A short trip from Perth, Rottnest Island offers a capsule version of the charms, and history, of Western Australia.

Empty beaches, unique flora and fauna and single-track roads from which motorised vehicles are banned are just a few of the attractions of Rottnest Island. This limestone-based sandy island just off the coast of Western Australia is a mere 15km from Perth, and has an area of only 19 sq km. Yet, the island attracts 750,000 visitors each year, and even the least adventurous will find it a pleasant day trip.

We’d only been there for 30 minutes when we saw our first bottlenose dolphin, rolling over just beyond the reef in one of the island’s 20 bays. There are also fur seals galore, a nest for the eastern osprey at Salmon Point and, just offshore, passing humpback whales followed by small boats full of sightseers.

Nevertheless, for a leisure destination billed as “Western Australia’s very own island paradise”, the name “Rottnest” could be more enticing. The title comes from Dutch sea captain Willem de Vlamingh, who in 1696 charted the uninhabited island while on a mission for the VOC (Dutch East India Company). De Vlamingh mistook the cat-sized mammal population – now known as quokkas, the Aboriginal name – to
be rats, and so termed it “’t Eylandt ’t Rottenest” (Rats’ Nest Island). Today these tame, protected marsupials are deemed cuddly, and it seems just about every visitor has to get a selfie with one of the 8,000 or so population, as a quick search on the internet or Instagram will confirm. Luckily, there’s much more to do on the island than this activity.

The most popular way of visiting is by the Rottnest Express fast ferry, as this covers the 19km from the port of Fremantle in just 25 minutes. But you could also arrive in style by taking a trip out to Rottnest by helicopter, allowing you an aerial tour of Perth first. Viewed from above the island almost looks porous with its large lagoons and low-lying profile – the highest point is only 45 metres above sea level, though the surrounding corals of the Indian Ocean were dangerous enough to warrant a lighthouse.

However you arrive, the island is car-free and there are 63 beaches, with opportunities for snorkelling, bird watching, Segway tours, cycling or walking on 45km of trails (there are information boards at heritage sites and wayfinding information), exploring World War II tunnels beneath the gun on Oliver Hill, or even skydiving from heights of more than 4,000 metres.

Non-stop flights

The island, along with most of Western Australia, is hoping for a boost from the non-stop Qantas flights from London to Perth (reviewed in the May edition of Business Traveller and online at businesstraveller.com). If your memories of visiting from Europe are bookended by the 30-hour journey via somewhere in the Middle East or Asia, followed by a further stop in Sydney or Melbourne, now it’s possible to reach Perth direct and non-stop in just 17 hours. The time difference isn’t so bad either, as Perth is only seven hours ahead of GMT. Jet lag is roughly what you’d expect flying to Bangkok, which means you’re quickly on your feet and ready to explore beyond the city – Rottnest is an obvious first trip.

Rottnest’s idyllic appearance belies its horrific recent history. Behind the peaceful beauty (it reminded me of a drier version of Lindisfarne in Northumberland) is the disturbing fact that the island was used as a penal colony for Aborigines until the early 20th century. A total of some 2,700 men and boys were imprisoned, and 369 died. Given a history like that, you’d think they’d just give up and rebrand the island with a new name.

Of course, it did have a name prior to European settlement – Wadjemup, which means “place of spirits across the sea”. Walter McGuire, of Go Cultural, offers tours of Rottnest along with mainland Aboriginal visitor experiences. He explained the Aboriginal belief that when someone dies the spirit travels to the ocean and resides where the sun sets, with Wadjemup being the last stop on the way.

The west end of the island is referred to as Koorinup, the place where the spirits of Noongar people come to rest after death. The native songs or dreamings recognise not only sites such as these but also locations now under the sea between the island and the mainland – fascinating oral history considering the island was separated from the rest of Australia around 7,000 years ago.

Rottnest has undergone many changes in more recent years. The vegetation can survive arid conditions, with feather speargrass and prickle lily most evident, and, in areas where previously the island had trees, which were cut down for building or firewood for the island’s salt works, heath has taken over. Woodland is being replanted, but only with the two tree species native to the island: the Rottnest Island Pine and Rottnest Island Tea Tree, since other varieties put too much pressure on the limited groundwater.

Eating and sleeping

Conservation is refreshingly top of the agenda, but since this is Western Australia there are also fantastic dining options for a wide choice of budgets. For corporate events you can have a picnic on the beach with canapés, champagne and some snorkelling, while more typical options include a range of restaurants such as the bar and bistro at the Hotel Rottnest on the beachfront of Thomson Bay.

The former Governor’s Residence of Charles Fitzgerald (Perth was too hot for him in the summer), it is castellated to give a castle-like silhouette. With 18 rooms and a wide veranda, you can easily while away an afternoon over dishes such as Rottnest crayfish salad – crayfish is the local name for rock lobster. Simpler but equally delicious fare includes burgers and chicken sandwich.

The vast majority of visitors return to the mainland at the end of each day but, with camping, cabins and hotels on the island, options for staying on Rottnest itself are increasing, including more high-end accommodation. It’s possible to rent historic heritage cottages or more modern apartments, to stay budget in the old barracks, or in the forthcoming Pinky’s Eco Retreat Rottnest, which will have more than 80 “glamping” tents (even the Hotel Rottnest is planning to add another 80 rooms).

That said, Rottnest isn’t a budget destination. I spoke with several Perth citizens who told me it was less expensive for them, in terms of complete package price, to fly from Perth to Bali for a long weekend than to travel to Rottnest and stay in a similar standard of accommodation. It’s the latest twist for this island that has had more than its fair share of history.