Which Sydney Island Is For You?

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Aug 15, 2017

Just a stone’s throw from Sydney, island getaways await. Whether you’re in the mood for a day trip, an island party or a glamping adventure, there’s a Sydney island for that.

For get-togethers: Shark Island

The ominous-sounding Shark Island is named not for the distinctive dorsal-finned monsters that undoubtedly lurk in Sydney Harbour but for its shape. And there’s nothing foreboding about the island – it’s a little patch of paradise dotted with pines, a gazebo and picnic shelters (although there was an 1877 shark attack just offshore – victim George Coulthard lived to tell the tale). With spectacular 360-degree views of Sydney Harbour and a whopping 1.5 hectares of open green space, Shark Island deserves its reputation as a top spot for gatherings, from a picnic for one to a party for 800. Affectionately known as Sydney’s picnic island, the island’s five picnic tables operate on a first in, first served basis, so pack a rug to sit on. Enjoy a post-lunch stroll along the foreshore, where tide pools beg to be explored.

How to get there: Hop on a Captain Cook Cruises ferry at Circular Quay or Darling Harbour. Check availability in advance – the island is closed to the public if it’s booked for an event. The island can also be accessed by kayak or water taxi. Call 1300 072 757 to pay the $7 landing fee in advance.

For Sunday strolls: Bare Island

You won’t need a boat for this island, located about 30 metres off the coast at La Perouse in Sydney’s south. Just stroll across the bridge to join picnickers, divers and fishermen enjoying Bare Island’s attractions. Captain Cook described the tiny isle as a “small, bare island” in 1770 and the name stuck. However, in 1885, the island was hastily furnished; a fort was built in feverish anticipation of a Russian attack. This ultra-versatile fort later served as Australia’s first war veterans’ home and even as a backdrop to the action in Mission: Impossible 2. You can venture inside the fort on a tour, held at 1.30, 2.30 and 3.30pm most Sundays. The La Perouse Museum showcases almost 2000 historical pieces, including the atlas of explorer Jean-Francois de Galaup, Comte de la Perouse, whose expedition arrived in Botany Bay a week after the First Fleet. The museum is only open on Sundays but there’s always something happening on and around Bare Island. Play a few rounds of “spot the bride/groom/swimmer/scuba diver/snorkeller/whale” in this picturesque place.

How to get there: A pedestrian bridge connects Bare Island to La Perouse.

For overnight stays: Cockatoo Island

Cockatoo Island is Sydney Harbour’s largest island and the only harbour island with overnight stays on offer. Whether you’re skint under the stars or splurging, you’ll be spoilt for choice in this 18-hectare paradise. The island boasts two cafés, both with extensive menus. Backpackers and flashpackers, order your Happy Campers barbecue pack at least 48 hours in advance. Fine diners, schedule your visit around a Cockatoo Island wine and cheese experience (selected dates, July to October) and don’t forget your stretchy pants: you’ll have three canapés, eight cheeses, three wines and a beer to plough through.

Take a self-guided or audio tour and explore the stories of Indigenous custodians, convicts, shipbuilders and reform-school children who once called this UNESCO World Heritage-listed island home. Brave visitors can test their nerve on a Haunted History Night Tour.

How to get there: Entry to Cockatoo Island is free. Harbour City Ferries services depart from Circular Quay and Darling Harbour and from some wharves along the F3 Parramatta River ferry route. The island can also be accessed by kayak or water taxi.
Image credit: Mark Merton

SEE ALSO: Spend a Night on Cocktaoo Island in Sydney Harbour

For culture-fiends: Clark Island

Just off Darling Point lies Clark Island, steeped in cultural history. This one-hectare island generated food in abundance for the original Indigenous inhabitants, who used traditional hunting and gathering methods on the land and sea. After white settlement, the land was converted to a vegetable garden for naval officers and tended (and regularly raided) by convicts. Now, all food is brought onto the island for catered functions and casual lunches with panoramic views. Choose from a picnic in the bush, on the open grass or at a picnic table.

How to get there: Tribal Warrior offers a two-hour Aboriginal cultural cruise in Sydney Harbour, including a tour of Clark Island. Step off the Mari Nawi (Big Canoe) and onto Clark Island to hear its rich history and to see a traditional cultural performance. The tour departs from Circular Quay. Clark Island can also be accessed by kayak or water taxi. The $7 per person landing fee applies – call 1300 072 757 to pay.

For history buffs: Fort Denison

This former convict site and military facility might be tiny but it’s bursting with history. It can be difficult to imagine this lovely little island caught up in US fire on Japanese submarines during WWII but the shell markings on the tower and the daily cannon blast sure help. The 1pm cannon-fire tradition began in 1906, to enable sailors to set ships to local time. These days, trusty National Parks guides do the honours.

Take the Heritage Tour for access to the fort, museum, gunpowder store, tide gauge room and Australia’s only Martello tower – a type of defensive structure built across the British Empire during the 19th century. It’s the most complete one in the world. The island’s much-lauded restaurant closed in June 2017 and at the time of writing is up for tender so pack a picnic along with your earplugs.

How to get there: Captain Cook Cruises ferries depart from Circular Quay, Darling Harbour, Manly or Watsons Bay. If you plan to take a water taxi, call 1300 072 757 ahead to pay the $7 per person landing fee.

For weekends away: Scotland Island

If the Northern Beaches is the “insular peninsula”, then Scotland Island is the congenial cay with a welcoming atmosphere and sense of community among its inhabitants. Thirty-two kilometres from the CBD in Pittwater, the island became home to permanent residents in the 1960s and now it’s one of just two inhabited islands in the Sydney area (the other is Dangar Island in the Hawkesbury). Its approximately 750 residents have a kindy, a community hall and a fire station but the island isn’t set up for daytrippers (i.e. no public toilets) so the best way to see it is to rent a house or stay at the Scotland Island Lodge for the weekend. Dogs are welcome on the ferry and every Christmas Eve the Scotland Island Dog Race takes place: entry is a longneck of beer and a can of dog food.

How to get there: Ferries depart from Church Point hourly and make four stops at Scotland Island destinations: Bell, Carols, Eastern and Tennis Court Wharves.

For a taste of island life: Dangar Island

This 29-hectare Hawkesbury isle is an official suburb of Sydney but has no private cars and no big-name supermarkets. What it does have is a sense of splendid isolation, beautiful beaches and a flourishing arts community. The absence of car noises is noticeable; the birdsong seems to be at a higher volume than on the mainland. Dangar is home to a permanent population of about 250 islanders who haul supplies from the ferry in wheelbarrows, get around on foot or bike and socialise at the local bowling club. For day visitors, there’s swimming, walking tracks, playgrounds and cafés; for overnighters, there are plenty of options including holiday cottages, B&Bs and Airbnb properties.

How to get there: Jump on the Brooklyn Ferry, right next to the Hawkesbury River train station. Ferries depart regularly until the early evening.
Image credit: Martin7d2 (CC BY 2.0)

SEE ALSO: Sydney's Lesser-Known Beaches

For weddings, parties, anything: Rodd Island

The furthest west of the harbour islands that make up the Sydney Harbour National Park, Rodd Island has gone by many names: Rabbit (thanks to its role as a lab for the Pasteur Institute researchers conducting experiments into rabbit control), Snake (best not to think about this one), Rhode and Jack. Its official name is in honour of solicitor Brent Clements Rodd who, in 1842, attempted to buy the island for his family (he failed). It’s had just as many purposes, including as a public recreation area, a research facility, a US Army training base during WWII and a quarantine area for French actor Sarah Bernhardt’s dogs (she visited them regularly during her 1891 visit). The island, in Iron Cove, is now a popular picnic spot and has two breezy restored summer houses, gazebos and a former dance hall. It’s possible to rent the entire island for functions and events.

How to get there: There are no ferries to Rodd Island. Visitors arrive by water taxi, private boat or kayak. No matter how you arrive, it’s necessary to pay the $7 per person landing fee. To arrange payment, call 1300 072 757.

For Indigenous history: Berry Island

Berry Island is located just off Wollstonecraft on the Lower North Shore. It used to be separate from the mainland but now it’s connected via man-made isthmus. It’s an incredible heritage site in the midst of Sydney – see Aboriginal carvings, axe-grinding grooves in sandstone, middens and a cave with smoke stains marring the walls where the area’s original inhabitants, the Cammeraygal people, took shelter. There’s now a 20-minute walk, the Gadyan Track, leading around significant Indigenous sites as well as a playground and picnic area. Named for Alexander Berry, a Scottish surgeon, merchant and explorer to whom the island was given as part of a 4000-hectare land grant, Berry Island became a public nature reserve in 1926. 

How to get there: Berry Island is a short stroll from Wollstonecraft rail station.

For convict secrets: Goat Island

Known as Me-mel (“the eye”) by the Cadigal people, possibly for the excellent views to be had from its position off Balmain, Goat Island was a favourite place of Bennelong, whose father was born there, and his wife Barangaroo. The couple spent significant amounts of time there but by the 1800s it had become a storage depot for gunpowder and was inhabited by convict work gangs who quarried the sandstone that was used in some of Sydney’s oldest buildings, including the island’s own structures. Since then, it’s served variously as a water police station, a film set (for Water Rats, fittingly) and a concert venue. Now, it’s possible to visit for walking tours around its historic sites. These include some grisly relics of its convict past, such as a seat carved from sandstone where a prisoner, Charles “Bony” Anderson, was sentenced to be tied for two years after multiple escape attempts. In 2016, the NSW state government announced the island would be returned to its traditional owners.

How to get there: Visitors can only arrive at Goat Island as part of a Goat Island Heritage Tour, which depart from Harbour Master Steps at Circular Quay regularly. Check the website for information and bookings.
Image credit: Andrea Schaffer (CC BY 2.0)

SEE ALSO: 5 New Ways to See Sydney Harbour