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Concrete Playground's Guide to Sydney's Islands

Grab the wine cooler, pack a picnic and go island hopping in your own city.
By Jasmine Crittenden
January 02, 2015
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By Jasmine Crittenden
January 02, 2015
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Island hopping is the done thing in Thailand, Fiji and, of course, The Whitsundays. In Sydney, however, its potential passes us by. Sure, we might pop over to Cockatoo Island for the odd spot of glamping, especially when the Biennale rolls around, or crowd onto Clark Island for New Year's Eve. But catch a ferry or paddle a kayak to one of our isles during the workday week, and you may well find yourself as lonesome as Robinson Crusoe. It's time to pack your desert island wish list and start mapping out your adventure.

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CLARK ISLAND

Clark Island boasts the urinal with the best view in the entire city. It's an en plein air affair, carved into the natural rock and facing Darling Point's multi-million dollar mansions. The island's other claims to fame lie in agriculture: it's the only place in the Sydney Basin where rare rainforest tree celery wood grows, and back in the 18th century, it hosted one of the colony's first vegetable gardens. There are no ferry services, but you can catch a water taxi, travel by private boat or paddle. It's a good idea to book ahead by calling the Sydney Harbour National Park Information Centre on (02) 9253 0880.

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SHARK ISLAND

Less marked by human interference than other islands, this one really does deliver on the Defoe-esque front. Its sandy beaches, ample grassy areas, picnic shelters, romantic gazebo and intimate size (just 1.5 hectares) make it incredibly picturesque. And don't let the name deter you: it's a reflection of shape, rather than finned residential population. Shark Island, located one kilometre from Rose Bay, is the easternmost of the Harbour islands, and is reachable by privately-owned ferry from Circular Quay and Darling Harbour. If you'd like the place to yourself for a day, hire it exclusively for a cool $3300.

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RODD ISLAND

Located in Iron Cove's calm and protected waters, right near Birkenhead Point, Rodd Island is one of Sydney's cosiest and cheeriest islands. It was the first public recreation reserve to be established in Sydney Harbour, and has also served as a science centre. In 1888, Louis Pasteur sent his nephew Dr Adrien Loir to Rodd to develop a microbe to fight the rabbit plague, and, in 1891, he turned it into a quarantine zone, allowing French actor Sarah Bernhardt to house her dogs while she toured. In the 20th century, an old-school dance hall was built, which remains today. To get there, grab a water taxi, take your own boat or get your paddle power on. Let the Sydney Harbour National Park Information Centre know you're going by calling (02) 9253 0880.

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COCKATOO ISLAND

Whether you want to camp at the world's first urban waterfront campground, play a casual tennis match back dropped by million dollar views, lose yourself in epic disused industrial spaces or find out more about convict prison horror, it's all in a day's work at the UNESCO-listed Cockatoo, Sydney Harbour's biggest island. Pack a picnic or sit down for a meal at the Island Bar, Societe Overboard or the Airstream Cafe. Drop by August 1-2, 2015, to find out what happens when the Underbelly Arts Festival takes over. Cockatoo Island lies at the junction of the Parramatta and Lane Cove Rivers and is a ten-minute ferry ride from Circular Quay.

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GOAT ISLAND

Fans of Aussie television series Water Rats should know Goat Island well — most of the action took place there. In more recent years, it has served as secret concert venue of choice for the likes of the Kings of Leon and Foo Fighters. The island became part of Sydney Harbour National Park in 1995, and the best way to visit is via guided tour, leaving from Circular Quay. You'll see the rock where convict Charles Anderson was tied up for two years; discover the Queen's Magazine, where insane amounts of explosives were stored in the 19th century; and visit the site where the Harbour's first ever water police station was set up. Goat Island is found just off Balmain and you'll need to carry your own food.

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FORT DENISON

In the late 18th century, locals referred to Fort Denison as Pinchgut, mainly because a prisoner by the name of Thomas Hill had spent a week languishing there, trapped in irons and fed on bread and water. These days, it's one of Sydney's swankier dining locations and a New Year's Eve hotspot. Talk about gentrification. If your budget doesn't allow for a high-end experience, however, you can jump on a privately-operated ferry at Circular Quay. Try to be there at 1pm for the daily cannon firing and leave time to explore the museum, as well as the winding staircase found inside Australia's only Martello tower. Fort Denison is located smack bang in the middle of the Harbour, just east of the Bridge.

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SCOTLAND ISLAND

Just over 600 people live on the wonderfully-named Scotland Island, and they're proud defenders of their artsy community. You'll find it in Pittwater, not far from Church Point. Access is via ferry and you can circumnavigate in one fell swoop, jump on and off as you please or stay the night. Day-trippers should be prepared for a bush-style experience. Public toilets are only available at sporadic hours and there are no shops or eateries. There is, however, a beautiful 6.8 hectare reserve and a walking trail all the way around the island, albeit on the rough and rocky side.

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BARE ISLAND

Bare Island is one of the most popular scuba sites in all of New South Wales — as well as being the site of the villain's lair in Mission Impossible 2, for those who paid cash money to see it. Head out to Bare Island on an average weekend and you're likely to see at least a couple of hundred divers splashing about. Find it at the mouth of Botany Bay, just off La Perouse and travel there on foot if you like — via wooden bridge. Visitors are welcome to wander around freely, but to get inside the fort, which was built back in 1885 to defend Sydney against possible sea attack, a guided tour is a must.

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WEDDING CAKE ISLAND

Even if you don't know where Wedding Cake Island is, you've probably heard Midnight Oil or The Break jamming about it. Frontman Peter Garrett and guitarist Martin Rotsey were living in the Eastern Suburbs back in the '70s when they wrote an instrumental surf rock hit in honour of the island, which is found about a kilometre off Coogee Beach. The only ways to get there are by swimming or captaining your own boat. Above water, you'll find nothing more than a rock platform, but below the surface, the scuba diving is spectacular. Every ANZAC Day, Wedding Cake Island becomes a site of community commemoration, with local surfers paddling out to spend the day, their boards loaded up with food and slabs of beer.

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TOP SECRET ISLANDS: SPECTACLE AND GARDEN

These Sydney islands are so secret that we regular, non-arms bearing types aren't allowed to visit them. They're both dedicated to naval activities. Spectacle, which lies just west of Cockatoo Island, is the oldest continuously operating naval facility in Australia, and home to an immense collection of artefacts, representing every maritime operation that the Navy has so much has dipped a toe into. Garden, found just off Potts Point, was open to tour groups before 20 September, 2014, when security on defence facilities took a step up from 'Safe Base Bravo' to 'Safe Base Charlie'.

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Prefer to stay ashore? Try Sydney's Ten Best Harbour Beaches.

Published on January 02, 2015 by Jasmine Crittenden
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