Cockatoo Island family holiday: Australia's Alcatraz

Here's a pop quiz.

This place is an island which once housed a jail. To escape, prisoners had to swim through shark-infested waters. Nowadays, it's a tourist attraction.

Oh, and it's in Australia.

If you want to take the kids to Alcatraz, without paying for an international flight, go to Cockatoo Island, a short ferry ride from Sydney's Circular Quay.

We arrive at sunset, the blood-red hue casting a ghoulish glow over the convict buildings.

Smiling staff hand the kids a map and activity book, pointing to clues around the island.

I'm not a fan of audio guides – most are so boring you want to do a Van Gogh and slice your ears off – but this one's entertaining.

Apparently the bushranger, Captain Thunderbolt, slipped away from his work gang, hiding for two days before swimming to the mainland.

This is no mean feat: the island is only one-and-a-half-kilometres in circumference, with surrounding waters full of bull sharks.


In the late 1800s, the prisoners were moved to Darlinghurst Gaol, so the spooky sandstone buildings became a reformatory for wayward youth.

I use the term "reformatory" loosely.

Much to Grace's horror, the girls were deemed beyond rehabilitation, because they were – well – girls.

Greater hopes were held for the boys, many of who were sent to work on naval vessels.

All of this comes in handy, as we settle in to our tents.

We threaten the kids with lashings for dinner, and gruel for breakfast, if they make noise during the night.

The only noises we make are deep sighs as we sink into comfy camp beds, complete with bedding, fluffy towels and toiletries.

Yep, it's glamping. And it's designed for families.

There's a communal tent in the middle with a table, chairs and lanterns, and separate bedroom tents at either end.

No need to threaten the kids after all: we won't hear them.

Clean toilets and hot showers are a couple of minutes' walk away, near a communal barbecue area.

Feel free to bring your own food. But we decide to wander down to the Island Bar, which serves fresh thin-crust pizzas. 

Before going to bed, I try to freak the kids by blowing up two fluorescent green aliens outside their "bedroom" door.

"Come out here kids, to see the stars!" I scream, dementedly.

Cue award-winning eye rolling: "Mum. That is so lame."

Our ghost stories by the campfire are equally uninspiring, but the marshmallows go down a treat.

After a blissful sleep, we're woken by wake from the ferries, forging a path through clear blue waters.

Our breakfast pack, with cereals, milk, eggs and bacon, also contains hard, but biodegradable, cups, plates, bowls and cutlery. 

The kids are tired after touring the remnants of the shipyards, so we settle in for a game of giant chess.

I don't know whether your kids are competitive. Ours play to the death. 

(OK. Grace and Jason came from behind to win. I don't want to talk about it.)

If playing chess like the characters from Game of Thrones isn't your thing, you could have a hit of tennis, paddle a kayak, or shoot hoops on the basketball courts. 

It's all here, at Australia's Alcatraz.

Tracey Spicer and family stayed on Cockatoo Island courtesy on the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust.