Island Hopping on Sydney Harbour’s Islands
Sydney Harbour is no secret, but its islands are often neglected by short-term visitors to Australia’s most famous city. Once used as prisons, schools and military depots, these islands are now peaceful getaways offering beautiful views of Sydney Harbour. On your next stopover in Sydney, arrange accommodation bookings for the best access to Darling Harbour or Circular Quay, and hop a ferry to the Harbour Islands.
Named after its fishy shape, Shark Island is one of the best stopping-off points when you’re exploring Sydney Harbour. Between Sydney Harbour Bridge and the harbour mouth, the island is only a few hundred metres across and a hundred metres long — easy to explore in just a few hours. Historically, it was used for animal quarantine and for storage, but now it’s best for relaxation. A scheduled ferry service brings visitors to Shark Island to take in its views of the harbour, city and surrounding islands, so it’s no trouble to visit the island on its own or as part of a multi-island itinerary. Shark Island also has a nice picnic area for day-trippers who have planned ahead.
Bring your camera when you come to Fort Denison. This rocky island rests in the harbour only a kilometre from the Opera House, and is a great place to shoot photos of you and your friends with the Sydney skyline. Once a barren prison island, it now boasts a sandstone fort, which was built in the 1850s to defend the harbour. It saw action during World War II, when three two-man Japanese submarines attacked the harbour. Their torpedoes didn’t hit the fort, but the defending shells from cruiser USS Chicago did. You can still see some of the damage. Before it was a fort, the island was known as Pinchgut, because a prisoner was sent to serve a term on it with only bread and water for sustenance. Now, the island’s history can be explored at its museum. The island can be reached by public ferry, which means it’s possible to visit Fort Denison on the same trip as some of the other islands. While Shark Island and some of the other Harbour Islands invite picnicking, you won’t need to pack a lunch to Fort Denison — it has an upscale restaurant with views of the harbour, and there are no bread and water restrictions for modern-day visitors to Pinchgut.
Unlike Shark Island, Cockatoo is not named for its shape, but for its inhabitants. The sulphur-crested cockatoos on this island are one reason to visit; other reasons are the historical relics from the island’s past uses. Before the English arrived, it was an Aboriginal fishing spot. More recently it housed a prison, a school and a shipyard. Because of its connection with convict labour and transportation, Cockatoo Island has been listed as part of a group of Australian Convict Sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Now it's a tourist attraction, campsite and picnic area. Holiday houses are available to rent for campers who don’t have ents, and the facilities on the island are modern. Campers and picnickers can take a free shuttle to the island, the largest in the harbour, from various piers.
Much of Sydney’s fine architecture started here on Goat Island as raw sandstone. Like some of the other Harbour Islands during the 1800s, Goat Island was used for naval purposes. The island housed a military arsenal, a station for “water police” and a convict stockade. One prisoner, “Bony” Anderson, was chained to a rock for two years because he was violent. Visitors can see the couch, carved out of the rock, where Anderson lay during his imprisonment. Later, the island became a shipyard, and later still it was used as the film set for the Australian TV series “Water Rats” and as a venue for concerts. It’s open to the public now, with tours on weekdays. Night tours are also available, which allow visitors to see the city’s lights on the water.
About the Author: Martina Phillips is a recent convert to Sydney life. Phillips enjoys working events on the Harbour, and she’s compiling images for an exhibition about the Islands and their history.