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Exmouth: 1,260km (781 miles) N of Perth; 1,567km (972 miles) SW of Broome

Driving along the only road on the Exmouth Peninsula toward North West Cape is surreal. Hundreds of anthills march through the scrub and away to the horizon, clumps of spinifex dot the red earth, occasional sheep and 'roos threaten to get under the wheels, and the sun shines down from a cloudless blue sky. On the western shore is the tiny reef resort settlement of Coral Bay (pop. 120), a cluster of dive shops, backpacker lodges, a low-key resort, and charter boats nestled on sand so white, water so blue, and ocher dust so orange you'd think the townsfolk had computer-enhanced the colors. Another 141km (88 miles) farther north is Exmouth (pop. 2,400), built in 1967 as a support town to the Harold E. Holt Naval Communications Station, a joint Australian-United States base. It has since become the principal center for trips and tours to Ningaloo and has a new marina.

Apart from swimming with the whale sharks, the reason you come here is to scuba dive and snorkel in the Ningaloo Marine Park, which hugs the peninsula's western shores. You can also take four-wheel-drive trips to the adjacent sheep stations and into the Cape Range National Park, which forms the spine of the peninsula.

Exmouth is on the eastern shore, facing Exmouth Gulf, while Coral Bay, on the west coast, is one of Australia's most casual resorts, but it has divine diving, swimming, and snorkeling. Exmouth has more facilities, including a supermarket, an outdoor cinema, rental cars, and smarter accommodations and dining options. Most tours pick up or leave from Exmouth. Both places have plenty of dive, snorkel, fishing, and whale-watch companies. Wherever you stay, book ahead in whale-shark season (late March to June) and school holidays. Carry drinking water everywhere you go.