First published on 15 Jan 2009. Updated on 18 May 2011.
Named for the presence of sulphur-crested cockatoos, this is Sydney Harbour's largest island. Set at the junction of the Parramatta and Lane Cove rivers, the 18-hectare island has been an Aboriginal fishing spot, imperial prison, shipyard, industrial school, reformatory and gaol. Once a heavily wooded green space dotted with red gums, it's now a fascinating industrial relic. Guided tours will give you an insight into the island's history, and you can even camp onsite overnight. Sydney Ferries operate daily from Circular Quay (02 8969 2131). There's a free boat service for campers from Woolwich Dock and Greenwich, and on weekends Birkenhead Point and Elliott St.
The real or exaggerated threat of war has left Sydney with some impressive fortifications, such as the small rocky island in the middle of Sydney Harbour, Fort Denison. Known as Mat-te-wan-ye by the local indigenous population, it was later named Rock Island, then Pinchgut by white settlers and used as a dumping ground for difficult convicts before being turned into a fort in 1857. Today, it still operates as a harbour navigational facility, as well as a museum and café - and hosts one of the two surviving Martello Towers in the Southern Hemisphere. Explore the island on your own or take one of the daily half-hour tours. Matilda Cruisers operate a daily Fort Denison Ferry service every 30-45 minutes from Circular Quay and Darling Harbour. Adult $17; child $10. Fort Denison Heritage Tours operate 10.45am, 12.15pm & 2.30pm Wed-Sun; 12.15pm & 2.30pm Mon & Tue. Adult $27; concs $22; child $17. Bookings can be made through Cadmans Cottage (02 9247 5033).
Named for its shape rather than the grouchy cartilaginous buggers that lurk in its shallow waters, this island was traditionally used as an animal quarantine zone and a naval storage depot, but now its sole purpose is to offer great views of the harbour and both North and South Head. With large grassed areas, a wading beach, gazebo and tables, this is the perfect spot for a family picnic. Ferry departs every 45 mins from Darling Harbour Pier 26 & Circular Quay Wharf 6 daily. Departing every 45mins from 9.30am (Darling Harbour) and from 9.45am (Circular Quay). Adult $17; child $15. (02 9247 5033).
Famous for a cameo in Mission: Impossible II, Bare Island sits beside La Perouse, joined only by footbridge. Built in 1885 to protect the 'back door' of Sydney from attack, it never lived up to its intended purpose, crumbling before it was even completed and (oddly) converted into a retirement home for war veterans. Today it is a museum, with guided tours every Sunday 1.30pm, 2.30pm and 3.30pm. La Perouse Museum, Anzac Pde, La Perouse 2036. (02 9247 5033). Adult $10; concs $8.
Named after the most famously unsuccessful potato farmer in history, Lieutenant Ralph Clark - who threw in the towel after his vegetables were continually pilfered by convicts - this harbour island has unparalleled views of the Opera House and Bridge. Situated off Darling Point, with a maximum capacity of 150 people, it has an abundance of natural shade and shelter for picnics. Access by water taxi or private vessel. Bookings essential to National Parks and Wildlife Services. (02 9247 5033). $7pp landing fee.
Even though it's tiny, open to 100 people at any one time, Rodd is one of Sydney's best picnic destinations. In Iron Cove near Birkenhead Point, it boasts two beautiful colonial-style summer homes dating back to the 1920s and three quaint witch's hat trellis pavilions with long tables and benches. Access via private boat or water taxi only. (02 9247 5033). Bookings essential. $7pp landing fee.
The island has supported naval activities since 1788 and gets its name from its use as a garden, back when it was only 4.6 hectares in size. Today it's 27 hectares, created by reclaiming the land between Potts Point and the island, and the main base for the Navy Fleet on Australia's East Coast. Visitors can access the RAN Heritage Centre on the island, essentially a museum of more than 100 years of navy history. RAN Heritage Centre is open Tue & Thu 10.30am via Sydney Ferry using the Circular Quay to Watsons Bay route. 9.30-3.30pm. Free.
Did you know?
Snapper Island is the smallest island in the harbour and like Cockatoo, is part of the series of drowned knolls along the ridges between the flooded river valleys of the Parramatta and Lane Cove Rivers. There is no public access.