From the very first years of the British colony, Watsons Bay, South Head and Camp Cove provided a favourite area for escape from Sydney town, by water or road, to enjoy the vistas of ocean and harbour. Facilities gradually developed to service and attract visitors.
Travel by boat was the easiest access, though the staff of the Lookout at South Head also used a rough foot track to Sydney Town. In 1803, a track was cleared 15 feet wide by a contract for £100 to Surgeon John Harris. This proved an unsatisfactory construction, possible for horses but difficult and dangerous for carriages.
Governor Macquarie's development of the city led to a new link from Sydney following the route of today's Old South Head Road. The major work was carried out in 1811 by soldiers of the 73rd Regiment, and allowed access to reach arriving vessels moored in Watsons Bay while awaiting a berth in Sydney Harbour.
A major role of the new road was recreation, a dramatic contrast to the business like role of the roads leading from Sydney to the challenging interior.
By August 1812 it could be reported:
'the new road to South Head, so far as it is now carried, presents to the inhabitants of the Town a beautiful avenue of recreation, either as a pleasure ride or promenade, that attracts the wonder of the meditating passenger'
By 1819-20 it had again become preferable to visit South Head by water because of the poor condition of the road and major repairs were undertaken, with complaints and occasional repairs again in successive decades. Potholes were not the only threat to weekend travellers as bushrangers also threatened South Head Road.
A second road near the harbour - later to be defined as New South Head Road – was developed in the 1830s. The two roads met near the Macquarie Lighthouse and terminated at the Signal Station so that visitors by land had to take a rough track down to Watsons Bay, until around 1854 when the road was extended down to the ferry and the newly subdivided land.
Also from 1854, the first regular ferry service (twice daily) was announced by the Sydney and Melbourne Steam Packet Company, which was by then the owner of the former Laing's grant, and the ferries docked at Victoria Wharf adjacent to this land. It reverted to an irregular and excursion timetable but from 1876 a regular ferry service operated to Watsons Bay and a new wharf was built in the present location by 1881. The South Shore Steam Ferry Company (and its successor Sydney Ferries Ltd) developed a full ferry service serving both visitors and commuters (which included school children) until 1933. Apart from excursion ferries it was not until the 1970s that regular ferries returned to Watsons Bay. A major tragedy struck in 1927 when the ferry Greycliffe was struck by the ocean liner Tahiti while on the way to Watsons Bay; over half the 40 fatalities were residents from or near Watsons Bay.
Ferry transport widened the range of citizens who could take an excursion to the area, and stimulated the growth of facilities for visitors. With the arrival of the ferry came the opening of the Marine Hotel (including its zoo) and its successors. Back on Military Road the Gap Hotel opened by the early 1860s and around 1886 the Palace Hotel (today a residential hotel and popular bar) opened near the ferry wharf. Next door a Tea Room on Marine Parade opened around 1885 (with boat hire for fishermen); it transformed into the Ozone Tea Rooms in 1908, and then became Doyle's restaurant, an iconic Sydney landmark. In 1904 the Marinato family opened a refreshment room on the wharf itself, leased for 2/6 (25c) a week, and this expanded until, in 1968 the Doyle family bought it. A new Gap Tavern operated from 1961 to 1997.
From 1903 the tram line brought visitors as far as the Signal Station in 1903 where visitors would find the Everitt's Signal Dining Rooms and the Grand Pacific Hotel. This required a long walk down to Watsons Bay until in 1909 the tramways extended to Military Road just between the Gap and Robertson Park, with a cutting through Gap Park. The trams were discontinued in 1960 and were replaced by buses.
While many visitors swam at Camp Cove, swimming facilities have existed for over a century. Local men defined the rock cut 'bogey hole' west of Green Point in the 1880s and in 1895 the new Vaucluse Council agreed to improve it. But in 1905 new baths were built with a diving tower and enclosed with shark nets on Watsons Bay beach itself and in 1927 these too were completely rebuilt, with a pool for racing and water polo added around 1963.
Published with thanks to the Dictionary of Sydney