Relishing the Retro Charm and Ravishing Beauty of Rottnest Island
Ah, Rottnest Island. Yes, that’s the sound of a deep sigh. Sapphire coloured ocean wherever you look, sheltered aquamarine coves with crescents of creamy sand, windswept grassland fragrant with wild rosemary, ospreys building nests upon craggy cliffs, salty winds whipping your sun-kissed cheeks, and wherever you go, seagulls squawking overhead.
Shimmering salt lakes are skirted by samphire and saltbush, walking tracks shaded by Morton Bay figs and Aleppo pines snake around rocky headlands, shiny white boats bob in the water, pelicans strut along the quiet shore, and handsome sandstone cottages offer wide verandas for sipping cold beers while watching the sun goes down.
And everywhere you go, the island’s famous, furry little quokkas, miniature kangaroo-like pouched marsupials, hop about as if they own the place, causing minor havoc as they attempt to steal your food.
Although it was already called Wadjemup, meaning ‘place across the water’, by the indigenous Noongar people, Dutch mariner Willem de Vlamingh, who thought the cute quokkas looked like rats, named it ‘Rottenest’ or ‘Rat’s Nest’ Island in 1696.
Just a 25-minute ferry ride from Fremantle, some 20 kilometres off the coast of Perth, Western Australia, Rottnest Island – or ‘Rotto’ as the locals like to call it – is one of those wonderful sorts of old-fashioned holiday spots that have you wondering why you’d never been before, how you can manage to stay longer, and when you’ll next get a chance to return.
When we visit – after the day-trippers have caught the last ferry back to Perth, after a feast on fantastic Aussie seafood at the island’s best restaurant (starving from cycling all afternoon), and after we’ve enjoyed too many glasses of wine and games of pool with the locals in the pub bar – we lie on the old sofa on the sandy patio of our weatherboard beachside bungalow and listen to the waves quietly lapping against the shore.
As we gaze at the countless stars in what must be the world’s clearest sky, it feels as if we’re completely alone. Islands don’t come more romantic than Rottnest.
Well, except in summer, on weekends and during school holidays when Rottnest is teeming with groups of flirty teenagers and big noisy families and, unless you fit into one of those categories, is best avoided.
Rotto is not a tiny island – it’s eleven kilometres long and 5 kilometres wide – but the main settlement on Thompson Bay can feel crowded during those peak periods. The rest of the time, the place is tranquil and low-key, and untamed beauty and rustic charm aside the laidback vibe is a big part of Rotto’s appeal.
Apart from a couple of slick modern mini-markets, with shelves crammed with gourmet products, baked goods and bottles of Margaret River wines, that are easily as well-stocked as any fancy supermarket on the mainland, and the sleek bar of the Rottnest Hotel with its floor-to-ceiling glass walls and funky white chairs, you’d think you’d stepped back in time to a holiday spot of your Australian childhood.
That contemporary designer bar is somewhat incongruously attached to a grand old sandstone pub with wide timber verandas and a corrugated iron roof, and beyond that, gravelly paths lead to rustic accommodation, more in keeping with a school holiday camp than one of Perth’s most popular tourist destinations – and that’s the way locals like it.
We spent just two days on Rottnest Island – or ‘Rotto’ as the locals call it – and we were kicking ourselves we hadn’t planned to stay longer. We visited off-season, at the end of the southern hemisphere spring and the start of the Aussie winter, and the weather was just lovely – it wasn’t quite warm enough for sunbathing and swimming (surfers wore wetsuits and we needed jackets for the evenings), but the days were balmy and we were ambling about and biking around in t-shirts.
We not only visited off-season but we went mid-week, so there were none of the crowds the island draws during on weekends and during high season and it was dead quiet in the evening after the day-trippers left. We were wishing we’d booked the bungalow for a week and taken a few books.
There is a lot to do on the island if you want to get active. There are 60-odd beaches and excellent swimming, surfing, snorkelling, diving, and fishing, as well as some 50 kilometres of road to explore on bike or foot.
One of the brilliant things about Rottnest is that aside from a handful of vehicles (for police, island staff etc), a shuttle bus and tour bus, there are no other vehicles, so you can cycle and stroll in safety and silence.
The island’s wild beauty is a big part of its appeal. Blanketed in native bushland and speckled with wildflowers in season, Rotto boasts a dramatic coastline marked by intriguing rock formations, punctuated by secluded bays of turquoise water so clear you can see the reefs and fish, while inland there are the still lakes that gave the island its indigenous name. A dedicated nature reserve, it’s in pristine condition.
On land, there are the adorable quokkas that keep visitors amused, and less visible native wildlife including reptiles such as frogs, gekkos and snakes (take care), and abundant birdlife, from enormous raptors and handsome red-capped plovers to big muttonbirds and handsome pelicans. Don’t forget to take binoculars and long lenses.
Off shore, there are hundreds of species of tropical fish, coral and crustaceans, green turtles, bottle-nose dolphins, sting-rays, New Zealand seals, Australian sea-lions, and whales, including some 35,000 Humpback and Southern Right whales that play in the water on their way north in April and again from September to December on their return journey back down the coast.
Soon after arriving on the ferry from Fremantle we did the 90-minute Discovery Tour by bus, which, with a fascinating commentary by the driver and stops at picturesque spots like Wadjemup Lighthouse, was a great way to get our bearings while seeing the sights, as well as learn about the history of the island. For instance, I had no idea the treacherous coast was responsible for 13 shipwrecks.
We lunched in the sun at Rottnest Hotel on salty fish and chips and fried calamari, and sipped crisp white wine as we gazed at the still water of Thompson Bay. Then we grabbed a map and bottles of water and hopped on bicycles to explore on our own. We did the same thing the next day.
Had we have stayed longer, Terence would have hit some surfing spots and we would have done a few tours, including the free walks offered by the Rottnest Island Voluntary Guides, covering everything from nature and wildlife to the tragic indigenous history of the island.
Sadly, Rotto does have a dark past. It was once an indigenous penal colony and part of the old prison buildings are now used by Rottnest Lodge.
After ten Aboriginal prisoners were taken to the island in 1883, Rottnest was established as a penal colony and remained so for almost a century. During that time, some 3,700 indigenous men and boys were imprisoned, 369 of whom died. Most deaths were from disease, however, five were hung. There is a cemetery at Thomson Bay settlement that can be visited.
Like many cities around Australia boasting colonial buildings, many of those on Rottnest were constructed by convict labour, including the heritage buildings, lighthouse and sea walls. Look out for interpretive signs as you stroll around the island.
The Rottnest Island Authority, which manages the island, and the Noongar people are working together in a spirit of reconciliation that will see the Rottnest Lodge buildings handed over in a few years. A “Welcome to Country” by Noongar elders often precedes important events and ceremonies. The annual Wadjemup Cup, an indigenous youth football tournament, is held on the island, and activities such as basket weaving, taught by indigenous women, take place.
As I said, we are still plotting our return – only next time it will definitely be for longer, with a pile of books, and off-season, with only those cute quokkas for company.
The easiest and most affordable way to get to Rottnest Island is by ferry from Fremantle (ticket office at B Shed, Victoria Quay; 25 minutes), from Hillarys Boat Harbour (45 minutes) or from Perth’s Barrack Street Jetty (90 minutes), which is a lovely way to go if you haven’t yet done the Swan River cruise to Fremantle. For timetables and to book tickets online from Freo or Perth city, see the Rottnest Express website. You can also fly by light plane or helicopter as the island has a small airport.
Getting your bearings
The ferry will bring you to the main dock at the Thomson Bay Settlement, where you’ll find the Rottnest Island Visitors Centre, shops, restaurants, pubs, and most of the accommodation. Your first point of call should be the Visitors Centre, where you can collect the key to your pre-booked accommodation (book online; see below), pick up maps and guides to the island’s swimming, surfing, snorkelling, diving, and fishing spots, as well as book tours. There is also plenty of excellent information available online.
Cars aren’t allowed, but you can explore the island by bus, bicycle and foot. If you don’t want to pay for the Discovery Tour, we recommend taking the map and brochure from the Visitor Centre and doing a circuit around the island on the regular Rottnest Island Bus Service (free for those staying overnight) soon after you arrive to get a handle on the distances involved, and to note down nice beach spots where you fancy a swim, surf or snorkel. Then hire a bike from Rottnest Island Bike & Hire (behind the pub) to cycle back to places you liked. Save your feet for shorter walks and romantic strolls on the beach or to sunrise/sunset viewing vantage points.
Rottnest Island Bike Hire has bikes and locks, as well as other gear, like snorkelling sets. At the time of writing, bike hire fees ranged from $13 an hour to $28 for 24 hours to $56 for 3 days. They do a great job, offering a rescue service if you get a flat or a bike pick-up if you get exhausted – you simply lock your bike at a numbered bus stop, hop on the bus, and they will collect your wheels later.
What to do
Swim The best spots for taking a dip are The Basin, Thomson Bay, Longreach Bay, Little Parakeet Bay, and Geordie Bay, all roped off and not far from The Settlement, and a bit further afield on the southern side of the Island, Little Salmon Bay, Salmon Bay and Nancy Cove.
Surf Rotto boasts some of the best surfing in the state, with waves larger here than on Perth beaches. Popular spots for surfing and bodysurfing include Strickland Bay (ranked one of the world’s top 50 breaks), Stark Bay and Salmon Bay, while locals love the reef breaks of Radar Reef, Cathedral Rocks and Chicken Reef. If you’re going specifically to surf check the weather and surf conditions online.
Snorkel and dive Abundant fish and coral species, along with shipwrecks, make Rottnest Island a superb spot for snorkelling and diving. You can hire gear from Rottnest Island Bike & Hire (see above) and do snorkel trails at Parker Point and Kingstown Reef. You can also do snorkelling tours and diving trips with Charter 1.
Take a tour
If you’re interested in the history, geography, nature and wildlife of the island, instead of taking the regular shuttle bus around the island when you arrive, do the Discovery Tour (1hr 45mins, departing several times a day; adult/child/family $35/17/72). The drivers give a fascinating live commentary and stops for photo ops at some stunning locations including Wadjemup Lighthouse and the West End.
In good weather, Eco-Express circumnavigates the island on a 90-minute tour taking in whales (in season), a New Zealand fur seal colony out at Cathedral Rocks, and other marine-life and birdlife. Charter 1 offers sailing on their catamaran Capella as well as kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding.
If you want to dig even deeper, the Rottnest Voluntary Guides Association, which I mentioned above, runs a number of free walking tours in and around the settlement covering the history, culture and heritage architecture of Rotto. They depart from the Visitor Centre.
Where to stay
You’ll need to book ahead and book online. If you want hotel-style accommodation, Rottnest Lodge, set back from the beach, is comfortable with a wide range of rooms in different styles, from smart ‘premium lakeside’ rooms with balconies to more dated ‘deluxe’ rooms in the historic part of the building dating back to 1864. (Note that some of these were part of the former prison.) The most stylish hotel accommodation is at the Rottnest Hotel where some of the light-filled rooms have stunning bay views.
But the real charm of Rottnest is in its old-fashioned, unpretentious self-contained accommodation including weatherboard bungalows dating to the 1920s and charming sandstone cottages. While some accommodation has been renovated with modern furniture and well fitted out kitchens, other accommodation is very basic so best to look at the photos online before you book. Most lies slap-bang on the beachfront, within splashing distance of the sea, and boast ocean views. There are also newer, smarter villas and units with balconies with sweeping bay vistas.
Some accommodation is set back from the beach without any views so be clear about what you want when you book and book well in advance. At the time of writing, prices start from $76/84 for a 4-/6-bed bungalow and $100 a night for the 4-bed chalet mid-week in low season, and go up to $450 a night during high season for the beautiful 6-bed Commander’s Cottages on the headland. Less atmospheric, but useful for backpackers, are the 6-bed dorm-style cabins, starting from $68, that are popular with students. There’s also a hostel and camping ground.
Where to eat
Lunch in the sunshine with the quokkas outside the Rottnest Hotel is a must. It’s one of the best food experiences in Australia you can have in fact. For dinner, Rottnest Lodge has a good seafood restaurant and a fun pub bar where the locals hang out. All of the self-catering accommodation on the island boasts decent, reasonably well-equipped kitchens, and the Rottnest Island General Store has a great range of groceries including fruit and veg, dairy and meat, as well as liquor, and you can even order online and they’ll deliver to your accommodation.
What it costs
Everyone arriving on Rottnest Island has to pay an admission fee (adults/kids: day only $16.50/$6; extended stay $21.50/$7.50; family $48.50), which is a contribution to the conservation of the island and its facilities. If you arrive by ferry you’ll pay the fee when you pay your fare.
The only downside to Rottnest Island (apart from the high season crowds) is that a visit is expensive. Here are our budget tips:
* Ferry tickets, tours and bike hire are not cheap, and combined with accommodation and food can really add up, so a long stay in self-catering accommodation and cooking your own food makes the most sense.
* While the more basic accommodation is very affordable by Australian standards, share with family and friends to save even more money and check the deals and packages on the island website.
* Biking is the best way to get around but you can save money by walking everywhere.
* Self-cater and do as the locals do and fish your meal! If you’re going to be eating out for one meal, we’d recommend making it lunch or an early sunset dinner – there’s nothing like feasting on seafood overlooking the water at the Rotto Hotel.
Rottnest Island Authority www.rottnestisland.com arranged our stay, including ferry tickets, accommodation, bike hire, and the Discovery Tour, and should be your first point for comprehensive information on the island.