Garden Island’s European history goes right back to the arrival of the First Fleet (European settlement) into Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788. The island was set aside as a vegetable garden (hence its name) to grow food, initially for the crew of ships anchored in the Harbour.
In the 1820s sandstone fortifications (small parts of which remain) were built here as part of a number of defences built to protect Sydney from a feared Russian attack, which never eventuated. By 1855 the (British) Royal Navy had begun berthing ships at the island so beginning its (and its successor’s – the Royal Australian Navy’s) long association with the island – though arguably this association dates back to 1788 when the island was essentially a navy garden.
While still called Garden Island and referred to as an island, the island ceased to be an island in the 1940s when the strait separating it from the mainland was filled in. That said, from the tourist’s perspective (unless you are on a bus tour which I will assume you are not), it might as well still be an island as your only means of access is via ferry, landing at the Garden Island Wharf on the northern tip of the former island – the Public Access Prescient. This is because the majority of the island is out of bounds to the visitor as it remains an active naval base.
While HM Queen Elizabeth II, a couple of US Presidents and now I have visited the island not many tourists visit it, albeit a simple 5 min ferry ride from Circular Quay. This is a great shame and I strongly encourage you to jump on a ferry and visit this most beautiful Harbour-side location. While there are top class views from the foreshore area the views from the roof of the former signal station, which once controlled the movement of naval vessels into and out of the Harbour, at the top of the small hill are some of the best you will find across Sydney Harbour and back to the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, Fort Denison, and the city skyline. I should point out that once you leave the foreshore area you will need to be able to negotiate steps and slightly uneven paths.
Best of all, while you will probably encounter a small number of visitors, there will certainly be no crowds here making it a lovely tranquil escape from the city centre. (Note: I visited mid-week – weekends will, without doubt, be a lot busier) Either take a picnic with you or buy something from the reasonably priced and reasonably good Salthorse Café located within the RAN Heritage Centre.
In addition to the great views, picnic area and nice paths through tended gardens (of the flower and plant variety these days) there are a number of other things of interest within the Public Access Prescient area:-
*The excellent RAN Heritage Centre – This naval museum, which focuses on the history of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) – established post Federation in 1901, is excellent and well worth a visit – it would probably be your primary motive for coming to Garden Island.
*On the foreshore between the wharf and the RAN Heritage Centre, you will find a series of maritime memorials including those to Australia’s first two submarines, both sadly lost (WWI) within a year of their arrival into Australia.
*Australia’s first European graffiti dating right back to 1788.
*A memorial to Japanese midget submariners lost in a WWII attack on Sydney.
*What is claimed to be Australia’s first grass tennis courts dating back to 1888 (not open to public use). You will note from my attached photo that they are currently being refurbished – June 2016.
While you may be able to sight some naval vessels on your right as you approach the island from Circular Quay and perhaps also from the wharf, a better viewing location is Wooloomooloo’s Finger Wharf should there be any vessels moored at Garden Island’s Cowper Wharf. Note that you cannot pass through the naval base to Wooloomooloo.
Getting to Garden Island/ RAN Heritage Centre
As noted above, Garden Island is an active naval base and public access is only permitted to the Garden Island Public Access Precinct on the north tip of the island. Unless you are on a bus tour, access is only permitted via Sydney Ferries using the Circular Quay to Watson’s Bay route. Ferries stop at the Garden Island Wharf during RAN Heritage Centre opening hours only and you must leave the island by the last ferry each day (around 4pm). The RAN Heritage Centre is a short walk from the wharf.
Museum Opening Hours
9:30am to 3:30pm daily except for New Years Day, Australia Day, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Years Eve.
Address: Garden Island
Directions: Access via the Garden Island Wharf only