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A Night of Character and Heritage on Cockatoo Island (Sydney, Australia)

View of the Harbour Bridge from Societe Overboard Cafe
6 May, 2016 (Sydney, Australia) - I’m feeling rather foolish as I write this, the kind of foolish one feels after crying poor over the relative lack of heritage around Sydney, only to stumble upon a priceless jewel that’s been sitting patiently under our noses the whole time, our very own UNESCO World-Heritage-listed Cockatoo Island.

Eager to do backflips in compensation for our ignorance, my husband and I decided to forego the day-tripping and actually overnight on the island. Spotting a gap in our schedules mid week, I Googled “all day parking” alongside “Sydney ferry timetable”, which spat out the most convenient transport alternative for us. Navigating the bearable pre-school-pickup traffic on Victoria Road, we parked our car at an all day spot on Valentia Street, by Woolwich Wharf, and enjoyed the 5-minute ferry ride to the island.

Disembarking after our ferry docked parallel to the pier, we made our way to the Visitor Centre for check in. We were immediately shown to our accommodation by a delightful member of staff, Alison. Having been given the choice of camping, glamping, heritage listed apartments or period homes, we settled on the curiously named “Fire Station Studio,” located directly above the Visitor’s Centre on the island’s lower level. While the centrality of its location may have seemed a tad invasive, its entrance was private and secure and, at $250 per night, (Monday - Thursday rates), it was a steal. 

Ascending the L-shaped stairway to the accommodation level, the warm and tastefully furnished space, done in shades of grey with Turquoise accents, was a pleasant surprise. Complete with all the creature comforts that included a flat screen TV, self contained kitchen, and laundry, our private decking with a Weber BBQ and outdoor dining area sealed the deal. We took a moment to marvel at the uninterrupted water views over Woolwich, Gladesville and Hunters Hill.

Our seamless run and warm welcome into Cockatoo Island had put us in the right head space for exploration. Grabbing our room keys and audio sets, we set off to wander grounds that were brimming with character and heritage. As luck would have it, we were in time for the 20th Sydney Biennale, with contemporary works by world renown artists from all over the world peppering the heritage-listed warehouses. Its title i nspired by the comment by leading science-fiction author William Gibson- “The Future is Already Here, It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed” - Cockatoo Island’s imposing industrial spaces offered the ideal expanse and contrast for artists to explore their perception of reality.

Australia’s dark convict era did much to shape the initial character of Cockatoo Island. Once infamously referred to as Australia's Alcatraz, it was home to secondary offenders for 30 years until 1839. Between 1870 - 1880, it was used as an “industrial school” and “reformatory” for girls. Little more than a brutal detention centre, a ship was anchored nearby for the training of wayward and orphaned boys. Despite the deplorable conditions, the shark-infested waters of Sydney Harbour were an effective deterrent against escape. The well-preserved, convict-built sandstone structures, quarried from the island itself, stand as silent testaments to their grim past.

Between 1857 - 1991, Cockatoo Island became a powerhouse of industry. Considered to be Australia’s primary shipbuilding and repair facility, the audio tour guided us through what were once the bustling workshops in the Industrial Precinct, from the Turbine Shop to the Engineers’ and Blacksmiths Shop.

From 1913 - 1921, Cockatoo Island was Australia’s first naval dockyard for the Royal Australian Navy, continuing to support and build its ships until its closure in 1991. After construction finished on the Sutherland Dock in 1890, it was the largest single graving dock in the world. With the island’s tradesmen continually exposed to every aspect of the shipbuilding trade, many shipyards around the country depended on Cockatoo’s Island technical experience. Walking through the Ship Design Precinct, we wandered past the well-preserved trade specific buildings, such as the Pattern Shop, Joiners’ Shop, and Estimating and Drawing Offices.

The Historic Residence Precinct, where the island’s managerial staff and their families resided, sits at the highest part of the island and commands breathtaking views. With over two centuries of architectural style, many of the fully renovated and meticulously maintained period properties are open to the public for overnight stays.

While most visitors opt for a daytime experience of Cockatoo Island, nothing can replace the overnight experience: seeing the island’s sandstone structures bathed in a golden hue as the sun sets over the West, the thrill of rugging up and lazily strolling the grounds late at night and feeling like the only souls marooned on a deserted island, the sheer joy of sitting on the bench at the water’s edge at 6 am with a mug of coffee in your hand, watching the sun rise over the East as Sydney Harbour gently wakes up. 

By 10 am, the school groups had begun to pour into the island and the spell was broken. Time for us to leave. Packing up our belongings, we dropped our studio key and audio tours at the Visitor’s Centre and thanked the staff for a wonderful stay. With a spring in our step, we hopped back on the ferry to Woolwich Wharf, mutually smug in the knowledge that Sydney had just let us in on one of its little secrets.

NOTE: Entry into Cockatoo Island is FREE of charge

What’s On at Cockatoo Island:
* Enjoy breakfast or lunch at Societe Overboard Cafe or the Cockatoo Island Marine Centre
* Hire a boat from Marine Centre and explore Sydney’s magnificent harbour
* Discover Cockatoo Island’s past at your own pace on a self-guided audio tour
* Play tennis or basketball while overlooking Sydney Harbour

Accommodation at Cockatoo Island:
* Heritage Holiday Houses: http://www.cockatooisland.gov.au/stay/heritage-holiday-houses
* Harbour View Apartments: http://www.cockatooisland.gov.au/stay/apartments/harbour-view-apartments
* Garden Apartment: http://www.cockatooisland.gov.au/stay/apartments/garden-apartment
* Fire Station Studio: http://www.cockatooisland.gov.au/stay/apartments/fire-station-studio
* Glamping: http://www.cockatooisland.gov.au/stay/glamping
* Camping & Backpacking: http://www.cockatooisland.gov.au/stay/camping-backpacking

For more information on Cockatoo Island, go to: www.cockatooisland.gov.au/stay

Author’s Bio: Based in Sydney (Australia), Victoria Ugarte, Travel Writer and Author, is becoming known around the world as one of the most recognized faces of travel and culturally correct behavior. Founder of travel blog www.ExploreMyWorldTravel.com, she spends 3 months out of every year traveling the world, keeping her readers posted on exciting destinations, latest travel tips, and inspiring them to “Explore. Discover. Live.” 
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Posted by Victria Ugarte on 3rd May, 2016 | Trackbacks
Categories: Australia
Tags: Cockatoo Island, Sydney Harbour, Sydney

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