Cockatoo Island: The ultimate Sydney staycation

Allison Wallace

Staycation is the newest buzzword in travel. It means you can stay closer to home and experience that same holiday high while saving a few dollars.

Cockatoo Island is the best of both worlds in my opinion. You get to stay close to home but you actually feel like you are miles from anywhere, unlike a break in a city hotel where the shops downstairs are the same ones you grab your lunch on any given work day.

The only way to get to the island is by boat, be it a Sydney ferry or a water taxi, so right from the get go, you have escaped the city in half an hour and no traffic.

Once there, Cockatoo Island offers several options for staying overnight. Get right back to basics by pitching your own tent on a camp site, carry less and stay in one of the sturdy tents provided (already pitched), up the ante a little with a waterfront glamping experience (with real beds!) or book into an apartment or Heritage holiday house.

On this staycation, I opted for a little glamping so all the hard work was already done before I got there.

Inside our cosy abode. Photo: Allison Wallace

With a nicely made-up bed, bedside table, reclining loungers for taking in the views at sunrise, sunset, or even just harbour-watching, and organic hotel-style shampoos and body care products from Appelles, there is little more one could ask for. You are even provided a large torch/lantern on check-in so there is no need to pack that as well as a breakfast pack.

You can bring a picnic along or make use of the camping ground's BBQ facilities, but a visit to Island Bar gives a bit of an extra holiday vibe. The bar, keeping with the tone of the island, is created from recycled shipping containers and offers a selection of pizzas and sandwiches along with beers, wine and cocktails (there is no BYO on the island), and of course, an incredible view of the Harbour Bridge.

The view from the top of the island. Photo: Aiden Turner

Before you settle in for the evening, there is a lot of exploring to be done.

The island itself isn't huge, measuring just 360 metres across and is 500 metres long but contains a hell of a lot of history. There is a self-guided audio tour you can do to get all the details but you can also just wander and explore on your own.

After being off-limits to visitors for more than 100 years, you can now roam the historical sights, including the convict precinct, as the island was an overflow for secondary offenders in 1839 to alleviate overcrowding on Norfolk Island.

Convicts were put to work quarrying stone and building structures like prison barracks, a military guardhouse and hand-carved granary silos.

In 1913, Cockatoo Island became the Commonwealth Naval Dockyard, and Australia’s first steel warship was built on the island. By World War II, Cockatoo Island had become the main ship repair facility in the southwest Pacific. The last ship to be constructed on Cockatoo Island was HMAS Success, the largest naval vessel built in Australia.

Tunnel 1. Photo: Allison Wallace

There are many remnants of the island's industrial past still there, seen by visiting the shipyard, slipways and huge workshops. You can walk through the middle of the island via one of the tunnels cut into the sandstone, an eerie but fascinating experience. The tunnel was originally used as a more convenient means for workers and materials to commute from one side of the island to the other.

Some of the remnants on the island. Photo: Allison Wallace

Amongst the pieces of history lying about, there is also a natural beauty to the island. Native wildflowers abound and you can take advantage of many views from all sides - across to the Bridge or back to Woolich, Drummoyne and Balmain, the perfect way to spend your Sydney staycation.

One of the vibrant wildflowers. Photo: Aiden Turner

The was only one downside - I couldn't find anywhere to roast my marshmallows, a quintessential camping experience in my mind.