Feb 4, 2021
THE LIGHT HERE IS BRIGHTER, AND THE BEACH is almost blinding. An osprey wheels overhead, feathers ruffling in the breeze as she inspects the two-legged creature on a two-wheeled vehicle below. A skink warms himself on the deserted road. A tiny quokka holds a leaf in her marsupial paw, and as she munches, her even tinier joey pokes its head from her cozy pouch, curious about the world beyond.
I’m on Rottnest Island, just a 30-minute ferry ride from the Perth suburb of Fremantle. Locally known as ‘Rotto,’ the island is a bonanza of natural experiences. And it’s car-free, so visitors explore by bike, drawn by deserted beaches, snorkeling, surfing… and the quokkas.
Over the years, the Western Australian authorities have worked to preserve Rottnest, making it a Class A Reserve with its own legislation to enshrine its protection. That means conservation is balanced with recreation here, and for years the only accommodation available on the island has been low-key, and mostly owned and run by the government.
And so, it was not without a few raised eyebrows, along with comfort levels, that a new player entered the market. Samphire Rottnest opened late last year on the beachfront at Thomson Bay, an 80-room, minimalist-chic, barefoot-boutique hotel catering for those seeking something more upmarket. It’s energy efficient, aesthetically harmonious with its surrounds, and, perhaps most importantly, swims right along in the current of the near sacred affection West Aussies hold for Rotto. See, many of us spent childhood holidays here with carefree beach days of exploring independently. A disregard for the importance of Rottnest’s environment and nature’s influence would not have gone over well.
Samphire, also known as sea asparagus, is native here. “It’s a plant that likes to be around sand and salt water, and it thrives on Rottnest Island,” says Peter Prendiville, the chairman of the family-run Prendiville Group that owns the property, likening the succulent’s qualities of endurance with the sustainable ethos and dedication to native ecology of the hotel they named after it.
“A key factor in the design is the climate itself, like the harsh winds,” says James Christou, managing director of architecture firm Christou. “We try to provide as much protection as possible in the way we’ve shaped the courtyards and the pool areas” and to minimize the energy used for climate control. “We draw heat in winter,” he says. “All the surfaces on the floor are dark and they absorb the heat, but in summer we’ve made sure that the sunlight won’t be hitting those internal surfaces. The rooms are well shaded in summer, but in winter they invite the sun.”
All rooms have balconies, most facing the pools or beach laneways. Sixteen beachfront suites front the Indian Ocean, and it’s here that I’m staying. My room is an upstairs super-king suite, with muted-palette styling and accents of natural timber. A private outdoor rain shower adjoins my bathroom, which has retractable wooden shutters. Sheer curtains billow gently, inviting me out through huge glass doors to the veranda. I flop down on the oversized daybed, mesmerized by Rottnest’s ocean.
In developing Samphire, the owners understood they needed to perpetuate the island’s relaxed, nostalgic atmosphere. There are no ostentatious chandeliers or starched tablecloths here, but there are in-room massages, yoga and killer views. There are two lagoon-style pools, landscaped with plants native to the island and flanked with guests reclining in shady pods.Testing the vibe further, I try the hotel’s own beach club, commandeering a stylish lounge chair under a funky tasselled umbrella, digging my toes into the warm afternoon sand. I try the signature cocktail, the Lontara Smash, which I’m told will complement my dinner. It’s served in a cut crystal glass rimmed with chili salt, and features local Western Australian gin, and a waft of eucalyptus.
As the sunset pink fades from the sky, I relocate a few paces to the open-air Lontara restaurant. Celebrity chef Will Meyrick of Bali restaurants Sarong, Mama San, and Billy Ho helms this wildly popular restaurant, and infuses the bold Southeast Asian flavors he’s known for into the freshest of local produce. My waiter recommends the scallops, and they’re a mouth-popping revelation, served on the half-shell with Thai basil, caramelized minced duck and native finger limes. Next, the whole fish, a spangled emperor, arrives, portioned in advance, with a sweet, sour and delightfully spicy sauce.
As a guest of Samphire’s beachfront suites, I have my own guest experiences coordinator, and she had contacted me before my trip to proffer advice and discuss island activities. The western rock lobster fishing industry is a global poster-child for sustainability and an important local sector — which they’ve now opened up to tourists. So, at my coordinator’s suggestion, I’m boarding a glammed-up lobster-vessel with Rottnest Cruises for their wild seafood experience.
I take a turn at pulling up one of the pre-set traps, and delight in catching four lobsters. Wearing protective gloves, I’m shown how to check they are legal size (77 millimeters long minimum). While we snorkel in a sheltered bay, our chef barbecues the lobsters, and they’re joined on the table by sashimi, oysters and prawns. With salty skin and hearty appetites, we lunch and chat, toasting our crew with a chilled Margaret River wine.
For a different ocean perspective, I next join a tour with Aquaplay. A waterbike is like a frame mounted on two mini kayaks, and we pedal around the cliffs listening to guide Malcolm Roberts’s stories of Rottnest’s geology, Aboriginal legends, and wildlife. We glide over large boulder corals, rocky reefs, and sandy patches where the aquamarine water glitters. Schools of fish flash by and diving cormorants dry their wings on tiny islets.
But Rottnest Island has not always been paradise to all. From 1838 to 1931, Aboriginal men and boys were held here as prisoners for crimes against white settlers, claims that were trivial or outright false. Brought here in neck chains, they were held under atrocious conditions. The men included senior tribal leaders and they came from many different language groups. Of the approximately 4,000 prisoners, almost 400 died here. They were buried in unmarked graves that were forgotten and ignored for decades.
In 2020, the Western Australian Government announced a new reconciliation project to address and commemorate this painful past. Consultation with descendants of those held here is being led by the traditional owners of Rottnest, the Whadjuk Noongar people.
The new Wadjemup Museum, which debuted late last year, tells parts of this history. Wadjemup is the Noongar word for Rottnest Island, and the museum includes 40,000-year-old artifacts, proving there was habitation here well before the island was cut off from the mainland, some 6,500 years ago. European history is showcased here too, up to the island’s use during 2020 as a COVID-19 quarantine center.
The museum is another evolution of the conscientious travel mores of the island. Tourism started here in 1902 — meaning, yes, it overlapped with the presence of the penal colony and since then Rottnest has grappled back and forth with the concept of responsible development.
Adorable mascots always help, and the undisputed stars of the show are the cute quokkas, like mini-kangaroos, with almost no fear of humans. The tiny fur-balls catapulted to international fame a few years back with the quokka selfie craze. Perhaps you remember stars like Chris Hemsworth, Margot Robbie and Roger Federer jumping on the Instagram bandwagon?
As I approach a group of quokkas, I decide against a selfie, thinking my style is a more natural photo. But my subject has other plans, and as I crouch to take the picture, the inquisitive youngster grabs my camera in two delicate paws for closer inspection. Finding the lens uninteresting, he looks at me with disappointment, and I can’t help but laugh at his audacity.
Back on my bike, it’s a 12-kilometer cycle from the hotel to the West End, the last land before Africa. My experience coordinator had recommended hiring an e-bike, and wow do I appreciate the pedal-assist function on the hilly road, especially as I’m heading into a fierce headwind, known as the ‘Fremantle Doctor.’
I visit the resident colony of New Zealand fur seals, and from the cliff-top lookout, I see two seals swimming below, gliding in circles, each with a fin in the air, apparently cooling their blood. I stop in at sheltered Little Armstrong Bay, don snorkeling gear and plunge in. I’m greeted by a school of curious buffalo bream, and pockets of coral reefs are interspersed with waving algal forests.
On the way back to Samphire, a causeway leads me across a pink-colored salt lake tinted by natural algae. Strong winds have whipped up a foam from the lake and it flies across the pathway in clumps, like nature’s bubble-bath. Stopping for more photos, I notice the plant beside me, its knobbly pink fingers growing from salt-caked ground, through fierce winds, and relentless, baking sun.
It’s samphire, and it strikes me as a metaphor not just for the hotel, but the whole of Rottnest Island. Out of adversity and tough conditions, emerges something resilient, enduring, and starkly beautiful.
From Southeast Asia, you can fly direct to Perth with Qantas, Singapore Airlines, and others. Take a 30-minute ferry transfer with Rottnest Express, Rottnest Fast Ferries or SeaLink Rottnest Island.
Samphire Rottnest (61-8/9292-5011) has a variety of room categories, from the Beach Lane King suite for A$345/night double occupancy, to the Beachfront Signature Super-King Suite with rain shower at A$895/night double occupancy.
There’s an activity to suit every type of nature-lover. I enjoyed the following three but you can find a full directory of attractions, tours, operators and accommodations here: rottnestisland.com (61-8/9432-9300)
· Wild Seafood Cruise with Rottnest Cruises (61-8/9586-1136)
· Aquabike Tour with Aquaplay (61-4/0232-4758)
· E-bike, bike and snorkel gear rental from Pedal&Flipper (61-8/9292-5105)