Why Rottnest Island is the perfect family
Christmas destination

Quokka selfies put the tiny Western Australian island on the map but the cute little marsupial isn’t the only thing enticing travellers here. A frequent visitor tells us exactly what makes Rotto special.

Chill out in crystalline waters at Rottnest Island
  • Fiona Adolph
  • December 2018

On a perfect Christmas morning, a rising sun kicked off the bay, sending arrows of light onto the wall beside my cheek. Seagulls heckled as I dozed on, a soft easterly breeze rustling at my shoulder. But what was that clicking and scratching at my back? Turning in outrage, I howled at the dripping, clawed beast snapping its tail on my pillow as my siblings shrieked in delight, my father clearly chuffed that I’d fallen for his old prank again. A live crayfish. The quickest way to get a teenager out of bed.

Welcome to Christmas 1970s-style. Our family of eight piled into the same heritage cottage in Thomson Bay year after year, our closest family friends cramming their seven kids into a snug twin next door. We had spectacular views south along a gentle curve of beach and east across the ocean to the shallow surf break known as Transit. We ran feral for a festive fortnight, our parents a far more relaxed version of the people they were at home.

Thomson Bay is the perfect picnic spot
Thomson Bay is the perfect picnic spot.

Those days are a world away from the #quokkaselfie frenzy that has recently helped position Rottnest Island as a desirable destination internationally. Tennis ace Roger Federer’s 545,000 social media likes in December 2017 were followed by actress Margot Robbie’s two million a few months later. Thanks to celebrities like these, a place renowned for its slow pace quickly became a must-see destination on the back of a quick photo op with the island’s cute and trusting marsupial, the quokka.

Federer made the comment at the time that he thought the creatures were tame as a result of “getting used to the tourists”. Bless him. Quokkas have been spectacularly unfazed by humans – or anything else – since the last ice age, thanks to their isolation. Their vulnerability is part of their appeal.

Make friends with the local wildlife
Make friends with the local wildlife.

A 35-minute ferry ride from Fremantle, Rottnest Island is a Class-A nature reserve that has been a magnet for (mainly Western Australian) holiday-makers since the 1920s. Essentially a limestone outcrop, the island’s unusual beauty is obvious from the moment you step off the ferry, Perth just a smudge on the horizon about 19 kilometres to the east.

A truer version of cerulean would be hard to find anywhere on the planet. On a clear day, the waters reflect every colour in a peacock’s tail. As a little girl, it took great willpower to resist the urge to dive in fully clothed straight off the boat. From the jetty, convict-built cottages can be seen crouched between tea trees along the shoreline, making up one of the oldest intact streetscapes in the country. Modest dwellings built from limestone quarried on the island to house prison guards in the 1840s, each has different arrangements of timber windows but all feature deep verandas washed in the same apricot hue known as “Rottnest ochre”. The colour seems to perfectly complement the blue of the bay, the white of the beach and the emerald pines that line the narrow streets. The same streets where my parents fell in love, where I first kissed a boy and where, on a tandem bike en route to our honeymoon cottage, my husband and I had our first marital argument – a row over directions.

There are plenty of spots to explore the rich underwater life
There are plenty of spots to explore the rich underwater life.

The writer Robert Drewe has long held the view that every Australian rite of passage occurs on or near the beach and, for our family, that was Rottnest. As our family grew and changed and some of us moved away from Perth, Christmas at Rottnest was the one certainty that ensured we all stayed close. More than tinsel, eggnog or pud, Christmas for me meant the briny tang of sea air, soft limestone trails underfoot, secret coves and crayfish pulled from the sea in cane pots before dawn and quickly cooked (after being used to scare a barely-awake child half to death).

Bathurst Lighthouse - running since 1900
Bathurst Lighthouse - running since 1900.

Rottnest was never what you would call “festive” but my parents tried to make it so. We used a fallen piece of pine tree draped in tinsel as a Christmas tree. Sometimes the island chapel would hold candlelight events where we would sing “Away in a Manger” and “Jingle Bells”. On many of my childhood Christmases, Father Christmas arrived in a rubber dinghy to fling handfuls of lollies at screaming kids on the shore. The old fella would be drenched in sweat, wearing a faded and sagging rented costume that, even to my young mind, seemed ludicrous in the baking heat of an Australian summer. Gift-giving on Christmas morning was also a low-key affair, after which we would enjoy the crays’ sweet, tender flesh with crusty loaves warm from the island’s still-famous Rottnest Bakery, homemade lemony mayo on the side. The rest of the day was whiled away bike riding, swimming, snorkelling and playing Neil Young songs on the guitar or cards out on the verandah, where we also slept.

It is hard to put a finger on just what it is about “Rotto” that puts a person into a slower gear. For a start, everyone gets around on bikes so the absence of traffic noise and fumes is conspicuous. Beyond the rustle of wind in the pine trees or water lapping on sand, Rottnest bubbles along to the quiet hum of folks chatting, kids playing and old friends catching up.Despite the island’s diminutive size (it’s just 11 kilometres from east to west) there are 63 pristine beaches and 20 bays, some just snug enough to fit a beach towel. Moderated by the ocean, the island’s temperature usually hovers a few degrees below Perth’s in summer and a few degrees above it in winter. And there is considerably less rainfall, too.

The stunning Rottnest island is all coastline
The stunning Rottnest island is all coastline.

It’s not hard to see why accommodation is often booked out a year in advance during peak Christmas season. But that hasn’t stopped us from going back most years, in spite of our gang ballooning to 30-plus people – even if it means hiring a row of cottages on the sleepy south end of the island, instead of our familiar holiday home in the main settlement.

Last year was special. It was the last Christmas we got to spend with my father, in a blissful daze, revisiting our favourite haunts and mainly just soaking in the island’s magic. Although I am not subject to live crayfish wake-up calls anymore, in Rotto, the idyll of my childhood Christmases remains intact.