to play, have fun, and laugh together. When we're absorbed in screens, we miss those opportunities."

So a holiday free from mobile reception and wifi can stop "urgent" work emails and group chats from intruding. But many of us feel nervous about not having YouTube videos (for the kids) or Facebook (for us) on hand.

Dr Coulson says that preparation is the key to a happy, low-tech trip. First, get clear about why you're going on holiday. "Most people are saying it's so we can reconnect, so we can relax, and spend time together."

The second question is what role will devices play on your holiday? "You might recognise that you do need devices so you can take photos, or use a map app," says Dr Coulson. "If we're not going to be using devices [at other times], what are our plans to make this a great experience?"

You might take board games and colouring-in, insect catchers and binoculars, or books relevant to your destination. You might refresh your memory of car games (though who can go past 'I Spy'?), or look into playgrounds and bushwalks near your destination. It's the old-fashioned sort of preparation our parents did.


Willing to ditch the digital distractions on your next family holiday?

Here are some of the precious few places in Australia without the temptation of mobile reception and wifi, but with stunning natural diversions instead.

Pristine island getaways

Lord Howe Island, NSW - 2 hour flight from Brisbane or Sydney


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Only 11km long and 2km wide, part of the experience of this slow-paced World Heritage Listed island is getting around by bike or foot (kids' bikes and trailers available to hire). With only 400 visitors allowed at once, you can absorb how the local families live "off grid" and take home their relaxed approach.

Pine Trees Lodge is well set up for families, including options like breakfast in your room, picnic packs for lunch, and early dinners.

Heron Island, QLD - 2.5 hours by boat from Gladstone

Being on the south end of the Great Barrier Reef, the surrounding coral has remained safe from widespread bleaching. From October to March it's possible to watch turtle hatchlings make their way to the water. Heron is an exclusive resort island for guests only, no day visitors. 

Lady Elliot Island, QLD - 80 min flight from Brisbane

It's the closest island on the barrier reef to Brisbane, and has the convenience of an airstrip. On school holidays the kids club focuses on educational conservation activities.

While marvelling at the reef from the glass-bottomed boat or while snorkelling, it's pleasing to know the resort is on track to be 100 per cent sustainable by 2020.

Accessible bush retreats

Turon Gates, Blue Mountains, NSW - 2.5 hours from Sydney


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Here you can reconnect with the entire family - pets included. Stay in a private cottage, rustic log cabin or tent. Take a walk to spot platypus or echidnas, or try horse riding while listening to the kookaburras laugh above you.

Gordon Country, Goomburra Valley, QLD - 2 hours 15 minutes from Brisbane

Gordon Country adjoins World Heritage-listed Main Range National Park, with rainforest, waterfalls and lookouts to explore. Or perhaps you prefer swimming and fishing? You can soak up the natural environment from a range of comfort levels, with bush camping, glamping, caravans and cabins on offer.

Corinna Wilderness Experience, TAS - 1.5 hours west of Cradle Mountain

Surrounded by thousands of hectares of Tarkine rainforest, you won't even remember there's an outside world. Choose from one and two-bedroom cottages, or large groups can stay in the Old Pub. Where else could you see a quoll or Tasmanian Devil from your verandah?