Spend a night on Cockatoo Island for some fascinating historical insight and world-class views of the Sydney Harbour.
Hop aboard the ferry from Circular Quay and prepare to camp, glamp or stay in style on Sydney Harbour’s largest island. Cockatoo Island’s shipbuilding past is evident in the massive workshops, now deserted and eerily empty, and the remnants of its convict history have been uncovered and restored so visitors can discover the fascinating history of this UNESCO World Heritage site. And if history doesn’t do it for you, the views from the incredible location in the middle of Sydney Harbour will.
There are apartments and two beautiful restored historic houses for visitors who want hotel-style creature comforts. The heritage houses each sleep up to 10 people; apartments have garden or harbour views and all are fitted out with full kitchens and entertaining areas.
For those who prefer to keep it simple, there’s a campsite on the north side of the island. Bring your own tent or leave it at home and take advantage of the set-up on the island. Choose between three options: the camping package (you’ll only have to pack sleeping bags and pillows – the tent sleeps up to three adults or two adults and two children); mini-glamping with fully made camp beds, towels and outdoor chairs; or the glamping packages – the same as the mini-glamping package plus tents right on the waterfront and an esky, lantern and your own deck. Plus, you’ll find the tent decked out with a full kit of Appelles bathroom amenities.
About the amenities: rethink everything you know about shower blocks and communal kitchens. The facilities for campers on Cockatoo Island are top-notch, with modern concrete and timber cubicles and hot showers with great water pressure. The undercover cooking and eating area has stainless steel barbecues, sinks and boiling water on tap.
There are two cafés on the island: Societe Overboard by the visitor centre near the ferry wharf and, on the opposite (southern) side of the island, Marina Café and Bar at Camber Wharf. You can BYO alcohol if staying in an apartment, but if you’re camping and want to partake in a beverage, stop by Societe Overboard to buy wine or beer to go. Societe Overboard also serves hot breakfasts from 8:30am as well as burgers, fish and chips for lunch and takeaway breakfast and barbecue packs you can cook yourself. From Friday to Sunday, get your caffeine hit or a salad, wrap or pizza at Marina Café and Bar.
It’s a good idea to bring along your own food supplies so you can make the most of your stay. There are plenty of amazing picnic spots on the island, many with fabulous water views, and plenty of room so it’s easy to find a quiet place all to yourself. Use the tables and benches by the camp kitchen, where there’s a great flat patch of grass perfect for playing games, or tackle the steps up to the upper island where one of the best places to view the harbour and laze about in the sun is on the gently sloping lawn in front of Biloela House.
To see the island and learn more about its history, the self-guided audio tour is easy to follow and covers all of the main sites from the island’s convict prison days, shipyard era and reform school incarnation with compelling narration and interviews. Stop by the Visitor Centre when you jump of the ferry to grab one (they’re $5 each or $8 if you share one between two. You can also bring your own headphones if you prefer).
The restored sites convey the prisoners’ harsh circumstances and the dread they must have felt in being sent to the island; the underground grain silos carved out by convicts (some now open to the elements and visible from the Cliff Walk) and the solitary confinement cells, which were rediscovered in 2009 after being buried for more than a century, are particularly fascinating.
To discover more about the island’s past as a shipyard, wander through the cavernous empty workshops and check out the Shipyard Stories exhibition at Biloela House for stories and pictures from that time. You can also watch historical footage inside Dog Leg Tunnel (video is projected onto the sandstone walls) or, to experience something a little creepy, download the immersive and smartly produced Ghosts of Biloela app and follow the waypoints as it tells the story of two girls living on the island when it was home to the Biloela Reformatory and Industrial School in the 1870s.
If you need to unwind, just wander around and get lost – during the evenings and early morning, most of the island is quiet and peaceful. Take a walk around the historic buildings on the upper island and admire the landscaped gardens (all maintained by volunteers) around the properties. Feel the eerie atmosphere as you walk through the now-silent industrial shipbuilding sites or watch the sunrise over the Sydney Harbour Bridge from the front of Biloela House.
For more information on accommodation, activities, how to get to the island and more, visit the Cockatoo Island website.
Top image: Mark Merton
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