Phillip Island, located off the southern coast of Victoria, may be reasonably small in size (the island covers just 100 square kilometres) but it’s seriously big on wildlife viewing opportunities and things to do.
Located two-hours’ drive southeast of Melbourne, plenty of visitors to the Victorian capital do a dash down to the island and back in one day in order to see the world-famous Penguin Parade. However, if time is on your side, spend a couple of days immersing yourself in the immense natural beauty of this landscape. Just remember that in most instances, wildlife viewing takes place outside and the island is notoriously tetchy in terms of the wind and weather. Pack accordingly!
1. Watch the fabulous Penguin Parade
The Phillip Island Penguin Parade draws upwards of 700,000 visitors a year, but these pint-sized celebrities take it all in their stride. The little penguins’ daily dash at dusk up the beach at Summerland to their rookery follows what can be up to four weeks of fishing in Bass Strait. The number of penguins that return each night is driven by lots of factors and visitors must manage their expectations accordingly (this is a natural phenomenon after all). However, whether you see 50 or 500 penguins, your first glimpse of those little feathered heads bobbing about in the surf and then the group chat at the water’s edge about whether it’s safe to head for the hills is truly spellbinding to watch.
2. Meet the locals at the Koala Reserve
While the penguins firmly occupy the wildlife limelight on the island, there are some other native locals to meet. The Koala Reserve is home to koalas (obviously) along with echidnas, cute-as-a-button wallabies, Cape Barren geese and other assorted furry and feathered critters. There are two tree-top boardwalks that offer reasonably close viewing of the koalas and the entry price to the reserve is very reasonable when you purchase a ticket online ($13 for adults at the time of writing).
3. Step back in time at Churchill Heritage Farm
Anyone who has travelled to the Scottish Highlands will be familiar with the gorgeously shaggy and heavily fringed highland cattle that wander about. They are also to be found at the Churchill Island Heritage Farm – located on Churchill Island, just off Phillip Island’s eastern tip. Churchill Island was the site of Victoria’s first European-established farm, and today the heritage farm site features buildings dating back to the 1870s. Along with the hirsute cattle, you’ll find Clydesdale horses, sheep, ducks and chickens. Watch milking, shearing and whip-cracking demonstrations. Anyone can head over to Churchill Island, and walks around the island are popular (a full loop takes about two hours). You’ll need to purchase a ticket to enter the heritage farm precinct.
4. Take a walk on the wild side at the Nobbies
It’s at the Nobbies headland on Phillip Island’s western extremity that you get a taste of just how wild, woolly and windswept life can be here for both humans and wildlife. If you are visiting in winter, rug up! Meander along the boardwalk for fabulous views of the rugged coastline and the chance to spot Australian fur seals, little penguins (there are breeding boxes dotted around the headland), swamp wallabies and more. Most penguin tours from Melbourne kill time here prior to the start of the Penguin Parade so it can get a little busy in the mid to late afternoon. Time your visit accordingly. The Nobbies Centre’s ticketed Antarctic Journey presentation takes guests on a virtual journey to the icy southern continent.
5. Relax on Cowes Beach
Leave enough time during your visit to Phillip island to wiggle your toes in the sand at Cowes. Located on the northern side of the island (looking across to French Island and the Mornington Peninsula), Cowes is the largest town on the island and its namesake beach is a popular spot with holidaymakers. Enjoy a splash and relax on the recently revamped foreshore precinct. There are plenty of cafés and eateries handy, along with supermarkets for those who are self-catering and need supplies.
6. Live life in the fast lane at the Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit
Phillip Island has long been a venue for motor sporting events, which is an interesting contrast to its renown as a wildlife haven. The tradition of putting the pedal to the metal on the island stretches all the way back to 1928 when it staged the first Australian Grand Prix. Today the Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit hosts a packed programme of high-octane events, including the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix in October. In between event days, visitors to the track can opt to do a guided tour or a hot lap in a race prepared vehicle (bookings are essential). There are racing simulators to enjoy and a go-kart track right next door.
7. Taste a top drop or two
Flanked by the wine-producing pedigree of the Mornington Peninsula on one side and Southern Gippsland with its burgeoning wine scene on the other, it’s no surprise that both have washed over onto Phillip Island, albeit on a small scale. There are a couple of wineries to check out on the island. Phillip Island Winery has recently changed hands. Its cellar door is open for tastings five days a week and it offers gourmet grazing platters of local specialties. The boutique Purple Hen Wines is also well worth a visit. Key plantings include pinot noir and shiraz and the cheeseboards are a treat. Those interested in a boutique brew should make their way to Ocean Reach Brewing in Cowes.
8. Visit the National Vietnam Veterans Museum
Phillip Island is full of surprises and for history lovers, this will definitely be one of them. The National Vietnam Veterans Museum is funded by donations and staffed largely by volunteers. The thought-provoking Light and Sound Show and displays of artefacts, uniforms, photographs, pieces of heavy war machinery and even aircraft will hold your interest for hours.
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has previously had the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten.