It is one of the ironies of modern life that we tend to find peace and solitude in places that were once haunted by restless souls. Q Station in Manly is perfectly located to provide what our oversaturated minds are most depraved of these days: the opportunity to kick back in a natural environment, with stunning views, delectable food and an intriguing atmosphere created by history, charming surroundings and passionate people.
Today, Q Station is one of the best hotels in the Sydney area. Located on Manly’s North Head it is in fact more of a retreat than a hotel. Occupying a number of historic buildings and cottages that were once used as Sydney’s Quarantine Station, it is surrounded by a wealth of native bushland, endangered animal species, and some of the best views Sydney has to offer.
It is a place with a colourful past, where many enjoy the natural surroundings and the stunning beauty of the site, but it has also always been a place of human tragedy, where dozens of people died in isolation, far away from friends and family and spiritual consolation.
Following the invitation by Q Station, I spent a night here recently with my husband after longing for the experience for several years. Let me share with you my impressions.
A Site Steeped in History
It could be paradise on earth, and for many it has been so over the course of 150 years. But for others the site would be their final destination after a long and perilous journey crossing the seven seas from Great Britain and other countries to Australia. 13.000 people were detained here from 1833 until as recently as 1984 in an effort to keep infectious diseases at bay and to protect the young colony from hardly understood silent killers such as smallpox, typhus, cholera, the bubonic plaque, the Spanish Flu and tuberculosis.
For most passengers arriving to Australia on a ship where disease had been reported, a several week-long stay at Quarantine Station was an unwanted experience ordered by the authorities that stopped them in their tracks right before they were due to start their new life in Australia. Whole families have been detained here, some of them welcoming the peaceful surroundings, the aquamarine waters and the sheltered beaches, the exotic bush environment. Many lamented the boredom they encountered while waiting for time to tick away slowly. While food, medical care and accommodation were provided, entertainment was not part of the provisions by the Australian government.
Others were less lucky. There are 572 reported deaths at Quarantine Station, most of them tortured souls that died in loneliness and agony, with no familiar faces surrounding them, no pastor helping them transition to the other side peacefully. They were wrapped in linen and carried up the steep sandstone cliffs to one of the three cemeteries on site, quickly buried in darkness and without anyone attending. Their relatives in Sydney would hear from their fate through the local newspaper where daily updates on each detainee was shared publicly.
Many migrants came to Sydney with a suitcase full of hope. Some left without their children, without a father, without a mother.
A One Of A Kind Location Perfect For a Staycation
To reach Q Station, you can either drive here by car, or you can take the public ferry which will stop at the wharf on the bottom of the site in the Wharf Precinct. When I arrive at Q Station, however, it is on a public bus from Manly. The quick and relaxing trip on the 135 from Manly Wharf does the trick of slowly preparing me for the journey ahead, as the houses to both sides of the road become less and less frequent, the traffic trickles out, the passengers disembark one by one. In the end I am the last bus passenger at the final stop, earning curious glances from the driver who I believe hardly ever sees anyone get off at this final stop of the route.
At the reception I am warmly welcomed. I have missed the afternoon activities that had been organised for my group, but I am welcomed to join the others later over canapés and drinks at the guest lounge. I notice a historic wooden key board on one of the walls of the reception house, an apt reminder of the importance of keeping people separated in certain areas of the Quarantine Station. I quickly reflect about keys and the power they have over people, before I am given an area map by the reception staff.
Q Station is much bigger than I first thought. It occupies a huge 30 hectare area from the harbour foreshore to North Head Road, with dozens of buildings between them. There are functional buildings such as the former hospital and the isolation precinct, as well as conference rooms, former staff cottages, a powerhouse, a morgue and a museum, plus many more houses for guest accommodation. For better orientation, the area is subdivided in precincts. Most guest rooms can be found in the former First Class Precinct, but there is also the Third Class Precinct and a Second Class Precint – class segregation was truly alive in the 19th century.
My accommodation is in the former Isolation Precinct, quite close to the Wharf Precinct and a good 10 minutes’ walk from the reception house. I am offered a courtesy shuttle bus which runs non-stop to connect guest accommodations with restaurants and other facilities, but I prefer the walk among the tall wattles and gum trees instead. There is no better way to get to know an area than by foot as it fully engages all my senses, and I can quickly feel how each step is shaking off that annoying big city feel.
It is hard to believe that Q Station is located in Australia’s most urbanised city. The contrast couldn’t be starker. Due to the isolated location, there is a refreshing biological diversity found here with a number of endangered species inhibiting one of the last undeveloped pockets in the city, for example bandicoots, penguins and echidnas, to name just a few. As I am finding my way down to the wharf, I am walking past a variety of natural landscapes, from rainforest to heath to rocky outcrops that give way to some of the best views of Sydney Harbour.
A Heritage-Listed Site, Well Preserved and Easy to Explore
Following the way down to the water, past heritage-listed cottages clad in weatherboard and surrounded by wooden fences, I eventually arrive at the historic wharf. Carefully restored, this wharf used to be the place for the first steps on solid ground for many people that were hoping to start a new life in the Australian colonies. There is hardly a more significant place to be found in all of Sydney.
Today the small museum housed in the Luggage Store tells visitors and guests the site’s illustrious past. There are piles of old luggage stored here but also tombstones from the three cemeteries, historical clothes from the previous century, everyday objects as well as medical equipment.
Even if you are not staying at the hotel, this little museum is a great place to learn more about the migration history of Australia, and admission is even free.
On the other side of the wharf there is one of the draw cards of Q Station: Quarantine Beach. A lovely sheltered sandy beach which is perfect if you want to escape the crowds and start your very own exploration by kayak or paddle board. On the day I visit, however, the weather is not so forgiving, and a beach session is out question.
My attention is taken away from the beach by a towering sandstone wall right by the Luggage Store Room. Inscriptions can be found here, quite a few of them actually. Some of them masterly perfected, others raw and unfinished. There are names of ships, of crew members, of detainees. Years have been carved into the soft stone, pictograms, Chinese symbols. They tell stories of the passengers that arrived here after their long journeys, they are testament of the fates that they would meet here, driven to boredom by isolation. There are 1,500 of such inscriptions carved into the soft Hawkesbury River sandstone all over the former Quarantine Station site, and Q Station management is committed in preserving these very exposed witnesses of the past for future generations.
The Accommodation – Modern with a Historic Twist
With a detour through the former Hospital Precinct I finally climb the last steps that lead to the Isolation Precinct, with the barb wire fence gate invitingly opened in what is a gentle nod to the dramatic past of this side. The guest rooms here are situated in individual cottages that are huddled together in a complex that is connected via covered walkways. Not sure what to expect, I unlock the historic double-winged glass door to my room. To my surprise it is a modern hotel room that welcomes me behind the historic facade, bright and airy, with comfortable furniture and modern appliances.
Yet, the room is still well connected to its past. The suite has four rooms altogether as well as an annexed modern bathroom. In a semicircular way you need to walk from the bed past the lounge room (where you first find the entrance to your room), through a small kitchen to a small room with wash basin. There are two more entrances to the suite, both of them locked, one in the room with the washbasin, the other one in the kitchen.
But the quirkiness doesn’t end here. While everything else in the suite is equipped with modern furnishing, the kitchen boasts some amazing old kitchen benches and even an old cast-iron stove. Not sure if intended, but the linoleum floor in this area brings in that hospital feeling that you would expect from a Quarantine Station, taking a bit away from the cosiness experienced in the bedroom and the lounge room.
But I am not just here to sleep. There are other things to experience at Q Station as well.
Sunset Canapés and Drinks with a View
Just a couple of steps from my accommodation I join the group of fellow bloggers at the guest lounge for drinks and canapés. It is one of the best spots to see the Sydney sunset which quickly starts to paint the sky in pinkish and orange hues. What a fantastic place this must be to see the Sydney Fireworks or the Sydney to Hobart Yacht race on Boxing Day!
Canapés are provided by Q Station’s new Executive Chef Matt Kemp, a first glimpse of what is yet to come for our dinner at Boilerhouse Harbourside Restaurant later in the evening. If these little treats are anything to go by, then all my culinary wishes would be fulfilled easily over the course of the evening. With drinks in hand we enjoy the spectacular show, with nothing being more effective in letting me forget that I am in Sydney at all, just a couple of kilometres from my normal life in my suburban home.
With a sprinkle of romance added, Q Station proves this very moment that there is no easier way to escape the everyday treadmill than by simply packing a small overnight bag and staying right in the city in these natural surroundings. If there are any restless souls haunting this area, they will find no friend in mine as I am slowly gliding over into a state of pure relaxation and bliss.
Dinner at Boilerhouse Harbourside Restaurant
The courtesy bus takes us down to the wharf area for dinner at the Boilerhouse Restaurant. True to the hotel’s efforts to preserve as much as possible of the heritage-listed site while at the same time offering modern first-class facilities, Boilerhouse Restaurant is located in the former powerhouse which was used to power the cleansing facilities next door. A solid brick building with enormous ceiling height, it is now cleverly converted into a restaurant and kitchen, with the dining area set on a mezzanine level from which you have beautiful beach views.
Q Station is spoiling us rotten at the restaurant. Our five-course dinner consists of two entrees, one main and two desserts, all carefully prepared using some really exciting ingredients. Three different international wines are served as well, each expertly paired for the task at hand.
We start with salmon from Huon Valley, Tasmania, just a small bite which is accompanied by avocado cream, pickled onion and a black ink cracker.
Then we move to scallops, served with a cream of butternut squash and delicate sticks of rhubarb. Toasted seeds add some interesting crunch to the dish.
Our main is just wonderful: A juicy Milly Hill Lamb Rump is making even me happy, even though I would never voluntarily select lamb from a menu. There is a bit of Romansco Sauce to the side, and the lamb is served with a chickpea croquette which works very well with the juicy red meat. For some vegetable goodness, there are some clean green asparagus spears on the plate as well.
Lastly, the two desserts are just perfect to finish up our excellent fine-dining experience under Matt Kemp’s supervision. There is a blood orange sorbet with white chocolate that is simply to die for, and then one of my most favourite desserts of all time, Eton Mess.
After this delicious meal we feel well prepared for the next part of our stay at Q Station: The Ghost Tour.
We Meet the Restless Souls of Q Station, Or Do We Really?
After dinner we assemble around our guide to join one of Q Station’s famous ghost tours. It is a bespoke tour, slightly shorter than the tours that are normally conducted, but no less scary.
While we are visiting the historic buildings that are scattered around the site with no more than just flickering lanterns in our hands, we hear about the stories of individuals that have stayed at the Quarantine Station at some time during its tumultuous past. The stories are haunting and sad and it is easy to relate to the fate of detainees and staff who left this world unprepared and way too early.
We visit the acid showers, normally just one of the sanitary facilities that visitors can view during daytime hours. Now, at night, the showers with the many hidden angles and spooky plumbing system turn into the setting of some unimaginable horrors. Can you feel the hand of a restless soul softly brush your hair? Is this almost unnoticeable breeze maybe the touch of a playful ghost?
We don’t know the answer to that, but as the evening progresses we are more and more captured by the compelling stories of our guide, the images he creates in our heads become more plausible with every passing second. We can almost feel the presence of something otherworldly in the shadows. Just opening a wardrobe door becomes a dare that most of us are not ready to accept.
Shadows on verandahs in the hospital spook us, the nearing thunder and lighting add to the eerie atmosphere.
It is in this moment, as we are standing with lanterns only in this very isolated spot on Sydney Harbour, that I have been completely taken over by the aura and the unique setting of Q Station. I might just be a couple of kilometres from home, but home couldn’t be further away in this moment even if it was on the other side of the world.
Q Station Retreat – the easiest way to get away from it all. A staycation that will help you reset your mind and get some well deserved rest and relaxation right in the heart of Sydney.
To book accommodation at Q Station, please use the following link. (this is an affiliate link with Booking.com, one of the most reputable online hotel booking sites. If you use the link provided I will receive a small commission which will in turn support this blog. Many thanks.)
Q Station also conducts regular history and ghost tours. Please get in touch with the hotel directly to book. You don’t need to be a guest for the night to participate in these tours. Combine this with a day by the beach or lunch at one of the restaurants on site for a great day out with the whole family.
To get to Q Station, arrive by car and park near the reception – the courtesy shuttle bus will take you to your accommodation of any of the facilities such as restaurants or the beach. Alternatively, use bus 135 from Manly or the Eco Hopper ferry from Darling Harbour, Circular Quay, Watsons Bay or Manly.
Looking for more ideas on things to do in Sydney? Check out our travel guide!