What does the perfect small Australian town look like?A little like Queensland's Noosa? A lot like NSW's Yamba? Or a touch more like Victoria's Beechworth? Well, yes and no. For the quintessential small town experience, you just can't go past Port Fairy, sitting prettily on Victoria's Great Ocean Road – and that's official.
In 2012, Port Fairy was voted the world's (yes, the world's) most liveable community of towns with a population of under 20,000, in the UN-recognised LivCom award and the shire's mayor was presented with the prize at a ceremony in Abu Dhabi.
It was a shock for everyone, perhaps no less for some of the people living there. But then again, the small seaside town has been building a big reputation over the years as one of the country's premier festival venues, does have a gorgeous seaside setting, has plenty of heritage sites, is full of wonderful cafes with a two-hatted restaurant to boot, boasts a wide variety of boutique-style shops and has myriad natural attractions.
"I think the only problem is that a lot of Australians don't know the place and have never come here," says US tourist Janet Kirby, 55, who's – quite incredibly – on her fourth visit all the way from Minneapolis in eight years. "But when you come ... look at it."
She gestures at the crowds of people drinking coffee and eating home-baked cakes at tables outside all the cafes along the wide main street. "It's all so relaxed, but so beautiful too. I found this place by accident the first time I came to Australia and have been coming back ever since."
Yes, it's certainly a laidback town with a sweep of natural beauty but, still, does it really deserve such a globally covetted title? After all, it did nudge out the Irish jewels of Abbeyleix and the third-placed Moynalty Village in the competition, judged on good planning, a nourishing environment, a healthy lifestyle and a rich heritage.
It's a verdict, however, increasingly hard to argue against.
For a start, Port Fairy is incontestably one of the jewels of the stunning Great Ocean Road, one of the world's best drives along the edge of craggy cliffs with sweeping ocean views. Nearly 300kms south west of Melbourne, on the eastern headland of Portland Bay, it has a number of beautiful beaches and picturesque spots along the river to picnic.
That alone makes it one of the best destinations for a long weekend, or week, away, especially when bookended with the whole, or part of, the drive.
Other regular visitors include whales, in season, while there are some great walks all around the area. One of the nicest is around Griffiths Island, with its Mutton Bird rookery, its black wallabies and its beach of yellow and black volcanic rock all watched over by a lonely lighthouse, built in 1856. It has a wonderfully moody atmosphere; even the last lighthouse-keeper, during his 29-year tenure, left only once a month for provisions until he retired.
Just a 10-minute drive away lies the state's first national park, Tower Hill State Game Reserve, in the crater of an extinct volcano. After a major revegetation operation in the 1960s, the park now teems with wildlife, including kangaroos, koalas, wombats, possums, echidnae, sugargliders, emus and water birds.
As one of Victoria's oldest settlements, populated by sealers, whalers and various seamen from the early 19th Century, Port Fairy still has many original historic buildings standing around the town, which also add to the heritage ambience.
With the oldest house in the state, built in 1843, it's quite lovely to wander through the streets, with their old white-washed workers' cottages, gardens, public buildings, shops, banks, churches and frequent monuments, imagining what life must have been like for the early residents. A walk along the wharf is a must too, to look at one of Victoria's largest fishing fleets, begun by Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine in their homeland.
Yet Port Fairy is probably best known for its remarkable range of year-round festivals. Each March is the four-day Port Fairy Folk Festival, with national and international artists, every June and July are the Port Fairy Winter Weekends – themed winter festivals – every September is the Ex-Libris Book Fair, in October is the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival and from Christmas Eve to the end of January is the Moyneyana Festival, with a range of fun family activities.
"For a small town, it's incredibly well-organised," says Margaret Sinnott, who helps run the Ex-Libris Festival. "There's always something happening here. It's quite an amazing place."
Feeding and watering those visitors, as well as the locals, is done in quite startling style, too. There are new fewer than 30 cafes and restaurants in town, and the standard is extremely high.
At one regular cafe, Rebecca's Cafe and Ice Cream Shop, for instance, breakfast is anything from wild rice porridge with a rhubarb and blueberry compote with sesame seeds, to corned beef, hash browns, spinach and Turkish toast. Meanwhile, the Merrijig Inn, Victoria's oldest inn, has been awarded two hats for its fine fare and awards for its wine list.
Not to be missed, either, are the sumptuous High Tea by the High Sea at the Time & Tide Gallery, the award-winning coffee and chocolate at Slitti's, and the nearby Cheese World at Allansford.
Australia's best? It's certainly making a good case.
From Sydney, it's easiest to fly to either Tullamarine or, preferably the nearer Avalon, airport, and rent a car to drive along the Great Ocean Road to Port Fairy. From Avalon, it's 30 minutes to the start of the road at Torquay, then 280km to Port Fairy. Stop along the way to see the 12 Apostles. From the centre of Melbourne, it's just over an hour's drive to Torquay.
Choose a waterfront apartment, Horizons Beachfront (03) 5562 3185; a period cottage, Lavender Cottage on Sackville Street (03) 5243 5003; or a motel, Ashmont Motor Inn on Bank Street (03) 5568 1588
See some of the glorious sights of the Great Ocean Road, including the 12 Apostles, Gibsons Steps, Loch Ard Gorge, Bay of Islands and the partly fallen-down London Bridge. Drive to The Crags, 12km west of Port Fairy for panoramic views along the coastline. Have a meal at the Yambuk Hotel by the Yambuk lakes.
The writer travelled at her own expense.