West Australians have long enjoyed keeping Rottnest Island out of bounds from the rest of Australia… Until now. Words by Travis Cranley.
Poor Rottnest Island. If only this perfect little treasure of a place could pick itself up, shuffle the few thousand kilometres east from near Perth to somewhere close to the Great Barrier Reef and Cairns, it would live its days in the golden glow of universal acclaim. One of Australia’s great islands! Fifty places you must visit before you’re 50! The jewel of the Tropics!
Oh, wouldn’t it be grand? Instead, Rottnest – ‘Rotto’ to its friends – finds itself most awkwardly placed for such national attention.
There it lies, just 19 kilometres from Perth’s suburban beaches. Such is its proximity to the city that one festive day each February, super-fit locals swim to Rotto while the standard, lazier, less shark-intensive option for the rest of us is a 25-minute ferry ride from Fremantle to Thomson Bay, its main settlement. (The smaller ‘non-main’ settlement is based around Geordie and Longreach Bays, about two kilometres away. The rest of the island is left to the quokkas.)
Unlike those celebrated travel destinations of Australia’s north-east, Rotto can’t rely on idyllic island clichés to draw a crowd. There are no exotic scents of the Tropics, no melodic sounds of strange birds. On Rotto the smells are of a BBQ on the go, suntan lotion being slopped on and freshly-caught fish.
Still, Rotto readily seduces with its own unique charms. It boasts quokkas, cute little furry marsupials that serve as the island’s mascot, 20 bays and 63 stretches of beach, and roads removed of cars, made perfect for cyclists to explore the length of its 11km spine, which broadens to 4.5km at its widest point.
On summer days the place can look almost outrageously appealing, as favourite spots such as The Basin, Parker Point, Little Parakeet Bay and Strickland Bay invite swimmers, snorkellers, surfers and sunbathers to savour its white sands and sapphire waters. Come winter the weather cools, and the rocky coastline and ragged reefs at West End and other lookouts offer soul-cleansing splendour.
Then there are the whales, dolphins, seals, ospreys, pelicans, peacocks and colourful robins to find on land or in sea, and fishing which attracts and entertains both the curious caster and the expert angler.
There isn’t a bad month to visit Rotto. There’s seldom a bad day. (Although one can advise to avoid the late November period when the island is overrun by that modern seasonal menace, the schoolie.) This explains why generations of West Australians have remained loyal and loving to Rotto as a holiday retreat, recognising the advantages of having a slice of heaven conveniently located just offshore.
West Aussies have long delighted in this delicious irony: Rotto as the perfect place to get away from it all – without getting very far away from it at all, since the chances someone from work, or the family from down the road, or your sister’s best friend are probably on the island with you at the same time.
‘Remote’ doesn’t really work as a sales pitch. At night from Thomson Bay the lights of Perth provide a blinking security blanket to those staying on the island; at sunrise the city’s few skyscrapers stand on the eastern horizon like lonely sentries greeting the new day.
Not all Perth people holiday on Rotto, however those that do are usually serial guests. The island caters for all ages: young families, courting couples, pensioners, partying teens and everyone else that can fit into a villa, a chalet, a bungalow, a cabin, a tent, a rented room or, increasingly, the bunks on a private boat.
And what do all these happy holidaying island folk actually do? That, really, is for you to find out. Some holiday-makers never leave the settlement, loving the friendly vibe, the tall, shady pine trees, the quokkas, peacocks and pelicans nosing about, the lure of the fine weather, a good wine and a chair with a view. Others take off on bikes to adventure around the island, finding treasures like lonely osprey nests and old naval lookouts dating back to World War II.
There’s a golf course and free tennis courts, great surf breaks for the more daring, and clean, white beaches just demanding you throw down a towel and take it easy. The Indian Ocean is an ever-present companion – most of the roads skirt the coast, gifting cyclists spectacular views and generally easy access to bays and beaches. And it’s impossible to even imagine a better holiday island for kids. Just trust me.
Given such a hearty introduction, it might surprise you to learn that Rotto is right now struggling with something akin to an identity crisis. In an era of low-cost flights, $300 holiday packages to Bali, the development of increasingly elite WA locations such as Margaret River, Coral Bay and Broome as A-list destinations, and a mining and resources boom out west that has made many locals rapidly rich, Rotto is juggling with keeping its traditional customer base happy while trying to tap into a bigger, more commercial market.
Rottnest is protected as a Class A Reserve and operated by the Rottnest Island Authority (RIA), a government body which manages the administrative elements of its operation. Working with the RIA is the Rottnest Island Business Community, a collective of local businesses such as the ferry operators and the Quokka Arms, the island’s iconic pub.
Together, it’s their task to keep building the brand of the island. Advertising slogans such as ‘Love My Rotto’ and ‘Experience Rottnest Island’ seek to lure in old and new customers alike, as the ferries and accommodation providers try to package deals to keeps costs competitive.
“The [tourist] demographics for us here run at 80-85 per cent West Australians, about seven to eight per cent from the rest of Australia, and the balance is international visitors,” says Glen Tribilcock, General Manager of the Rottnest Lodge, the premier accommodation centre on the island.
“As an island community we all work extremely closely on doing what we can to raise the profile of the island while continuing to ensure the unique aspects and atmosphere of Rotto remain intact.”
Rotto has truly had to take its lumps – WA Tourism Council chief executive Evan Hall even complained in early 2012 that the island was “stuck in the 70s”. Gulp!
In response to such criticisms, recent initiatives include boardwalks, an upgraded golf course, better camping facilities and – coming soon – a quality day spa centre at The Lodge, pitching to guests looking for an island resort experience. And the RIA has banned ABBA music and the wearing of flares when Evan visits, promise.
Such measures are all geared to this goal of ‘raising the profile’ of Rotto, which not only means bringing in a broader base of local visitors, but appealing to people located in that otherwise unnecessary continental netherworld that West Australians refer to as ‘the Eastern States’ (i.e. the rest of the country).
For the ES-ers, the question that needs answering is this: why jump on a plane, fly 4000km to Perth and set out for Rotto when there’s plenty of coastal retreats and islands to explore on Australia’s eastern coast and nearby Pacific region?
“The idea of coming to Rottnest is to relax and rejuvenate,” says Glen. “You can do as little or as much as you feel inclined to do. You can ride around and sample every bay on the island, or you can pull up a chair and read a book with a great view in front of you.
“The island is preserved, pristine and untouched. It’s not a North Queensland island and obviously it never will be. It has its own natural beauty and its own natural charm completely individual to this place.”
But is that truly enough? Doesn’t every lonely Perth guy in a Sydney bar believe he has his own natural beauty and his own natural charm, if only someone paused to notice? (Hey, not that I’d know.)
It’s about now that if you know Rottnest well you start to feel a little frustrated. Rotto having to sell itself to visitors is a bit like the lads from One Direction having to plead with a 14-year-old girl to be her date to the school social: it kind of turns logic upside down.
The pitch here should be why do you need to holiday anywhere else but Rotto? Alas, the big, wide world these days can all seem so accessible, leaving a little island within touching distance of a capital city presenting as just a little, well, underwhelming. It shouldn’t be.
That said, Rotto sure isn’t Ibiza or Mykonos. There are but two drinking holes, the Quokka Arms and the Gov’s Bar at The Lodge, and dining options all but disappear after 8.30pm. Although Quokka Arms boasts a brilliant beer garden which looks out to Thomson Bay and Perth, and its best sessions remain the stuff of legend.
Another problem for many is the cost. It says much about the curious economics of modern travel that Bali often presents a cheaper holiday alternative to Rotto for Perth families. There’s a reason for that, of course: Rottnest pays award rates to workers, and the conservation, historical and environmental considerations which protect the island come at a price, etc. But still, on an island where takeaway fish and chips costs $23, there’s reason to baulk at some associated costs.
The irony is, of course, that the best things on the island are free: water, winds, open roads, lonely beaches, sunshine on your back, family fun, sunrises and sunsets.
The major cost for many is accommodation. At its busiest times the RIA operates a ballot system for bookings for the island’s 291 villas, bungalows and chalets. Regulars looking to ensure an island home around Christmas will often line up for days (and nights) outside the RIA office a full year in advance to be at the front of the queue when bookings for the peak season open.
Nightly rates for private accommodation such as villas and bungalows remains a contentious issue in WA despite the fact that even at peak times the premium prices seldom are more than $50/person/night, based on the number of beds available. This grief is caused in part by the fact that so many regulars regard the island as little more than an extension of their suburban base, and so resent prices they’d be delighted to find at more distant destinations.
Also, the ‘premium’ accommodation available is relative: in my villa the allotment of coat hangers for guests was one per bed, and the tiny 1990’s TV picked up only network stations with the use of some innovative positioning of the rabbit-ears antenna. So there won’t be a butler outside your door, but the rental places are clean, homely and convey a spirit of casual, relaxed living suited to an island break.
Plus, this isn’t a destination for those wanting to waste away indoors, and the views and easy-living options are what you are paying for. They’re worth it. If it’s just a room you are after, The Lodge is your best option.
The only other essential is a bike, and Rottnest Island Bike Hire keeps more than 1300 on its premises and runs an efficient free repair (and, occasionally, rescue) service for anyone stranded with a puncture or other fault anywhere on the island.
The high number of West Australians, now swimming in resource-boom money, provides another accommodation alternative for many: big (and little) boats that moor offshore at Thomson Bay and several other stunning
There are now 901 moorings available for boat owners, and recent figures reveal this private flotilla now brings a significant number of the island’s visitors: on average 330,000 guests arrive by ferry, and 185,000 by private boat each year. This is great for Perth boat owners, not so great if you are enjoying a secluded bay when a boat or six anchors by the beach, blots out your view, stokes up the stereo and turns your island retreat into Club Tropicana.
But avoid such occurrences, as the majority do, and Rottnest remains one of those bits of earth that you just wish you could pack up and take home with you. Yes, it’s not too close for most of us, and maybe just too close for some, but start a day with a swim at The Basin, watch some quokkas hop by as you get back on your bike, and later leave the settlement behind as you take off for West End, and it’s hard to think anything but the best of this place.
The wonderful writer Annie Dillard once observed of such time made good: “Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.” Spend a day at Rotto, and we’re thinking you just might take with you the promise to return more than once again.
Rottnest Express operates ferries from Perth, Fremantle and Hillarys Boat Harbour. The ferry from Fremantle takes about 25 minutes.
Book early and online for good savings – pay late and expect to be paying about $75 return.
Extra items such as your own bike and/or surfboard carry additional charges.
Rotto is a pedaller’s paradise, with service vehicles and tourist buses the only other transport on the island.
A reliable, regular bus service drops visitors at various bays. If you don’t bring your own bike, Rottnest Island Bike Hire has plenty to choose from.
There are also many nice walks from the settlement.
Private accommodation in villages, chalets and bungalows are available. There are two accommodation areas: Thomson Bay and Geordie/Longreach Bay.
The Rottnest Lodge provides room package deals with meals included, and the Quokka Arms hotel also has some private rooms. The Kingston Barracks facility features hostel accommodation, and well-priced cabins and tent spaces are available at the Thomson Bay campsite.
Check out your options and prices at www.rottnestisland.com Or befriend a boat owner with a mooring.
Need to know
• Be sure to find out what linen and bedding will be supplied for you and also check-in/check-out times, which may affect your ferry planning.
• Island prices for food and drink can be considerably more than you pay on the mainland, so pack supplies accordingly.
• Sunscreen is a must, as is your swimming kit. A fishing rod, binoculars, snorkel and mask, and your own bike helmet are also smart packing additions.
• A fly/mossie net for your face can make riding around in summer much more fun. Rotto is not very i-friendly – internet reception can be patchy and there are only a couple of slow internet terminals for public use. TV reception is also troublesome. So bring a book and your own entertainment for nights – remember what a board game looked like?
• Lock your hire bike – they have a habit of wandering off by themselves from places such as the Quokka Arms.
A triple circumnavigation of Rotto by air, land and sea leaves a lasting impression of its beauty.
If you want to make the most of a Rottnest stay it’s a necessity to leave the immediate confines of your accommodation and sample the island as a whole.
Usually, a loop of the island is tackled by bike, while a bus service also transports visitors around the island. Other vehicles are kept to a minimum on the island. The ideal option, however, may be to treat yourself to a triple circumnavigation: by plane, boat and bike.
Rottnest Air-Taxi operates from the island’s ‘airport’, a runway and one-room terminal located only 800m from the Thomson Bay settlement.
The business offers joy flights of 10 minutes, 20 minutes and 35 minutes, depending whether you want to go once or twice around the island, or add a hop across to check out Perth’s beaches and Kings Park as well. Prices start at $38 for 10 minutes, which soon seems a bargain once the little propeller plane takes skyward and the sweep of Rottnest’s salt lakes, white beaches and green hills are exposed beside the brilliant blue, sapphire and emerald waters which surround it.
If by air Rotto presents as a work of art, by boat it becomes a playground. Ferry operators Rottnest Express operate a 90-minute tour around the island for $50 per adult and $25 for children.
Choose the right time of year (September through to November is best) and you’ll be in for a treat on the northern side of the island as the skipper heads to ‘Humpback Highway’.
Humpback whales and their recently-born calves migrating south to colder waters often rest for a breather near Rotto, and on a spectacular day it’s possible to see up to a dozen whales playing offshore. Whales can regularly be sighted from various northern beaches also.
The Eco Express boat keeps a respectable distance away from the whales, as it does at the western end of the island when it stops in on a colony of New Zealand fur seals that have made a home for themselves at Cathedral Rocks. Dolphins and sting rays are also regularly seen on tour. The skipper skilfully navigates through the reefs and rocks which surround the island, but it’s easy to see how so many boats have come to grief here since Dutchman William de Vlamingh first dropped anchor in 1696.
Lastly, push the pedals. With most people sticking to the settlement areas, you don’t have to travel far by bike to feel you’ve got at least some of the place to yourself.
A snorkelling trail has been set up at Parker Point, making it one of the more popular beaches.
Keep an eye out for red-capped robins and, more majestically, ospreys which have built their distinctive nests on inhospitable rocky outcrops.
And don’t ride (or walk) over any ‘sticks’ – venomous dugites (a type of grey, green or brown snake) often sun themselves on the bitumen in summer. Reaching West End, the island’s most distant point, is always a pleasure, with the round-trip from Thomson Bay being 24 kilometres. Renting a multi-geared bike costs from $28 per day to $92 per week.