For generations, Melbournians and tourists from around the world have flocked to Phillip Island, in Victoria's Western Port, to see the adorable 'fairy' penguins waddle across the beach at sunset or to experience the thrill of motorsports at the Phillip Island GP circuit.
Phillip Island Nature Parks (PINP) recently invited Club Marine Magazine on a 'ranger for a day' experience to explore the island's abundant native wildlife. Established in 1996 to manage over 1805 hectares of Crown Land on Phillip Island, including much of the coastline and significant vegetation areas, PINP's rangers and researchers care for the park's population of over 100 species of birds and various native mammals such as koalas and Australian fur seals. PINP also manages award-winning ecotourism experiences at the Penguin Parade, the Koala Conservation Centre, Churchill Island Heritage Farm, and Nobbies Centre.
During the Easter holidays, my daughter Gina and I took the opportunity to take a break from Year 12 studies and office duties, tossed a weekend bag and our hiking boots into the car, and drove south to immerse ourselves in Phillip Island's natural beauty.
Easily reached from Melbourne by car (about 90 minutes) or by boat from nearby coastal locations, visitors to Phillip Island can also take the French Island passenger ferry from Stony Point, on Mornington Peninsula, to Cowes on the island's northern shore. Phillip Island is connected to the mainland at San Remo by a 640m bridge, spans 26km from east to west and 9km at its widest point, and annually welcomes about 3.5 million visitors.
Forming a natural breakwater for the shallow waters of Western Port from Bass Strait, Phillip Island's 97km coastline is as varied as it gets, with a mix of renowned surf locations, wide sandy beaches, hidden romantic coves, rugged stony outcrops, and intertidal mudflats.
Inland, much of the island is farmland where sheep and cattle graze on pastures criss-crossed by roads that never seem busy... except during a motorsports event at the Phillip Island circuit, when the sleepy main road is extended to three lanes to accommodate the crowds flocking to and from the iconic track.
Phillip Island's history in motorsports dates back to 1927, when motorcycle races were held on a dusty public road circuit encompassing Cowes and Rhyll. In 1928, the first Australian Grand Prix (originally named the '100 Miles Road Race') was held on a rectangular public road circuit, continuing until 1935. Phillip Island Circuit was opened in December 1956 by the Phillip Island Auto Racing Club, but was repeatedly closed for repair works until its grand re-opening in 1989. Today, the circuit stages numerous national and international races including the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix, the Superbike World Championship, and the V8 Supercar Championship.
While we were there, however, the circuit was void of any high-octane action, with only a few herons and Cape Barren geese foraging for food in the manicured grass.
What to see
Our first stop was a visit to the Koala Conservation Centre, near Cowes. Ranger Daniel Kallstrom met us at the visitor centre's interactive displays where he explained the finer points of a koala's lifestyle (we were astonished at the noises they make) before taking us for a wander through the woodland walk to the koala enclosures.
Nestled in natural bushland, two tree-top boardwalks wind through eucalyptus trees at a height where koalas can easily be spotted lounging in the branches. The koalas' low-energy diet means they sleep up to 20 hours a day and move at a languid pace when they do rouse. And while it's tempting to cuddle these cute furballs, it's not permitted in Victoria and New South Wales as human contact causes stress to these contact-shy creatures.
We spent the morning admiring snoozing koalas and exploring the surrounding bushland, where we spotted wallabies and pretty little birds darting around the undergrowth near paths that circle back to the centre. The Koala Conservation Centre's café looked very inviting, but we were expected at Churchill Island Heritage Farm for lunch and an activity-filled afternoon.
Accessible by a one-lane bridge from Phillip Island near Newhaven, Churchill Island is a tiny 57-hectare island first set foot upon by Lieutenant James Grant in 1801 during his survey of Western Port. Grant built a cottage and planted the first corn and wheat crops grown in Victoria, using seeds given to him by the island's namesake, John Churchill. Samuel Amess, a prominent Melbourne building contractor and mayor of Melbourne from 1869-1870, bought Churchill Island in 1872 as a summer retreat. Amess built a homestead, extended the orchard, and introduced rabbits, quails, pheasants, and West Highland cattle to the island. The Amess homestead and its furnishings are beautifully preserved, as are the old cottage and other outhouses, all set in beautiful, fragrant gardens.
It was low tide when we arrived and groups of birdwatchers were strolling along the tracks and boardwalks to observe birds feeding on the mudflats. Churchill Island forms part of the Churchill Island Marine National Park and the waters surrounding it are listed under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (the Ramsar Convention).
Visitors to Churchill Island Heritage Farm can enjoy a picnic lunch on the lawns, or eat at Churchill Island Café. Here, café manager Zoe Love showed us to a table on the veranda, which boasts sweeping views of the bay and the farm. Fortified by a hearty lunch made with delicious local produce, we were ready for the next adventure.
A stroll around Churchill Island Heritage Farm is like stepping back in time - there's the old Amess barn and blacksmith's shop, stables and animal nursery, machinery sheds with old farm equipment, and a shearing shed. The farm is worked by volunteers, who hold demonstrations for sheep shearing, whip cracking, milking, and (we particularly liked this one) how to train working dogs to round up sheep. Sometimes, they round up the farm's geese and ducks which, we were told, is hilarious.
Phillip Island Nature Park's star attraction thrills the crowds every evening when little penguins come ashore at sunset. Also affectionately referred to as 'fairy' penguins, they're the smallest penguins in the world, standing just 33cm tall and weighing 1kg, and the only penguins with blue and white feathers. Summerland Peninsula on Phillip Island's western tip is home to the only surviving penguin colony on the island, with an estimated population of 32,000.
PINP offers various ticket options for the Penguin Parade, from general-viewing entry to ranger-guided tours, plus a 'Penguin Research Tour', which we had the privilege to experience.
Ranger Rick Taylor took us behind the scenes of the Penguin Parade and the Wildlife Clinic, where injured or sick native animals are cared for and visitors can gain insight into PINP's research and conservation work, such as new technology to assist with oil spill clean-up and penguin satellite tracking.
But the highlight of this tour was front-row seats on the 'Penguins Plus' viewing platform, just two feet away from where the little penguins appear over a sand dune. Tired from their long stay in the ocean, they pause to congregate and catch up with friends before waddling off in groups to their burrows. You can follow them along the boardwalks leading through the penguin colony and the chitter-chatter as they venture off into the night is just magical.
Phillip Island boasts some sweet surfing conditions on its southern beaches and is recognised as one of the most consistent and varied surf locations in Australia, with Phillip Island National Surfing Reserve launched in March, 2013.
While some surf spots are rated for 'pros or kamikaze only' most are for experienced surfers, with grommets learning to surf at Cat Bay or at 'Crazy Birds' on Surf Beach. Access to all beaches is great, with car parks, walkways, and facilities at key locations. It's recommended to check with locals (try the surf shops and surf lifesavers) for advice on wave, wind and sea conditions and to stick to patrolled beaches as conditions can vary greatly.
Phillip Island boasts many walking tracks winding through bushland and wetlands or along beaches with amazing views. Some are suitable for prams and wheelchairs - like Nobbies boardwalk and Rhyll Inlet boardwalk - while more adventurous tracks lead to areas such as the Pinnacles at Cape Woolamai, or to Forrest Caves, where breakers boom as they crash inside the caverns.
It's also worth stopping at San Remo just before the bridge to see the Fisherman's Co-op feed the pelicans at noon daily. Dozens of pelicans gather on the beach at San Remo pier for a free lunch, much to the amusement of onlookers, while large stingrays can often be spotted feeding in the shallow water.
After taking in so much of Phillip Island's natural charm, it was time for a change in scenery. Gina convinced me a visit to the Chocolate Factory was a must - it's prominently situated on the main road a short drive after the bridge and hard to miss (that's a subtle warning to other parents). Afterwards, we soaked up Cowes' village atmosphere with a stroll along the Esplanade and up the main road past gorgeous little shops and cafés before heading off on a winery tour.
There are two on the island - Phillip Island Winery and Purple Hen Wines - both boasting prize-winning cool-climate wines with well-visited cellar doors offering wine tastings and local produce to nibble.
Wendy, who takes care of front-of-house at Purple Hen Wines, welcomed us with a sample of a superb off-dry riesling and a plate of delicious Tarago River cheeses. Pip, one of two winemakers there, showed us around the winery, where we peeked inside vats, tried young wines straight from the barrel and learned much about the wine produced in this maritime location.
Visitors to Phillip Island will find a range of accommodation options, including cabins and caravan parks, boutique 'bed and breakfast' stays, and resort-style indulgence. Although it gets quite busy during peak season, I was assured visitors will find a place to stay even at short notice.
We stayed at Ramada Resort, near Cowes on Phillip Island Road, in a bright two-bedroom cottage surrounded by native gardens, with a fully-equipped kitchen, open dining and living area, European-style laundry, and large bathroom. Families are well catered for, with playgrounds and adjacent barbecue facilities, children's play rooms, a swimming pool with toddler pool, and tennis courts. There's also a health centre with an outdoor pool and indoor lap pool, spa and gym, a pizzeria and a café with bar.
Visiting by boat
Phillip Island is surrounded by Bass Strait to the south and Western Port (often incorrectly referred to as Westernport Bay) to the north. Don't be put off by Western Port's many sand and mud banks and a tidal range which can fluctuate by as much as 3m... or by locals saying there are two types of boatie there: those who have run aground and those who will.
Before entering Western Port, it's recommended to check tidal times and navigation charts and read the Western Port Recreational Boating Guide issued by Parks Victoria (available at information centres or download it at: parkweb.vic.gov.au - search for 'Boating on Western Port map').
Newhaven, Rhyll, and Cowes have all-tide boat ramps plus jetties with short-term berthing. Fees for boat ramp use apply - a $6 day permit can be purchased from ticket machines at the ramps.
San Remo's floating pontoon has overnight berthing (pleasurecraft with shallow draft only), plus there are casual swing moorings (vessels up to 14m) for overnight use at San Remo and west of Cowes Yacht Club. These operate on a first come, first serve basis and boaties need to contact Parks Victoria on arrival (phone 13 1963, ask for the San Remo office). Newhaven Yacht Squadron Marina offers visitor berths for boats up to 12m for overnight stays (call ahead for availability and fees).
Phillip Island Marine, situated adjacent to the boat ramp at Rhyll, is pretty much a one-stop shop for all things boating on the island. Whether you need fishing tackle, accessories or some servicing work, the friendly folks at Phillip Island Marine can help out and are also more than ready to help if you just need some advice on boating around the island's varied waters. And if you've left your boat at home, but want to get out on the water, they even have hire boats available. Give them a call on (03) 5956 9238.
The fishing around Phillip Island and off the jetties is said to be excellent, with a range of species eager to bite year-round. Or why not try a charter fishing expedition into the port or out onto Bass Strait and leave negotiating the waters to the experts.
Getting about sans car
Take the bikes along on the boat or car (or hire them there) as cyclists are welcome on many tracks and boardwalks, such as at Rhyll Inlet mangrove boardwalk and at Oswin Roberts Koala Reserve, while bike tracks or roads lead to all attractions.
A public bus route operates from Wonthaggi to Cowes via Anderson, San Remo, Newhaven, and Woolamai (and return) with plenty of stops along the way. Download the timetable at: SouthCoastBus.com.au.
South Coast Bus also offers bus charters - useful for boaties arriving at the island with a larger group aboard - and operates a taxi service on the island (call 13CABS).
Phillip Island Visitor Information Centre: 895 Phillip Island Road, Newhaven (1km after the bridge) tel: 1300 366 422. Tickets for most attractions are available there.
Buy a 'Three Parks Pass' for combined entry to Phillip Island Nature Park's Penguin Parade, Koala Conservation Centre, and Churchill Island Heritage Farm online at: penguins.org.au/buy-tickets, or at the Visitor Information Centre. Entry to Nobbies Centre is free of charge.
All PINP parks offer family- and disability-friendly access with parking, ramps and facilities, boardwalks or paths with mild gradients for prams and wheelchairs, and wheelchair-height displays.