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Step into history at Q Station on Sydney Harbour

I’m feeling the vintage vibe even as I walk into reception. We’ve just left the buzzing streets of Manly behind and made our way to North Head. It’s here that the historic Q Station is found in national park, overlooking Sydney Harbour.

The irony doesn’t escape me: that the first place I’m visiting for an overnight stay, post Sydney’s Covid-19 lockdowns, is what was once Australia’s longest continuously operating quarantine station – operating from around 1832 until 1984. But for guests staying at the 4.5 star accommodation facilities, there’s no sense of being locked in – instead, there’s 30 hectares of national park to explore, located on Aboriginal Car-rang gel / Garangal saltwater country; a sparkling beach; beautiful flora and fauna; heritage buildings; interesting tours; and a fine dining experience to be experienced in the wharf precinct at Boilerhouse Restaurant & Bar.

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Depending on where you’re staying on the property, some guests will be required to leave their car at the reception and be dropped at their accommodation in a shuttle bus. Cars are not practical on some of the smaller roads in the national park, and the wandering wildlife, including echidnas, prefer it that way too.

We’re staying in one of the cottages in Cottage Road that have been recently refurbished. Our digs, cottage S6 (S stands for former ‘staff’ cottage) is a gorgeous three-bedroom beauty that I fall in love with as we pull up in front of its picket fence and red roof. These cottages were once dwellings for staff who worked at the quarantine station. They are high on the hill and deliberately located quite separate from where the quarantined passengers once stayed, closer to the water in first, second and third-class precincts.

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Inside, a full-sized kitchen is brimming with vintage decorations and trinkets, as well as all the mod cons including a dishwasher and coffee machine. A bathroom has been cleverly expanded and converted, making use of an original bathroom, a converted laundry with the old sink, and what was probably once an outhouse toilet. A freestanding claw-foot bath catches my eye – cleverly positioned right in front of the window to take in the harbour views. Later, I sprinkle batch salts into the tub with a vintage teaspoon and take a leisurely soak while a Kookaburra sits outside on the power line.

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Throughout our cottage are nods to the past through the beautiful styling efforts of Jo Neville of Paper Couture, the interpretive curator and resident artist at Q Station. Vintage books are placed above antique fireplaces; vintage suitcases sit atop rustic wardrobes; an old soda syphon and crystal glass sit on top of an old, wooden trolley in a room that would have once been a verandah, but has been converted as a sun room. We have a cup of tea here with the door thrown open as the warming afternoon sun pours in and the Manly ferry chugs past in the distance. A kookaburra and magpie sit on either side of the gate posts, and a cheeky bush turkey starts making its way up the stairs, possibly to pinch my choc-chip biscuit.

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Jo’s intricate paper artworks are present in every room too. We meet Jo and she explains that as so many of the original historical artefacts are too valuable and rare to have on display in the rooms, she is charged with re-interpreting and recreating the feel of the era when the quarantine station was operational – so little brown vases and apocathary jars, vintage medicinal bottles and even pendant lights that resemble industrial-style hospital lights of the past – are features of the rooms. On our kitchen table is a vintage picnic basket filled with some provisions for our stay, including a beautiful loaf of sourdough that is wrapped in greaseproof paper and tied with string. A tiny little bouquet of paper flowers is made from old paper maps. Jo regularly rotates the props throughout Q Station that help to tell the story and elude to the past stories of when the station was operational.

Q Station_katrina reading The Small Woman_vintage travel kat

I could have spent hours in our cottage gazing at the view and immersing myself in a nostalgia but there’s much to explore on site. Most of the activities are located further down hill near the wharf and Quarantine Beach. A shuttle bus runs 24/7 – so there’s always transport available to move guests to and from the wharf area, museum and the Boilerhouse Kitchen & Bar.

We don’t mind walking the walk downhill, taking the many steps of the converted funicular stairway. A funicular railway system was installed between 1912 and 1917 to pull luggage and supplies up the hill from the wharf area. A locomotive was also installed to transport luggage and supplies along the railway from First Class to the larger Third Class precinct. In 2008, the stairway was converted to a set of walking stairs for hotel guests.

New chef Griffith Pamment is heading up the Boilerhouse Kitchen & Bar. Formerly of prominent Sydney restaurants Rockpool, Bills, Sean’s Panorama and most recently Longrain, Griff has transformed the restaurant with a menu featuring his paddock to plate ethos. We try one of his signature dishes: ricotta gnocchi with shimeji mushrooms and truffle – the sauce so good that I can’t help but soak up the excess with my bread. A deliciously tender slow braised beef cheek with soft polenta and chicory shreds effortlessly with my fork. There’s a casual café right on the wharf too overlooking Quarantine Beach; and Jo reveals exciting new plans by Q Station to convert one of the timber staff cottages into G&T rooms – tea rooms that also serve ‘naughtier’ tea and host creative workshops. The aim is to open some time in September. With gin’s long association with maritime history and made from natural botanicals, it seems the perfect fit!

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A ferry chugs past Q Station. Image: Katrina Holden
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Some restaurant guests head off for the ghost tours which, naturally, taken place in the dark. From the 600 ships which offloaded passengers here to be quarantined throughout its 150-year history, some 572 burials were made on site. Many people died alone, segregated from their families due to highly infectious diseases, including a six-year-old boy named Isaac who died on site of scarlet fever, with his parents not permitted to attend his burial.

Other activities for guests to enjoy includes kayaking, bushwalking through national park, cycling, yoga and stopping in at the visitor centre. There’s also a 45-minute history tour that starts on the wharf. Our history tour guide, Jill, is a master at bringing the heritage of the station to life with an upbeat and informed storytelling style.

Jill starts with an Acknowledgement of Country to honour the Aboriginal custodianship of this land with a history that dates back 50,000 years. Nearby, an Aboriginal midden has been found as archaeological evidence of the presence of Aboriginals.

It was Captain Arthur Phillip who wrote back to England that men in this area were of a “very manly disposition” – and the name ‘Manly’ stuck and was given to Manly beach.

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The boiler steamer used to disinfect luggage. Image: Katrina Holden

One of the reasons this site was chosen for quarantine was that it had its own source of drinking water. Further, it is surrounding on three sides by sea and was considered the ideal place for isolation. In 1832, an Act of Quarantine was passed and this land was officially designated as a quarantine zone where people coming into Sydney on ships with any infectious diseases would need to be quarantined for 40 days. The practice of quarantine began in the 14th century when ships arriving into Venice from infected ports were required to sit at anchor for 40 days before offloading on shore. The word quarantine is derived from the Italian words quaranta giorni which means “forty days”.

“There’s a lot of parallels we can draw from periods of history to how are reacting now to Covid-19,” Jill states.

One elderly lady on our history tour, Dorothy, reveals that her father was a passenger on the ship Medic and was quarantined here in 1919.

During the 1930s, people started carving inscriptions into the natural sandstone wall of rocks near the wharf – usually the names of their ships. One carving in Chinese script reveals a history of blatant racial discrimination at the station, where Asians were designated as fourth, sub-standard class.

We visit the inhalation chambers where passengers were required to stand in steam infused with zinc sulfate. We see the large industrial steam ovens where luggage was steamed to kill bacteria and lice. Over in the shower rooms, all passengers had to take a shower in carbolic acid. The tour concludes at the hospital on the hill where we see an original nurse’s uniform and bedding where very sick patients were hospitalised. On occasion, especially during the Spanish Flu of 1918 and 1919, doctors would be too afraid to step inside and would diagnose from looking through the windows.

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After the tour, we alight the funicular stairs (pausing to catch our breath at the top!) and visit the former first-class passenger lounge and dining room. The rooms are decorated with original furniture and cooking equipment, including a large ice chest in the kitchen. 

As we walk back up to our cottage through passages of blooming native yellow wattle and banksia, kids are racing along on scooters, making the most of a lack of cars on the roads. I’m reminded of the historical photos I’ve spotted in the information book in our cottage where some families are pictured playing cricket outside the cabins; others playing on the beach. For those that were healthy, the six weeks spent here wasn’t all bad ­– although undoubtedly, people had very different experiences during quarantine.

Throughout my stay, I’m reminded that Australia has overcome major health crises before. Pain and suffering has forever been an inevitable part of the human experience. At Q Station, we are offered a sensitive window into the past through immersive and interpretive design and visitor experiences. I love the multiple opportunities to learn about the past while enjoying the best that our present has to offer. And if all you want to do on your getaway or staycation is kick back in your cottage or room with a glass and book in hand, did I mention Sydney Harbour happens to turn on a cracking sunset?

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