An island escape in a well-planned hotel proves the perfect soul recharge for Carolyn Beasley
Walking into the hotel room, there's an immediate sense of calm, and it's very welcome. After all, it's been a crazy year and, like many people, I'm feeling a little frazzled.
Spacious and light-filled, the suite's serene atmosphere is created by natural timbers, woven jute rugs, and a subdued colour palette. At the far end of the room, an over-sized glass sliding door has been left ajar, and sheer curtains are ruffling, calling me. Dreamily, I drift towards the veranda, tension draining from my shoulders.
Outside, nature erupts in dazzling colour. Sunlight illuminates the blue and turquoise of the Indian Ocean, tea trees are adorned with shades of green, and colourful boats bob in the bay. Perhaps this was the intention? A soothing interior to quiet the senses, while outside, nature waits to reinvigorate.
I'm on Rottnest Island, just a 30-minute ferry ride from the Perth suburb of Fremantle in Western Australia, a magic place to slow down for a few days. Tourists are drawn here by natural experiences, tootling around on bikes, sightseeing by bus, and swimming at deserted beaches. And then there's the quokkas, the gorgeous marsupials that spawned an Instagram craze of furry selfies.
While most accommodation here is fairly basic, Samphire Rottnest opened late in 2020 with 80 rooms on the beachfront at Thomson Bay, catering to those seeking something more upmarket. My room is one of 16 beachfront rooms, an upstairs super-king suite. A private outdoor rain shower adjoins my bathroom, and wooden shutters divide the bathroom from the bedroom.
I'd been shown to my room by my guest experiences co-ordinator, Ellen Mantle, who felt like an old friend. We'd chatted on the phone prior to my arrival, Ellen offering to make bookings for my island activities. It's a handy service afforded to those in the beachfront suites. I'd accepted her offer, but more on that later.
In keeping with the ethos of Western Australia, Rottnest Island (or "Rotto" in local speak) is steadfastly laid-back. It's a place where you'll never be underdressed in jandals, (obviously they're "thongs" here), and you can happily go shopping in togs (bathers). Many locals wax lyrical about the simple holidays they had here as kids, and woe betide anyone who messes up that vibe. The island is valued by the Government too, with its very own legislation protecting its natural and heritage values.
When developing Samphire, balancing these factors took some juggling by local family company the Prendiville Group. It's a challenge not lost on the architecture firm Christou, according to managing director James Christou.
"The brief was all about 'barefoot', that's one of the first words that they (the Prendiville Group) used," Christou says, as he describes the imperative of preserving that Rotto feeling.
An understanding of the prevailing conditions informed the hotel's layout, with the courtyards and pool area oriented to provide shelter from the winds. Similarly, the hotel cleverly minimises energy used for cooling and heating. In winter, the dark concrete floors absorb the heat as it slopes in through the windows, while in summer, the rooms are naturally shaded and cool.
The architects also sought to make the building acceptable to all users of Rottnest.
"Basically, there is no back to this building," Christou says. All rooms have balconies to the streetscape, pool or waterfront. "Despite these buildings mostly having two levels, they are in keeping with the other buildings as you walk along Thomson Bay. You walk in front of terraces or courtyards, so we've replicated that with the terraces or the balconies that we've created. It's really capturing a lot of the elements of a lot of the buildings in Rottnest."
Constructing on an island meant everything needed to arrive by barge and be lightweight. Instead of steel, the majority of the wall frames are timber, and the roof utilises a light panelised system that arrived in large components.
If this project wasn't challenging enough, then came Covid-19. On top of social distancing and shutdowns associated with the pandemic, Rottnest was used by the Government as a quarantine station for returned international travellers. And then a barge broke down.
"It's one of our most challenging projects, and we've done a lot of waterfront before," Christou laughs. "It's only 20 kilometres away, but it might as well be 3000."
Despite the difficulties, the hotel is up and running, with solid bookings. In fact, I'm relieved that Ellen has booked me into the restaurant Lontara as it's the hottest place to eat on Rottnest.
I've arrived early, keen to first try out Samphire's own beach club, complete with whimsical umbrellas in the sand. As the sunset paints the sky, I sip a Lontara Smash, a local gin cocktail served in a cut crystal glass rimmed with chilli salt. Around me, I see Samphire's barefoot vibe in practice. While some patrons are dressed in restaurant resort wear, others are in wet togs with dripping hair. It all seems perfectly natural here, and I sink a little lower in my 50s-inspired timber chair.
Crossing the deck, I'm shown to my al-fresco table in Lontara. Scottish-born chef Will Meyrick of Bali restaurants Sarong, Mama San and Billy Ho heads up the kitchen and imbues colourful Southeast Asian flavours into the freshest of local produce. First, I try the Rottnest Island scallops, served on the half-shell with Thai basil, caramelised minced duck and native finger limes. Next, I'm diving into the whole spangled emperor deep-fried in tiny morsels. It's sweet, sour and delectably spicy.
The next morning, I'm embarking on my pre-booked activities, joining a highbrow fishing vessel with Rottnest Cruises for its wild seafood experience. Out on the water, guests participate in pulling up traps containing western rock lobsters. After assisting the crew to measure them, there's time for snorkelling a pristine bay, before our onboard lunch of barbecued lobsters and other seafood delicacies with local wines.
My next booking is a waterbike tour with Aquaplay. These well-designed pedal-craft are easy to steer and streamlined, and we follow our guide around rocky cliffs, listening to stories of Rottnest. We cruise silently through the reefs, and our elevated perspective lets us see through the aquamarine water to the fish, corals and swaying algae below.
My final booking is for wheels of my own, and I collect my e-bike and snorkelling equipment. Tackling the 12km journey to the furthest part of the island, West End, I'm grateful for the lazy option, the pedal-assist motor helping me up the hills into a headwind. Popping in to see the resident colony of New Zealand fur seals, I see two seals gliding in circles, each with a fin in the air. The volunteer guide stationed here says they're cooling their blood, but I prefer to think they're waving at me.
They're not the only friendly wildlife here. Adorable fluffy quokkas are found all over the island, with those in the settlement being used to humans. It's bad for their health to be fed or touched, and I find it therapeutic to just sit and watch them. A mum and baby quokka forage close to me, the baby clutching a leaf in her tiny paw, which she intermittently munches, contentedly.
I recall they've been termed the "world's happiest animal" and why wouldn't they be? They live in paradise, on a chilled-out island, where life's usual stresses get overtaken by the wonder of nature. As I watch them, I smile. That happiness is contagious.
Samphire Rottnest has a variety of room levels, from the Beach Lane King Suite from A$345/night for two, to the Beachfront Signature Super-King Suite with rain shower, A$895/night for two.
Rottnest Cruises - Wild Seafood Cruise: rottnestcruises.com from A$219
Aquaplay - Aquabike Tours: aquaplayrottnest.com.au from A$60
Pedal and Flipper - e-bike hire: rottnestisland.com/see-and-do/island-activities/Pedal-and-Flipper from A$70
For more information on Rottnest Island, visit rottnestisland.com
Please check the latest border restrictions in each state and territory before travelling. For more information visit australia.com