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Cockatoo Island

Image credit © Kate Powell

History in the Harbour at Cockatoo Island

Kate Powell tells ghost stories by the campfire at Cockatoo Island, where campsite tranquillity meets harbour views.

A n island retreat so close to home, Cockatoo Island is an aspiring little historian’s dream come true, full of hints big and small of a past life with shipbuilders and convicts.

Image credit © Kate Powell

In the middle of Sydney Harbour

When it’s this close to home, who can resist the appeal of a mini-vacay on an island? Cockatoo Island is an aspiring historian’s dream come true, filled with hints big and small of Sydney’s past life with convicts and ship building. Catching the ferry to Cockatoo Island is a breeze (literally) and we’ve only been whisking across the harbour from Balmain for a short while before arrival. From the island, we are treated to an uninterrupted view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge – save, perhaps, the gliding yachts, whose white sails elegantly mimic the birds above..

From Heritage Holiday Houses to camping under the stars

Cockatoo Island’s diversity in accommodation is bound to suit all budgets and family sizes, from its Heritage Holiday Houses to the pre-set up campsites that occupy harbour-front real estate. True to its roots, the Heritage Houses are the restored homes of the Island’s medical officers and engineering managers of yore; now, they are charming five-bedroom dwellings available for families to rent if they wish.

We, however, are here to enjoy a night of campfires and fresh air, and so stay in one of the island’s cost-effective ‘glamping’ facilities, which provide us with two single beds, two reclining camp chairs and our own small deck directly on the waterfront. For larger families, family campsites are available, too – much the same, but bigger. In the evening, we lounge under a black velvet sky studded with stars on our personal porch, watching the buzz of the city beyond the water.

Image © Kate Powell

Haunted Histories

With no shortage of learning opportunities for little ones, a range of guided tours will show you through the historical buildings that have earned the island its World Heritage status, housing everything from convicts and naval constructions to a young girls’ school throughout its rich journey. We take the Haunted Histories Tour, in which we learn about the island’s resident ghosts (Greg, Greg and Minnie, and the poor guy stuck waiting for a lift that never comes for all of eternity), in addition to the massive 175 years of historical events that have taken place in this location of living history. Wandering the grounds by ourselves after dark is exhilarating – if a little spooky!

“In the evening, we lounge under a black velvet sky studded with stars, watching the buzz of the city beyond the water, amazed by the silence that we are able to find so close to our bustling home of Sydney.”

Fine dining on the waterfront

Charming campfires and barbecue facilities around the campsite make for a perfect place to have a picnic or roast marshmallows with the family, but there is a range of dining options on the island, too. We enjoy dinner at Don Tapa at Contained, a trendy bar, restaurant and urban farm designed from repurposed shipping containers, surrounded by cascading greenery that falls from the roof and views of the water. A delicious meal of roasted cauliflower and fresh-harvested salad was paired with local craft beer and wine from Young Henry’s and Urban Winery.

Extra fun for kids

In addition to guided tours, steam crane demonstrations and the occasional featured art events (we were lucky enough to catch the 21st Biennale of Sydney, which runs until 11 June 2018), even more fun activities for kids are available during school holidays. A host of games, shadow puppetry and performances run by the island’s friendly and energetic team are available. You can also hire tennis and basketball courts year-round.

Ai WeiWei's “Law of the Journey” at the 21st Biennale of Sydney. Image credit © Kate Powell


For more information on Cockatoo Island, click here.

Getting there

Regular ferries run from Circular Quay and Darling Harbour, although we skipped the crowds of the city and found free parking right by the wharf in Balmain instead. Our ferry tickets cost us around $7. More information on costs and timetables can be found here.

Getting around

You can walk the entirety of Cockatoo Island with ease, so leaving your car behind isn’t a problem.

Camping facilities

The campsite has toilet and shower facilities, and will provide soap, shampoo and conditioner. There are also power outlets in the bathroom blocks in case of emergency charge requirements, although we took advantage of the opportunity to unplug during our stay.

Hot tips

In case kids get peckish outside of cafe/restaurant times, pack a picnic to ensure no rumbling tummies in the evening.

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