The Coral Coast 

There is magic in the waters of the Indian Ocean where it brushes the shores of the northern portions of Western Australia's west coast. Brilliant coral reefs just offshore, whale sharks, dolphins, turtles, and manta rays make this one of the world's most marvelous (and accessible) marine environments. Much of this is paradoxically due to the fact that inland is largely treeless semi-desert, occupied by vast sheep stations and a mere handful of people. This is real Outback, with soaring summer temperatures and little rain, but this means there are no rivers -- or towns -- to introduce sediments and pollutants to the sea. The ocean is untainted and has some glorious natural attractions.

Since the 1960s, a pod of bottlenose dolphins has been coming into shallow water at Monkey Mia, in the World Heritage-listed Shark Bay Marine Park, to greet shore-bound humans. The dolphins' magical presence has drawn people from every corner of the globe.

Another 730km (453 miles) by road north is Exmouth on the Northwest Cape, adventure seekers from around the world come to swim with whale sharks -- measuring up to 18m (59 ft.) long -- from March to June. The Cape's parched shore and green waters hide another dazzling secret -- a fringing coral reef 300km (186 miles) long called Ningaloo, protected by a Marine Park. It contains 250 species of coral and 450 kinds of fish, dolphins, manta rays, whales, turtles, and dugongs. Even the Great Barrier Reef can't beat Ningaloo Reef's proximity to shore -- just a step or two off the beach delivers you into a wondrous underwater garden, few people seem to know about. That and the remoteness means beaches you'll pretty much have to yourself, seas teeming with life, pristine surrounds, and a genuine sense of the frontier. There are also carpets of everlastings (daisy-like wildflowers) stretching across vast areas in August and September in good years.

This coast, called both Coral and Outback, is lonely and remote -- and often hot and windy from November to March. The best time to visit is April through October, when it is warm enough to swim and the weather is balmy, though snorkelers might want a wet suit June and July. Humidity is always low. Facilities, gas, and fresh water are scarce, and distances are immense, so be prepared.