Rottnest Island (or Rotto as the locals call it) is an island 18km off the coast of Perth, WA, Australia. From Vancouver, Canada where I live, it’s just a short 14.5hr flight to Sydney – pretty much the other side of the world and the opposite hemisphere, then a 5hr three time zone flight across Australia to Perth. Chase that with a 30-minute transfer downtown, a 30-minute commuter train from Perth city center to Fremantle, and then take a 25-minute ferry ride from the suburb of Fremantle. Rottnest Island is pretty much as physically far from Vancouver as you can get, while still being on land.
Is it worth it? Absolutely! While I wouldn’t suggest making the connections noted here in succession, Rottnest is definitely worth a day trip (or more) if you hit the west coast of Australia and Perth. Remarkably many European and North American tourists do the east coast of Australia, and call the continent done. But there’s so many more treasures to be found on the west coast. And Rottnest is one of them.
Rottnest Island is most famously known for quokkas. Quite possibly the world’s happiest animals, these adorable fury marsupials that appear as a cross between a miniature kangaroo, a bunny, an oversized rat and a squirrel, are known for their curious and friendly nature. In fact, if you’ve ever witnessed an Aussie going nuts about squirrels in Stanley Park (they don’t have them in Australia), it’s pretty much the equivalent of a Canadian’s infatuation with quokkas.
Frankly, I couldn’t get enough of them!
Quokkas are remarkably friendly, although you still shouldn’t touch them. We witnessed one who had curled up under cover in a baby stroller while a family was at the beach, only to remain stubbornly in place once discovered, nestled in the blankets, looking out, wondering what all the fuss was about. And when beckoned to pose with you for a selfie, they often curiously tilt their head with a kind of smile.
Rottnest is a unique destination which developed in geographic isolation from the rest of Australia, is the only place on earth with Quokkas. 17th century Dutch sailors thought the generous population of fuzzy rodents were large rats, and named the island “Rotte nest” meaning “rats nest” in Dutch. In the past, the island has served as a penal colony, army barracks and prisoner of war camp, but now it’s just a lovely holiday destination.
I had been to Perth back in my 20s during a backpacking trip, but making it a step further to Rottnest Island had eluded me. This time, I was determined to make it, so I found myself being packed off with the husband of my life-long friend and childhood pen pal, since she was teaching that day, and Uwe with a day off, sensed he had a game companion for an adventure.
Ferries from Perth to Rottnest Island operate 6-7 times daily in off-peak season and 10-12 times daily in peak season December to February. We met at the B-Shed in Fremantle to catch the ferry. Uwe had two bikes, snorkels, fins, and masks, plus swim towels, carry bags, snacks and a vessel of sunscreen fit to bathe in. He was not only in charge of ensuring I had a memorable day, but also making sure I didn’t burn to a crisp it would seem, as we cycled the 25km circle return route around the island in the hot sun.
Rottnest ferry tickets are best booked online in advance, since walk on ferries do fill to capacity and sell out. We booked a morning trip out, with a 5pm return the same day. There is accommodation on the island ranging from cabins, to glamping and camping, but reserving in advance is absolutely necessary, and often books out well in advance during peak season. Plug in your dates below and see what suits you.
The easiest way to see this car-free island if you’re on foot is by the hop-on-off shuttle bus. You can also rent bikes on the island, or take them over on the ferry as we did. When booking the ferry, you should note you have an accompanying bike, or book your rental in advance for the other side.
We got off at Thompson Bay, and the first stop was the Rottnest Bakery. I had been promised “the best meat pie in Australia” and it certainly didn’t disappoint. So with a solid hit of steak, bacon, cheese and pastry in our bellies, we were on our way. We also packed up some sweets for later.
Henrietta Rocks and Little Salmon Bay was our first snorkel destination. With a very cool old shipwreck, and oodles of tropical fish within a couple meters of the surface, it was perfect for snorkeling.
Although I had yet to master the Aussie gal fine art of changing into a bikini while wrapped in a towel in public view, I gave it my best shot. Fortunately Uwe was saved from the back-curtain peep show, but the hop-on-off bus tourists who had just arrived, did get more than they bargained for that morning. The water was a bit wavy, but warm, clear and like being in a human sized aquarium. Rottnest is home to 135 species of tropical fish, compared to 11 species recorded off the metropolitan coastline. After drying off, and actually mastering the towel wrap change this time, we were on our bikes again.
We cycled to the far west end of the island, past Porpoise Bay, Fairbridge Bluff and Rocky Bay, areas with some big wind and waves which had attracted surfers and kite-boarders that day. We passed the Roland Smith Memorial to an area called “Cathedral Rocks”, where a colony of New Zealand Fur Seals gather.
From the viewing platform, we watched them frolic. The area is closed to diving and boating, so it made for a spectacular natural habit viewing opportunity. While we were there in early April, we didn’t see any Humpback and Southern Right whales migrating north, as they often do in April. They’re known to linger in the calm waters off Rottnest at that time of year. The whales return September – December with newborn calf’s, again playing in the calm and warm waters off the island before returning to colder southern seas.
After that it was back along the north side of the island towards Catherine Bay and Gordie Bay with stops at “Pinky’s Beach” and later “The Basin” where we did some more snorkeling, swimming and relaxing. We were on the watch for stingrays, which often cruise the shallows of Thompson Bay, but I’m absolutely certain I stirred one up (from a safe distance!) in The Basin!
Rottnest is home to nine “salt lakes”, a unique eco-system that actually covers 10% of the island. Although we passed several of these while cycling, we didn’t stop to follow the foot paths, but we did learn from the educational signage makes them so pink. Apparently the lakes are 4-times saltier than seawater, and therefore attract a much higher concentration of beta-carotene-bearing algae which grows on salt crystals, and has a reddish/orange colour.
There were of course many stops for quokka sightings along the way. The island is estimated to be home to over 10,000 quokkas, so your chances of seeing one (or many!) are excellent. They tend to hang out in little bushy areas road side in the shade, and will happily scurry about and engage tourists who stop to give them attention. It’s actually against the law to touch or feed them, which makes for an interesting challenge when arranging for a selfie with such a friendly creature!
While it was an activity packed day, we made it safely back in time for our 5pm ferry to Fremantle, and after dinner with friends in Perth, and some wine to help liberate our stories, my head couldn’t hit a pillow and bed soon enough.
What to pack
Rottnest is 11km long, so if you’re cycling for the day, count on logging at least 25-30km. The island is relatively flat with some rolling hills. Temperatures will range in the mid 20s-mid 30s with a sea breeze during the summer, but there is limited shade, so be sure to bring lots of sunscreen (Uwe had me covered!), a hat, sunglasses and water. There are water re-fill stations throughout the island, so it’s best to replenish your bottle when given the opportunity. Even if you’re taking the hop-on-off bus, it’s still wise to provision with all of the above. There is little shade and the Australian sun takes its toll, regardless of physical output. Don’t forget to pack your bathing suit (swimmers in Aussie), a towel, and if you want to get up close and personal with some of the best snorkeling in the country outside of the Great Barrier Reef, be sure to bring or rent some flippers, snorkel and a mask.
When to go
Since Australia is in the southern hemisphere, summer season runs November – February. It does get cooler during winter and autumn, so beaches wouldn’t be fantastic during those months. Over the years Rottnest Island has become a popular destination for high school graduation trips, known as “Schoolies week”. The celebration usually takes place during the first 3 weeks following graduation beginning mid-November, so it’s likely a good time to avoid, unless you want to be surrounded by intoxicated 17 & 18 year olds. The island also gets busy during the Rottnest Channel Swim in February, and the Port to Pub Swim in March. Our visit in early April was lovely – not crazy busy, although certainly popular, with moderate temperatures in the 20s and low 30s midday.
Tips for the perfect quokka selfie
- Use a selfie stick. I know, sticks seems so self-serving, but they give the quokka some space. I didn’t have mine, but fortunately my reputation as “long-arm Mary” came to the rescue. Remember you do not want to touch or feed them
- Turn your flash off
- Switch to burst mode or do a video and screen grab the best shots later
- Wait for quokkas to find some food on the ground – this is when they stop moving and focus on chewing
- Squat or lie down close to the ground
- Since they are nocturnal, the best time to find a quokka is early morning or evening, but you’ll always find several sleep deprived ones scattered around during the daytime
- Quokkas like cooler places, so you will often find them sheltered from the sun in the shade of bushes roadside.
Booking details & everything else you need to know
Rottnest Island website https://www.rottnestisland.com/ (hit the BOOK ONLINE) button for ferry reservation, accommodation, hop-on-off bus day pass, and “pedal/flipper hire” (otherwise known as bikes and snorkeling gear rental) options
Be sure to have an Aussie meat pie too!
Rottnest Island Bakery on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/RottnestBakery/
Great for planning, and small enough you’ll want to pack it along, Lonely Planet’s WEST COAST AUSTRALIA PLANNING GUIDE is a great reference. Or check out all of Lonely Planet’s guidebooks for Australia, and have the whole country covered.
Finding accommodations on Rottnest Island especially during peak summer season can be a challenge. Start your search early if you plan to stay for several days or longer. Check out TRIP ADVISOR for deals, or enter your dates below with Booking.com