Rottnest Island may be a quarantine zone these days, but pre-coronavirus it was all the about the bikes, the beaches – and the yummy pies. Carolynne Dear took her kids for a spin while the going was still good.
Moored up on one of Rottnest Island’s idyllic beaches (Photo credit Dylan Alcock/Shutterstock)
“There’s a quokka in the kitchen!” comes the excited cry from my nine-year-old son early one morning. Blearily, I scramble out of bed to find not one, but two of the friendly marsupials sitting quietly under the dining table nibbling a stray Dorito. Better two quokkas than a rat, perhaps.
Yes, they are adorably cute, but no, I didn’t want one as a pet, so we hastily shoo them into the yard where they obligingly hop off into the bush.
Welcome to Rottnest Island – or ‘Rotto’ as it’s affectionately known locally – home to the quokka, long stretches of sand and kilometres of bike-friendly, car-free tracks.
We’d flown down from Hong Kong to Perth, an ‘easy’ seven hours with no time change. A half-hour cross-town taxi ride had us at the Boatshed Marina in Fremantle and ready to jump on the 40-minute ferry ride over to Rotto. Brekkie sausage sandwiches in hand, we climb aboard.
The island is a protected nature reserve that sits a mere 18 kilometres west of Fremantle. It covers just 19 square kilometres and houses a permanent population of around 300. However, it receives an additional 500,000 visiting tourists each year, some as day trippers and some (like us) to stay in the island’s villas and cabins.
Laden with bike trails, walking trails, stunning countryside, golden beaches and amazing scenery, it ticks all the ‘family fun in the great outdoors’ boxes. In the villa next door to us, a group of ladies arrive laden with painting easels and oils – this is also the perfect location if you’re looking for a mental reboot. A friend-of-a-friend once decamped there for six months over the quieter winter period. “It was the most therapeutic half-year of my life,” she tells me.
Enjoying a kick-around at dusk.
We were visiting at the tail-end of the Aussie summer. We’d managed to avoid the Western Australian school holidays, so while the island was busy at the weekend, it was reasonably quiet during the week. Temperatures were pleasant – a beach-friendly high 20s during the day, but dropping to hoodie territory at dusk. Shoulder season – October or Easter – is probably the most reasonable time of the year to enjoy Rotto. The summer rush in December and January pushes the island’s population to its limits and the heat can be brutal.
But Rottnest wasn’t always about leisurely bike rides and painting workshops. The island’s unusual name came about in the 17th century when Dutch sailors, mistaking the quokkas for rats, christened the island Rottnest, or ‘Rats Nest’. After the Brits arrived in Perth in 1829, Rotto variously hosted a penal colony, military installations and internment camps for enemy aliens. And of course most recently, it has been hastily set up as a coronavirus quarantine camp. Reports from current occupants in the local press liken the conditions to “winning the raffle.”
“We have a little courtyard, and a balcony,” one couple who had been evacuated from their cruise ship to a unit overlooking Rottnest’s Geordie Bay told Western Australia Today. “It’s right on the beach, the view is gorgeous.” Rottnest Island workers have been cooking and delivering food to the new residents and paramedics also visit regularly. “It sounds wonderful, but it is still a quarantine,” the couple added.
When we visited, we found the accommodation to be basic but adequately served its purpose as a based for a family-friendly, outdoorsy kind of break. Comfortable beds with clean linen, a lounge area, bathroom and kitchen plus a yard with a BBQ are really all you need. And of course wonderful ocean views.
We’d booked into a cottage in the main settlement of Thomson Bay, which meant we were just a few minutes walk from the island’s supermarket, coffee shops and restaurants. Accommodation can also be found further afield at Geordie Bay and Longreach Bay.
Camping sites are also available and last year the island introduced an 83-eco tent resort, described as a ‘low impact, glamping experience.’ The tents are raised off the ground for minimal environmental impact and positioned to harness natural airflow from the seabreeze so that air conditioning is not required. Ceiling fans have also been installed above the beds. Each tent comes with a private deck, bathroom ensuites, fly-screened windows and WiFi. Glampers have access to Pinky’s beach Club with pool, bar, laundry, tour desk and restaurant. There is also ample lawn space stretching down to the beach for gallivanting children or cocktail-enjoying parents.
It’s all about the pedal power!
If you’re not keen on cycling absolutely everywhere but still want to explore, there is a local bus service. But other than that the roads are gloriously car-free and our first port of call was the bike hire shop. Suitably kitted out with helmets (‘crash lids’ are mandatory for cyclists in Australia) and wheels, we sped off to explore. With four other families joining us for our week of off-roading fun, the kids soon organised themselves into friendship groups. Off they set each morning, lunch money tucked into their pockets, to return later in the afternoon after a day of adventuring. If they tired of cycling, there were beaches to play on, adventure playgrounds to conquer and the ocean to snorkel. One afternoon we packed them off to the heritage cinema on the island for a family movie. On another we set off en masse to cycle up steep Oliver Hill to have a look at the battery, with armoury dating back to World War II. On another, we pedalled the length of the island to Cathedral Rocks and the far western point, stopping for a dip on deserted Catherine Beach on the way home.
We dined each evening on BBQ prawns and steaks, watching a blazing sun drift down into the Indian Ocean. One night we cycled over to Geordie’s restaurant for supper in Geordie Bay. After stuffing ourselves with more fresh seafood and local wine, with Aussie burgers all round for the kids, it was a hair-raising spin home in the black of night, swerving both hopping quokkas and rocks strewn over the path.
One afternoon, the kids went fishing and on another they flung themselves around on a giant inflatable water play park off the beach at Thomson’s Settlement. Another morning they spent their entire day’s pocket money on Fluffy Koala ‘shakes at the Milk Bar. There’s nothing like lots of fresh air to fuel little appetites. And Rottnest’s infamous pies are incredible, too – the steak and pepper offering at Rottnest Bakery is not to be missed.
As for the adults, when we weren’t cycling or nursing sore backsides, we could be found chatting over a chilled glass of Savvy B and enjoying the serenity.
Rotto was a blast and we’re looking forward to a return trip when it’s not longer needed as a quarantine camp. We flew back to Hong Kong, lungs filled with glorious fresh air, and ready for our next adventure.