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Sydney Harbour's secret islands

Thursday, July 14, 2011
It isn't easy to get someone from Melbourne to sing Sydney's praises — and vice versa — but when Giaan Rooney did some island-hopping in Sydney Harbour, she was amazed.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House stand guard over eight islands sprinkled around the harbour. Giaan checked out three of them and she loved them all.

Cockatoo Island

The largest of the islands, Cockatoo is available for everyone to enjoy. The 18-hectare island's history includes it being an Aboriginal fishing spot, imperial prison, industrial school, reformatory and jail. Its prison buildings are on UNESCO's World Heritage list and is managed by the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust.

Named for the presence of sulphur-crested cockatoos, Cockatoo was a major shipbuilding yard for almost 60 years. That activity ceased in 1992 but workshops, slipways, wharves and residences are reminders of island's important industrial past.

A campsite opened on the island in 2008 and since 2010 holiday houses and apartments are on offer. Camp, glamp (luxury camping) or enjoy staying in the Fire Station Studio, a holiday house or apartment or naval cottage.

There's a licenced cafe serving sandwiches, salads and hot meals.

Fort Denison

You can't stay overnight on Fort Denison but it's a wonderful place to visit and enjoy a good meal with stunning views. Just five minutes by ferry from the Sydney Opera House, be ready for the cannon fire at 1pm. Originally used so sailors could set their chronometers to local time, the practice was stopped during World War II so as not to alarm Sydneysiders. It was resumed in 1986 and continues to this day.

Known as Pinchgut in its early days, Fort Dennison features a distinctive Martello tower, the only one ever constructed in Australia. About 80,000 tonnes of sandstone from nearby Kurraba Point was used to create walls ranging from 3.3m to 6.7m thick. It had quarters for a garrison of 24 soldiers and one office.

The small rocky island has a varied past. It has been a defence structure, navigational guide, tide gauge station, weather station and is now an events space and history museum.

It was flattened and quarried for sandstone and the fort was completed in 1857. It has some gruesome reminders of convict beginnings. Convict Francis Morgan was transported to the penal colony for murder. He was the first man hanged from the gibbet after committing another murder in Sydney.

These days Fort Denison is there for everyone's enjoyment — great food, endless views and clever golden faced plovers who found it was a place to lay their eggs without the worry of predators!

Goat Island

The nearest island on the western side of the Harbour Bridge, Goat Island has reopened after four years of restoration works.

In the 1830s there was concern about the amount of explosives stored in the Commissariat in The Rocks. The concern resulted in a massive powder magazine being built on Goat Island. About 3000 barrels of gunpowder was stored there and explosives were kept there throughout the 19th century.

A Water Police Station was built as a vantage point to watch for smugglers and escaped convicts, and after the colonial years, Goat Island was a shipyard and home for the harbour master and the harbour's fire brigade. It 1995 it became part of Sydney Harbour National Park.

It can all be seen on guided tours and at special event times. Night tours concentrate on the island's colourful and sometimes grisly past.

On Goat Island, you'll experience what colonial life was like in the 1830s. There will be a blacksmith, travelling musicians, drills and enlistments throughout the day as red coat soldiers oversee convicts. Afterwards, Goat Island Inn will provide an ale and food reminiscent of the era.

There are island hopping tours available, including the three Giaan visited and Shark Island. Perfect for a family outing and overseas visitors will be indelibly impressed. Check them out on

If you're thinking you would like to be there for, say, New Year's Eve, get in early. In fact, get in early for any date, particular during summer months.


Sydney Harbour's secret islands.


Cockatoo Island Luxury Holiday Houses range between $220 and $630 a night. Camping sites are $35 to $45 a night and camping packages are $75 to $95 a night. Both accommodate four people. Glamping packages are $125 to $148 a night for up to two people. Rates depend upon time of year and day of the week. There's a waterfront kiosk, barbecue and picnic areas and the island can be rented for events and exhibitions. The Visitor Centre is open every day between 10am and 4pm.

Fort Denison is open for lunch every day between 10.30am and 3.45pm. It is available in the evenings for exclusive hire.

Goat Island 90 minute historic tours cost $19.80. They include a guide and ferry transport to and from the island. They run on week days for a minimum of 20 people.

Island Hopping Tours run on weekends between 9am and 6pm. They cost $55 for adults and $25 for children.

Sydney Ferries operate from Circular Quay. They have a free service for campers from Woolwich Dock and Greenwich and on weekends from Birkenhead Point and Elliott Street.

Virgin Australia has one-way flights to Sydney from:

  • Melbourne and Brisbane $109
  • Adelaide $139
  • Perth $219

The fares are available for a limited time only so visit for further details.

Price correct at July 16, 2011.

For further information

Virgin Australia
Ph: 136 789

Cockatoo Island
Ph: (02) 8969 2131

Fort Denison
Ph: (02) 9358 1999

Goat Island
Ph: (02) 9253 0888

Sydney Ferries
Ph: (02) 8969 2131

Sydney Harbour Island Hopping

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