Melbourne may seem a long way from the kind of leisurely island-hopping you’d associate with the Greek isles or Whitsundays. But here I am late on a sunny Friday afternoon, just 60km south-east of the city, catching a tiny passenger ferry to an island so remote, so off-grid, so little-known, even the world’s biggest pop star could disappear into obscurity here.
This is exactly what Kylie Minogue did in the mid-noughties when she moved to French Island in Victoria to convalesce during treatment for breast cancer. Minogue and her then beau, Olivier Martinez, took up residence in a French Provincial home set behind stone walls on one of the island’s few hills. She would occasionally venture out to buy milk at the French Island General Store – the island’s only shop. The locals who befriended her say Minogue blended in well with the eclectic mix of farmers, greenies, businesspeople and recluses.
French Island is home to just 116 permanent residents and roughly 20 times as many koalas. I’m on the last ferry of the day departing Stony Point on the Victorian mainland together with about a fifth of the island’s (human) population. The adults are headed home laden with supermarket cool bags, while the children are chatting excitedly as they return from their weekly “socialisation” day at a mainland primary school.
Fifteen minutes later, I disembark on the rickety jetty and I may as well have stepped out of a time machine. Aside from the waves licking the wharf and the gentle whir of fishing lines, there’s a stillness here you only find in places with unsealed roads and very few cars – most visitors explore the island’s relatively flat terrain by mountain bike.
Two-thirds of French Island’s 170 sq km is national park. It is home to the largest and healthiest koala population in Australia (no chlamydia here, ladies and gents) as well as the long-nosed potoroo and short-beaked echidna. There are more than 200 species of birds, including white-bellied sea eagles, mutton birds and black swans. But it is the sight of the Australian white ibis (derisively referred to in cities as the “bin chicken”) in its natural environment, foraging with dignity in the oceanside mangroves, that really wows me.
Bringing a car over to the island is an expensive ordeal, so my hosts for the night, French Island Glamping, arrange a transfer. Set on a hilltop with ocean views, the campsite consists of five canvas bell tents spread across 100 acres, offering privacy as well as luxury. Each tent has queen-size beds, top-notch linen, wicker furniture, bluetooth speakers, board games, solar-powered light and enough space to salute the sun. There is a communal kitchen on the property that looks like something out of a reality cooking show and, after sunset, the owners join the guests around the fire pit and ply us with marshmallows for roasting. They tell us about long nature walks we can do from here and oysters to shuck at nearby beaches, and about one of their regular guests, a long-haul pilot, who likes to stay here between flights and simply sleep for three days straight.
That night I fall asleep to the sound of koalas fornicating (for such a timid animal, they’re certainly not shy about it) and awake in the morning to the chortling of kookaburras.
For breakfast I head to Minogue’s former pit stop, the French Island General Store. It’s also a licensed cafe, a post office, a tourism information centre, a bike hire outlet, and offers accommodation and a minibus transfer services. The old wooden store, situated across from a paddock of well-fed cattle and alpacas, is the hub of the community and, in the time it takes to ingest my eggs and coffee, I’ve crossed paths with the local postie, the resident koala counter and the manager of the award-winning French Island Vineyards (just call me, she says, if you want to arrange a quaffing session).
Next up is a tour with Naturaliste Tours, whose 4WD crawls from the interior heathland to the coastal saltmarsh. The guide recounts the island’s 6,000 years of human occupation – from the Indigenous Bunurong tribe whose middens pepper the 144km-long shoreline, to the early European settlers who grew and roasted chicory in still-standing kilns.
French Island is doing its job of unwinding the knots and stresses of the previous week but, as an inveterate urbanite who likes to make the most of her Saturdays, I feel the pull of Phillip Island. The popular holiday destination known for its motor-racing circuit and nightly penguin parade is a 15-minute ferry ride away, and while it is roughly half the size of its off-grid neighbour, its permanent population is more than 10,000 (including, famously, the Hemsworth clan).
Even so, arriving off the ferry and into the Phillip Island settlement of Cowes with its paved roads and traffic lights and fast-food joints and gelato stores and holiday homes and animal parks and Crazy Golf is a shock to the French Island-adjusted system. Phillip Island is also connected to mainland Victoria by bridge and is much closer in temperament.
Fortunately, I’m booked into Clifftop, far away from the buzz. The former beach house turned boutique B&B has just eight elegant rooms, each with wide balconies overlooking the surfing hub of Smiths beach on the island’s rugged southern coast. Wallabies forage out front among native vegetation, with farmland on one side and Bass Strait the other. I’m tempted to settle back in the room but there’s a whole island to explore, so I strap on my hiking shoes and head off for the Cape Woolamai walk. The 8km circuit along Woolamai surf beach and the scrubby granite clifftops of Phillip Island’s highest and most southerly point is where half a million mutton birds nest between October and April. It’s also a prime vantage point from which to watch humpback and southern right whales pass between April and November on their annual migrations.
It’s time for an early dinner at Saltwater, a glassfronted restaurant on the Newhaven jetty. At 6pm on a Saturday, it is heaving with bronzed locals sipping cocktails and tucking into woodfired pizza and platefuls of fresh local seafood. The bar is long, and the wine list longer, but there is no time to linger: it’s almost penguin o’clock. Over at Summerlands beach, the nightly event that attracts 600,000 visitors a year is set to unfold. The penguin parade is the third-largest visited natural attraction in Australia and sees thousands of the world’s smallest penguins (they grow to just 33cm high) arrive home at dusk after days of fishing at sea, cross the beach in groups and return to their burrows in the sand dunes, where they rest, breed and rear their young.
To make the most of the experience, I join a guided ranger tour, which gets me expert commentary through a headset, a ranger who I can volley all my questions at and a pair of binoculars through which to view the spectacle. We watch and wait from the theatre-like seating on the beachfront viewing platform. The day’s last light is struggling through the clouds when a dozen or so thoroughly soaked and jittery-looking little penguins appear at the water’s edge, scanning the sky for large predatory birds and each others’ faces for reassurance. One member of the group loses his nerve, turns around and dives back into the safety of the waves. The others follow like furry blue and white dominoes. This comical sequence is repeated until finally a confident member of the pack, larger and more upright than the rest, begins the waddle-dash across the sand. The younger and more cautious penguins follow in hot pursuit, their bellies almost skimming the ground. The rationale is safety in numbers, and roughly 2,500 penguins emerge from the sea in small groups in the hour we’re there. Soon the flightless birds are shuffling in formation up the dunes, dropping each other off at their respective homes. The delighted crowd gathers on the walkways and boardwalks above as the deft creatures scoot past within arm’s reach.
The next morning I sign up for a different kind of bird’s-eye view of the island. Phillip Island Helicopters offers a range of scenic flights, from $85 eight-minute jaunts around Cape Woolamai to 42-minute $420 laps of the entire island and the winery-speckled Mornington Peninsula. I opt for the former, my fear of small aircrafts dissipating the higher we rise above the flat, green pastures. We trace a surf-swept beach punctuated by basalt outcrops and sea caves, turn a corner for panoramic views out to French Island, Churchill Island and the mainland, and hover above coves dotted with colourful fishing boats and schools of fish and a stingray darting through the shallow water. It feels exhilarating.
Come lunchtime, I’m ready to try the famed local catch. The Cape Kitchen, on the edge of the cliffs in Newhaven, is reputed to be the island’s best restaurant. It prides itself on a seasonal menu packed with locally sourced produce and every morsel of my crispy skin barramundi in a pea puree lives up to the hype.
Behind the restaurant is a vacant plot where hot springs have been tapped. The water reportedly has the same mineral content as on the Mornington Peninsula, and the owners of the property hope to have a spa up and running within 18 months. That means Phillip Island – family holiday destination, foodie haven, car-racing wonderland, surfers’ paradise and wildlife-spotting capital – is on the cusp of adding “health retreat” to its attractions. And if that all sounds like too much, the remote simplicity of French Island is just 15 minutes and an entire world away.
• The writer travelled as a guest of Visit Victoria
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