Lee Atkinson explores a nook known for its motorsport and penguins but which offers much more.
Wildlife, wild surf and wild coastlines with spectacular cliff-top walking trails are the three drawcards of Phillip Island, about a two-hour drive from Melbourne.
What it's known for
Fast bikes, and penguins, are the island's most famous attractions. Home to the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix each October, as well as the Superbike World Championship and the V8 Supercar Series, it's one of the most scenic racetracks in the world, although I doubt the racers have much time to admire the panoramic ocean views - it's also one of the fastest tracks in the world. There's a display on the history of motorsport at the track, and you can take a guided circuit tour, ride a go-kart or buckle up for a few hot laps with a racing driver (phillipislandcircuit.com.au). The famous penguin parade, when hundreds of little penguins come out of the sea at Summerlands Beach at dusk and waddle up the hill to their burrows, attracts thousands of visitors a night. There are two viewing platforms and a number of tours: prices start at $22 for adults, $11 for kids, but the best is the Penguin Plus ($44 for adults, $22 for kids, $110 for families), where you get a prime viewing position and share the experience with only 150 others, rather than the crowds at the main platform. penguins.org.au.
What you didn't know ...
Penguins aren't the only birds to call Phillip Island home. Each year 23 million short-tailed shearwaters (also known as muttonbirds) migrate to southern Australia from the Bering Sea near Alaska, 15,000 kilometres away. About a million arrive on Phillip Island in late September to mate and stay until April raising their chicks. Watching them arrive at sunset is quite a spectacle. The best place to see them is Cape Woolamai.
Artfusion is a new sculpture and glass studio and art gallery where you can watch the artists at work and buy their work at half the price you'd get them for in Melbourne galleries. You'll find the centre at the roundabout at Anderson, just before you get to San Remo. Open Thursday to Monday, 10am-5pm. artfusionstudioandgallery.com.
See koalas in the wild at the Koala Conservation Centre near Cowes. There are two elevated boardwalks that let you get close to the koalas precariously perched in the treetops. Children will love the Churchill Island Heritage Farm, where they can watch cows being milked, sheep being shorn, take a wagon ride and see a blacksmith at work. The historic houses, which date from the 1850s, are fully furnished and open for self-guided tours. Both attractions are open daily, 10am-5pm. A Three Parks Pass gets you entry to the Penguin Parade, Koala Conservation Centre and Churchill Island. $37.50 for adults, $18.70 for kids, $93.70 family. penguins.org.au.
Where to eat
Almost everything on your plate at Harry's on the Esplanade at Cowes is local - crayfish is a speciality - and the beachfront view is wonderful. Open for lunch and dinner, Tuesday to Sunday. 5/17 The Esplanade, Cowes, (03) 5952 6226. The cafe at Rhyll Trout & Bush Tucker Farm does great tempura trout, and has a wide range of bush tucker teas and spreads, perfect with the home-baked wattleseed scones. You don't have to catch your own fish, but $9 gets you a rod and a fishing lesson, and, for another $10, the chef will cook your catch while you wait - kids love it. Open daily, 10am-5pm. 30 Rhyll-Newhaven Road. rhylltroutandbushtucker.com.au. Phillip Island Winery does Gippsland cheese and antipasto platters, with live acoustic music in the afternoons. Open 11am-6pm, Saturday and Sunday. 414 Berrys Beach Road, Ventnor, phillipislandwines.com.au.
Where to stay
Although not technically on Phillip Island - San Remo is on the mainland-side of the bridge - your view at Silverwater Resort is all Phillip Island. It's a great option for families, with a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments. Facilities include two swimming pools, tennis, basketball and volleyball courts, and a playground with jumping pillows. Rates start at $165 a night, silverwaterresort.com.au. Clifftop, a rambling beachhouse B&B overlooking Smiths Beach, is a 15-minute drive from the Penguin Parade and most rooms have ocean views. Rates start at $235 a double, clifftop.com.au.
How to get there
Reached by bridge from San Remo, Phillip Island is 142 kilometres south-east of Melbourne, via the Monash Freeway (M1), South Gippsland and Bass highways.