Phillip Island is synonymous with its smallest residents, the little penguins (once upon a time known as fairies, but have been given a PC, if rather, prosaic upgrade). Wildlife is certainly a big draw here, with not just penguins to coo over, but also colonies of fur seals and a park dedicated to koalas.
While it's always had a rather sedate reputation, Phillip Island does do a few kinds of wild. There's the weather, with the rip-prone but excellent surfing beaches of the island's southern ocean side (the perfect place to clock the power of the southern ocean and feel the bite of arctic-laced winds). And then, come October, there's the Moto Grand Prix steel yourself as bike-fiends and petrolheads descend en masse.
The Monash Freeway and South Gippsland Highway should get you to San Remo
in around two hours, Friday traffic on the Monash permitting. There's also daily V/Line
buses, or any number of tour operators willing to whisk you there.
When you get there
Rusty Water Brewery and Restaurant
is open from 5pm. They do sample boards of their four naturally brewed beers and snacks in the bar, and there's a cheery Italian restaurant.
Get to know the lay of the land and take in some spectacular coastal scenery from the air. Phillip Island Helicopters
has five different flights and if you're up for it, does them doors-off and then deposits you into a rigid-hull inflatable speedboat for a trip around the rugged south-west coast, past the fur seal colonies of Seal Rocks
. (What the seals think of all the marine hooning, one can only guess.)
Wildlife Coastal Cruises also can get you up close with the seals, as they take in the colony at a more leisurely pace. And yes, these seals do perform, trailing visitor boats with unusual interest. In bad weather, the boat sticks to the sheltered eastern waters of Western Port Bay. It's not a bad consolation prize, with huge brooding granite cliffs making for an atmospheric journey. Cruises depart from Cowes Jetty.
It might look cold out there (and it is, even in high summer) but Island Surf School includes wetsuits in the very reasonable two-hour lesson fee, along with boards and sunscreen. Teachers are drawn from Victoria's top, very gnarly, surfing ranks.
No trip to Phillip Island would be complete without a visit to Summerland Beach for the Penguin Parade. With up to 3500 viewers packing the environment-preserving viewing stands and observation boardwalks, it doesn't feel like a particularly, well, natural nature experience, but the unique little penguins are undeniably cute as they do their sunset waddle back to their burrows. Tickets can be bought online you'll probably need to do so well in advance on holiday weekends and during the summer.
After the penguins, head to Foreshore Restaurant and Bar for spectacular views and upmarket pub food (hearty if not particularly inspired). If the evening is fine, and you'd rather something beachy and casual, opt for posh fish and chips at Woolamai's White Salt (7 Vista Place, Woolamai; phone (03) 5956 6336). You may have to fight for an outside table, though a beachside spot for an impromptu picnic dinner won't be hard to find.
will set you up for an active Sunday with a top-notch egg and bacon sandwich or the best ricotta hotcakes this side of Bill Grainger's house. It's a particularly sweet spot in summer.
If you've got kids or overseas visitors in tow, you may want to fit in a visit to the Koala Conservation Centre, otherwise it's straight to the serene heritage site at Churchill Island. There's storybook barnyard animals like Clydesdales, highland cattle, ducks and peacocks, as well as walking or cycling tracks and a farm produce shop.
Lunch, and wonderful Westernport views, can be had at the island cafe, now run by the team from Spice Island Cooking School who do smart cafe food at reasonable prices and have a locals-led wine list. If you're there on the fourth Saturday of the month, don't miss the farmers market.
Stock up at the eccentric Phillip Island Chocolate Factory and perhaps grab a quick fortifying vindaloo at local's favourite Curry Leaf before the drive home (9 Vista Place, Woolamai; phone (03) 5956 6772). If you're staying until Monday morning, try Infused for a sunset cocktail and some city-style bar food (freshly shucked oysters several ways, duck spring rolls, seafood and kaffir-leaf dumplings).
What to bring home
A "squeeze me, I sound real" life-size (ie, little) plush penguin.
Where to stay
While there's no shortage of B&Bs on the island, they often don't represent good value for money, so it's best to do some research. In high summer and Easter, absolutely everything gets booked out plan ahead.
The Victorian décor of Glen Isla House might be too uptight for some, but this exclusive "country house style retreat" has magnificent heritage gardens, absolute privacy and thoughtful personal service.
One wonders if they were being ironic with the name, but the airy loft suites at Spice Island B&B, set among native trees and with lovely views, definitely do add some colour to the scene. You can also do cooking classes here.
has big sea and sky views from smart apartments, and resort facilities such as heated indoor and outdoor pools, tennis courts and children's playgrounds.
What to leave behind
Your Noosa/St Barts
resort wear and attitude. This is a laid-back (and often wind-swept) destination.
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