“Taking a harbour cruise is definitely the more expensive option than
paying a mere $12 for a return ticket from Circular Quay to Cockatoo Island“
“Sydney is showing off again today” I say to Mysaucepan looking up into the clear blue sky.
“True and it was a bit overcast to start off with too!” she agrees.
I cast my eye across the horizon and people are out and about. “A day in the sun?” I enthusiastically suggest wide-eyed and teeth bared.
“The Sydney Biennale is on at Cockatoo Island, I want to go there” she says.
“That involves catching a ferry though” I muse. “But that’s okay, I’ll go with you, it’s Sunday after all.”
A smile comes across her face and before long we are on our way.
Travelling To Cockatoo Island
A good way to enjoy Sydney on the weekend without the hassles of driving and looking for a car park is taking advantage of Sydney’s public transport if you are close to it.
There are trains, buses and ferries that will take you to Circular Quay, the main ferry terminal of Sydney harbour located right in the heart of the CBD.
We decide to drive into the city and find one of the cheapest all day car park at Australia Square building which is a short 10-minute walk to Circular Quay.
The parking fee is a mere $5.50 inclusive of GST if you book online. Located on George street, Australia Square is actually a circular shaped building that houses the iconic revolving restaurant with 360-degree views of Sydney, now called O bar & dining.
(See more information on How To Get To Cockatoo Island at the end of this blog post).
Once we get to Circular Quay, we head to Wharf 5, the terminal for boarding a ferry to Cockatoo Island.
I love the atmosphere at Circular Quay because it showcases what Sydney is all about – life predicated around a magnificent harbour precinct.
The sun is out and so are street musicians, happy people and families with kids running about, all eager to spend a beautiful day out in the open.
“I almost feel like a tourist!” I tell Mysaucepan.
“You sure look like one with that camera hanging around your neck” she jibes.
When the sun is out, so are Sydneysiders.
Our transport arrives right on 11.07 am as scheduled and we hop onto Aussie swimming legend Shane Gould in the form of a rivercat that is going to take us to our destination.
If you have not been on a Sydney ferry, it pays be at the front end of the queue to be among the first passengers to board.
On a beautiful Sunday like this, people are clamouring to get a view of magnificent Sydney harbour and the seats in the sun are always the first to be taken up.
After all, Sydney is the most beautiful harbour city in the world and who’s to argue on a day like this?
As the rivercat powers out of Circular Quay, the Sydney Harbour Bridge comes into view.
My heart feels a little nostalgic whenever I see my favourite house in Sydney.
Notwithstanding a restriction signage onboard the ferry, the further thing on my mind is to munch on food or sip on a drink whenever I get onto a Sydney ferry.
There are still empty seats inside the rivercat but most of the passengers onboard are on the upper deck ready to soak up the sun and the views and we are among them.
As our ferry set sail, Sydney’s top fine dining restaurant Quay at the Overseas Passenger Terminal comes into view.
Sydney has so many great restaurants and as good as they are, I think a harbour setting with magnificent views do play its part in making them world-class.
The Sydney Harbour Bridge looms larger as we head under it towards Cockatoo Island in the western side.
The scene of so many New Year’s Eve celebrations, ‘The Coathanger’, as it is affectionately called, is a beautiful structure that has become an iconic symbol of Sydney and Australia since it first opened in 1932.
The trip from Circular Quay to Cockatoo Island is no more than fifteen minutes but this short ferry ride is made even shorter by the breath-taking views of Sydney harbour.
The rays of the sun is warm against my back and I love the occasional sea spray on my face.
As the rivercat docks at Cockatoo Island ferry wharf, we are greeted by the signage of the 19th Biennale of Sydney, Australia’s largest contemporary visual arts festival.
Held every two years, the Biennale is a three-month exhibtion with an accompanying program of artist talks, forums, guided tours and family days which are free of charge to the public.
About Cockatoo Island
Upon arrival, visitors are handed free maps of the island which provide information about its history and places of interests and accommodation.
At 44 acres (18 hectares), it is one of the largest islands around Sydney harbour with its rich history of being a convict penal establishment between 1839 and 1869.
From 1857, Cockatoo Island became one of Australia’s largest maritime ship-building facility. The first of its two dry docks was built by convicts and the shipyard operations continued until 1991.
Managed by the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust since 2001, Cockatoo Island was proclaimed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2010.
The Eastern Apron is a large strip of lawn that was an emergency assembly area during maritime operations but is now an ideal area for picnics because of its commanding views of the harbour.
The Sydney Harbour Federation Trust is a self-funding agency created by the Australian Government responsible for vision planning and management of Sydney harbour.
Among the beautiful sites under its jurisdiction include Cockatoo Island and Snapper Island in Sydney Harbour, Woolwich Dock and Parklands in Woolwich, HMAS Platypus in Neutral Bay, Georges Heights, Middle Head and Chowder Bay in Mosman, North Head Sanctuary in Manly, Marine Biological Station in Watsons Bay and Macquarie Lightstation in Vaucluse.
The Harbour Trust’s role is to cultivate a long-term vision plan for these sites to ensure they are integrated into the life of the city and create a lasting legacy for the people of Sydney and Australia.
Sites that were for many years hidden away from public view are now open for all, containing an extraordinary mix of historic buildings, magnificent harbour views, pristine natural landscapes and defence heritage. These public spaces and parklands now offer major events, exhibitions, venue hire, accommodation, tours and business tenancy.
Art installation by Randi Jorgensen (b. 1974, Denmark) & Katrine Malinovsky (b. 1976, Denmark)
The Biennale of Sydney consists of art exhibits by artists from all over the world taking up residence in historic warehouse facilities of the island.
At first encounter, the visitor to Randi & Katrine’s The Village, 2014, with its charming anthropomorphised, personality-filled church tower, houses, civic gate and containment wall, might think it a fairytale fantasy and playful environment for children.
Of course it is, but that is not its only story.
In addition to its fun-park offering, The Village is a parable and representation of a community ideal; a utopian construct filled with structures and messages of subtle influence and control.
For the modern viewer, the work represents a place of sanctuary and community, but also, if we permit ourselves to contemplate it, exclusion.
This is particularly and unfortunately apt as we witness the perilous situation of those who seek asylum in this time of mass refugee movement, only to find the fortress secured and the gateway barred.
Mysaucepan and I found these structures rather amusing with their human-like faces. Children were curious and ran around the houses, trying to open the doors and peer into the windows.
Some of the houses look symmetrical while others appear to be whimsical and fairytale-like.
This is my favourite installation because The Village seemed to have a life of its own. It certainly created a lot of curiosity among the children.
The Island Bar, Cockatoo Island, Sydney
After a two hour walkabout looking at the historic shipyard facilities and art installations, it was time to settle for a drink and lunch.
It is difficult to choose from four cafes and restaurants on the island, all of which have panoramic views of Sydney harbour.
Located at the Eastern Apron of the island, the Island Bar has deck chairs and day beds should you decide to take a break, grab a bite to eat or simply have a drink or sip on cocktails.
Food and drinks aside, the water views alone make this a spectacular spot to relax and soak up the sun.
It’s is almost 1.30pm but the outdoor area still have quite a few chairs and tables.
It’s a glorious day and we decide on a jug of Able Seaman cocktail made of Absolut Vodka, white Cinzano, fresh lemon juice, orange bitters and a bit of fizz from lemonade.
Poured over ice cubes, it’s refreshing on a warm sunny day though at $45 a jug, it is not the cheapest nor is it one of the better ones I have tasted around Sydney.
I’m no pizza expert but capsicum is hardly a key ingredient in a diavola. What I do know is a good one will at least have black olives, which is missing here. Being the key ingredient, the hot salami tasted dry and meek while the mozzarella is neither stringy nor cheesy.
So here it is folks, a prime example where disappointing food is saved and even tolerated by some, thanks to spectacular harbour views. It’s a dining phenomena we are no stranger to especially around tourist hotspots in Sydney.
So, the best way to make up for this is to walk off our pizza by wandering around the island after lunch.
These structures known as ‘The Beam Benders’ are remains of a 1920 Hugh Smith hydraulically-powered plate-bending machine. The machine, much of which was below ground level, was originally located in the New Platers Shop in the area now occupied by the campground.
The machine was capable of cold bending or flanging plates up to 30 feet (9 metres) long by 1 inch (25.4mm) thick and was used to shape plates as part of the shipbuilding process. It was sold for scrap when the dockyard closed but these parts proved too difficult for the buyer to remove and were left behind to become a reminder of the dockyard’s heavy machinery.
Visitors to Cockatoo Island have the option to go camping or ‘glamping’ to experience the spectacular harbour views.
At its most basic, a camping tent which has already been pitch consists of two vinyl mattresses. Campers are advised to bring all other necessary camping gear such as cooking utensils, cutlery and plates. A torch is essential though sleeping bags and mats can be hired.
There is a large camping kitchen which includes BBQ areas, refrigeration, microwave and zip boiling water system.
When you don’t have the equipment, ’glamping’ is a laid-back camping experience where everything that is required for camping is organised upon arrival.
More information about camping and glamping on Cockatoo Island can be found here.
Perched on the upper plateau in a leafy part of the island, Federation Duplex was built circa 1916 for dockyard staff at local managerial level.
This building was first occupied by Cockatoo Island’s Medical Officer and Engineering Manager. Until the dockyard closed, it continued to be used as accommodation for dockyard staff.
Today, the building is available for holiday letting. It consists of two fully self-contained, four-bedroom houses which are beautifully restored and surrounded by heritage gardens with views of the harbour.These accommodation are ideal for groups of up to ten people.
More information on reservations can be found here.
Park benches are located all over the island for you to soak up magnificent views of Sydney harbour.
Cockatoo Island lawn tennis court
The Cockatoo Island lawn tennis court is located on higher ground with magnificent views of Sydney harbour and the Harbour Bridge.
The tennis court is available for hire at $20 per hour ($10 per hour for campers. Tennis racquet hire is additional $5 and bookings are essential at +61 2 8898 9774.
Conditions for tennis court hire can be downloaded here.
The foreground of the Historic Residence Precinct is on a plateau, elevated from ground level. Picnic mats and beanbags are available for visitors to laze away the afternoon whilst enjoying the panoramic views of the harbour.
Wine tasting at the Bamboo Dumpling Bar with Yering Station wines is available every Saturday and Sunday from 1pm to 3pm.
On a spectacular day like this one, the foreground is popular with families where children can roam about. Parents can take a little break from parenting, keeping one eye on kids while sipping on a glass of bubbly.
Though Mysaucepan and I have been to Cockatoo Island before, it was for an evening dinner event which gave us little chance to admire the views and roam about other parts of the island.
Having spent a good five hours wondering about the island on a beautiful day, I thoroughly recommend it if you have never caught a Sydney ferry or gazed at Sydney harbour from a different vantage point.
We have not tried the other cafes and restaurants but packing a few sandwiches into your backpack or planning an elaborate picnic is definitely an option though it will be a hassle lugging that basket to the island.
There are many ways to enjoy Sydney harbour and taking a harbour cruise is definitely one of the more expensive options than paying a mere $12 for a return ticket from Circular Quay to Cockatoo Island.
Sure, a cruise might include a few glasses of champagne, seafood cocktail, fresh oysters and a whole lobster for lunch. But if you know your way around Sydney and the Sydney Fish Market, having a jolly good time in Sydney need not be an expensive affair.
So dear readers, have you taken a Sydney ferry and if so, which is your favourite Sydney harbour route?
More information about Cockatoo Island
Entry into Cockatoo Island is open to the public and is free of charge.
How To Get There – Transport Information
Wilson Parking at Australia Square is at 264 – 278 George Street, entry via Bond street. Phone 1800 727 5464. Online booking discounts during weekend is $9.90 or $5.50 (exit before 5pm)
Ferries depart from Wharf 5 at Circular Quay. A return ticket is A$12 and the duration is approximately 15 minutes each way. More information about ferries services can be found here.
Information on water taxis can be found here. Prices start from A$10 per person and minimum passenger number apply.
Safety On The Island
Cockatoo Island is a former industrial site and below are recommended safety measures:
- Children must be accompanied by an adult at all times.
- Visitors are requested to wear appropriate enclosed footwear and comply with all signage on the island.
- Mind your step and beware of hazards such as occasional uneven surfaces, voids, trip hazards and cliffs.
- A number of buildings are dark and require extra vigilance.
- Smoking is not allowed in all buildings on the island.
- Animals are not allowed on the island.
Places to Eat and Drink
The Island Bar Cockatoo Island
Sydney, New South Wales
General enquiries: +61 420 220 885
Cockatoo Island, Sydney
New South Wales
For more information about dining and accommodation on Cockatoo Island, please call the following:
General enquiries: +61 2 8962 2100
Accommodation enquiries: +61 2 8898 9774
Cockatoo Island Rangers: +61 434 652 153 (8am to 4pm daily)
Cockatoo Island Security: +61 433 632 791 (4pm – 8am daily)
Sydney Harbour Federation Trust Head Office
PO Box 607, Mosman
New South Wales 2088
Building 28, Best Avenue
Mosman, New South Wales
Tel: + 61 2 8969 2100
Business hours: Monday – Friday 9am – 5pmm