Is Rottnest Island worth visiting as a day trip or overnight? I’ve lived in Perth for over 20 years and have visited Rottnest Island many times. There’s no simple answer to this question as you need to be informed before deciding. This article provides all the information required to help decide whether to visit this popular holiday destination on a day trip or stay on the island.
Where is Rottnest Island?
Rottnest Island, or Rotto as us locals call it, is located 18 km off the coast of Western Australia. It was separated from the mainland around 7000 years ago when sea levels rose.
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When is the best time to visit Rottnest Island?
The best time to visit Rottnest Island depends on what you plan to do there. The ocean is cold apart from summer, but the heat makes it hard to bike around the island. The busiest times are our summer school holidays (Christmas and throughout January), especially Australia Day (26th January).
My favourite time to visit is summer when the skies are blue, the water is turquoise, and it’s warm enough to snorkel. However, it can be windy and sometimes too hot for the walking trails.
If you’re interested in the island’s history and the walks, I’d recommend visiting in spring or autumn.
How did Rottnest Island get its name?
I would like to respectfully acknowledge the Noongar people, the Traditional Owners, and first people of these lands. I would like to pay my respect to the Elders past, present, and future, for they hold the memories, the traditions, the culture, and hopes of the Noongar people.
Artefacts found on Rottnest are thought to date back more than 30,000 years ago, with some evidence pointing to human occupation from over 70,000 years ago.
Rottnest is called Wadjemup by the Noongar people, meaning “place across the water where the spirits are.” The Noongar people inhabited the area before it was cut off from the mainland. As they couldn’t cross the ocean, the island was uninhabited when European exploration began.
Dutch sailors first discovered Rottnest Island in the 17th Century. Willem de Vlamingh named the island (Rats’ Nest Island) in 1696 after he saw a population of “rats.” Of course, those rats were, in fact, Quokkas.
How do you get to Rottnest Island?
The only way to Rottnest Island is by a small plane, boat, or a short ferry ride (unless you’re taking part in the Rottnest Channel Swim, of course). Some companies offer Rottnest Island Sailing Day Trips like this luxury catamaran.
How to get to Rottnest Island from Perth Airport
Where do you catch the ferry to Rottnest Island?
There are three departure points for the Rottnest Island ferries: Hillary’s, Fremantle, and Perth city.
How long does it take to get to Rottnest Island?
The shortest route is from Fremantle, a 25-minute ferry journey, then 45-minutes from Hillary’s, and 90-minutes from Barrack Street Jetty in Perth. We prefer Fremantle as it’s the shortest route and often the cheapest.
Fremantle Rottnest Ferries
Sealink Rottnest Island is the newest Rottnest ferry bringing discount fares and creating a competitive market. Apart from the standard ferry ticket, Sealink has combination ferry tickets with bike hire, bike hire and snorkel equipment, and a bus tour.
Look out for deals as they often have specials.
Rottnest Express also leaves from Fremantle (this who we booked with last time). They have standard fares and can include bike hire, a 1.5-hour discovery bus tour around the island, and an Adventure Boat Tour.
Hillary’s to Rottnest Island
Perth to Rottnest Island
Sealink also depart from Perth and can include a bus tour. Rottnest Express ferry services have the same options as Fremantle.
This journey is more expensive but is worth it for tourists who want to combine Rottnest with a Perth river cruise. The ferry operators stop at Fremantle to collect passengers before crossing the Indian Ocean to Rottnest Island.
The easiest way to book Rottnest ferry tickets
If you’ve read my other posts, you’ll know I like to book with Get Your Guide due to ease of booking, price guarantees, but mostly because they offer free cancellation up to 24 hours before on most tickets. This is particularly handy for ferry tickets if the weather forecast doesn’t look too good. Check prices directly as well in case the ferries are offering discounts or kids ride free deals although the prices advertised don’t always include admission to the island.
Visitors to Rottnest Island have to pay an admission fee for the upkeep and conservation of the island which is included in the ferry price. This is A$19.50 per adult up until 30th June 2021.
How to get around Rottnest Island
Can you drive on Rottnest Island?
No, you are unable to drive on Rottnest Island as it is car-free. Only emergency and service vehicles are allowed on the island.
The best way to get around is either by bike or bus. Parts of the island are hilly so consider this when making your decision.
Can you take your own bike onto Rottnest Island?
You can bring your own bikes which is an added extra cost on the ferries, or pay for the hire bike as part of your fare. Sealink, Rottnest Express, and Rottnest Fast Ferries all can include bike rental.
Island Explorer Bus
The Island Explorer Hop On / Hop Off Bus stops at 19 stops at 30-minute intervals. You can purchase tickets at the booth by the main bus stop near the settlement. Be aware that this bus service can be jam-packed during peak periods, resulting in being stuck in remote places if the bus is full. We decided to stay on the bus at the West End of the island as we had to leave a few people at Wadjemup Lighthouse as the bus was full and we didn’t want to get stranded.
What is there to do on Rottnest Island?
There’s always plenty to do on Rottnest Island with its white sandy pristine beaches, abundant marine life, great walking tracks, and a variety of watersports.
Cycle around the island
Pick up a map from the Visitor Centre and bike around the island. There are three rides; 4km, 10km, and 22km. The recommended time to cycle around the island is 3 to 5 hours.
Beaches – Swimming, Snorkelling, and Surfing
The Leeuwin Current brings warm tropical water from the equator down the West Coast of Australia. This current carries many tropical fish, coral larvae, and shells.
There are a staggering 63 beaches plus secluded coves on Rottnest Island. Our favourites are:
Parker Point – here you will find a snorkel trail that features underwater interpretative plaques providing information on the marine life. The course is for more experienced snorkelers as the water is deep (3-5 metres) and a bit of a swim from shore. Parker Point is part of a sanctuary zone as the reef here supports a diversity of marine life. The limestone reef contains the southernmost population of tropical coral called Pocillopora damicornis in Australia. The bus stops here, and the view from the lookout is beautiful.
Little Salmon Bay – one of the best bays for swimming, snorkelling, and diving. It’s small, so it can get quite crowded, by WA standards, during peak times. This beach is sheltered, and the water is calm, which makes it popular with families. Our daughters have snorkelled Rottnest Island several times with school, and they say this bay is the best for pretty coral and fish. You can reach Little Salmon Bay by bus or walk from Parker Point (stop for photos at Jeannies Lookout).
Little Parakeet Bay – also on the bus route and close to the settlement, Little Parakeet Bay is a good swimming and snorkeling option. The surrounding reef protects the beach, making it an excellent beach for swimming.
Geordie Bay – it’s an easy walk from Little Parakeet Bay to Geordie Bay. The large beach is beautiful, and holiday units overlook the ocean. Geordie’s Café is a lovely place to have lunch or a drink. The gate is supposed to keep quokkas out, but someone must have left it open as there a few inside. There’s a grocery store which stocks a wide variety of provisions.
The Basin is Rottnest Island’s favourite family beach due to it being sheltered by the outer reef. It’s a short walk from the settlement and the perfect spot for a picnic. The pine trees provide plenty of shade, and there are toilet facilities here. In January, when we were there, surf lifesavers patrolled The Basin.
Remember to always snorkel with a buddy and don’t touch any marine life. Nor should you take any souvenirs such as shells and stones.
Strickland Bay – the surf breaks here have ranked in the top 50 in the world. Wave conditions depend on the wind and swell, so check the surf report before heading there. Some other popular surfing spots are:
- The Rotto Box
- Riceys Beach
- Stark Bay
- The Basins Ledge
- The Fruit Bowl – between Catherine Bay and City of York Bay
- Chicken Reef – Salmon Bay
- Transits – Thomson Bay
The first underwater interpretative trail in the southern hemisphere, The Rottnest Island Wreck Trail, was designed in conjunction with the Western Australian Museum. Plaques are located next to the wrecks and onshore to show their locations and form a “museum-without-walls” concept.
A lot of Western Australian’s come to Rottnest to fish. There are three categories of fish found here; reef dwellers, seagrass inhabitants, and migratory species. Some fish you may catch are Cobbler, Long-headed Flathead, Australian Herring, Tailor, School Whiting, Skipjack Trevally (“Skippy”), and Sea Garfish. Net fishing and spearfishing are not allowed, and all recreational fishing must follow the guidelines and rules set out by the WA Fisheries Department. You can download the Rottnest Island Fishing Guide for more information.
Rottnest Island has some of the best dive sites close to Perth, which is why it is a favoured day trip for dive operators. The shipwrecks make interesting dives as well as seeing the incredible marine life. Diving for crayfish, Western Rock Lobster, is popular during the season (from 15 November until 30 June). You can find licenses and regulations on the WA Fisheries site.
If you don’t want to catch your own lobster, this 5-Course Deluxe Seafood Banquet Cruise with Rottnest Cruises provides a delicious seafood lunch with complimentary wine, beer, and soft drinks. Viator is currently offering free cancellation up to 24-hours prior and the lowest price guarantee.
You can organise dives as a day trip from the mainland or on the island.
Rottnest Island is a stunning place to walk in the cooler months. The Wadjemup Bidi consists of 45kms of walking trails, split into five sections. As previously mentioned, Wadjemup was the original name of Rottnest and “Bidi” means “trail” or “track” in Noongar language.
The five trail sections are:
Ngank Yira Bidi – Uncover Bickley Battery (9.4 km one way about 3-4 hours):
This section covers the southeast corner of the Island – Thomson Bay to Oliver Hill. On this trail, you’ll explore the remnants of the Coastal Defence systems built during WWII.
Gabbi Karniny Bidi – Discover the Salt Lakes (9.7 km one way about 3-4 hours):
This trail begins in Thomson Bay Settlement and meanders through the lakes.
Wardan Nara Bidi – Relax on Salmon Bay (10 km one way about 3-4 hours):
This beautiful walk takes you along the coast of Salmon Bay and through to the middle of the Island to explore the WWII guns and tunnels. See panoramic views from Wadjemup Lighthouse and then head to Strickland Bay.
Karlinyah Bidi – Experience the Northern Beaches (5.9 km one way about 2-3 hours):
Starting at Geordie Bay, this trail passes some of the most beautiful beaches on the island ending in Rocky Bay.
Ngank Wen Bidi – Explore West End (7.6 km loop about 3-4 hours):
One of the most remote trails on the island lets you explore the western end. Keep an eye out for the New Zealand fur seals from the viewing platform at Cathedral Rocks. The West End boardwalk is an excellent place to spot dolphins and the seasonal migration of humpback whales.
Tip: Bring plenty of drinking water and keep to the trails to avoid snake bites. Please take all rubbish with you and leave no trace.
Rottnest Island Wildlife Spotting
Rottnest Island is an A Class reserve and home to one of the world’s most critically endangered mammals. Gilbert’s potoroo was introduced to the island to help revive the species.
The island is an Important Bird Area with primary species being the Fairy Tern, Banded Stilt, Wedge-tailed Shearwater, and Red-necked Stint. Many other birds are found here, including the osprey, pied cormorant, pied oystercatcher, silver gulls, fairy tern, rock parrot, and eastern reef egret. Brine shrimp in the salt lakes support birds such as the red-necked avocet, banded stilts, ruddy turnstone, curlew sandpiper, red-capped dotterel, Australian shelduck, red-necked stint, grey plover, white-fronted chat, caspian terns, and crested terns.
The viewing platform at Cathedral Rocks allows you to see the New Zealand Fur Seals without disturbing them.
Our daughters spotted a pod of bottlenose dolphins while snorkelling at Little Salmon Bay.
If you visit Rottnest in winter, you may be able to spot humpback and southern right whales as they make their annual migration along Western Australia’s coastline.
Of course, the most famous of all Rottnest wildlife is the quokka and is the only animal native to the island. These marsupials are nocturnal and spend most of the day sleeping under the shade of trees. Quokkas breed once a year: a joey is born around February to April and remains in the pouch until August/September. They have become so famous that the island gets called Quokka Island.
Where is the best place to find Quokkas on Rottnest Island?
Your best chance of seeing a quokka is around the settlement area. They are usually lying under the trees which have been roped off to protect them. Other spots you may see quokkas are in Geordie Bay or under trees around the rest of the island. I can pretty much guarantee you will see at least ten of these cute animals on your travels.
Can I touch a Quokka?
No, you cannot touch quokkas. It is illegal to touch or feed them. However, you can take a quokka selfie. Just be prepared to get down on the ground and be patient. A selfie stick is the easiest way to capture the cute quokkas and their “smile.”
Rottnest Island Tours
Tours are a fantastic way of seeing what this popular destination offers, like this half day sightseeing tour.
For thrill-seekers, what about a tandem skydive and enjoy (if that’s the right word) 30 to 66-seconds of freefall?
I personally always like to be out on the water and like the sound of the glass-bottom kayaking.
Where to stay on Rottnest Island
Rottnest Island has an extensive range of accommodation options depending on your budget. As they are often booked up way in advance, I suggest booking as soon as you can. Reservations are taken 18 months ahead.
Karma Rottnest is the leading resort accommodation on Rottnest Island. It hosts up to 150 guests in its apartments and hotel rooms and features a swimming pool, 2 bars, and an à la carte restaurant. See if it is available on your dates here.
Samphire Rottnest is located in Thomson Bay next to the Rottnest Hotel. The 80-room hotel includes a restaurant, beach club, and lagoon-like pools. The beach club has a great vibe with views over Thomson Bay to Perth.
Standard, Premium, Premium View, and Ocean View accommodation are spread across Bathurst, Thomson Bay, Longreach Bay, Fay’s Bay, and Geordie Bay.
Heritage cottages, dating back to the colonial settlement in the late 1800s, are in North Thomson Bay.
Discovery Rottnest Island is an eco-sustainable resort located in Pinky Beach. The 83 luxury eco-tents look incredible, bringing some glamour to the island. The property features a 30m guest swimming pool, poolside bar, Pinky’s Beach Club, and has direct beach access. Have a read of the reviews here.
Rottnest Hostel is a budget option providing family rooms and dormitories. Kingstown Barracks have 17 dormitory rooms which are mainly used for school and other groups.
Caroline Thomson Cabins are cedar-clad cabins located in the Main Settlement. They can each accommodate up to 6 people with one double bed and two sets of bunks.
North Heritage Bungalows are the original Rottnest accommodation, built in the 1920s. Due to the Bungalows having canvas sides, they are most suited for summer use.
The camping ground is near the main settlement and offers 43 non-powered sand covered sites accommodating up to a maximum of 6 people and two tents.
Where to eat
Restaurants, Bars & Cafes
Frankie’s on Rotto in Thomson Bay Settlement is fully licensed and serves fresh coffee, breakfast, and a choice of Pizza, Pasta, and Salad dishes.
Gov’s Sports Bar at Karma Rottnest serves typical pub grub alongside its ice cold beers. Riva is also at Karma Rottnest, offering a Mediterranean-inspired menu.
Hotel Rottnest is one of the best places to be at sunset with its great selection of WA Craft, local and international beers, and wines. Their menu includes snacks, share plates, local seafood, crayfish, pub food, and pizzas.
Lontara is a classy restaurant at Samphire Rottnest. The food is inspired by South East Asia and designed to be shared.
Pinky’s Beach Club, part of Discovery Rottnest Island, offers views of the beach and Bathurst Lighthouse. There’s live music here every weekend.
Thomsons Rottnest is located on Thompson Bay with seaside classics, family favourites, and share plates.
There are six cafes to choose from on Rottnest. Dome Café is close to the jetty, Geordies Café & Art Gallery is in Geordie Bay, and The Lane is located in Thomson Bay Settlement.
Snacks, coffee, and light lunch
The cute vintage coffee vans of Maeve’s on Rotto, Lexi’s on Rotto, and Kalli’s on Rotto all serve the same quality, barista-made coffee as Frankie’s. Subway provides their standard made to order fresh subs, salads, and wraps.
The Rottnest Bakery is an icon offering the usual bakery delights like sausage rolls, meat pies, vanilla slices, cream buns, and jam doughnuts.
We can’t go anywhere that has a Simmo’s Ice Creamery without popping in for one of their delicious ice creams.
Both the Rottnest General Store and Geordie Bay General Store have new stock arriving daily from the mainland. They are open seven days a week for all your grocery essentials, meat, fish, dairy, fresh fruit, vegetables, and liquor.
Rottnest Island Map
Download a Rottnest Island map before you go, or pick one up at the ferry terminal or Visitor Centre on the island.
What to take to Rottnest Island
Here are a few items that I recommend you bring on your Rottnest Island trip:
- I love my SOUNDPEATS TrueAir2 Wireless Earbuds Bluetooth V5.2 Headphones (just as good as Airpods)
- Swimsuit & Rash Vest
- Sunscreen (I like these from Nivea)
- Hat and Sunglasses
- Camera (I love my Nikon D7500 and Go-Pro)
- Beach Towel – these microfibre sand-free towels are fantastic
- Thongs (Flip Flops) & Walking Shoes if you are planning to do some of the trails
- A lightweight rain jacket (depending on weather) and a jumper for the return trip
- Water Bottle like this Vacuum-Insulated Stainless-Steel one from Takeya that keeps your water cold all day
- Motion Sickness tablets
- Snorkelling gear if you don’t plan on hiring
- Selfie Stick for those quokka selfies
The Dark Side of Rottnest Island & Brief History
It’s hard to believe that such a beautiful island can have a dark past.
Rottnest Island was used as an Aboriginal prison between 1838 and 1931 (apart from 1849-1855). There were reports of cruelty by prison officers, and in the early 1880s, about sixty inmates died from an influenza epidemic.
During the time as a prison, around 3700 Aboriginal men and boys were incarcerated here. There could be as many as 369 inmates’ graves on the island, most dying from the flu or measles. At least five were executed.
After protests from the traditional landowners, Rottnest Island Authority acknowledged the events and deaths that had taken place on the island. The Wadjemup Aboriginal Burial Ground Project was formed in consultation with Aboriginal community representatives. Before this, the unmarked graves area was used as a camping ground. Thankfully, it is now fenced off with signs asking visitors to show respect for this sacred site.
Rottnest Island played a military role in World War I and II. The island was used as a Prisoner of War camp from 1914 to the end of 1915. During World War II, guns were installed at Oliver Hill and Bickley Point to defend Fremantle port.
A light railway from the jetty to Kingstown Barracks was built to transport material to the guns. Part of this railway, along with the guns and infrastructure, was decommissioned after WWII ended. However, in the 1990s, the railway and gun emplacements were reconstructed and are now part of the guns and tunnels tour.
Is Rottnest Island worth visiting on a day trip or should you stay overnight?
So after reading all what the island has to offer, you will agree that there is a lot to see and do.
If you live in Perth, I would visit Rottnest on a day trip as it’s cheaper and you can return at any time. Although staying a couple of days is a great experience.
If you are visiting Western Australia, it’s best to stay at least one night on Rottnest Island. There is so much to see and do that it’s hard to fit it into one day.
How long should I spend on Rottnest Island?
When we go on a day trip to Rottnest Island, we take the first ferry and return on one of the last ones. It may be an early start, but the island is a bit quieter first thing, and it gives you a full day to explore.
If staying on the island, two nights is the right amount of time. This should give you enough time to see the island, do some walks, and visit the beaches. You will get to see the island after dark and try out a couple of restaurants too.
Some people like to stay for a week if they just want to kick back and enjoy the island lifestyle.
How big is Rottnest Island?
Rottnest Island is 19 square kilometres.
What is the population of Rottnest Island?
The population of Rottnest Island was 334, according to the 2016 Australian Census.
How many people visit Rottnest Island?
A record number of 785,002 people visited Rottnest Island in 2017-18. This marked a 21% increase over two years since introducing another ferry operator to the island.
What is Rottnest Island famous for?
Rottnest Island is most famous for its population of cute Quokkas, a little marsupial.
How far away is Rottnest Island from Perth?
Rottnest Island is 18 km from Perth.
Are Quokkas only found on Rottnest Island?
Small groups of Quokkas can be found on the mainland but most are found on Rottnest Island.
Who owns Rottnest Island?
The Noongar people are the Traditional Owners and first people of Rottnest Island. Today it is managed by the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation, and Attractions.
Can you live on Rottnest Island?
Only 150 people are allowed to live on Rottnest Island. The permits are decided by the Rottnest Island Authority.
Can you take food onto Rottnest Island?
Yes, you can take food onto Rottnest Island. I recommend packing snacks and water as most of the eateries are in the main settlement area.
Does Rottnest Island have snakes?
Yes, Rottnest Island does have snakes. There are two species, the Southern Blind Snake and the Dugite. The Dugite is a dark brown, venomous snake and the Southern Blind is a non-venomous burrowing snake.
Does Coles or Woolworths deliver to Rottnest Island?
No, Coles nor Woolworths deliver to Rottnest Island. You can buy groceries from the General Store.
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Note: We were paying guests of Rottnest Island and received no discounts or benefits for writing this article.