In mid-November, we took a wonderful tour of South Western Australia. We started and ended our trip in Perth, the capital of Western Australia. This laid-back but bustling city is also the gateway to a very special island: Rottnest Island. Also known as “Rotto”, this island is known for its laid-back atmosphere, beautiful beaches and stunning seawater. It is a popular tourist destination where visitors come to cycle, swim, surf, fish, snorkel or even dive. We too visited the island and enjoyed every minute of it! Read why Rottnest Island should definitely be on your tour of South Western Australia in this blog.
Some history of Rottnest Island
Rottnest Island, known to local Aborigines as “Wadjemup”, is more than just a beautiful island. The history of habitation of the island by Aborigines goes back more than 6,000 years. Back then, Rottnest Island served as a seasonal fishing and hunting ground and provided food and resources to the indigenous communities. Even today, the Noongar people regard the island as a place of cultural significance and spiritual value.
In the late 17th century, Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh stumbled upon the island and mistook the native quokkka for a large rat. He therefore named the island “rattennest” (“rats” being ratten in Dutch), which was later transformed into “Rottnest”. After Perth was founded in 1829, the first British settlers came to the island. They farmed there and built a permanent settlement. Less than a decade later, Rottnest Island was also used as a prison (the “Quod”) and forced labour camp. The penal camp was mainly used for native detainees and prisoners of war. Conditions on the island were harsh and many Aboriginal people tragically lost their lives during this period.
During both World Wars, Rottnest Island served as a strategic military outpost. The island was fortified with artillery batteries and a number of buildings were erected to house soldiers and their families. Today, you can still explore the remains of these military installations.
In the mid-20th century, Rottnest Island began to transform into the popular tourist destination it is today. Efforts were made to preserve the island’s natural beauty and protect its unique flora and fauna. They developed infrastructure to support tourism. This included overnight accommodation, recreational facilities and guided tours.
Beautiful landscape and beaches
Rottnest Island has a wide variety of landscape, from rugged cliffs and sand dunes to tranquil bays and turquoise waters. With over 60 beautiful beaches, there is always a little piece of paradise of its own. Some of the most popular beaches include The Basin, Little Salmon Bay and Pinky Beach, each of which has its own unique charm. But at these beaches, you don’t really have the gorgeous seawater to yourself. Little Salmon Bay beach, for instance, was quite crowded when we cycled past it. If you still want your own Robinson Crusoe experience, cycle all the way to the west of the island.
One of the most unique features of Rottnest Island are its beautiful pink lakes. Lake Hillier, located on the eastern side of the island, is a good example. The lake’s pink colour is caused by a combination of high salt concentration and a specific species of algae.
Wildlife and conservation
Rottnest Island is home to several animal species, including the famous quokkah. These small marsupials have become one of the most important species on the island in recent years. They are now the unofficial mascot of Rottnest Island. Signs kindly ask visitors to respect their natural habitat. And especially not to feed them. However, we saw many people taking selfies with these friendly-looking animals and at the restaurant where we had lunch, there was even a corpulent quokka roaming around, looking for food….
In addition, the island is popular with birdwatchers. In fact, you can find more than 135 recorded bird species here. The island has been designated an Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife International because it is home to important breeding populations of several unusual bird species. The coastal vegetation provides a perfect breeding ground for seabirds, including the majestic osprey. You will also find the pied cormorant, herring gull, several species of terns, rock parakeet, reef heron, and so on.
Furthermore, there are many species of fish, crustaceans and corals around the island thanks to its extensive reefs. This is why Rottnest Island is popular with snorkellers and divers. You will also encounter cetaceans such as bottlenose dolphins and migrating humpback whales. West of the island is Perth Canyon, an important habitat for blue whales. Whale-watching expeditions are therefore organised there.
To protect the island’s unique ecosystem, Rottnest Island has implemented several conservation initiatives. These efforts include protection of nesting sites, eradication of invasive species and conservation of the island’s flora and fauna. Visitors are encouraged to support these efforts by following the island’s guidelines.
What to do on Rottnest Island
There is enough to see and do on Rottnest Island to keep you entertained for at least a day. For water lovers, snorkelling and diving are a must. The island’s crystal- clear waters offer a spectacular underwater world full of colourful coral reefs and marine life. Popular snorkelling spots include Parker Point, Parakeet Bay and Little Armstrong Bay. For the divers among us, there are wrecks, open caves and interesting marine life. Diving trips are organised from Perth/Fremantle.
If you prefer to stay on land, cycling is a great way to explore the island’s nature. Rottnest Island has a network of well-maintained cycle paths. They take you through breathtaking coastal landscapes, past picturesque bays and to beautiful viewpoints. There are several cycle routes you can follow, ranging from 4 to 22 kilometres. We ourselves cycled a route of 15 kilometres in total. This went along the south-east coast to the lighthouse and back to Thomson Bay via the salt lakes. At the various bike rental locations, you get a map of the island to map out your own route. In the frequently asked questions at the bottom of this blog, we tell you where to hire a bike.
The nice thing about Rottnest Island is that you don’t necessarily have to do anything there, at least not actively. You can also choose to relax on the beach in the afternoon or even all day. There are plenty of particularly quiet beaches to be found. If, on the other hand, you prefer some hustle and bustle, head to Thomson Bay. Here you will find plenty of nice places to enjoy the beautiful sea, the lovely climate and sometimes live music. You also have some chill beach bars where you can go for a bite to eat or a cold drink.
What to see on Rottnest Island
One of Rottnest Island’s iconic landmarks is the Wadjemup Lighthouse. The lighthouse holds an important place in Western Australia’s maritime history. The then 20-metre-high tower was built in the mid-19th century and was the state’s first stone lighthouse. Half a century later, it was replaced by the current, 38-metre-high lighthouse. This tower is the first in the country with a rotating beam of light. You can climb to the top for a breathtaking panoramic view of the island.
For history buffs, a visit to the Rottnest Island Wadjemup Museum is a must. The museum showcases the island’s rich cultural heritage, from Aboriginal history to its colonial past. You’ll have exhibitions full of artefacts, photographs and interactive displays. The museum extensively highlights the black page in the island’s history through many stories about the inmates. But it also features natural history, art and culture and contemporary milestones.
Interested in the island’s military history? Then don’t miss Oliver Hill, home to a large World War II cannon. There are guided tours of the tunnels under the cannon. Among other things, you will get to see the crew shelter and several underground chambers.
On the official Rottnest Island website, you can find even more island attractions.
We visited Rottnest Island by seaplane at the invitation of TravelEssence, specialist in unique, tailor-made trips to Australia and New Zealand. We compiled the content of the blog independently and objectively based on our own impressions.
Answers to practical questions about Rottnest Island
Rottnest Island lies off the coast of Western Australia, about 19 kilometres west of Fremantle. Perth, the capital of Western Australia, lies a little further north-east.
Rottnest Island is a relatively small island of 19 square kilometres. More than 50 times smaller than Mornington Island in Queensland, for example. It is 11 kilometres long and a maximum width of 4.5 kilometres.
- Most people take the ferry. Regular ferry services depart from Fremantle, Perth or Hillary's Boat Harbour. The journey takes about 25 minutes (from Fremantle) to 90 minutes (from Perth). There are several shipping companies, including Rottnest Express, SeaLink Rottnest and Rottnest Fast Ferries.
- For a more luxurious option with unprecedented views of the Indian Ocean and the island, you can fly to Rottnest Island. This can be done either by small plane or helicopter. You can also fly to the island by seaplane. You take off from the Swan River near Perth and land at sea at Thomson Bay. There are different packages, for instance flying and cycling, or flying and extensive lunch. We did the latter. It was at the invitation of TravelEssence, specialist in unique trips to Australia and elsewhere. A fantastic experience never to be forgotten!
- Private yacht: you can charter a private yacht and sail to Rottnest Island with it. The island has several moorings. It is important to check for permits or restrictions before planning your trip. Check the Rottnest Island website for that.
When you arrive on Rottnest Island, you can explore the island on foot or by bicycle. Another option is the Island Explorer bus.
You can rent a bike on Rottnest Island from Pedal & Flipper Hire, the island's largest bike rental company. They offer a wide range of bikes, including regular bikes with or without gears, and electric bikes. This large shop with hundreds of bikes is located near the island's main jetty. We went there without booking ahead but you can also book your bike there in advance online. A helmet and lock come as standard with the rental. At the shop, they also have snorkel sets for rent.
Another option is to rent your bike from Rottnest Express, which offers bikes built specifically for the island terrain. Again, a helmet and lock are included as standard.
The most important thing to bring is a water bottle. The weather is almost always nice on Rottnest Island with lots of sunshine. Drinking water is a must. Fortunately, there are drinking water taps in many places where you can refill your bottle. By the way, also remember your sunglasses and cap (especially with a receding hairline).
You will also need a towel and possibly even swimwear. The beaches look so inviting that you will want to enjoy being - if only for a moment - on the sand.
The last essential thing you should definitely bring is a camera. The coast here is so beautiful, you'll want to take a picture every 50 steps.
Rottnest Island offers several charming spots where you can enjoy a delicious snack or refreshing drink. Here are some recommended ones:
- Lontara at Hotel Rottnest: we had lunch here. The lunch was part of the luxury package where we flew to Rottnest Island from Perth by seaplane. The multi-course lunch was delicious, but not extraordinary. The ambiance and extremely friendly staff made up for a lot.
- Isola Bar e Cibo: nice place with very cosy terrace. We passed it on our way to Lontara. At the time, there was a wedding party going on with a fairly noisy DJ. Without that music, definitely a tent where we had a great time. The food seems to be fine!
- The Lane Cafe: Located in the heart of Thomson Bay, this cafe is a nice spot known for its excellent coffee and relaxed atmosphere. They serve light meals, sandwiches and pastries. This makes it a perfect place for a quick bite and a relaxing afternoon.
- Geordie Bay Cafe: if you are in Geordie Bay, this cafe is a must. Enjoy a coffee or a meal while admiring the beautiful artworks in the gallery. The menu features fresh seafood, salads, burgers and vegetarian options.
- Pinky Beach Club: this beachfront venue at Pinky Beach offers a unique dining experience. Enjoy a cocktail or a glass of wine with breathtaking sunset views. The menu features a selection of gourmet dishes made with locally sourced ingredients.
Depending on what you want to do there, you should count on a full day to two days. We were there for just one day and ran out of time.