Rottnest Island is an idyllic island that has the virtue of being a mere 30-minute ferry ride off the mainland of Perth, Western Australia. Although Perth has no shortage of pristine coastline, Rottnest Island takes it up a notch and its clear aquamarine waters and sandy alcoves will make you feel as though you’ve stumbled upon a not-so-secluded paradise.
Rottnest (or Rotto) is a car-free island (although you’ll see shuttle buses) and the distinct lack of automobiles is the first indication that life operates at a slower pace here, where rest and relaxation are the rule rather than the exception. If you’re after non-stop activity, this may not be the right gig for you. However, if you’re looking to top up your vitamin D levels, dive in to water and beach activities, and hang out with the furry locals—quokkas—you’ve come to the right spot.
Although you can visit the island in a day trip, I would recommend staying a couple of nights to get the full island experience and to avoid rushing around, which goes against the entire ethos of the island! The island is actually bigger than you think it is (it is 11 km in length and 4.5 km at its widest point) and if you want to see the entire island, then it would be best to spend at least one night here.
Things to do on Rottnest Island
Find a beach, any beach Well obviously, it is an island after all. With over 63 beaches and alcoves and 20 bays to choose from, you won’t have any trouble finding a patch of sand all for yourself. Some of the more popular beaches include The Basin, Pinky Beach, Parakeet Bay, Parker Point, Little Salmon Bay and Salmon Bay (my personal fave was the area between Salmon Bay and Parker Point). The general rule of thumb is the farther you get away from the Thomson Bay settlement, where the ferry drops you off, the greater the likelihood of finding a beach that you can claim all for yourself.
Snorkel in an underwater playground Rottnest boasts some excellent beaches for snorkelling where you can explore the island’s underwater playground teeming with coral and marine life. It is particularly great for beginner snorkellers. Designated snorkelling areas include the beaches spanning from Salmon Bay through to Parker Point, and Little Armstrong Bay through to the Basin. You can find a guide on where to find the best snorkelling spots here. Visitors can rent snorkelling gear from Pedal & Flipper in Thomson Bay.
Hang ten Rottnest has some great beaches for surfing, and Strickland Bay has even been ranked in the top 50 breaks in the world.
Explore the island on two wheels Hire a bike so that you can roam around the island at your own leisure. There’s something about cycling past bushland, undulating grassy knolls (it reminds me of another island experience of mine) and up winding, hilly paths (often without another soul in sight) before turning a corner and being assaulted with the beauty of the azure coastline, which will temporarily distract you from the pain of cycling uphill (did I mention there are lots of hills?). You’ll be a sweaty, exhausted mess by the end of the day, but it’s worth it!
It is a 24 km ride around the whole island, but how far you go is dependent on time and how far you want to venture away from the main town. Be aware that there are few (if any) shady areas and drinking facilities away from the settlements, so make sure to slip, slop, slap on the sunscreen, plop on a hat and bring plenty of drinking water.
Put your walking shoes on The Whadjuk Noongar are the traditional owners of Rottnest Island and the Wadjemup Bidi is a 45-kilometre trail made up of 5 different sections. Each section takes approximately 2–5 hours to complete and varies between 6 to 10 kilometres long, delivering incredible views and sights along the way.
Segway it up I have to be honest: I’ve always wanted to go on a segway tour just because it looks fantastically hilarious and ridiculous at the same time. Segway Tours WA offers two alternative segway tours around the island: the Settlement Explorer tour, which takes you through the Thomson Bay settlement; and the Fortress Adventure, which takes you to the Bickley Battery gun emplacements and Jubilee lookout.
Head to the skies Take in the beauty of the island and its shimmering kaleidoscope of ocean colours from above in a scenic joy flight. Visitors can book a 10-, 20- or 35-minute scenic flight with Rottnest Air-Taxi.
Skydive over the island If you’re after an adrenalin rush, Skydive Geronimo offers tandem skydiving experiences over Rottnest island, where you will be rewarded with a complimentary beverage and Rottnest Island Explorer hop-on-hop-off bus pass afterwards for your sheer bravery.
Gawk at the pink salt lakes You might not be expecting to see pink salt lakes on Rottnest Island, but in actual fact the island used to be the only source of salt for the whole of Western Australia. Salt was collected and stored in the Salt Store in the Thomson Bay settlement before being transported to the mainland. The 12 salt lakes take up approximately 10 per cent of the island in area.
Brush up on your history The colonial architecture which is evident in the settlements is a telling indicator that there is a whole lot of history lurking beneath the chilled and breezy exterior of the island. Since British settlement, the island has been a convict settlement, as well as an internment camp in both World Wars. During World War II, Rottnest Island was important in the defence of the Fremantle Port and military guns were installed on the island. Today, visitors can take a train ride up to Oliver Hill for a guided tour of the 9.2 inch diameter gun and tunnel system. If you’re feeling a bit ‘beached out’, visit the museums and galleries on Rottnest Island to soak up some of the local history and culture.
Shine a light There are two lighthouses on Rottnest Island: the Wadjemup Lighthouse and the Bathurst Lighthouse. The Wadjemup Lighthouse is open to visitors and can be accessed via bus, bike or on foot via Wadjemup Walk Trail. Tours operate daily starting from 11 am and run every half hour until 2.30 pm.
Make friends with the locals Let’s be honest, no trip to Rottnest Island is complete without taking a famous quokka selfie, and in fact the island was named after the quokka population when Dutch sea-captain Willem de Vlamingh mistook quokkas for giant rats—Rotte nest = ‘rat’s nest’. Quokkas are king on the island and come out in the droves in the late afternoon for their photoshoots. They are friendly, curious creatures, and you’ll quickly need to quell the urge to smuggle one home. Seriously, these fellas are ADORABLE! Do remember though that all animals and plants on Rottnest Island are protected by law, and the local wildlife shouldn’t be touched, fed or harmed in any way. Make a few furry quokka friends, but maintain a reasonable distance and always be respectful.
See the NZ fur seal colony The NZ fur seals mainly breed in New Zealand but Rottnest Island also has a colony of these seals that live on the Cathedral Rocks. The Cathedral Rocks viewing platform has binoculars and allows visitors the opportunity to see the fur seals as they bask on the rocks and frolic in the water.
Getting to Rottnest Island by ferry
The most popular way of getting to Rottnest Island is by ferry (unless you’re lucky enough to own your own boat).
There are two ferry operators: Rottnest Express and Rottnest Fast Ferries. The Rottnest Express departs from B Shed – Fremantle; Northport – Rous Head Harbour, North Fremantle; and Barrack Street Jetty – Perth City; and Rottnest Fast Ferries departs from Hillarys Boat Harbour.
To get to Rottnest Island, it is approximately a 25-minute ferry ride from Fremantle, a 45-minute ferry ride from Hillarys Boat Harbour, and a 90-minute ferry ride from Perth’s Barrack Street Jetty.
Getting around Rottnest Island
There is an Island Explorer hop-on hop-off bus service that has various drop-off points around the island. Tickets can be purchased tickets online, at the Rottnest Island Visitor Centre or the Main Bus Stop kiosk (adult: AU$20; children: AU$15). There is also a free shuttle service that travels between the main accommodation areas on the island.
However, I would highly recommend hiring a bike, so that you don’t need to adhere to a bus timetable to explore the island!
Rottnest Island accommodation
We opted for convenience when visiting Rottnest Island and stayed at the Hotel Rottnest, which is perfectly located in the Thomson Bay settlement, and a short walk from the ferry drop-off point and all of the restaurants and shops. Hotel Rottnest also has its own restaurant and bar, and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food at the restaurant.
Accommodation options on the island aren’t modern or sophisticated by any means, and can often be quite dated, but you’ll be spending so much time outdoors that it really shouldn’t be a massive issue. Take note, in late 2017, a new glamping eco-retreat will be opening on Rottnest Island.
What to know before you go
- Book accommodation way in advance if you’re planning to stay overnight; you’ll find that accommodation will book out very quickly, particularly during the school holidays and the summertime (we waited close to a year before we finally made it to the island).
- Avoid going to Rottnest during schoolies week at the end of the year unless you’re keen to party with hypersexual eighteen year olds.
- Ferries drop visitors off at the Thomson Bay settlement, so make a note of this when planning accommodation.
- Start off your morning with a coffee from The Lane Cafe or The Rottnest Bakery.
- Slather yourself with sunscreen unless you want to shed five layers of skin the week after. Bring a beach umbrella if you can as there are very few shady areas around the island.
- Hire your bike beforehand so you can pick them up as soon as you get off the ferry.
- Wearing a helmet is compulsory when riding your bike.
- You’ll probably see a snake or ten: consider this a warning.
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