A day exploring Rottnest Island is the highlight of any Perth trip. Not a 'best kept secret' by any stretch of the imagination, but even so, cycling from one pristine bay to the next, snorkelling through coral gardens and eerie shipwrecks, and seeing the curious, smiley quokka in its filter-free environment are experiences that never get old.
But first, what's with the name? Rottnest means ‘rat’s nest’ in Dutch, and while that might not sound like the stuff of paradise, “paradise on Earth” was the precise sentiment of European sailor Willem de Vlamingh, who explored and named the island in 1696. If this was his summation despite thinking the island swarming with cat-sized rats, we reckon that says enough!
We doubt old Willem had his portrait sketched with a quokka back then, but nowadays a quokka selfie is one of Rotto's most effective bits of marketing fodder. Those happy, teddy-like faces you've seen in photos are no exaggeration, and habituation has made them incredibly bold around people. Just make sure you don’t touch or feed them, or leave your food unattended. You won’t be too thrilled to lose your picnic to inquisitive little paws, and we’re sure you don’t need to be told that bread, cheese and chocolate are not the makings of a wholesome quokka diet.
Getting there and around
Three ferry companies run from four different ports around Perth (Fremantle, North Fremantle, Hillarys Boat Harbour and Perth City) and increase in frequency from November to March. It’s best to book online the night before to get the cheapest fare and the shortest trip. We tend to jump on at Fremantle for a speedy 25 minute cruise, but we won’t pretend that getting there via scenic flight isn’t tempting. You can also take your own boat over, or if you’re slightly mad, swim. The Rottnest Channel Swim is indeed a thing!
Expect a bit of hullabaloo around the ferry terminal and Thomson Bay when you arrive. This, the tourist hub and main settlement, is made up of resorts, shops, restaurants and the like, and is where most people tend to plant themselves for a day of sun-drenched cocktail swilling.
If this doesn’t sound like your scene, the area is still worth a poke around for the historical significance of the 200 year-old buildings. Across its checkered post-settlement past, the island’s built environment has served as a military base, WW1 internment camp, and an Aboriginal correctional facility which now stands as a memorial to the hundreds of Wadjemup people who were held and buried there. It wouldn't be over the top to say you could very easily spend the entire day absorbing the island's history.
What lies beyond takes a little bit more lung-and-leg action. Geared up with bikes, snorkels, sunscreen, and snacks to last the day, we make it our mission is to hit as many of Rotto’s 60+ beaches and snorkelling sites as possible and only go back to civilisation in time for the last ferry back.
The circular road around the island is around 25km long, and while it’s a little hilly at times and never shaded, anyone who’s comfortable on a bike won’t find it especially challenging. Ride clockwise and you'll even get extra oomph from tailwinds. You can hire your bike from some of the ferry operators to save time, or on the island from Pedal & Fin, whose massive bike supply alone is worth a look-in!
Bike is the best way to zip around the western half of the island.
Some people opt to walk around the island, a long, hot trudge in the summertime, but undeniably the best way to observe endemic plants and rare shore birds including three types of terns. You can also be shuttled to various sites on the bus, which is one of the few vehicles you’ll see on this car-free island.
Despite all these options, the truly surprising thing about Rottnest is that the beaches are often deserted. That sand so pure and water so vibrant evades most visitors is a complete mystery to us – but one we’re certainly not complaining about.
Calm, clear snorkelling at Parakeet Bay makes it tempting to sink a brolly in the sand and stay all day.
Snorkelling at Rottnest Island
Of the ten designated snorkelling sites, Little Salmon Bay and Parakeet Bay are the standouts for coral and marine life, and there are three different sites where you can snorkel shipwrecks from the beach, with The Shark, out of Henrietta Rocks, being the most striking. But don’t just take our word for it. Grab an island map, and just explore!
Access is almost always from the beach no matter where you stop, with the reef never more than a short swim from the shore. Coupled with warm, shallow, sunlit water alive with 400 fish species and 20 types of coral, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in the tropics – because technically, you are.
Like the Ningaloo Reef 1200km north, expect healthy corals in shades of purple and brown, meadows of seagrass, schooling butterfly fish, and huge colourful lobsters scuttling past. Green sea turtles, while rare this far south, are not off the table either.
This improbable tropical environment flourishes here due to the Leeuwin current, which brings warm – almost bath-like – conditions from the north. In summer this can mean glorious water temps of more than 23 degrees, and while you can expect the weather to be chilly in the wintertime, the water never drops far below 19.
That said, we’d still recommend going in late spring through early autumn to enjoy clear sunny days that amplify the striking gemstone blues of the bays. It may be a capital city, but in Perth you’re still a long way from anywhere and it shows in the uncrowded beaches and chilled out atmosphere that lingers even through the height of summer.
The Basin is a popular snorkelling and swimming spot within cooee of the ferry
Quick Tips for the Perfect Rottnest Island Day Trip
Getting to Rottnest Island and around the island by bike, foot, or bus is super easy and Thomson Bay has all the mod cons you could ask for to guarantee an awesome day. But it pays to remember that the majority of the island is still a wild environment which you wouldn’t want to venture into without a little bit of preparation.
Food & Drink
The island, like a national park, holds the highest level of protection and has mostly been spared from modern development. This means that on the western half of the island, you won’t find anywhere to buy refreshments. If you plan on exploring beyond the settlement for the whole day, make sure you’re self sufficient so you don't have to leg it back to civilisation when the hunger pangs start.
If it’s a hot day, don’t expect to find respite in the shade. Most of Rottnest’s tall forest was cleared for settlement or taken by bushfire and hasn’t recovered, though restoration projects are under way. Its interior is a stubble of coastal heath and salt lakes that support more than 50 bird species. It’s a twitcher’s paradise out there, but you'll be 50 shades of red if you forget to slip, slop, slap. Carry loads of water too, as summer temperatures can exceed 40 degrees.
Take your own mask, snorkel and fins if you possibly can. They can be hired on the island but if it’s a busy day and they run out, your Rotto adventure will be over before it began! While swimming, be hyper-aware of your fins at all times. The coral lagoons can be extremely shallow, so you will need to give underwater structures plenty of breathing room to avoid damaging the reef.
Rottnest Island attractions
Dolphins, sea lions, fur seals, migrating humpbacks, southern right whales and blue whales also call these waters home at various times of the year. Jump on a nature viewing tour for best shot at seeing them. You can also surf, fish, stand-up paddle board, and take a guided trip to the top of Wadjemup Lighthouse, to see a) how an operating lighthouse works and b) stunning Indian Ocean views.
Unlike Wadjemup Lighthouse, Bathurst Lighthouse isn't in operation, but is still a striking sight at sunset.
Where to stay
While there is a mix of resort accommodation on Rottnest Island, we always find a day trip is more than enough to visit most of the main sites and still have time to crisp ourselves on the sand, swim ourselves pruney, and throw down a beer back at the bar. Rotto’s got a lot going on, but it’s only 19 square kilometres after all. If you’re in Perth for a few days with a rented campervan or your own caravan, you're spoilt for choice. Here's some of our picks.
Perth Central Caravan Park
Flying into Perth and picking up a camper? You’re going to love Perth Central Caravan Park's proximity to motorhome depots and the airports. You’re also only a stroll from the Swan River, and a 10 minute drive from supermarkets so you can stock up on supplies for your west coast adventure.
Discovery Parks Coogee Beach
Discovery Park Coogee Beach is so close to the ocean you’ll be feeling the seaspray from your van. Enjoy direct access to shark-netted swimming, fishing and sunset beach walks, with the buzz of historic Fremantle only 11 minutes away – perfectly placed for getting that fast ferry to Rotto.
Discovery Parks Swan Valley
Thirty minutes out of the city and you’re in Perth’s scenic wine country. After a day of cycling and swimming in the sun, we can think of worse places to wind down… or should we say wine down. Stay an extra day so you can eat and drink your way along one of the Swan Valley’s food and wine trails such as Cider & Ale or Sweet Temptations. Check out campsite options at Discovery Parks Swan Valley.
Discovery Parks Perth Airport
Ten minutes from the airport and 25 from town, this handy-to-everything park still manages to find peace and quiet nudged up against the Darling Ranges and its stunning national parks. From here, a road trip north or south (or both) is all too easy.
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