Victoria's Gippsland Lakes is a haven for those who enjoy exploring waterways at their own pace and in their own time - and all this awaits our next Six of the Best! winner. By Liliana Engelhardt. Photography: Brendan Strauch
Nearly 400 square kilometres of inland waterways and a network of lagoons and lakes fed by several of East Gippsland's major rivers, including the Mitchell, Nicholson and Tambo, make up an area that's as beautiful as it is serene: Gippsland Lakes in Victoria's south-eastern Gippsland region. A natural abundance of canals and inlets offer safe and sheltered moorings, and there's plenty of elbow-room for all the cruisers, windsurfers, anglers, PWC users and water skiers who flock here in their spare time.
Together with the Club Marine team plus some of our kids and partners, I ventured off one sunny morning to find out for myself why so many people leave the Lakes already planning their return.
I was promised a tranquil weekend with nothing to do but sit on deck and watch the water slip by as we cruised about. I had visions of enjoying the sun above, the water below and not much else for a few days, interrupted only by the waft of barbecued food at sunset and the clink of glasses as we'd celebrate another day of doing ... well, not much.
So off we went, on a leisurely three-hour drive eastwards from Melbourne to Paynesville. Just before the kids ran out of batteries on their gadgets and faced extinction by boredom on the back seat of the car, we pulled up at the Bulls Cruisers marina.
Whether you bring your own boat or charter one when you get there, the Lakes offer excellent cruising and yachting conditions year round. Our friends at Bulls Cruisers supplied two vessels for the weekend - a 36ft Fairway flybridge cruiser and a 36ft Tomcat cruiser catamaran.
Operating out of Paynesville, Bulls Cruisers is the oldest and most experienced self-drive charter operator on the Gippsland Lakes. Servicing holiday-makers and locals alike, Bulls provides a fleet of 14 self-drive cruisers and yachts, several day boats plus various kayaks. For those who'd like some extra tuition or prefer someone else to navigate the tricky bits, a skipper can be hired at an hourly rate. The boats are all under Marine Safety Victoria Hire Drive Survey, so a boat licence isn't required. And, as I was soon to discover for myself, you don't need any experience at all driving a large boat to quickly feel at home behind the wheel and safely navigate even narrow and shallow passages.
The recent change in ownership at Bulls Cruisers sees the new owner, Peter Blainey continuing on with the Bulls' tradition of family holidays and giving customers a truly magical holiday escape, with the level of quality and integrity they've become accustomed to at Bulls over the past decades.
Bull's fully-equipped overnighters are able to accommodate from four to 11 people and come with all the essentials guests need to enjoy their stay on the boat, including a fully-equipped galley, barbecue, flat-screen TV and DVD/CD player.
The Tomcat is a 36ft catamaran with twin diesel engines, a large swim platform, large cockpit area with barbecue and a flybridge roomy enough to accommodate a whole bunch of teenagers. It sleeps up to seven people comfortably, and services them nicely with a well-proportioned saloon and fully-equipped galley with full-sized fridge. Our 36ft Fairway cruiser's 3.6m wasn't quite as wide as the Tomcat's 5m beam, but we had plenty of room, nonetheless. The Fairway offers sleeping space for five (or six at a pinch) and has enough space in the saloon, cockpit area and up on the flybridge for everyone. The rates for either vessel start at $1420 for two nights from May to September, and $1880 for the rest of the year.
After a thorough briefing on everything we needed to know about safety, navigation and other practical things like avoiding sandbanks and snags, the Bulls Cruisers team sent us on our way.
I expected to have to jostle for position with dozens of other boaties as we left Paynesville and headed towards the tranquil cove at Duck Arm, but we had the place pretty much to ourselves. And as we made fast for the first night in the peaceful U-shaped cove surrounded by untouched tree-covered hills, I marvelled at how easy it was to simply run up on the sand, tie a few lines and enjoy the moment.
EASY DOES IT
So, as the ripples settled on the water and the birds chirped their evening songs, all there was left for us to do was fire up the barbecue and see what the esky had in store. It could not have been more perfect: the easy cruise over mirror-flat water under pure blue skies and the serenity of the location, combined with the promising sizzle of dinner on its way, translated into a wonderful sense of contentment for young and old alike.
We had plenty of space onboard, with room in the cockpit for Christine to read in solitude, while Gina and Tom scampered about discovering the boat. The flybridge proved to be a popular meeting spot for the kids, especially when we tied both boats up for the evening and all four of them gathered there to get away from the adults and chat about teenie stuff. Later, when the stars came out to light up the night sky, Trev and I managed to shoo them all to their cabins and had the space to ourselves for a romantic star-gazing moment. Bliss.
Now I'm not claiming to know much about fishing, but I was able to tell the difference between surf fishing on the sand at Ninety Mile Beach, and dropping a line from a tinnie at the river's edge on the Tambo. We spotted other sorts of fishermen too ... off jetties by the shores of rivers and lakes, putting about in little boats with a line dangling, in purpose-built boats with serious-looking rods, or with the whole family and a picnic basket on the river's edge. Much like the versatility of the boating styles available in the Lakes, so are the fishing options. And, it seems, there are plenty of people here with enough time on their hands to simply 'go fishing'. I like that.
Hands up if you like waking up on your boat just after dawn, hearing the soft creak of the ropes as the morning breeze gently nudges your vessel? I do too, but since there was no rush to go anywhere, I cuddled up again and let the lap-lap of the waves lull me back to sleep. What a nice way to start the day!
A little later, as we all hung about somewhere on deck with our first coffee and contemplated the scenery, someone decided we'd head over to a spot where the kids could have some serious fun on the inflatable water toys and the rest of us could stretch our legs on dry land. Talk about versatility in a holiday destination: one minute we're in a sheltered cove with nothing to interrupt the hush of nature, and the next we're making a bee line towards action and excitement.
Bunga Arm was chosen as the spot where we'd change the pace - this is a sheltered waterway that's separated from Bass Strait by a roughly 250m-wide sand barrier, and it's only accessible by boat. It proved to be a great spot to tow the kids around - safe, calm water with excellent visibility and no snags or obstacles and lots of room to go straight ahead for long stretches.
There's a lovely pier about half way up Bunga Arm where we tied up. A short stroll up one side of the hill and down a dune on the other and there it was: the open ocean and an empty beach stretching as far as we could see in both directions - Ninety Mile Beach. In my world, a perfect beach has soft sand reaching from the foot of a dune to the water's edge and long rolling waves building way out and gently sweeping in to the shore. And that's Ninety Mile Beach. Add crystal-clear water and our kids screeching with delight as we dived in, and did our best to catch the perfect wave and beat it to the shore. What fun!
For those considering an extended stay on a boat as a holiday, but have shied away from it because they prefer something comfortable and easy, let me recommend staying on a Bulls Cruisers overnighter. I'm the first to admit that while I love our great Aussie outdoors and I'm not fussed about getting wet, grubby or sweaty, I prefer to do so without foregoing all of life's little luxuries like a hot shower, a proper loo and somewhere to plug in my hairdryer. I know many ladies who share this sentiment and miss out on heaps of fun because they're not sure they'll enjoy themselves. So if you like a nice ambience and want to smell sweet at the end of the day, you can do it on this type of trip.
One tiny word of warning though: unless you want to use the second cabin as a wardrobe, take just a bag or two. There is space to store stuff, but if you keep it simple, you'll enjoy it more. This is the perfect holiday to wear all those cute pieces that don't need ironing and with that sun-kissed glow you'll get from being outdoors all day, you'll look (and feel) simply gorgeous!
Not having much experience with larger boats, I was secretly a tiny bit anxious about managing this 36ft cruiser. But I was soon to discover that our vessel was perfectly suited to our group and, with even the kids pitching in to share the responsibilities, was very easy to operate. Under Trev's watchful eye, I manoeuvred us up the Tambo, back down again and all the way back to Paynesville.
Bareboat chartering gives you the freedom to go where you want, when you want, and if you do need backup, the Bulls team is just a phone call and a quick boat-drive away. Bar having your own boat to stay on, this really is the best way to experience and explore all the Gippsland Lakes has to offer.
TAKING THE KIDS
Travelling with kids can be tricky, but if some of their needs and wants are taken into consideration when planning the trip, it will be fun for them too. Club Marine Managing Editor, Chris Beattie took the Haines Signature 543F, kindly supplied by JV Marine World, along to give it a twirl, and it didn't take much convincing to get our juniors on board with some inflatable water-toys. Boating novice, Olivia was nominated as observer and very quickly took a liking to watching the men hold on to the sea-biscuits with everything they had as Chris did his best to give them the ride of their lives.
Having a dad who messes about in boats certainly has rubbed off on Jack who, thanks to his experience and enthusiasm, was promoted to First Mate and promptly given a whole stack of tasks. Not even Tom (who usually doesn't go far without his computer paraphernalia) got bored. Between trying to get Gina back for throwing him off the duckboard and doing his best to beat her at kayaking, he did some fishing off the transom, captained the boat and retreated to his cabin to read.
It was the simple things that kept the kids happy - the adventure of sleeping on board, toasting marshmallows on a little bonfire, going exploring in the kayaks, and body-surfing on Ninety Mile Beach in waves teeming with fish.
The accommodation options available at the Gippsland Lakes range from campgrounds to motels to apartments and houses to rent - visitors are spoilt for choice when it comes to staying on or near the water.
Captain's Cove boasts a prime waterfront position on the Paynesville canals. Each of the 18 luxury, architect-designed two-story waterfront apartments has its own private jetty, making access to the Lakes and waterways simply a matter of strolling to the jetty and cruising in either direction up or down McMillans Straight and out onto open waters. The fully-self-contained, three-bedroom apartments have two bathrooms, a fully-equipped kitchen and a large laundry. There's a balcony upstairs and private deck below with a barbecue where guests can enjoy the Lakes lifestyle and uninterrupted views of the beautiful Paynesville canals.
Captain's Cove owner, Tamara Cook says many guests hire one of Bulls Cruisers' day boats and explore the sheltered waterways of the Paynesville canals, or simply enjoy fishing off the jetties. Avid boater herself, Tamara spent her childhood holidays on the Lakes and has fond memories of endless summers spent there.
Rates at Captain's Cove range from $145 per night for two people during off-peak season, to $270 per night during seasonal peaks. For those bringing their own boat, there's ample space on the premises for trailer parking, plus an undercover car park in front of each apartment.
After spending four days onboard their Bulls Cruisers boat, our Six of the Best! prize winner and their partner will stay a further four nights at Captain's Cove. From here, they can enjoy more boating, hire a kayak, or make use of the resort's tennis court or the heated indoor swimming pool.
When staying at Captain's Cove guests have everything at their doorstep (or rather, at their jetty). Paynesville is just a short stroll away, making restaurants, supermarkets and bottle shops easy to reach and, just in case you're in need of some retail therapy and a decent latte, there are several cafes and quaint shops too.
Still warm from the sun and with smiles on our faces, we all too soon tied up where our weekend of ultimate tranquillity had begun at the Bulls marina. And as we stowed our bags in the car, I thought of the lucky Club Marine Six of the Best! winners who will soon arrive here to enjoy the beautiful Gippsland Lakes.