Rottnest Island. Ah… Yes, that’s the sound of a deep sigh. This drop-dead gorgeous island with squeaky white sand beaches and sparkling cover off the coast of Perth, the Western Australian capital, is one of our favourite destinations. Here’s why you need to book a stay soon.
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.
Below you can read about our last stay on Rottness island and how to relish the retro charm and ravishing beauty of Rotto and, beneath that, you’ll find our comprehensive Rottnest Island travel guide with recommendations for where to stay, eat and drink, how to get your bearings, things to do and see, and our budget travel tips.
Updated: 11 March 2022
Rottnest Island Travel Guide – Relishing the Retro Charm and Ravishing Beauty of Rotto
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, named it ‘Rottenest’ or ‘Rat’s Nest’ Island in 1696… because he thought the adorable quokkas looked like rats. Aww…
When we last visited Rottnest Island – after the day-trippers had caught the last ferry back to Perth, after a feast on fantastic Australian seafood at the island’s best restaurant (starving from cycling all afternoon), and after we’d enjoyed too many glasses of wine and games of pool with the locals in the pub bar – we laid on the old sofa on the sandy patio of our weatherboard beachside bungalow and listened to the waves quietly lapping against the sandy shore.
As we gazed at the countless stars in what must be the world’s clearest sky, it felt as if we were 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.
Rottnest Island 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 the laidback vibe, untamed beauty and rustic charm are 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 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 Rottnest 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.
Rottnest 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 tour by bus (link below), 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.
Rottnest Island Travel Guide
Where to Stay on Rottnest Island – Rottnest Island Boutique Hotels, Glamping, Bungalows, Heritage Cottages, Hostels and Camping
You’ll need to book Rottnest Island accommodation well ahead, especially if you’re planning to travel here during school holidays, as the island is enormously popular with Perth families. If you don’t have kids and you’re looking for romance, we recommend mid-week any time of year or weekends outside school holidays.
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 sites such as Luxury Escapes which specialises in luxury on a budget.
Discovery Rottnest Island is the pick of the island’s lodgings for beach-lovers with safari-style glamping tents over-looking the white sands and aquamarine sea.
If you want hotel-style accommodation, the beachfront Hotel Rottnest lodgings have been spruced up and rebranded as ‘barefoot boutique accommodation’ and is now called Samphire Rottnest. Stylish, minimalist, light-filled rooms feature polished concrete floors with seagrass mats, natural timber furniture and paneling, and bamboo chairs and coffee tables. Book a beachfront room for big furnished terraces with bay views.
The old Rottnest Lodge, set back from the beach, has also had a revamp and rebrand and is now called Karma Rottnest. Rooms have been modernised and have a cleaner look in neutral colours with local photography on the walls and cane chairs. (Note that the historic part of the building dating back to 1864 was part of the former prison.)
But for many Perth holidaymakers, the real charm of Rottnest is in its old-fashioned, unpretentious self-contained accommodation managed by Rottnest Island Authority, including weatherboard bungalows dating to the 1920s and charming heritage 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 lie 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 research, low-season prices started 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.
How to Get to Rottnest Island
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), ferry 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 cruise to Fremantle. You can also take a spectacular seaplane flight as the island has a small airport.
Get Your Bearings on Rottnest Island
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, to collect the key to your pre-booked accommodation, and pick up maps and guides to the island’s swimming, surfing, snorkelling, diving, and fishing spots.
After that, we highly recommend doing the informative Rottnest Island bus tour soon after you arrive to get your bearings, to get a handle on the distances involved, and to note down the nicest beach spots where you fancy a swim, surf or snorkel, as well as to learn about the history, culture and nature of the island.
How to Get around Rottnest Island
Cars are not allowed on Rottnest Island, but you can get around Rottnest island by bus, by bicycle, by segway, and on foot. If you don’t want to pay for the bus 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 (A$3-5).
Then hire a bike 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. Bike rental includes locks, as well as other gear, like snorkelling sets. They also offer 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.
Things to Do on Rottnest Island
Do a Tour of Rottnest Island
Tours are not only terrific for getting your bearings, but getting greater insight into the place where you’re going to spend some time. If you’re interested in the history, geography, nature and wildlife of the island, definitely do the super-informative bus tour (1hr 45mins, departing several times a day). The drivers give a fascinating live commentary and stops for photo ops at some stunning locations including Wadjemup Lighthouse and the West End.
Hiring bikes to do a self-guided tour of the island is a must. Cycling around was definitely one of our favourite things to do on Rottnest Island. You can rent bikes on the island, but if you’re going to Rotto on a weekend or school holidays we recommend booking bike hire in advance. A ferry and bike package is the best way to do that.
A segway tour is one of the most popular things to do on Rottnest Island and is a good option if you prefer a guided tour, you’re not a fan of cycling or want to save your energy for swimming and snorkelling. Options include anything from a 1-hour segway settlement tour to a full-day segway tour. Wear a hat and sunscreen and take a small day-pack for water and snacks.
If you want to dig even deeper into the history, the Rottnest Voluntary Guides Association, 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.
Swimming on Rottnest Island
Swimming in Rotto’s crystal clear waters are a must. 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.
Surfing Rottnest Island
Rottnest Island 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 off Radar Reef, Cathedral Rocks and Chicken Reef. If you’re going specifically to surf check the weather and surf conditions online.
Snorkelling and Diving on Rottnest Island
Abundant fish and coral species, along with shipwrecks, make Rottnest Island a superb spot for snorkelling and diving. You can hire snorkelling gear from Rottnest Island Bike & Hire and do snorkel trails at Parker Point and Kingstown Reef. You can also do snorkelling tours and diving trips. This package includes the ferry tickets, snorkelling and bike hire and is a bargain.
Cruise Around Rottnest Island
In good weather, you can do this adventure boat tour, which 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, such as dolphins and giant ospreys. Some boat tours include snorkelling time, kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding, so check the fine print.
Sky-Diving Over Rottnest Island
For thrill-seekers, you can do a skydive tour over Rottnest Island, which you definitely need to book ahead during school holidays. Ferry and sky-dive packages are the best way to go.
Where to Eat and Drink on
Rottnest Island – Rottnest Island Restaurants, Bars, Cafes, Bakeries and Coffee Vans
There are just enough Rottnest Island restaurants and bars, bakeries and takeaway to keep you sated for a holiday. Plus all of the self-catering accommodation on the island has decent, reasonably well-equipped kitchens, if you prefer to mix things up and do some cooking, or at the very least prep your own salads and sandwiches.
Self-Catering, Bakeries, Coffee Vans and Cafes
Rottnest Bakery also has freshly made sandwiches and daily-baked goods made in-house including pies, sausage rolls, sourdough bread, and old-fashioned pastries, such as cream buns, vanilla slices cream and jam doughnuts, make a beeline for Rottnest Bakery. They also cold drinks, hot coffee, ice-cream, and family meals of chicken, chips and salad from their Chook Shack window. Located at Thomson Bay Settlement, Maley Street.
The Rottnest Island General Store has a great range of liquor and groceries including gourmet goodies, fresh fruit and veg, dairy, cheeses, meat, poultry, and fish, at Perth prices, delivered daily from their mainland supermarket, the IGA Canning Bridge. You can even order ahead online and they’ll deliver to your accommodation and even pack the perishables in your fridge! They now have a second outlet, Geordie Bay General Store, located on Hydroflyte Loop, Geordie Bay.
Frankie’s on Rotto is a cheery, casual, all-day café and restaurant offering breakfast, lunch and dinner. Kick off the day with smashd avo and eggs, wild mushrooms and goat’s cheese on toast, or a bacon and egg roll. Coffee is locally roasted by Micrology. For lunch and dinner, there are sourdough pizzas, salads and pasta, with vegan options, and Margaret River and Great Southern wines, craft beers and ciders to wash it all down with.
Look out for Lexi’s, a cool restored vintage caravan, offering good coffee, snacks and ice-cream, located at the West End at the time of updating, but has been known to move around, generally to some of Rotto’s most scenic spots.
Kalli’s and Maeve’s are two more coffee vans, that are currently offering coffee, cold drinks, cocktails, beers, and tapas at The Top Bar, an atmospheric alfresco spot illuminated by fairy lights in the Settlement. This is a pop-up so check their website before, ahem, popping over.
The Lane café offers freshly roasted coffee, juices, smoothies, acai bowls, breakfast burgers, burgers/dogs, and lunch bowls, and can cater to a range of dietary requirements: gluten free, lactose free, vegan, and vegetarian. Located at the Thomson Bay Settlement, Maley Street.
Save room for a Simmos Ice Cream, made with fresh local WA produce, with over 60 flavours. Thomson Bay Settlement, Maley Street.
Restaurants and Bars
Lunch in the sunshine by the beach with the quokkas is a must. It’s one of the best food experiences in Australia for the waterfront location and little furry visitors, as much as the fine Western Australian food, wine and craft beers.
The menu at the Rottnest Hotel includes beachside snacks, such as prawn tacos, Rottnest crayfish sliders, and grilled sourdough with olive oil, Freo sardines and nduja mayo, although it’s hard to beat the DIY feast of half a kilo of Shark Bay prawns with cocktails sauce, lemons and soft buttered bread rolls. There are also salads, whole fish, pizzas, and pub classics such as beer battered fish and chips and Black Angus burgers, all made with WA produce. There’s a long list of local wines and ales, slushies, and summery jugs, including Pimms and sangria. Laidback off-season, in summer the pub takes on a beach party vibe with DJs and live music on weekends.
Isola Bar e Cibo is fab for lunch or dinner in a breezy light-filled dining room, along with outdoor deck seating, all offering breathtaking sea views. Isola offers an Aussie take on a classic Italian beachside bar and restaurant with locally made salumi shaved to order on a hand-cranked slicer paired with house-made pickled vegetables, beautiful antipasti (the gamberoni – wood-grilled whole Shark Bay prawns with scampi butter, capers and lemon is a must), fresh handmade pastas, and WA seafood cooked to perfection over a charcoal fired grill. The drinks menu includes Italian cocktails, spritzes, a long list of Italian wines and Western Australia wines made with Italian grapes.
For dinner, Riva restaurant at Karma may not have ocean views but it has a fine Mediterranean inspired menu based on seasonal WA produce and a good wine list, and there’s a fun bar out back called the Gov’s Bar that’s something of a secret where the Rotto locals like to hang out and play pool.
What it Costs to Visit Rottnest Island
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 or it will be included when you book a ferry and tour or bike hire package.
Budget Travel Tips for Rottnest Island
The only downside to Rottnest Island (apart from the high season crowds) is that a visit is expensive. However, the Aussie dollar is currently at a low, making a visit for foreign travellers very affordable right now. 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 might be the best option for you.
- 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 sites such as Luxury Escapes (link above) which specialises in luxury on a budget.
- 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.
UPDATED: March 2022
Rottnest Island Authority arranged our stay and their Visitor Information Office should be your first point for comprehensive info on the island.