Who would want to visit an island located at the southern end of Victoria in winter? I don’t know if your perceptions of holidays include freezing conditions but in my book, holidays and cold weather don’t go hand in hand, unless of course, you’re on a ski trip.
And just the thought of spending a weekend in Phillip Island, or Isle of penguins as it’s universally known, in the middle of winter made my teeth chatter.
Needless to say that for the weekend, myself and my company were well equipped, with excessive amounts of winter clothes and all the relevant accessories in order to be able to face the weather.
And while we all left Melbourne prepared for an arctic cold, the weather surprised us as we left our warm gear behind for T-shirts. But this wasn’t the only surprise at Phillip Island. Mild weather accompanied by the vast green scenery which when the sun decides to caress, gives off a distinctly gorgeous Australian landscape like no other – this is Phillip Island.
The cradle of nature
Phillip Island is located 187 kilometres from Melbourne. It was formed, like many other islands around the world, by successive volcanic eruptions, 65 million years ago. It was for thousands of years the place where the Bunurong Aboriginal people gathered their food.
As time proved, the Bunurong Aboriginal people were not only the first inhabitants of the island but also the best guardians of its biodiversity. Since the first Europeans set foot on the island, of the ten colonies of little penguins that lived on the island only a single one is left, the one those who visit the island see today.
People can see the penguin colony by visiting Nobbies Park, which is located at the south west tip of the island.
And it was not only the penguins who had a bit of an issue with the way Europeans treated their habitat, but many other species who disappeared after European settlement.
The destructive interference of humans, particularly of whites on the island, stopped, if this can ever stop, in 1996. Phillip Island Nature Park was formed then by the State Government and all natural treasures of the island were put under the protection of one management. The Nature Park covers more than 1,800 hectares across Phillip Island and undertakes a vast array of conservation and research work with the sole aim of protecting the flora and fauna of this unique corner of Australia. As part of its role, the National Park has created the necessary infrastructure and safeguards for visitors and locals to respect and enjoy the natural beauty of the island and its biodiversity.
As for any other self-respecting visitor to Phillip Island, so for us the Nobbies Centre and the Little Penguins parade was a must. Okay, it was cold there, but with the help of a couple of sips of ouzo, (the nectar of the gods in these icy conditions) it did become a bit more bearable.
There is nothing mystifying in the appearance of the little penguins – they are just so cute and adorable. Do not be fooled, though, by their size and appearance. These miniatures of the animal kingdom are truly an example of great endurance and are formidable divers. Just imagine that every morning just before dawn the little penguins wake up and swim in the frozen ocean waters as far as 100 kilometres to get their food. And all this hassle for the 240 grams of fish they actually need to eat daily.
Beyond their cute posture and clumsy walking, what literally kept us and hundreds of other onlookers on the paths of Nobbies Park for almost an hour was the decision of two different groups of penguins to cross one of the paths specially adapted for guests.
What a sight. The group on the left undecided (as usual) and the one on the right loud as (expected). We are talking about penguins of course and not politicians so the argument did not drag too much. It kept us there for less than an hour.
The Nobbies Centre – apart from all touristy trinkets – offers a particularly interesting educational experience for visitors of all ages – children will be amazed by this. With the help of technology and the touch of a button all your questions about the masters of the island will be answered. And it is no exaggeration to call these little creatures the masters of the island. Thanks to them, that wintery Saturday night Phillip Island hosted more than 1,500 guests. Thanks to them, the island’s local economy thrives in summer and remains functional in winter. And they played a major role in the creation of the Phillip Island National Park which assisted in the protection of many other species. Respect for the penguins.
But after them came pelicans, koalas, seals, the buffaloes and cows on Churchill Island’s farm, the white-faced herons, the black swans, pied stilts and so many others, whilst the birds with their soprano voices wake you up in the most gentle way. And they were everywhere, those colourful ones.
Due to the number of wild koalas being relatively low, the Koala Conservation Park was opened in 1992 to provide a safe haven for Australia’s furry friends. Taking a walk around the park you can see the koalas in their natural habitat, allowing them to flourish and grow. There’s also an interactive centre here to educate visitors on sustainability principles.
You see, in the cradle of nature, the expression of beauty is not confined to the wave-scorched rocks of the coast, nor the sandy beaches, or in the special parks like the Koala Conservation Park – it is everywhere. What to admire first. How many pictures can a human’s memory conserve? There is one though that will stay with me for a while. My interaction with a goose, the so called Cape Barren Goose. I met her in Swan Lake, the only lake of Phillip Island which can easily be named a ‘Birds Paradise’. I really was impressed by its blasé style of walking, its size and its green beak. Later I learned that this is one of the rarest goose species in the world. For ten minutes I was talking to her, observing her lazy moves and she, surprisingly, was looking me in the eyes. ‘What does this humanoid want?’ might have crossed her mind! Her reaction within fractions of seconds vindicated my thoughts. She threw a caw after my 10 minute monologue, turned her back on me and walked away with huge steps. I did not follow. However, the pink of her eyes and her blasé attitude will stay with me for some time.
The cradle of taste
It was not only nature, assisted by the weather, that made this wintery three-day escape to Phillip Island a story worth sharing. No weekend escape from the trivialities of routine would be complete if it did not include other challenges as well. In this case, let’s talk about the taste-related challenges that Phillip Island can offer.
Although the Ramada Resort, located a short distance from the main town of Cowes, can be considered one of the most peaceful and comfortable places to stay overnight, it is a whole lot more.
The pizzeria located within walking distance of all the villas in the resort offers the tastiest pizza in Melbourne, to my tastebuds at least. Hence the reason none of my friends complained when I declared the prawn wood-fired pizza a no-go territory. I wanted it all for myself. The succulent prawns in combination with the melted cheese and the gently traceable spicy undertone was just divine.
Rusty Water, one of the best restaurants on the island, proved to be another tasty surprise which became even more enjoyable since it was coupled with a brewery.
As Neil the owner informed us, beers offered in Rusty Water are not fermented on the island, since this is illegal, but in boutique breweries around Victoria, and they are exclusively served at Rusty Water. I’m not a beer drinker but I have to admit that the sampler we were served, called Pure Pilsner, had a nice surprise in store for me. It is a must to visit Rusty Water while on Phillip Island and try this light but gutsy beer. And the art of gastro-challenges is not exclusive to Rusty Water’s beers.
“We use local produce and that might make us the most successful restaurant in the area,” Neil said, and a glance around the packed restaurant could confirm that Rusty Water does not go unnoticed by visitors and locals alike.
“Certainly in summer we are busier but we always have a steady number of patrons in winter as well,” he added, confirming that Phillip Island really is the island for all seasons. And the conversation with Neil, I have to admit, ran short as soon as the delicious Bouillabaisse, a French seafood dish, landed upon us.
And do not be fooled into thinking that your culinary challenges need be limited to Italian or French tastes, as there’s also a Greek restaurant on Phillip Island. Let’s keep in mind that many Greek Australians either live permanently or have a holiday house in the area.
And last but not least comes the Pannys Chocolate Factory. Children will love it, adults will drool, but everyone has to try Pannys chocolates. Surely the tour that they offer lacks more in adventure than the one Willy Wonka offers, but trust me it is equally mouth watering. It is fitting, after all, to leave the island not only with the image of cute penguins in your mind, but also with the sweet taste of good chocolate on your palate.
For more information visit www.visitphillipisland.com