A tour of Australia's most misunderstood tourist town

Home to unspoilt beaches, rare wildlife and scenic dining spots, Rockingham is a suburb with world-class attributes

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It is widely derided as Perth's worst neighbourhood, yet in reality, Rockingham is one of the city’s best attractions due to its rare wildlife and pristine beaches. About 47 kilometres south of downtown Perth, the capital of Western Australia, Rockingham is a suburb with world-class attributes.

It has 35km of magnificent beaches, a scenic waterfront dining precinct, a wild peninsula with great hiking trails and a marine park where tourists can dive with dolphins, meet the world's smallest penguins and soon swim alongside seals.

Rockingham is home to a seal colony. Photo: Ronan O'Connell

Currently, people cannot go within 50 metres of the seals, which are a protected species. But in the coming months, tourists will be able to do supervised dives with seals in Rockingham’s Shoalwater Islands Marine Park, where they can also see endangered Australian sea lions.

Visitors won’t need to worry about crowds. Few people from Perth go to Rockingham, which is incorrectly assumed to be rundown and dangerous by many. So poor is Rockingham’s reputation that a controversy was sparked when I recently included it on an Ultimate Western Australia itinerary for Lonely Planet.

Perth news websites and television stations ran stories about this apparent “shock” development, and I was asked to do two radio interviews with Australia’s State media outlet, ABC. Both times, I was grilled about why I’d picked Rockingham by the bemused hosts, one of whom read out emails from incredulous listeners and the other of whom had never heard of Shoalwater.

A dining precinct looks out over the beach in Rockingham. Photo: Ronan O'Connell

That surprised me, because I believe Shoalwater is Perth’s most distinctive tourist attraction. There are very few metropolitan locations in the world where tourists can swim with dolphins, seals and penguins in the wild. I’m in a unique position to judge Rockingham as I’ve lived there for years, but have also visited 60-plus countries as a travel journalist. So I have a critical eye for tourist destinations, rather than being blinded by bias.

Because most Perth residents avoid Rockingham, they don’t realise it’s actually safe, clean, modern, easily accessible by train, and terrifically unspoilt due to the lack of development along its coastline. This benefits tourists, as it means Rockingham is never busy, even in Australia’s summer months, from December to February. The best time to visit is between October and May, which avoids the area’s stormy winter and coincides with the opening season of Penguin Island.

Tourists have several ways to reach this small, beach-ringed island, only 800 metres from the mainland. They can catch the hourly ferry between 9am and 4pm, hire a kayak and paddle over, or walk across a sandbar at low tide. Along the way, they traverse the crystalline waters of Shoalwater Islands Marine Park, sheltered in a bay fringed by coral reefs.

The bay in Shoalwater Islands Marine Park remains wonderfully placid most of the day. Photo: Ronan O'Connell

That natural barrier ensures the bay remains wonderfully placid most of the day, making it perfect for swimming, snorkelling and stand-up paddle boarding. It’s also a key reason Shoalwater is home to so many rare marine animals. Three times a day, visitors can attend Penguin Island Discovery Centre to watch little penguins (Eudyptula minor) swim in its pool and get fed by park rangers, who explain the behaviours and biology of this species.

The island is home to about 1,000 of these penguins, which are only 40cm tall and 1kg in weight, on average. When they’re not putting on a show for visitors, they can be seen gliding around Shoalwater Bay, or diving into the darker seas east of the island to devour pilchards.

Those deeper waters are also home to a seal colony. While Rockingham skies are constantly busy with pelicans, eagles, cormorants and ospreys, which appreciate Penguin Island’s absence of predators, its seals only reveal themselves occasionally.

This is why tourists are advised to join tours run by Perth Wildlife Encounters. They have one-hour dolphin, seal and sea lion cruises (Dh150 per person), six-hour swimming with dolphin experiences (Dh620), and six-hour sea kayaking tours of Shoalwater (Dh470).

Rockingham can also be enjoyed without venturing out into the ocean. Shoalwater Bay is bordered to its north by Point Peron, a sliver of serene, green wilderness which feels remote. Hiking trails pierce its lush bushland, and hug the edge of sea cliffs, leading to several majestic beaches, each flanked by reefs teeming with fish.

These sandy hideaways are spectacular picnic locations. Stock up on snacks and drinks at the large Rockingham Centre, which has more than 140 shops and supermarkets. Or go to one of the local butchers, buy a haul of Western Australia’s renowned beef, lobsters and prawns, and head to any of the dozen or so beachfront parks in Rockingham to cook a feast on the free public barbecue.

Rockingham foreshore is tailor-made for this. Stretching along a calm, white sand beach for more than 2km, this public park is lined by wide grassy lawns, several children’s playgrounds and many roofed tables and benches for dining.

Or you can leave the cooking to the professionals and watch boats bob in the ocean from one of the restaurants and cafes at the southern end of that park. This recently redeveloped area also has a boardwalk, grassed amphitheatre and a jetty that’s popular for fishing. It all sounds pretty idyllic, doesn’t it? So if you like your ghettos decorated by pretty parks, populated by rare marine life and brimming with unique tourist activities, Rockingham is the so-called slum for you.

Updated: November 30, 2022, 5:22 PM