10 things to see and do on Rottnest Island, Western Australia
Updated: Oct 22
Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh gave this beautiful island its name in 1696. He mistook the native animals, the quokkas, here for rats and named it Rottnest, meaning 'rats nest' in Dutch. The Island is 11kms in length, 4.5kms at its widest point and takes ½ hour on a ferry ride from Fremantle to cover the 19kms of sea between the mainland and Rottnest. Australians love to shorten all place names, and this place is known to locals as Rotto.
These cute mammals are native to Western Australia. They are a short tailed wallaby, about the size of a house cat. They are herbivorous and usually nocturnal. Used to visitors now they can be quite friendly, however warning signs are posted advising guests not to feed the wildlife.
2. Beaches and Bays
With 63 secluded beaches and 20 bays around the island you are spoilt for choice of places to swim or snorkel in the coral reefs. Rotto is a limestone rock with a thin covering of sand. Here the blues and greens of the ocean are almost indescribable in their beauty. The wind through your hair and the smell of salt in the air is exhilarating. The brilliant white beaches seem to call you to take off your shoes and feel the sand beneath your feet and between your toes. The inviting ocean is perfect for a cooling off dip or a longer swim.
3. Bike, walk or bus around the island
Public cars are banned on the island. The best way to get around is by bicycle. The roads here are perfect for bike riding. There are 3 designated bicycle routes, of 4, 10 or 22kms. Walking is also a great way to explore and there are 5 designated walks from 5 to 10kms. Alternatively, there is a hop on, hop off bus that circles the island. You can bring your own bike as I did, or hire a bike on the island.
4. Look at lighthouses
2 lighthouses are currently on the island as safe passage of all vessels in these treacherous waters is paramount. The reefs have caused many ships to sink. Completed in 1851, the original Rottnest Island lighthouse took nine years to build and used locally quarried limestone. In 1896 a new lighthouse was build 15 metres to the west of the original one. This is the Wadjemup Lighthouse. At 38 metres tall it had 45,000 candle power or candelas. It has now been modernized and has the intensity of 1,300,000 candelas and a range of 23 nautical miles. The Bathurst lighthouse is on the northeast of the island, near Thomson Bay.
At the Wadejemup Lighthouse it was a delight to meet and chat with one of the Rottnest Voluntary Guides. Eric has been volunteering here for the last three and a half years, after he retired. He loves meeting visitors to the island and sharing his knowledge of the history, topography, geology, flora and fauna. Thankyou to all the volunteers at Rotto.
5. Soak in history at the Wadjemup Museum
Located in the old Mill and Hay Store, open 7 days a week, is a small museum that gives information about the history of the island, and has displays of historical photographs.
Aboriginal, European, Colonial, maritime and military history are all here. Settled by Europeans in 1829 the island has gone through many development stages. From 1830 farming produced cereal crops, vegetable gardens and vineyards. From 1838 to 1904 it was used as an Aboriginal prison. They were housed in an area known as the Quod. Aboriginal labour was used to construct cottages, the museum, churches, lighthouses, roads and other structures on the island.
“A project is currently underway to appropriately recognise the Quod and the Burial Ground, as well as other sites connected to the Aboriginal prison era, and determine a future use for them in consultation with the WA Aboriginal community. ” – www.rottnestisland.com
In 1881 to 1901 the Rottnest Island Boy’s Reformatory was opened for young boys who were in trouble with the law. These buildings are now used as holiday accommodation.
During WW1 and WW2 fixed defenses at Rotto were put into place. Rottnest was a critical military establishment as they could fire upon enemy vessels before they could enter Fremantle harbor.
Even with prisoners on the Island in the early 1900s, ferries started to carry tourists on Sundays, from the mainland. In 1907 the transformation from a penal settlement to a holiday and recreation destination was taking place. Tearooms, hotels and accommodation started to be built for the growing number of people wanting to enjoy this paradise so close to Perth.
In 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the island accommodation was used to house people serving a mandatory 14 day isolation period.
6. Check out the colonial buildings.
Walk through the restored colonial buildings such as Lomas House. It has also been known as Buckingham Palace, as a chap named Buckingham once resided there. These buildings have information plaques nearby detailing the history of the building.
Some of the buildings do not have public access, but information boards give a picture of previous uses. At the old Superintendents Residence, I went to walk through the open door, only to be told that it was currently rented out as a holiday let. I did have an friendly chat with the occupant though.
7. Fun on top of the water
Aquaplay Rottnest is located at North Thomson Bay just near the main ferry jetty. You can hire a variety of devices to have fun on top of the water and stay dry. Pedal around on a waterbike or take a waterbike guided tour. They also hire pedal boards and stand-up paddleboards. A perfect way to play for an hour or so. Open 7 days a week. www.aquaplayrottnest.com.au
8. Pamper yourself
Karma Rottnest is a great way to relax and be pampered. They have calming and relaxing massage and relaxation rooms. I feel relaxed just looking at the photos.
9. Grab some refreshments
There are a few vans around the island that sell coffee, cold drinks and snacks. Back in the shopping mall there is a general store, bakery and a few eateries where you can replenish. The hotel also serves meals.
10. Stay a while
A variety of accommodation styles is available on the island, from the historical hotel and old restored cottages to camping.
I enjoyed my day trip over to the Island on SeaLink Rottnest. The staff were very friendly and they even offered to bring my bike off the ferry and up the ramp, really great service. I look forward to my next adventure on this piece of paradise.
Check them out here: https://www.sealinkrottnest.com.au
You can also see a short 2 minute video of my bike ride around the island. Click here: Rottnest Island bicycle ride