When it comes to planning your next vacation destination, you may be amazed to discover the myriad opportunities that lie just beyond Sydney Harbour on Cockatoo Island.
Within the Harbour Bridge, the mouth of the Parramatta River is dotted with small islands. The largest island is nestled between the reaches of Woolwich, Drummoyne, and Birchgrove: Cockatoo Island, established in 2001 as a World Heritage Site.
Once a heavily timbered island, Cockatoo Island operated as a convict penal establishment in the mid-nineteenth century, for those who had re-offended. It later developed into a bustling shipyard, one of the largest in all of Australia, and boasts one of the most extensive records of shipbuilding and industry in the nineteenth century. The island is now preserved as an example of Australia’s history as a foundling nation, in a territory that has developed into a dazzling modern society.
Few are familiar with the 18-hectare sandstone island, let alone aware of its name. Whether you’re sailing the Sydney coastline, or just happen to catch a ride on the wharf that runs from Circular Quay, you’ll be delighted by the fabulous features Cockatoo Island has to offer.
Tours of Australian History
As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cockatoo Island preserves a picture of Australian history. All around, you’ll find archaic sandstone structures joined up with only slightly more modern steel construction, relics of the island’s first penal establishments, which you can observe freely or with a self-guided audio tour available from the visitor centre. The Biloela House, once a reform house for girls, now offers an exhibition of archive photographs detailing the island’s maritime history in an exhibit called “Shipyard Stories.”
Guided tours are available, for all ages, around the lower island’s docks or through the Cockatoo Island Convict Site, where you can see a preserved gaol right out of the mid-nineteenth century. These entertaining, all ages, tours help to construct the historical progression of the island’s development, in detail, with the assistance of a troupe of outstandingly true-to-life characters. You’ll be introduced to the notorious faces of Cockatoo’s convicts and iconic landmarks of a bygone era, including the chilling atmospheres of the island’s subterranean tunnels.
In speaking of “chilling,” those who are of age and seeking a thrill may opt for the 18+ “Ghost Tour,” a night-time excursion into the gaol’s more gruesome histories, more recent haunting incidents and even an option to stay overnight in a convict campground.
If you aren’t in the mood for a haunting overnight stay, however, there are more options to stay the night on Cockatoo Island under more relaxing circumstances.
Camping, Glamping and Awesome Accommodations
Whether it is a turn-of-the-century estate, a strip of cozy apartments or a picturesque waterfront campsite, Cockatoo Island offers a wide variety of stays on your trip. Sweeping views of the Harbour Bridge, Sydney Opera House and the bustling city are flanked by lush flora and sparkling waters around Cockatoo Island.
Campers can enjoy waterside acoustic concerts and soak in the sun, while apartments offer marvelous balcony views from renovated historical buildings and comfortable amenities. You may even opt to stay in the former homes of the island’s management, with beautiful gardens and luxurious Federation-style dwellings.
Private functions can be arranged on Cockatoo Island, or you can simply grab a bite down at the harbourside Marina Café & Bar, with a diverse menu and charming country pub style beer garden. Not much further around the island, you’ll find Societé Overboard, which offers hot and cold beverages and meals with wonderful harbour views where you can watch the ferries, boats and kayakers.
Events and Activities
Cockatoo Island has become host to its own calendar full of arts, music and events. The island is one of the main venues for the Biennale of Sydney, which is held every two years as a festival of contemporary visual arts.
Regular concerts are held near the waterfront campgrounds, where many of Sydney’s premiere musicians perform acoustic sets. The island has also hosted major music functions in the past. The greater part of the 2009 Sydney Festival was held on Cockatoo Island for nearly twelve thousand patrons.
Cockatoo Island is also a popular destination during New Year’s Eve, where people flock to the island for a perfect interior view of the Sydney Harbour during its New Year’s Eve fireworks spectacular.
Other unique activities are available on the island, such vintage lawn games available through the visitor centre. Whether at a campground, or any stretch of grass, you can enjoy throwing games and paddleball right by the waterside. Or, you might try your hand at a game of chess on a giant grassy chessboard by the island’s eastern apron, where the pieces are nearly a metre tall. You can even play a game of basketball, right by the harbour, using a ball hired from the visitor centre. Just try not to lose the ball in the river!
Another interesting opportunity lies hidden within the Convict Precinct of the island: a campground cinema, with bean bag chairs for up to thirty campers to sit and view a selection of films. This cinema also hosts viewings of horror films in conjunction with the Cockatoo Island “Ghost Tour.”
An Island In the Sun
You may not find many cockatoos on Cockatoo Island, though there may still be some cawing from the red gum trees, but there are many wonderful things to be found on this jewel ‘twixt the Harbour. The island is unlike anything that surrounds it, bedabbled with weathered sandstone buildings, great steel shipyards, rusted cranes and beautifully renovated 19th century shops and houses. Due to its small size, and limited circumstances, it is recommended to make contact with the island in advance to make arrangements. Suitable packing is also recommended, as you are free to bring drinks, snacks and even host your own BBQ along the waterfront.
This article is made possible through Corleone Marinas, with four locations in Sydney Australia, including the Drummoyne Marina which is just visible from Cockatoo Island. There are three other locations in Balmain, Elizabeth Bay and Long Island, and all Corleone Marinas the full range of marina services including boat maintenance, slipways, and more. Corleone Marinas, Drummoyne are happy neighbors of Cockatoo Island and hope that you find the same sense of history and entertainment in this island that we do. Contact us today, and let’s have some fun on the water.