Creative shelter

Daniel Scott returns to the historic town lined with handsome buildings and a thriving arts community.

It's nearly 20 years since I discovered Port Fairy, at the end of a drive along the Great Ocean Road. Although it wasn't exactly lively back then, I fell for the seaside enclave, extending my one-night stay to a week.

It may have been whimsy but the half of me that emanates from Ireland felt comfortable in this historic small town on the banks of the River Moyne. Bound on two sides by long, rock-fringed beaches assailed by the Southern Ocean and buffeted by fierce coastal winds that together brought ruin to many a 19th-century ship, Port Fairy seemed transplanted to south-western Victoria from County Cork. Its broad streets, handsome colonial buildings and pubs on every corner simply underlined that first impression.

Revisiting Port Fairy on a late autumn weekend, I find it changed but much the same. Sea-changers have arrived in force, bringing acclaimed restaurants, chi-chi boutiques and a thriving art scene but the town's lost none of its down-to-earth gentleness.

History

Port Fairy's origins as a whaling and sealing settlement were anything but gentle, with the blood of both the local Malen Gunditj Aborigines and the southern right whales that visited each winter spilt indiscriminately throughout the 1830s. By the 1840s, the supply of whales was nearly extinguished. Many then saw profit in cultivating the area's rich volcanic soils for farming, so cattle and sheep were brought over from Tasmania.

In 1843, James Atkinson bought 2023 hectares of land here, outlining plans for a town named Belfast and inviting Irish immigrants to settle. The Moyne River was central to the settlement's development, providing a sheltered port for fishing boats and an important outlet for the export of wool, wheat and gold to England. By the 1850s, Port Fairy was Australia's second-busiest port.

The township's decline was equally dramatic. The closure, in 1862, of the main employer, the shipping company William Rutledge & Co, changed its fortunes almost overnight. Renamed Port Fairy in 1887, after the cutter Fairy that, 60 years before, had found shelter at the mouth of the Moyne, it had more modest aspirations from then on.

Attractions

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Much of Port Fairy's appeal lies in its well-preserved 19th-century buildings. Many of the oldest sprang up around King George's Square beside the river. These included the Merrijig Inn (1844), the Customs House (1860) and the Moyne Steam Flour Mill, a two-storey bluestone warehouse also built in 1860.

The nearby 1859 Courthouse hosts the History Museum (30 Gipps Street, open Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday from 2-5pm, admission $3), with displays dedicated to the settlement's development and shipwreck history. The town also has two historic walks and, around the Moyne River, a maritime and shipwreck trail. Maps are available from the Tourist Information Centre on Bank Street.

Griffiths Island

In 1859, a bluestone lighthouse was built to aid ships travelling along this treacherous coastline. On the tip of Griffiths Island, which protects the mouth of the Moyne River at the edge of town, the lighthouse can be reached via an interpretive walk. Along the way, panelling details the island's indigenous and whaling heritage and you pass grazing swamp wallabies and the underground burrows of thousands of shearwaters, or mutton birds. They arrive in August from as far as Alaska and on summer nights turn the evening sky black as they return to their nests.

Art

During the past 20 years, Port Fairy has emerged as an artist's colony. I spend an afternoon following its Art Walk, which takes in 11 galleries and studios around town. I dwell longest at the Whalebone Gallery (39A Bank Street, phone 5568 2855, open 10am-5pm most days, Sunday, 10am-4pm), a co-operative showing the work of seven local artists. It features metal and ceramic sculptures, blown glass, silver jewellery and some intriguing pieces incorporating stained glass, fabrics and layered collage by artist Jill Edwards.

Later on, I watch glass-blower Robert Gatt at work at the Eclectic Designs Studio (62 Regent Street, phone 5568 2794, open 1-5pm daily except on Wednesdays).

"Port Fairy's fantastic," says Gatt, who moved here 18 years ago, "for the supportive atmosphere of competition among artists."

Also on Port Fairy's Art Walk are the Little Doll House Museum (34 James Street, phone 5568 3349, Thursday-Monday 10.30am-4pm) and the Preston Studio/Gallery (41 Regent Street, phone 5568 3100, open seven days), displaying the works of realist painter Wilma Preston.

Kites, bikes and volcanoes

Port Fairy's blustery weather makes it ideal for flying kites. During school holidays, The Kite House (27 Cox Street, phone 5568 2781) offers free kites so you can give it a try. For less windy days, the store also rents bikes ($22 for 24 hours). I hire one to tackle part of the new, mostly flat 30-kilometre Port Fairy to Warrnambool rail trail, which follows the defunct train line. I leave the trail about halfway to visit Tower Hill (see warrnamboolinfo.com.au/pages/towerhill, visitor centre open 9am-5pm weekdays, 10am-4pm weekends), a funnel-shaped crater caused by a volcanic eruption more than 30,000 years ago. Tower Hill was declared Victoria's first national park in 1892 and is an excellent place to see native wildlife and learn about the area's geological and indigenous history.

Other attractions

The arrival of whales and particularly the huge southern rights between June and October brings an added pull to visiting Port Fairy in winter.

Where to eat

The Merrijig Inn, at 1 Campbell Street (phone 5568 2324, seemerrijiginn.com), earned two chef's hats in the 2010 Age Good Food Guide. Dining at the Merrijig is an exceptional experience thanks to the innovative use of fresh regional produce, particularly seafood.

My dinner begins with an entree of crayfish and roe with samphire (a coastal plant). I also sample an exquisite baby abalone with shellfish tapioca. There's something symphonic, too, about the combination of colour, taste and texture of my main of blue-eyed cod, local scallops, asparagus, parsley, almonds and lemon. Local rieslings are the perfect accompaniment.

Fast garnering a reputation for fine fare is the Stag restaurant (phone 5568 3226, see the stagportfairy.com.au) at 22 Sackville Street. Stag chef Tanya Connellan makes every effort to source produce locally and the presentation is beautiful.

From the creamy cauliflower soup served over a parmesan crumble in a shot glass as an appetiser to the spaghetti with shaved zucchini and lemon zest, to the "seaside" tasting plate, including delicious grilled local sardines with a tomato salsa, there's much to enjoy. My meal ends with a wicked flourish: a chocolate pot de creme with roasted apricots, salted caramel and honeycomb.

Of the many busy cafes around the town centre, I gravitate to Ramellas, at 19 Bank Street (phone 5568 3322), for its quality coffee.

Along the street, the Cobbs Bakery offers home-baked goodies to take away or eat in the bakery house and gardens.

Where to drink

Try the local brew, Savage Seagull, at the Victoria Hotel (see vichotelportfairy.com.au) on Bank Street or down a pint of Guinness across the road at the Caledonian Inn, the oldest continuously licensed pub in Victoria, established in 1844. The Star of the West Hotel, on Bank Street, meanwhile, gets my vote for Port Fairy humour with its sign advertising a "Husband Creche", where women can leave their spouses and "shop in peace".

Where to stay

The self-contained Victoria apartments have kitchenettes, balconies or courtyards, free wireless internet and are close to galleries, cafes and boutiques. From $169 a night for a one-bed apartment at 48-50 Bank Street. Phone 5568 1160, see thevictoria.com.au.

In the same historic building as the classy restaurant, the Merrijig Inn has bed and breakfast accommodation. Rates from $140 a night. See merrijiginn.com. On the dunes at East beach are the affordable Mungala holiday apartments, with weekly rates from $750 in low season (May to November) on 192 Griffiths Street. Phone 5568 1066, see mungala.com.au.

Events

Port Fairy's most famous event is the Folk Festival (portfairyfolkfestival.com), which takes place in March each year and attracts 40,000 visitors. The 2012 festival is on March 10-13.

This winter, Port Fairy has a long weekend of art and music a (June 11-13), Taste the Flavours of Port Fairy, a celebration of the region's wine and food (August 6-7), and the Ex-Libris Port Fairy Book Fair (September 9-11, see exlibris.port-fairy.com), which features writers, poetry readings and an antiquarian book sale.

Getting there

I visit Port Fairy using the V/Line train from Melbourne's Southern Cross Station to Warrnambool, with an onward coach connection. There are two or more departures a day and the journey time is slightly more than four hours. Fares from $27.50 one-way. Phone 13 61 96, see vline.com.au.

The drive from Melbourne takes four hours via the inland route through Geelong and Colac and six hours (with one stop) along the Great Ocean Road. For more information, phone 5568 2682, see visitportfairy-moyneshire.com.au.

Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of Tourism Victoria.

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