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It was when I lived in Melbourne, Victoria, that I first heard of Phillip Island, and it was the penguins that first caught my attention. I mean, who doesn’t love a cute penguin? I had seen penguins in Australia before, down on St. Kilda Pier in Melbourne, when a sighting of a dozen or so utterly thrilled me. I had even seen one lonesome penguin swim in the bay in broad daylight, but the Penguin Parade on the island promised to be something rather special.
Imagine my surprise when I not only saw penguins but found a little paradise a mere 90-minute drive from Melbourne. It’s a wildlife haven, so relaxing and so full of natural beauty that I came back countless times — in all the seasons — and simply fell in love with this gorgeous part of Australia.
Here are some of my main reasons to fall in love with Phillip Island.
Well, of course, the penguins are the main reason. For me at least. There are not one, or a dozen; there are thousands of the tiny little Fairy Penguins, and you don’t have to leave meeting them up to chance.
The Penguin Parade on Phillip Island might look at first sight like a typical tourist trap: a purpose-built center with seating and walkways across the dunes to allow the many visitors to gawk at the little birds coming home in the evening after a long day’s swimming, diving, and feeding out in the freezing cold ocean.
But whilst you can’t deny the popularity, the center is also a place of research dedicated to keeping these little birds happy and alive. The crowds are supervised, no shouting, no flash photography, no getting in people’s, let alone penguins’ way. Rangers patrol the spectacle and do not hesitate to tell anybody off who may be tempted to break the rules, allowing the penguins to get on with their daily routine, and the humans to be utterly spellbound.
As we all know, Australia is full of cute animals, and penguins are only the start. How about koalas, and then some? The island and the waters around it are full of resources needed to attract a myriad of animals. There are some 250 species of birds, including both residents and migratory visitors.
Apart from the feathered friends, there are also plenty of wallabies, koalas, and seals. It is on Phillip Island that I saw my first echidna, the Australian version of a hedgehog. While you are usually lucky to spot wallabies around and can go on boat trips to see the seals up close, koalas can often be hidden away; so why not go to the Koala Conservation Reserve on the island, just to be sure you see at least one of these cute critters?
If you are on the island around 11:30 a.m. and are admiring all the pelicans flying overhead, there is a simple explanation. At 12 p.m. sharp, at San Remo Pier at the bottom of the bridge that connects the island to the mainland, the by-now traditional pelican feeding time takes place every day.
And you can apparently set your clock by the pelicans leaving the island for their daily lunchtime fish treat. The noise and craziness of all the pelicans are wonderful to watch, especially as they took me by surprise on my first visit because I would have sworn that pelicans are more tropical birds rather than temperate climate residents.
Alternatively, you can try and spot some seals and wallabies on a walk along the Nobbies, at the other end of the island, yet only a 10-minute drive away. This rocky and wild end of the island is made up of cliffs and tiny, craggy islets, presided over by a large visitors’ center that sells a rather good hot chocolate and cheesecake, by the way.
There are a few boardwalks that lead you past penguin hollows, past stunning scenery and look-out points, to windy outposts that will quite literally take your breath away. While lovely in the sunshine, this place is even more stunning in windy, cold weather with the waves crashing on the rocks, and the occasional seal sliding into the water from the cliffs.
Do peek into every little hollow you see, quite often some penguins forgo a day at sea and stay put, and you’ll spot them peeking right back at you.
The island is a bit of a paradise for both animals and humans: the habitats vary from mangroves to wetlands, from sandy beaches to rocky shores, and exploring (either by car or preferably on long hikes) is essential. For utter tranquility, head down to Swan Lake, famous for — you’ve guessed it — its black swans.
In the south, Cape Woolamai has a series of spectacular hiking trails across the cape that range from 2.5 to 5.5 miles in length. From Phillip Island’s highest point, walkers can take in breath-taking views of jagged cliffs that have been shaped by wind and wild southern waves over thousands of years.
Try the Cape Woolamai circuit walk, which takes you around the cape including the spiky Pinnacles rocks. This is a 5.3-mile roundtrip that takes roughly 3 hours. Though there are some steep bits, it’s an overall moderate to slightly difficult walk, worth it for the scenery and views.
The Pyramid Rock Walk takes you to the secluded Berrys Beach, and you are practically guaranteed to bump into some wallabies, especially if you walk early in the morning or later in the afternoon. Or you can follow along the wooden boardwalk through the Rhyll Inlet, which is flat, easy, and enjoyable.
A trail best followed by car is the official Artists & Creators Trail, which takes you across the island, to all the best galleries, studios, and workshops of local artists and creators showcasing their work.
In Australia, you cannot go far without stumbling across a vineyard or some superb food. On Phillip Island, there are both vineyards and local microbreweries, Purple Hen Winery, and Phillip Island Winery are two island boutique wineries producing high-quality cool climate wines not readily available on the mainland. Both offer full cellar door facilities including wine tastings, light lunches, and cheese platters.
The lawn at Phillip Island Winery is a beautiful spot to spend a warm Sunday afternoon, with regular live music events taking place. Check their Facebook page for what’s on. And for beer lovers, try the Phillip Island Brewing Company.
For a relaxed meal, head to Fig & Olive, where they serve a decent steak and very fresh seafood, but also pasta and pizza, fries with aioli, and share boards. For a wonderful Australian breakfast, go to MadCowes Café and order the eggs Benedict.
Phillip Island has something for all generations and interests. For the petrol heads, for whom there might nearly be too much nature, there is the Phillip Island racetrack, which hosts the Australian GP, World Superbikes, Hot Laps, go-karting, V8 supercars, and other racing events.
For the grandkids, there is fun to be had at A Maze’N’Things. Chocolate lovers are well-served, as are aerial adventurists, with helicopter flights that give you a new perspective of this southern coastline and its islands.
Phillip Island’s water may be cold (remember, they have penguins living here), but that does not stop water sports enthusiasts, especially the surfers. Indeed, the island is home to Victoria’s first national surfing reserve and some of the best surfing in the region. You can rent a board from Island Surfboards.
Where there is one island, there is usually another. Phillip Island has a little sister island called Churchill Island, which is connected to the main island by a bridge. This is a rural spot, with farmlands and wild patches full of birds, including large Canada geese, which always come in pairs, and purple swamp hens, who inspired the winery of the same name.
The island is also the site of the first formal English garden in Victoria, proving that these two islands were and still are a perfect summer retreat for the locals. You can simply go for extended walks, with the roughly 3-mile Churchill Island loop taking you around 2 hours of moderate sauntering, or watch some regularly scheduled events on the working show farm, from sheep shearing at weekends to working dog displays and vintage carriage rides.
Please note that dogs, apart from those already living there, are not allowed on the island to protect the wildlife.
To stay somewhere cozy, make a booking at Oak Tree Lodge, Phillip Island’s luxury self-contained accommodation, situated in the quiet little village of Rhyll. There are four stunning suites all with their own lounging areas, kitchens, bathrooms, and all offer outdoor seating areas in a magical garden setting. The apartments are airy and really tastefully decorated, with an open fireplace in the Gatehouse.
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A travel writer and guidebook author for the last 20 years, Ulrike’s work has been seen in National Geographic, BBC, The Independent, Australian Women’s Weekly, The Telegraph, The Australian, Fodor’s, France Today, CNN Travel, Lonely Planet, Travel + Leisure, CNTraveler, numerous inflight magazines, and many others.
She has written three books for Moon Travel Guides: ‘Living Abroad in Australia’ (3rd edition), ‘Sydney & the Great Barrier Reef’, and the shorter version ‘Spotlight Sydney’ and are all available in print and as e-books.
Having lived in seven countries (Germany, UK, Qatar, Oman, UAE, Australia, and France) to date and traveled to more than 90, she specializes in writing about travel, art and architecture, expat living, and life and style.