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Approximately 7,000 years ago on the west coast of Australia, a rise in sea level led to the formation of a chain of limestone-based, sand-covered islands on the continental shelf opposite Perth. Today, the largest of these islands, Rottnest, is a stunning holiday haven for locals and tourists alike. Just 19km from Perth and a 25-minute ferry ride from Fremantle, car-free Rottnest Island boasts over 60 glorious beaches, along with salt lakes, woodlands, limestone coral reefs and numerous shipwrecks from early explorations.
I was lucky enough to spend four days on Rottnest Island during my time in Perth, and while I was expecting it to be pleasant, I hadn’t realised quite how stunning the coastline was until we arrived and started exploring. I couldn’t believe a place this exotic existed so close to a major city!
Rottnest is not only breathtakingly beautiful but easy to get to and packed with budget accommodation, including a campsite and heritage cottages. Whether you’re visiting Perth as a backpacker or a high-end traveller, a trip to Rottnest Island is definitely one of the best things to do in Perth.
To find out where to go and what to do on Rottnest Island, along with a snippet of its gruesome history, have a read of my guide below!
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History of Rottnest Island
Like many of Australia’s most beautiful locations, Rottnest Island has a grisly and not-so-beautiful past…
While Aboriginal artefacts dating prior to the island’s separation from the mainland have been discovered on Rottnest, the indigenous people did not have any means to get across the water, and did not traditionally live on the island. It was, however, believed by the indigenous people to be a place of spirits and held a special significance to them.
The first Europeans to discover Rottnest Island were the Dutch in the 17th century, but it wasn’t until 1829 that the first settlers took up residence. This didn’t last long though: in 1839 it was announced that the island would become a penal establishment for Aboriginal prisoners. The settlers were moved to the mainland, and for almost a century Rottnest was used to imprison around 3,700 Aboriginal men and boys, with 369 reported deaths (mostly from disease but including five hangings). You can pay your respects to those who perished at the Aboriginal cemetery at the Thompson Bay Settlement.
During the prison period, the Aboriginal prisoners constructed heritage buildings, lighthouses and, after the prison closed in 1904, the roads. In 1911 Rottnest Island opened for its first holiday season, and, except during periods of closure for military use during World War I & II, has been used as place of recreation ever since.
Thomson Bay Settlement – Eating and Drinking
On arrival the ferry will drop you off at the Thomson Bay Settlement on the eastern side of the island, where you’ll need to check in at the Rottnest Island Visitor Centre if you’re staying overnight. Thomson Bay is Rottnest Island’s main hub, and where the shops, restaurants and much of the accommodation is located. Note that the retail and entertainment options are quite limited – the main attraction of Rottnest is the nature and wildlife. It’s definitely not a party island or shopping mecca!
Behind the visitor centre you’ll find Subway, Rottnest Bakery, Lane Café, Simmo’s Ice Cream and a general store. Other places to eat and drink in Thomson Bay include the Dome Café (great for breakfast with a view), Aristos Waterfront restaurant and Hotel Rottnest if you walk east along Colebatch Avenue, and Riva Restaurant and Governers Bar further back down Digby Drive. Note that when I visited in September time it was pretty quiet and most places closed by 3pm, so we ended up eating at Hotel Rottnest or Aristos every night. There’s also a general store and a café up at Geordie Bay.
Rottnest Island Beaches
Rottnest is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world; the sand is blindingly white, the sea is a patchwork of deep blue and turquoise, and rather than backing onto buildings or roads like some of the city beaches on the mainland, they have a natural backdrop of sand dunes and greenery.
Visit family-friendly Thomson Bay with a roped-off area for swimming, Pinky Beach next to the campsite, Geordie Bay up at the top end, or simply go with the flow and stop off at any of the 63 secluded beaches you come across on your explorations.
Rottnest Island Quokkas & Wildlife
Rottnest Island isn’t just known for its spectacular beaches; it’s well known for its wildlife too and is home to over 10,000 quokkas! These cute, nocturnal marsupials native to Rottnest even inspired the island’s name (meaning “Rat’s Nest” in Dutch) when a Dutch explorer in 1696 spotted them and thought they were very large rats!
As cute as quokkas are, do remember that they’re wild animals and a protected species. They eat a plant-only diet and – like with most wild animals – feeding them can result in illness, death and aggressive behaviour. They can also bite, and touching and feeding them incurs a $150 on-the-spot fine and potential prosecution.
Also be aware that they’re pretty darn clever; put down your bag and their little noses will be snuffling around in there in a jiffy. We almost had heart attacks one night when we were sitting inside our tent and the zip started opening. But nope, it wasn’t an axe murderer – a wet little nose appeared instead!
Hire a Bike
Since cars are not permitted on Rottnest Island, the most popular way to explore is to hire a bike from Pedal and Flipper, located behind Hotel Rottnest, and cycle the 22km circle around the island. You’ll get fresh air, exercise, and the freedom to stop off at the prettiest, most secluded beaches you can find. I’ll admit it’s quite hilly – I had to get off and walk more than once – but I hadn’t ridden a bike for a very long time, so if I can manage it I’m sure most people can!
Things to Do on Rottnest Island
If cycling isn’t your thing, you can explore Rottnest on the hop-on-hop-off Island Explorer Bus, take one of the various guided coach journeys or a train ride, whizz around by Segway or enjoy a marine tour with one of the ferry companies. Volunteers offer free guided walks to teach you about Rottnest Island’s history; scenic flights are available; and you can enjoy museums and galleries, a movie at Rottnest Island picture hall and various sporting activities in and out of the water. From Thomson Bay I’d recommend walking to the Bathurst Lighthouse to enjoy the view over Pinky Beach. All options are detailed on the Rottnest Island website.
Accommodation on Rottnest Island
For such a stunning island, I was very surprised to find that a big developer hadn’t taken over and turned it into an impossible-to-afford exclusive resort. Although beachside and premium accommodation is available, with the abundance of simple, budget cabins you could be mistaken for thinking you’ve stepped into a 1950s holiday camp!
Despite its beauty, Rottnest has thankfully managed to retain a quaint, old-fashioned charm and stay affordable for families and low-budget backpackers as well as high-end travellers; you can even stay in dormitories at the old army barracks or in the 1920s-built North Heritage Bungalows. Hiring a cabin or bungalow between a group of you can work out extremely cheap. Peruse and book your Rottnest Island accommodation on the official island website.
Camping on Rottnest Island
I spent four nights at Rottnest Island’s campground, which has 43 non-powered sites, bathrooms with wheelchair access, barbecues and a kitchen with hot plates, a kettle and drinking water. The facilities are fairly basic but the short stroll along the sandy path to Pinky Beach is priceless – perfect for watching the sun come up behind Bathurst Lighthouse. It’s also only a ten-minute walk to the shops and eateries at the Thomson Bay Settlement.
TIPS FOR CAMPING AT ROTTNEST ISLAND
- The camp kitchen does not have a fridge or storage cupboards – it is little more than a shelter – so you will need your own esky if you want to keep any food (do beware of the quokkas though – they’re good at opening things and can easily open a tent zip)!
- The campsite is only a short walk from the ferry drop-off, so I would recommend carrying your own luggage rather than using the free luggage delivery option. The campsite was the final drop-off when I visited (despite being the place where people need their luggage to actually build their accommodation, preferably while it’s still light) and we sat on the grass for two hours waiting for it to arrive when we could have just carried it ourselves.
- The campsite isn’t well marked, and since the facilities there are minimal we actually walked past it at first thinking it was just an open field! Take a good look at my photos and keep your eyes peeled!
Rottnest Island is committed to maintaining a sustainable power, gas and water supply and minimising environmental impacts. Amongst other initiatives, it has upgraded its water utilities, installed wind turbines to supply 30% of its power and is constructing a 600kW solar farm.
I coincided my trip with Rottofest, Rottnest Island’s annual music and comedy festival (held November 17-19 for 2017). We chose to watch the music stage only – set up in the beautiful outdoor area at Hotel Rottnest – and enjoyed a whole day of back-to-back bands, stunning beachside views and a really lively end section once the sun went down. Highly recommended!
Weather on Rottnest Island
It’s definitely a few degrees colder on the island than in Perth! On our first few days the wind was absolutely bitter (we were seriously bracing ourselves at Rottofest until the sun moved onto us), and it was so strong during our bike ride that we were almost rolling backwards at times! The final day, however, was warm enough to sunbathe on the beach. Just be aware that if you’re not yet into summer it might be chillier than expected!
How to Get to Rottnest Island
To get to Rottnest Island book a ferry through either Rottnest Express, departing from Fremantle or Perth City (tip: travel on a Tuesday and it’s only $39 for a day return from Fremantle); or Rottnest Fast Ferries that sets off from Hillarys Boat Harbour. Both companies offer tours and packages in addition to the ferry services.
There are so many things to do on Rottnest Island, and if you’ve been living in Perth for a while it’s easy to forget the kind of stunning scenery that lies so close by. So don’t put it off, plan your trip to Rottnest now!