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Rottnest Island – Western Australia’s holiday playground

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Once a local getaway for Western Australians, Rottnest Island is fast becoming a popular destination for international travelers.

Thrust into the spotlight, thanks to a few celebrity Instagram photos, the “quokka selfie” is drawing curious visitors. It started in December 2017 when tennis star Roger Federer took a selfie with a quokka. The photo went viral. Four months later, the actress Margot Robbie did the same thing. Now the quokka selfie phenomenon has reached new heights.

Dubbed “the happiest animal on earth,” these friendly pint-size marsupials are found easily everywhere on the island. But this compact island will surprise you with all it has to offer. Rottnest boasts 40 bays, 63 pristine beaches, clear turquoise waters, snorkeling, surfing, bike riding, and golf.

Rottnest Island is 19 square kilometers of paradise. With a population of 300 people and no cars, the slow, laid-back pace here is relaxing. The island’s silk sand beaches and turquoise bays provide fantastic swimming, snorkeling, and diving, making the island perfect for a day trip, a peaceful getaway for a few days, or a long summer vacation.

The original inhabitants of Rottnest were the Whadjuk Noongar people, one of the largest Aboriginal cultural blocks in Australia. Their name for Rottnest is Wadjemup, meaning “the place across the water where the spirits are.” When the Dutch arrived in 1696, they named it “Rats Nest Island” or Rottnest when they mistook the quokkas for rats. Today, locals affectionately call it “Rotto.”

Getting there and getting around

Long on my bucket list, I headed to Western Australia on the Indian Pacific, an iconic train ride from Sydney to Perth. From Perth, it’s easy to get to Rottnest on the fast and popular Rottnest Express ferry.

When I arrive in Thomson Bay, the Rottnest Express staff quickly and efficiently hand out bikes to unloading passengers. For those who prefer not to rent a bike, the island has plenty of other transportation. The Island Explorer, a hop-on-hop-off bus circles the island connecting beaches and tourist sites. A hotel shuttle transports guests to their nearby hotels and cabins. My luggage is tagged, picked up and delivered to my hotel, so all I need to do is strap on my helmet and pedal away. Once off the pier, I stop at the Information Center for a map and recommendations.

Beaches and bays

With a Mediterranean-style climate, the beaches here are probably the biggest draw to the island. Its long white sand beaches and warm clear turquoise waters are stunningly beautiful. The limestone coral reef surrounding the island provides a home to the Rottnest’s rich marine life. With so many bays and beaches to choose from, it’s hard to know where to start. Here are a few of my favorites:

An easy 5-minute bike ride from Thomson Bay, you’ll find the popular Basin, named for its swimming pool of crystal clear, cool blue water. Just a few feet from the beach, this natural shallow hole in the platform reef creates the perfect spot to cool off on a hot summer day.

Little Salmon Bay, a 20-minute bike ride or stop #6 on the Island Explorer, is an ideal place for snorkeling. Beneath crystal clear water, fish school over pocillopora coral in the middle of the bay. Sheltered from wind and waves, this place is popular with families.

Strickland Bay, stop #10, the windiest and most exposed of Rottnest’s beaches and bays, is popular with surfers.

Cathedral Rocks, next to Eagle Bay, lies on the wild part of the Rottnest coastline. Home to a New Zealand fur colony, these flippered creatures are best viewed just west of Eagle Bay at the end of four-wheel-drive track.

Little Parakeet Bay, a small cove next to Parakeet Bay at stop #18, is well protected from sea breezes. An excellent beach for young children learning to snorkel, this is where you’re likely to find starfish.

Where to stay

Accommodations range from hostels, cottages, hotels and camping. The recently refurbished Hotel Rottnest features 18 modern rooms. This historic hotel, located in the heart of the settlement, overlooks Thomson Bay.

Karma Rottnest, originally the island’s colonial barracks and prison, is now a resort featuring a swimming pool, two bars, a restaurant and free buffet breakfast.

Caroline Thomson cabins feature kitchenettes, living room and sleeping quarters for up to six people. This affordable choice also has communal barbecues.

Rottnest’s newest option, Discovery, is an eco-sustainable resort behind the dunes of Pinky Beach. Featuring luxury eco-tents, private ensuites and a swimming pool, this resort appeals to nature lovers.

Eat and drink

There are plenty of casual dining options including a Subway, pizza, coffee, and a grocery store. The Rottnest Bakery is worth a visit even if you just wander through to look at the boxes and baskets filled with delectable pastries and doughnuts.

For drinks and dinner, I love the Riva at Karma Rottnest. Fresh seafood, gourmet food, inspired cocktails, an extensive wine list are available, with indoor or outdoor seating.

Thomson’s Rottnest and Hotel Rottnest both offer bay view dining in a casual atmosphere. I stopped by Hotel Rottnest on a Sunday afternoon and found the place buzzing with a summer crowd. Draft beer, pitcher cocktails and an extensive wine list offer plenty to quench your thirst. Food menu features oysters, prawns, and mussels, burgers, pizza, steaks and salads.

A smaller venue and quieter atmosphere, Thomson’s menu features seafood platters, daily specials, and family -friendly choices. I enjoyed some of the most delicious steamed clams in a wine infused garlic and herb sauce here.

Things to do

Located about 3 miles inland and west of Thomson Bay Settlement, Wadjemup Lighthouse is perhaps the fairest of many lights dotting Western Australia’s coast. It ranks as the fourth-oldest extant lighthouse in Western Australia. This white-washed, white roofed sentinel draws hundreds of admirers each year to the highest point in the center of the island on Wadjemup Hill. Docents offer daily guided tours every 30 minutes from 10 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. A climb to the top features a breathtaking 360-degree view of the island and sweeping vistas of the sapphire Indian Ocean. Take stop #8 on the Island Explorer.

When you’re ready for a break from the sun, step into the Rottnest Island Museum to learn more about the island’s natural, maritime, European settlement, Aboriginal and military history. The museum features a sobering exhibition about the island’s role as an Aboriginal penal colony.

Watch the sunset from the field behind Gov’s Sports Bar in Karma Resort. The sun setting over the inland lakes is stunning. Take a hike on one of the many walking trails to view rugged coastal headlands, native flora and fauna, and pink salt lakes. Volunteer docents host night sky walks, wildlife walks, quokka selfie tours, and a host of other family friendly activities.

Sometimes you find a place that has a little bit of everything. I think Rottnest is that kind of place. The lifestyle is laid back and visitors enjoy amenities that make a holiday break here on Australia’s west coast a good idea.

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