On a Tuesday morning a few weeks back I got up at what I would term a ridiculous hour to catch a coach to the place that gave the world Chris Hemsworth (thanks again Australia). What I found there was a picturesque wildlife haven that was well worth getting up at 5am for.
Getting to Phillip Island by public transport was surprisingly easy considering that it is definitely a place geared towards people with their own means of getting around – be it by car or bike. I caught the v/line coach service from Southern Cross station at 6.30am and arrived at Newhaven just before 9.00am. There’s a change at a charming little town in the middle of the Victorian countryside called Koo Wee Rup – I kind of want to live there.
The v/line bus stops at the major towns from San Remo (which is actually on the mainland) to Cowes, the biggest town on the island. Newhaven is the first “town” you reach once you’ve crossed the bridge and the bus stops right outside The Island accommodation, which is where I was stayed for the night. I believe it’s the only hostel/budget accommodation on the island and it’s newly built and eco-friendly which is pretty cool. I ended up spending very little time there due to my limited time and how problematic it proved to get around without a car and didn’t get to explore any of the common areas but what I did see of it was clean and nice.
The reception hours are from 9am and so I arrived just in time. Even though I couldn’t check in until the afternoon I had booked a package which gave me a night’s stay and a 3 parks pass (entry to the Penguin Parade, Koala Conservation Centre and Churchill Heritage Farm) so I went to reception to retrieve it. The staff member at reception was very nice and gave me a whole list of things to do, circling them furiously on my map and writing down the times to go there. At this point it became pretty clear to me that there was much more to do than I had anticipated and no way I would get it all done in time.
As it was still early I decided to take a little stroll around Newhaven (the extent of which is an IGA, cafe and a couple of shops) and then wander down to the Woolamai Beach and along to see The Pinnacles. This wander soon turned into a brisk walk when it became clear that the destination was much further than I thought. Then there’s the fact that in certain places the pavement just ran out, which meant I was essentially walking along a highway in the middle of the road. Lesson #1: Phillip Island is not for walkers. The description of it as an “island” is deceptive and things are not as close as they look on the map!
2.5 hours later I had reached the edge of the coast. Did I mention that it was 40 degrees, I was carrying all of my weekend clothes – including a jacket (biggest mistake ever) – and I hadn’t brought any sun-cream? You can probably imagine how this turned out. After taking in the undeniably lovely view of Cape Woolamai from the highest point on the island my face felt pretty warm as I started the descent. By the time I had got back to the Kiosk and car park I headed into the toilets to survey the damage. It was bad. Lesson #2: ALWAYS bring suncream.
Luckily there is a blessed free bus service that runs around the island in the summer time called The Island Explorer. My gratitude towards this service can’t be summed up. If it didn’t exist I can’t even imagine how I would’ve navigated my way around. Sure it’s not very frequent and it only runs in a loop in one direction – which means if your stop is the one before where you get on you have to ride the whole thing around (and it takes 2 hours!) Had I realised this I would’ve planned my time much more meticulously and I did do this for day 2.
The Island Explorer was nearly hour’s wait but I had no choice at this point. It was still blisteringly hot, I was low on water and I had absolutely no sun protection. In summary, I was an idiot. I had stranded myself and I was at the mercy of the free bus service. When it arrived I was overly thankful to the driver and relieved that he didn’t seem too taken aback by my lobster-like appearance. The air-conditioning on that bus might’ve been the greatest thing to ever happen to me.
I decided to get off at Cowes as it was only a couple of stops away and there’s a 30 minute changeover time so I could hop off go to the shops and hop back on. I’d also read that this was where the only pharmacy on the island was and I knew I could get some emergency suncream.
Once that was done, I realised I needed to tick off one of my the attractions on my pass, or risk not getting to it the next day. The Koala Conservation Centre was only a few stops away and I figured it would be a quicker visit than the farm. Plus the bus stops there twice so you can spend an hour and hop back on – in principle.
Head over to my companion post how to explore Phillip Island on a budget for more info on the koalas but I will say here that one of the highlights of my trip was seeing an echidna wandering around here. I’ve only previously seen an echidna in a zoo and even though this was also in an enclosed space it was just wandering the paths and not in the actual koala enclosure. It walked alongside me for a bit and then when I tried to take a photo I stepped on something loud and it buried itself between some leaves away from me – sorry little echidna! Did you know baby echidnas are called puggles? How cute is that?
Once I’d had my whistle-stop tour of the koalas I headed to the Nobbies as I was told by the staff at The Island to get to the area a few hours before the penguins were due to arrive and walk from there along the coast back to the beach in time for the start. In the meantime I met a couple of other backpackers having trouble navigating the island without a car and we ended up sharing a cab due to a bit of a bus mix up on our part (turned out there are two bus stops at the koalas just to confuse you!) They intended to head back to Melbourne that evening and only through conversation with the cab driver did they realise that there was no way to see the penguins and get back to the city in the same night – the last bus is at 18.40!
They were pretty disappointed and headed straight back to Cowes while I hopped off at the Nobbies. It was still really warm but very windy by the coast. I walked along the boardwalk to see the blowhole and the rocks where you can see the fur seals in the distance. I wasn’t expecting to be so stunned by a rock formation to be honest but if you go to Phillip Island you really can’t miss this area. The colour of the plant life on the hills surrounding is incredible. I felt like I was in Scotland or even Iceland, especially because the sky was looking a bit bleak!
After a spot of dinner in the Nobbies Centre ($20 for a garden salad but no other veggie options!) I took the advice I’d been given and walked along the dirt track back to the beach where the penguin parade happens. The walk was about 45 minutes and absolutely incredible. There were no other walkers and I was passed several times by tour companies offering me a lift. Everyone seemed to think I was in some kind of distress walking by myself when I was having a lovely time enjoying the scenery and taking photos – which I couldn’t have done from a bus. I was also enjoying the sheer abundance of the wild wallabys hopping around me. That walk was probably my favourite moment of the whole trip and not least because I didn’t have to share it with all the other tourists!
I reached the penguins in just the right amount of time. You can read more about what the Penguin Parade involves here. You are not allowed to take photos when the sun goes down and you are told about this multiple times. Did it stop people? Of course not. The experience was tarnished for me slightly by the sheer amount of disrespect so many people had towards the policy of the wildlife. The rangers explain to you that it is for the protection of the penguins that you don’t take photos because the light scares them and damages their eyes – even without the flash the glare from the phones is bad for them! You would think people who came to see the penguins would care about what happens to them, but apparently getting a photo for facebook is more important.
I caught the last Island Explorer back to the hostel – luckily it runs in the evenings especially for the penguin parade – and finally met my 3 other roommates, all of whom were really nice and despite my best intentions to get an early night we ended up chatting until 1am. I was pretty lucky that we were in a 6 bed dorm room which was only occupied by the 4 of us (and I thought I was going to be in a 12 bed when I booked so extra win!)
I was minorly exhausted by the amount of walking I’d done the previous day when I woke up the next morning. My coach back wasn’t until 18.40 and I only had one attraction on my pass left so I intended to spend the day in a more leisurely manner and try to schedule my day around The Island Explorer.
After checking out I walked over the bridge to explore San Remo. I forwent the hostel cafe in favour of more options in San Remo and after breakfast walked along the jetty and by the water waiting for what I was really there for. Every day at 12pm the Fisherman’s co-op provide fish for the pelicans and the rangers feed it to them along the shore. I was stunned by how close we were allowed to be to the pelicans. They are pretty large birds and I’ve always stayed well clear of them because of their huge beaks and imposing look. It turns out that they’re pretty harmless. Everyone was very close and even when the pelicans were fighting over the fish and flapping and stumbling all over the place the ranger told us to just stay still and they wouldn’t hurt us. They don’t seem to mind getting so close to humans and I certainly was fascinated getting so close to them.
From there I headed to Churchill Island. I’d walked past the turn off the day before on my way to the beach so I intended to walk it from San Remo, knowing it wasn’t far from the hostel. I was right that the turn off isn’t far, but from the turn off the walk out to the island is definitely pretty far! I was really lucky that I hadn’t got very far when the bus pulled up next to me and the driver picked me up despite it not being a designated stop. I have to add here that, of all the times I used the free service, and the 4 or 5 drivers I had, each one of them was so lovely and really went out of their way to be friendly and give you information about the area. They were all much nicer than the v/line drivers I encountered! Perhaps it’s something to do with living in such a nice place.
More on Churchill Island Heritage Farm here but it was my favourite of the 3 attractions included with the parks pass. Be aware before you go that you risk a serious amount of contemplating whether to give it all up and become a farmer.
A couple of hours later I was back in Cowes in plenty of time to catch my v/line service back to Melbourne. The weather was starting to take a bit of a turn so my walk along the coastline was cut short. Instead I went for shelter and sustenance at Fortuna Fish & Chips, which is located along the front. They market themselves as being Fish & Chips with a difference because they have an array of exciting extras to go with your standard meals, such as pineapple fritters, sweet potato cakes, dim sum and spring rolls. The food was really good and they have gluten free options plus really good value food boxes (the value box has fish, chips, dim sum, potato cake and sauce for $11 and looked like way too much food to feed one person!)
In a moment of pathetic fallacy the rain came on fast as we drove out of Phillip Island and back towards Melbourne that evening. It was testing at times but so worthwhile to get to experience all of the beauty and nature on offer.