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Sydney's secret islands

From exploring convict ruins to glamping with a harbour view, Sydney’s islands have plenty of surprises in store.

By Ute Junker

There is no such thing as a typical Sydney island. From the gruesome history of Fort Denison to the beauty of Shark Island and the tranquillity of remote Scotland Island, each one has its own character. So hop on a ferry or book a water taxi to explore some of Sydney’s loveliest playgrounds.

Island-hopping on Sydney Harbour

Cockatoo Island

Here’s something most visitors don’t realise: the best views in Sydney aren’t found in any of its five star hotels. To wake up to the ultimate knock-your-socks-off views, check into one of Cockatoo Island's various accommodation options, from camping and glamping to apartments. Don’t rush to leave in the morning because there is plenty to explore on Sydney Harbour’s largest island, including the sandstone convict barracks and the massive turbine hall, a relic of the island’s days as a shipbuilding base. Regular ferries run from Circular Quay.

Fort Denison

Just a five minute ferry trip from Circular Quay, Fort Denison, with its distinctive fortifications dating back to 1857, has a history that is often colourful and occasionally grim. In the early days of the colony, convicts were placed there for weeks at a time as a punishment. Later, the island was quarried for sandstone which was used to build what was then known as Semi-Circular Quay. You can take a self-guided tour or simply book a guided tour at the island’s restaurant which is open for morning tea, lunch or afternoon tea.

Goat Island

Like Cockatoo Island, Goat Island has a varied history, revealed in the convict and military buildings still scattered across it. Before the arrival of the Europeans, Goat Island – then known as Me-mel – was the territory of the Wangal people. Early settlers noted that it was the private retreat of two of the most famous indigenous leaders, Bennelong and his wife, Barangaroo. Fascinating tours of the island, packed with revealing details from the convict era as well as its more recent incarnation as a water police base, run twice a month.

Clark Island

Perched off the edge of Darling Point, the pocket-sized Clark Island is named after the First Fleet’s Lieutenant Ralph Clark, who cultivated the island as a vegetable garden. In the 19th century, it became a popular picnic spot, with manicured gardens and grand pavilions. Today, the combination of grassy sweeps and bush paths make this a great place to enjoy a picnic with views of the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge. You will need to book your visit through New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service and organise a water taxi to get there and away. If you're an experienced kayaker consider paddling there.

Shark Island

Another prime picnic spot, Shark Island is located near Rose Bay. At 1.5 hectares (3.7 acres) in size, it’s big enough to allow for a stroll before settling down to lunch, either on the grassy lawn or in one of the picnic shelters. After lunch, you may like to explore the tidal pools that fringe the island. Book your visit in advance through New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service, and organise your own water taxi to get there and away.

Scotland Island

Around 1000 people make their home on Scotland Island, a tranquil Northern Beaches retreat. Why? Book a room at Scotland Island Lodge and find out for yourself. Getting here is part of the experience – it’s a 90 minute drive from Sydney's centre to Church Point, from where the Scotland Island ferry departs – and the beauty of this bush covered island makes it worthwhile. There is nothing to do apart from walking, kayaking and swimming, but that is precisely the point.

Dangar Island 

Not all of Sydney’s islands lie in the harbour. To reach Dangar Island, in the Hawkesbury River, take an hour-long train trip to Brooklyn, then a 15-minute ferry ride to this lovely spot. Stretch your legs along the bushland path that circumnavigates the island; a circuit takes around three hours. Stop for a rest at one of the beaches or admire the indigenous rock carvings in Kilparra Park. The local café offers refreshments while the bowling club is the place to kick back in the evening.