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Island Hopping in Sydney Harbour

by Moderator November 2012 - last edited March 2013

Various islands are dotted about the deep blue waters of Sydney Harbour National Park. During summer, regular ferry services operate from Circular Quay so visitors can explore these popular natural attractions and discover their colonial and Aboriginal history, or simply laze around and admire the views...

Cockatoo Island

Cockatoo Island is the largest island in Sydney Harbour and was both a penal colony and one of Australia's biggest shipyards, whose two dry docks were built by convicts. In 2010 UNESCO granted the island World Heritage Site status, as one of the best surviving examples of "the colonial expansion of European powers through the presence and labour of convicts".

Nowadays, the island is best known as a cultural venue. It hosts a wide range of contemporary exhibitions, festivals and digital installations and is also one of the major partners for the Biennale of Sydney, a hugely popular bi-annual arts festival. There's also a campground and some renovated holiday homes and apartments, all of which have superb views across the harbour and city, which make them a coveted spot for watching Sydney's New Year's Eve fireworks. As well as picnic areas, barbecues and a licensed kiosk, an Island Bar is housed within recycled shipping containers and serves a light menu of pizzas and panini.

18th Biennale of Sydney at Cockatoo Island © M Hooper 18th Biennale of Sydney at Cockatoo Island © M Hooper

The island is a 12 minute ferry trip from Circular Quay, and services run every day.

Shark Island

Shark Island gets its name from its shape rather than its wildlife, and is a relaxing picnic spot for those who want to get right away from the bustle of the city yet still remain in sight of its fabulous skyline. Bring everything you need for the day because there are no facilities other than toilets and drinking water, but there's a large palm-shaded grassy area to spread out on, with picnic shelters and a spacious gazebo. The shoreline consists of a few sandy beaches dotted with large boulders - great for kids who want to run wild for a bit and hunt for tide pool beasties.

You can either visit Shark Island as part of a hop-on, hop-off explorer ticket, or by public ferries operated by Captain Cook Cruises and Matilda Cruises. Because of its limited capacity, Shark Island is another popular (and exclusive) place to view the New Year's fireworks - tickets can be purchased (AUD$185 adults, $120 children) from Monday 3 December 2012.

Fort Denison

Just north of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Fort Denison is another formal penal site, and at various points a weather station, fishing spot and defence facility too. Previously known as Pinchgut, the island has been extensively restored over the past two decades and is now a museum and popular tourist attraction, where you can learn about Sydney's maritime history and explore the only Martello tower in Australia; the final one ever constructed in the British Empire. Guided and self-guided tours are available.

Fort Denison © Newtown graffiti Fort Denison © Newtown graffiti

The island is also a popular destination for corporate events and wedding receptions, and its restaurant is open daily for lunch (11.15 a.m - 3.45 p.m), plus brunch on Sundays (10.30 a.m - 12.30 p.m). Fort Denison is easily reached by ferry or water taxi from the wharfs at Circular Quay, Luna Park, Kirribilli, Woolloomooloo, Cremorne Point and Elizabeth Bay.

Goat Island

West of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, 13-hectare Goat Island was previously known as Me-mel by the local Cadigal people and was later the headquarters of both the harbour fire brigade and the Sydney Water Police, whose role was to watch out for escaped convicts and smugglers.

The sandstone on the island was quarried by prisoner work gangs, and used to build some of the island's own structures as well as some of the finest buildings on the mainland. If you visit Goat Island as part of a guided tour you'll get to see what life would have been like as a convict, explore the cramped sleeping quarters and learn about their punishment and food.

The National Parks website has more information and timetables for visiting the Sydney Harbour National Park islands, plus all the prime spots for the NYE fireworks.

Virgin Atlantic operates a daily flight to Sydney from London Heathrow, via Hong Kong.

Header photo © Alex E. Proimos


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About the author: Maxine

Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.