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6 Sydney Harbour Islands Worth Visiting

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by Sue Hinchey (subscribe)
A freelance writer living and loving in the northern beaches of Sydney...travelling, writing, outdoor activities, gardens, and Pilates are a few of my favourite things. Visit me www.potpourritravels.wordpress.com or www.facebook.com/potpourritravels/
Published March 5th 2018
The islands of Sydney Harbour are jewels in the city's crown
Dreaming of an island holiday? While our busy working harbour hums with activity, the idyllic islands that dot Sydney's harbour can be surprisingly quiet, especially mid-week. Full of historic buildings and links to Sydney's colonial past, they are also modern-day vantage points to view fireworks, have picnics, kayak and swim to, and some also play host as film sets. All are part of the Sydney Harbour National Park, so make sure you check individual websites for access and any closure alerts due to bad weather.


Shark Island:
So named because of its shape, not because the waters are infested with them, Shark Island is the perfect harbour picnic spot. You'll feel like Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway where he gets marooned on a desert island: you could have the place all to yourself. There are picnic tables, a covered pavilion, and amenities block, but no shops so make sure you take everything you need. A well-formed path circumnavigates the island, and it only takes about 20 minutes to walk around. There are a couple of small beaches suitable for a dip or snorkel, and palm trees and seats carved into the granite boulders provide plenty of hide-away spots to dream the day away. Positioned just off the eastern suburbs of Rose Bay and Vaucluse, you'll spot multi-million dollar houses, and also have the perfect vantage point for sweeping views right up to the Harbour Bridge.

Open 7 days between sunrise and sunset. $7 landing fee applies.

Cockatoo island Sydney Harbour
historic machinery on Cockatoo Island

Cockatoo Island:
The largest of the harbour islands, Cockatoo Island is probably the most well-known. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site and is easily accessed from Darling Harbour. It's had a chequered history as a convict settlement, shipbuilding yard, and reform school for girls. More recently, the intriguing historic buildings are utilised for accommodation, as entertainment venues and film sets. Stay overnight at one of the most spectacular glamping grounds in Australia, and make sure you do the self-guided walking tour to learn the history. Two coffee shops provide plenty of food and drink and entry is free.

Fort Denison, Sydney Harbour National Park, Sydney Harbour islands
views from Fort Denison, image courtesy of www.fortdenison.com.au

Fort Denison:
Once known as 'Pinch-gut', probably because of the Spartan-like rations the convicts were fed, Fort Denison is right in front of the Botanic Gardens. A former penal site and part of Sydney's defence facilities, the war museum and gun-powder store are a fascinating glimpse into the harbour's past. Sadly the on-site café is currently closed, but drinking water and toilet facilities are available. Take your own picnic and join the guided tour to be part of the 1pm cannon firing.

Open 9am - 5pm 7 days


Garden Island:
Ten days after the First Fleet arrived in 1788 Garden Island was designated a vegetable garden to feed convicts and crew, and in 1780 the first lawn tennis court was built here. Technically, it's not an island anymore, being joined to the tip of Potts Point during WWII, Garden Island is an active naval base with dockyards, working wharves and the home to the Australian Navy Heritage Centre. Australia's naval fleets are based here, so the public's access is limited to the northern end of the island. Spectacular 360-degree views are possible from the top of the old signal station, once used to send messages to ships.

Catch the ferry from the Quay - Watson's Bay service


Goat Island:
Once inhabited by the Cadigal people, Goat Island was the site of the first Water Police Station and the Harbour Fire Brigade. Positioned between McMahon's Point and Balmain, the best way to see it is by guided tour. The name is said to have come about because three sheep were put on it to breed and be a source of food. The Queen's Magazine, a gun-powder storage depot, was built from harvested sandstone by convicts in the 1830's. Later, it served as a shipyard, and in recent years has been the film set for the T.V series, Water Rats.

Rodd Island, Sydney Harbour National Park Sydney Harbour islands
views from Rodd Island, image courtesy of www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/venues/rodd-island

Rodd Island:
Another slice of paradise nestled west of the Harbour Bridge near Birkenhead Point, Rodd Island was the first public recreation reserve in 1879. Historic buildings include a dance hall and two summer houses. Later it was used as a biological laboratory and then U.S. Army training ground. The vast expanse of grassy land, drinking water and toilet facilities make it another idyllic day out on the harbour, and an absolutely stunning venue for functions. Access is restricted to the island is via water taxi or specific cruise companies.
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Why? Island hopping
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Where: Sydney Harbour National Park
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