Exploring Rottnest Island in winter

The edited version of this story appeared on WAToday.

It's Perth's summer playground; with pristine beaches, stunningly clear water and that sunny island vibe. But as the weather gets colder, Rotto tends to drop off most people's getaway list as they head off in search of warmer destinations instead. I have to admit, in the past I've been a fair weather friend when it comes to Rotto. But this year as the seasons changed, I decided to stick it out to find out whether Perth’s favourite summer isle stacked up as a winter destination.

Here’s seven things I found to do in the off season:

1.     Guns and tunnels tour

I’m neither a military or history buff, so I wasn’t overly excited about this tour, however, since most of it is inside or underground, I figured it was a good option for a rainy day. But I’m not being in the slightest sarcastic when I say I found it absolutely fascinating.

The tour starts at the peak of Oliver Hill, and there's a heritage train that runs from town to the hill. If you're smarter than we were, you'll catch the train rather than attempting to ride a bike up the hill (which my ‘hill climbs’ on the bike at the gym did not prepare me for). 

rotto winter

Once I'd recovered from our uphill marathon, we met up with our volunteer tour guide Merv, who's been running these tours for 24 years and really knows his stuff. He explained to us that the construction to build the infrastructure for the island's two 9.2 inch counter bombardment guns began before the Second World War, and everything was done by hand (when you see the enormous underground engine room, this seems even more impressive). He also explained that the two 27 tonne guns are among only about six remaining in the world.

Rotto winter

The tour took us up close to the gun, as well as underground to the shell stores and engine room. It was also really fascinating to see the old pictures of what Rotto looked like in war time, including a camp that housed hundreds of troops. During the war, there were about 2,500 people on Rotto, which is the equivalent of what it can accommodate today.

Rotto winter

Even though they were never fired in anger, the amount of infrastructure that went into getting the guns ready just in case is incredibly impressive. The tour was a fascinating look back into history and Merv's stories made it come alive.

Rotto winter

2. Museum

I have to admit, we were pretty sceptical when Merv described the Rotto museum as 'really interesting'. From the outside, it doesn't look like much, and in summer, I wouldn't even dream of sacrificing beach time to check out a museum. But, one of the great things about a visit to Rotto in winter is that you get the chance to check out the historical sites around the island without feeling like you’re missing out on sun worshipping opportunities. 

The first exhibit in the museum tells the story of the Aboriginal prisoners on the island, which is both fascinating and horrifying. Rottnest was used as an Aboriginal-only penal colony from 1838. Over that time, around 3,700 Aboriginal people were detained on Rottnest in deplorable conditions. Ten per cent of the prisoners did not survive and are buried on the island. 

The Quod, where the prisoners were once housed, was eventually turned into tourist accommodation, but there are now plans to hand this back to the Aboriginal people.

Rotto winter

The rest of the museum is dedicated to the geology and ecology of Rottnest, with information on the island's cutest marsupial, the quokka (which are not as easy to get selfies with as I’d been led to believe). The museum also tells the interesting story of how some of the 15 or so ships came to be wrecked near the island.

Rotto winter

All in all, this place is absolutely worth the gold coin donation it takes to walk through the doors.

3. Diving & snorkelling

Before you dismiss this as a winter option, think about this: the warm water Leeuwin current which comes down from northern WA and keeps the waters around Rotto relatively warm (about 4 degrees warmer than around Perth), and the temps in winter are only a couple of degrees colder than in summer. Add to that the fact that the visibility is even better in winter, and that's a pretty compelling case to get your wetsuit on and go for a dive (or a snorkel).

Rotto winter

I actually got my diving license at Rotto, and yep, I did it in winter and lived to dive another day. Obviously the big winter swells can affect conditions though, so you do need to choose your day and you’re often better off sticking to one of the sheltered bays.

Rotto winter

4. Bus tour

The best way to get around Rotto is by bike, but when the weather is foul and the winds are blowing at 100k's or so per hour, riding is not quite so pleasant. Instead of risking a repeat of the Oliver Hill marathon ride, we boarded the Island Discovery Tour run by Rottnest Express instead, which took us to the major sites around the island in an hour and a half. We started off around the southern end of the island as the guide pointed out historical buildings, gave us some history about the first settlers and the Aboriginal history of Rottnest. 

Rotto winter

Our first chance to get off the bus was at the Wadjemup lighthouse, which was built by Aboriginal prisoners and completed in 1849 (it was later rebuilt because the first one was too short).

We also got to see Rotto's famous bays and coves, as well as ospreys and seals playing in the ocean just off the island. The second stop was Cape Vlamingh, where a new boardwalk has been built which takes you out to Rotto’s western most tip. Standing there, there’s nothing but ocean between you and Madagascar, which is 6,436 kilometres away.

Rotto winter

The final part of the tour took us past Geordie Bay and through the salt lakes, some of which are a lovely shade of pink.

Rotto winter

5. Family Fun Park & Movie Theatre

If the winter sun is shining, the Rotto fun park has mini golf and trampolines, but if it's not, there's heaps of indoor fun on offer, including a pool table, basketball hoops, pinball machines racing cars and arcade games. We also spent a fair bit of time playing for proverbial sheep stations on the air hockey table.

Got my game face on. And it's serious.

Got my game face on. And it's serious.

And several nights a week, there are also movies playing in the movie theatre, which you can watch while sitting (way) back in an old style canvas chair.

6. Karma day spa

It doesn't matter how stormy the weather is outside, a trip to the day spa will always warm you up. The Karma day spa is at the Lodge, right near the main settlement. The treatment room is simple and inviting and smells delicious. We both had the hour long massage, and it was wonderful, with the therapist using warm oil and hot towels.

Rotto winter

It ended with a head massage which was divine, and was topped off with a nice hot cup of tea in the little courtyard attached to the treatment room.

Rotto winter

7. Red wine & dinner by the fire

There’s nothing I love more about winter than a nice glass of red by the fire. The only fireplaces on Rotto that we could find were at the Lodge, which give the whole place that cozy winter warmth. The Governor’s Sports Bar has a pool table right near the open fire, while the Riva restaurant has tables near the pot belly stove.

Rotto winter

The winter menu at the restaurant features plenty of hearty and warming options, including woodfired pizzas straight from the oven, and an impressive list of reds to wash it all down.

Rotto winter

Where to stay:

Geordie Bay

We spent the first two nights at Geordie Bay, which is about 2 k's from the main settlement. The units pretty much all have ocean views and are fully self contained. They're simple but functional, with wonderfully warm gas heaters for winter. And it was quite invigorating standing on the balcony watching a storm coming in over the bay and passing overhead on its way to Perth. 

Rotto winter

Karma Resort

Our last night was spent at The Lodge, which is right near the main settlement. As well as a range of rooms to accommodate 246 guests, the Lodge also houses a restaurant, sports bar, cocktail bar and day spa. Our room was right on the lake, and had lovely views, especially as the light changed at sunset.

Rotto winter

You're also likely to get a visit from some of the island's most famous residents, who hang around on the hotel grounds.

Rotto winter

So after our weekend on Rotto, I would no longer consider it only a summer destination and rather than being a fair weather friend, we’ll be friends all year round. There’s actually something really wild and untamed about the island in winter, especially when you’re treated to a good storm or two.

Rotto winter

Notes:

The best way to get to Rotto (if you don't have a boat) is by ferry. We chose Rottnest Express, which also runs the bus tour and bike hire.

Off season is from June to September.