Fresh air, fun and great pies on Rottnest Island

By Carolynne Dear for Expat Parent

BMX Bandits hit Rotto – it’s all about the pedal power

“There’s a quokka in the kitchen!” comes the excited cry from my nine-year-old son early one morning. Blearily, I scramble out of bed to find not one, but two, of the friendly marsupials quietly sitting under the dining table eating a stray Dorito. Better two quokkas than a rat, perhaps.
Yes, they are adorably cute, but no, I didn’t want one as a pet, so we hastily shoo them into the yard where they obliging hop off into the bush.
Welcome to Rottnest Island – or ‘Rotto’ as it’s affectionately known locally – home to the quokka, long stretches of golden sand and kilometres of bike-friendly, car-free tracks.
We’d flown down from Hong Kong to Perth, an ‘easy’ seven hours with no time change. A half-hour cross-town taxi ride has us at the Boatshed Marina in Fremantle and ready to jump on the 40-minute ferry ride over to Rotto. Brekkie sausage sandwiches in hand, we climb aboard.
The island is a protected nature reserve that sits a mere 18 kilometres west of Fremantle. It covers just 19 square kilometres and houses a permanent population of around 300. However, it receives an additional 500,000 visiting tourists each year, some as daytrippers and some (like us) to stay in the island’s ‘villas’ and ‘cabins’. A friend-of-a-friend once decamped there for six months. “It was the most therapeutic half-year of my life,” she tells me.

We were visiting during the Easter break, although we had cleverly missed the Western Australian school holidays, so while the island was busy at the weekend, it was reasonably quiet during the week. Temperatures were pleasant – a beach-friendly high 20s during the day but dropping to hoodie territory at dusk. Shoulder season – October or Easter – is probably the most reasonable time of year to enjoy Rotto, the summer rush in December and January pushes the island’s population to its limits and the heat can be brutal (the huts have no air conditioning).
The island enjoys a brisk history. Its unusual name came about in the seventeenth century when Dutch sailors, mistaking the quokkas for rats, christened the island Rottnest, or ‘Rats’ Nest’. After the Brits arrived Perth in 1829, Rotto variously hosted a penal colony, military installations and internment camps for enemy aliens. But these days it’s all about fresh air, fun and fabulous pies (more about them later).
Accommodation is basic – I can’t dress it up any more than that – but adequately serves its purpose as a base for a family-friendly, outdoorsy kind of break. Comfortable beds with clean linen, a lounge area, bathroom and kitchen plus a yard with a BBQ are really all you need.
We’re booked into the main settlement of Thomson Bay which means we are just a few minutes walk from the island’s supermarket, coffee shops and restaurants. Accommodation can also be found further afield at Geordie Bay and Longreach Bay.
While there is a local bus service, the roads are gloriously car-free and our first point of call is the bike hire shop. Suitably kitted out with helmets (‘crash lids’ are mandatory for cyclists in Australia) and wheels, we speed off to explore.
With four other families joining us for our week of off-roading fun, the kids soon organise themselves into friendship groups. Off they set each morning, lunch money tucked into their pockets, to return later in the afternoon after a day of adventuring. If they tire of cycling, there are beaches to play on, adventure playgrounds to conquer and the ocean to snorkel. One afternoon we pack them off to the heritage cinema on the island to watch Peter Rabbit. On another we set off en masse to cycle up steep Oliver Hill to have a look at the battery, with armoury dating back to World War II. On another, we pedal the length of the island to Cathedral Rocks and the far western point, stopping for a dip on deserted Catherine Bay Beach on the way home.
We dine each evening on BBQ prawns and steaks (when in Rome), watching a blazing sun drift down over the Indian Ocean. One night we cycle over to Geordie’s restaurant for supper in Geordie Bay. After stuffing ourselves with more fresh seafood and local wine (Aussie burgers all round for the kids), it’s a hair-raising spin home in the black of night, swerving both hopping quokkas and rocks strewn over the path.
One afternoon the kids go fishing and on another they fling themselves around on the giant ocean inflatable at Thomsons Settlement. Another morning they spend their entire day’s pocket money on Fluffy Koala ‘shakes at the Milk Bar. There’s nothing like fresh air and a bicycle to fuel little appetites. And the pies are incredible, too – the steak and pepper offering at Rottnest Bakery is not to be missed. And The Lane does a fine line in coffees and mid-morning muffins.
As adults, when we weren’t cycling or nursing sore backsides, we could be found chatting over a chilled glass of Savvy B, reading and generally relaxing in an old fashioned, wholesome kind of way.
Rotto was a blast. We flew back to Hong Kong, lungs filled with glorious fresh air and excited to plan our next trip back to the Golden State.