Melbourne could seem a great distance from the sort of leisurely island-hopping you’d affiliate with the Greek isles or Whitsundays. But right here I’m late on a sunny Friday afternoon, simply 60km south-east of town, catching a tiny passenger ferry to an island so distant, so off-grid, so little-known, even the world’s largest pop star might disappear into obscurity right here.
This is precisely what Kylie Minogue did within the mid-noughties when she moved to French Island in Victoria to convalesce throughout treatment for breast most cancers. Minogue and her then beau, Olivier Martinez, took up residence in a French Provincial home set behind stone partitions on one of many island’s few hills. She would often enterprise out to purchase milk on the French Island General Store – the island’s solely store. The locals who befriended her say Minogue blended in nicely with the eclectic mixture of farmers, greenies, businesspeople and recluses.
French Island is home to only 116 everlasting residents and roughly 20 occasions as many koalas. I’m on the final ferry of the day departing Stony Point on the Victorian mainland along with a few fifth of the island’s (human) inhabitants. The adults are headed home laden with grocery store cool baggage, whereas the kids are chatting excitedly as they return from their weekly “socialisation” day at a mainland main faculty.
The welcoming social gathering on the French Island wharf. More than 2,000 koalas name the wildlife-rich island home. Photograph: French Island Glamping
Fifteen minutes later, I disembark on the rickety jetty and I’ll as nicely have stepped out of a time machine. Aside from the waves licking the wharf and the light whir of fishing strains, there’s a stillness right here you solely discover in locations with unsealed roads and only a few automobiles – most guests discover the island’s comparatively flat terrain by mountain bike.
Two-thirds of French Island’s 170 sq km is nationwide park. It is home to the biggest and healthiest koala inhabitants in Australia (no chlamydia right here, women and gents) in addition to the long-nosed potoroo and short-beaked echidna. There are greater than 200 species of birds, together with white-bellied sea eagles, mutton birds and black swans. But it’s the sight of the Australian white ibis (derisively referred to in cities because the “bin chicken”) in its pure surroundings, foraging with dignity within the oceanside mangroves, that basically wows me.
The view from inside a canvas bell tent. Photograph: French Island Glamping
Bringing a automobile over to the island is an costly ordeal, so my hosts for the evening, French Island Glamping, organize a switch. Set on a hilltop with ocean views, the campsite consists of 5 canvas bell tents unfold throughout 100 acres, providing privateness in addition to luxurious. Each tent has queen-size beds, top-notch linen, wicker furnishings, bluetooth audio system, board video games, solar-powered gentle and sufficient area to salute the solar. There is a communal kitchen on the property that appears like one thing out of a actuality cooking present and, after sundown, the house owners be a part of the company across the fireplace pit and ply us with marshmallows for roasting. They inform us about lengthy nature walks we are able to do from right here and oysters to shuck at close by seashores, and about considered one of their common company, a long-haul pilot, who likes to remain right here between flights and easily sleep for 3 days straight.
That evening I go to sleep to the sound of koalas fornicating (for such a timid animal, they’re definitely not shy about it) and awake within the morning to the chortling of kookaburras.
For breakfast I head to Minogue’s former pit cease, the French Island General Store. It’s additionally a licensed cafe, a put up workplace, a tourism data centre, a motorcycle rent outlet, and affords lodging and a minibus switch companies. The previous wood retailer, located throughout from a paddock of well-fed cattle and alpacas, is the hub of the neighborhood and, within the time it takes to ingest my eggs and occasional, I’ve crossed paths with the native postie, the resident koala counter and the supervisor of the award-winning French Island Vineyards (simply name me, she says, if you wish to organize a quaffing session).
French Island General Store is the one store on the 170 sq km island. Photograph: Janine Israel for the Guardian
Next up is a tour with Naturaliste Tours, whose 4WD crawls from the inside heathland to the coastal saltmarsh. The information 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 earlier week however, as an inveterate urbanite who likes to profit from her Saturdays, I really feel the pull of Phillip Island. The fashionable holiday vacation spot recognized for its motor-racing circuit and nightly penguin parade is a 15-minute ferry trip away, and whereas it’s roughly half the scale of its off-grid neighbour, its everlasting inhabitants is greater than 10,000 (together with, famously, the Hemsworth clan).
The Hemsworth lads grew up browsing Phillip Island’s rugged seashores. Photograph: David Hannah/Visit Victoria
Even so, arriving off the ferry and into the Phillip Island settlement of Cowes with its paved roads and site visitors lights and fast-food joints and gelato shops and holiday properties and animal parks and Crazy Golf is a shock to the French Island-adjusted system. Phillip Island can be linked to mainland Victoria by bridge and is way nearer in temperament.
Fortunately, I’m booked into Clifftop, far-off from the excitement. The former seaside home turned boutique B&B has simply eight elegant rooms, every with huge balconies overlooking the browsing hub of Smiths seaside on the island’s rugged southern coast. Wallabies forage out entrance amongst native vegetation, with farmland on one aspect and Bass Strait the opposite. I’m tempted to settle again within the room however there’s an entire island to discover, so I strap on my climbing sneakers and head off for the Cape Woolamai stroll. The 8km circuit alongside Woolamai surf seaside and the scrubby granite clifftops of Phillip Island’s highest and most southerly level is the place half 1,000,000 mutton birds nest between October and April. It’s additionally a first-rate vantage level from which to observe humpback and southern proper whales cross between April and November on their annual migrations.
Cape Woolamai is home to half 1,000,000 mutton birds and is a first-rate spot for whale watching between April and November. Photograph: Phillip Island Helicopters
It’s time for an early dinner at Saltwater, a glassfronted restaurant on the Newhaven jetty. At 6pm on a Saturday, it’s heaving with bronzed locals sipping cocktails and tucking into woodfired pizza and platefuls of recent native seafood. The bar is lengthy, and the wine listing longer, however there isn’t a time to linger: it’s nearly penguin o’clock. Over at Summerlands seaside, the nightly event that draws 600,000 guests a 12 months is about to unfold. The penguin parade is the third-largest visited pure attraction in Australia and sees hundreds of the world’s smallest penguins (they develop to only 33cm excessive) arrive home at nightfall after days of fishing at sea, cross the seaside in teams and return to their burrows within the sand dunes, the place they relaxation, breed and rear their younger.
Slightly penguin tends to its chick by its burrow within the dunes. Photograph: Visit Victoria
To profit from the expertise, I be a part of a guided ranger tour, which will get me professional commentary by a headset, a ranger who I can volley all my questions at and a pair of binoculars by which to view the spectacle. We watch and wait from the theatre-like seating on the beachfront viewing platform. The day’s final gentle is struggling by the clouds when a dozen or so totally soaked and jittery-looking little penguins seem on the water’s edge, scanning the sky for big predatory birds and every others’ faces for reassurance. One member of the group loses his nerve, turns round and dives again into the security of the waves. The others comply with like furry blue and white dominoes. This comical sequence is repeated till lastly a assured member of the pack, bigger and extra upright than the remaining, begins the waddle-dash throughout the sand. The youthful and extra cautious penguins comply with in sizzling pursuit, their bellies nearly skimming the bottom. The rationale is security in numbers, and roughly 2,500 penguins emerge from the ocean in small teams within the hour we’re there. Soon the flightless birds are shuffling in formation up the dunes, dropping one another off at their respective properties. The delighted crowd gathers on the walkways and boardwalks above because the deft creatures scoot previous inside arm’s attain.
The subsequent morning I join a special sort of hen’s-eye view of the island. Phillip Island Helicopters affords a spread of scenic flights, from $85 eight-minute jaunts round Cape Woolamai to 42-minute $420 laps of the whole island and the winery-speckled Mornington Peninsula. I go for the previous, my concern of small aircrafts dissipating the upper we rise above the flat, inexperienced pastures. We hint a surf-swept seaside punctuated by basalt outcrops and sea caves, flip a nook for panoramic views out to French Island, Churchill Island and the mainland, and hover above coves dotted with vibrant fishing boats and colleges of fish and a stingray darting by the shallow water. It feels exhilarating.
The view from above of Phillip Island. Photograph: Phillip Island Helicopters
Come lunchtime, I’m able to strive the famed native catch. The Cape Kitchen, on the sting of the cliffs in Newhaven, is reputed to be the island’s greatest restaurant. It prides itself on a seasonal menu full of domestically sourced produce and each morsel of my crispy pores and skin barramundi in a pea puree lives as much as the hype.
Behind the restaurant is a vacant plot the place sizzling springs have been tapped. The water reportedly has the identical mineral content material as on the Mornington Peninsula, and the house owners of the property hope to have a spa up and working inside 18 months. That means Phillip Island – household holiday vacation spot, foodie haven, car-racing wonderland, surfers’ paradise and wildlife-spotting capital – is on the cusp of including “health retreat” to its sights. And if that each one appears like an excessive amount of, the distant simplicity of French Island is simply 15 minutes and a complete world away.
• The author travelled as a visitor of Visit Victoria