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We have been based in Melbourne for over a year now and have explored most of the regular weekend getaway spots. I am not sure why it took us so long to visit Phillip Island, just 90 minutes from Melbourne. Like many, I thought it was simply the tourist place you went to see the little fairy penguins. I had no idea that there was so much more to do on Phillip Island!
We spent the weekend there and although we saw the adorable little penguins, we only scratched the surface on what the island has to offer. You can visit on a day trip from Melbourne, but I would encourage you to spend at least one night on this amazing island. In fact, I would love to go back for a whole week to properly explore the many beaches and coastal areas of the island. A 4-parks pass represents great value to enjoy all of the main attractions (Penguin Parade, Churchill Island, Antarctic Journey, and Koala Conservation Centre) run by Phillip Island Nature Parks.
Phillip Island Conservation
The island is much larger then I expected and while the penguins were amazing as the main attraction, I was most impressed by the conservation work of Phillip Island Nature Parks. They manage to balance conservation efforts with the very popular eco-tourism Penguin Parade and other attractions. You see it wasn’t that long ago that development and lax environmental regulations were severely impacting the wildlife on the island.
Phillip Island Nature Parks is a not-for-profit organization that plows all profits from the eco-attractions into conservation and educational projects. We were amazed by what they have achieved in the past couple of decades. They orchestrated a full buy-back of the Summerland Peninsula housing development and nature has been re-vegetating this important penguin and seabird nesting area. They have rid the island of non-native foxes that were killing penguins and have re-forested koala habitat that had been cleared for farming.
The Penguin Parade
This is one of Australia’s most popular tourist attractions and a must-do for visitors and locals alike. It is an incredible opportunity to be able to observe these tiny penguins come ashore at dusk and waddle to their nests. This isn’t a zoo; it is real, live nature. Depending on the time of year, up to a few thousand penguins come ashore in this area of Phillip Island. Check the calendar before you go to see what time the penguins are expected and what stage they are at in the breeding process. We went in November and saw hundreds of penguins, whereas Paul went in June and saw much less. I would go any time of year as it is a magnificent sight regardless.
You want to arrive 1 1/2 hours before sunset and the expected arrival time of the penguins. General viewing tickets are the most economical way to see the penguins, but I would suggest purchasing Penguins Plus tickets which allow you to see the penguins up close. For both, you will want to grab seats as soon as they open the doors to the boardwalks (just over an hour before the penguins’ arrival. There is absolutely no photography allowed, but you can download photos from Phillip Island Nature Parks to show your family and friends.
There is a small Visitor’s Centre with some educational displays and a short movie showing, along with a cafe and gift shop.
Once the penguins have come ashore, it takes them awhile to make their way up the beach and through the dunes. In Penguins Plus they walked right by us as they use the same pathway each evening (they were less then 2 m from us!). After you have viewed them from your seat, you are welcome to walk the boardwalks and see them waddle towards their home. This gives every one an opportunity to see them up close.
It can be late a night for young kids and there can be large crowds, here are my tips for attending the Penguin Parade with kids:
- buy Penguins Plus tickets as you will have more space and a better vantage point
- bring something for the kids to do while you are waiting. The coast line is spectacular, but a book was very useful for our kids as we sat for an hour waiting.
- dress for the weather. It can be quite cool even in the summer months, so bring layers. The Parade goes in rain or shine, so bring rain jackets if there is rain in the forecast.
- avoid weekends, when it is much busier.
The Penguin Parade was a huge hit with our whole family. The kids thought they were super adorable (and so did the adults!) and it was fascinating to learn more about these little creatures.
Churchill Island Heritage Farm
This is a must-see attraction if you have kids, but all visitors will appreciate the beauty and history of this small island farm off Phillip Island. Here we had the opportunity to milk cows, see sheep being sheered, watch working dogs move sheep, go on a horse ride and practice whip cracking. There are lots of beautiful farm animals to see and pet and heritage buildings to explore.
Check the schedule for the activities for the day, which usually take place in the afternoon. It is easy to experience them all as they are set up back-to-back. Our kids are getting older (6-10 years old) and I wasn’t sure how much they would enjoy visiting a farm. However, they were super engaged in the interactive activities and loved our visit. I would allocate 3 hours to visit.
If you are on Phillip Island on the 4th Saturday of the month there is a lovely Farmer’s Market at Churchill Island. It is outside of the Farm gates, so free to enjoy. From 8am-1pm, the Market sells a mixture of fresh produce, tasty goodies and handicrafts. The setting is absolutely breathtaking, looking out over the rolling hills and sea. Our kids had no trouble finding lots of great things to sample and buy.
This multi-media and educational joint venture between Phillip Island Nature Parks and the WWF is located at the Nobbies. The building sits on a gorgeous perch over the rocky coastline and makes a great place to visit before the Penguin Parade, just 5 minutes away.
Our kids loved the Lab area where they learned about everything from climate change to Antarctic wildlife. There are lots of interactive activities for them to get involved in. Our kids particularly enjoyed seeing their thermal outline compared to a penguin’s. They could then spend some time in the freezing room and see how their thermal outline changed. We had visited Mawson’s Replica Antarctic Hut in Hobart and it was wonderful to see the kids making connections to that experience.
The next section of the Antarctic Journey is full of screens projecting National Geographic quality video of the Antarctic. It is incredibly peaceful to have a seat and take in the vast polar landscape and wildlife. The kids particularly enjoyed the augmented reality area where they were visible on a floating piece of ice and could interact with the whales, penguins and seals that came by.
Koala Conservation Centre
The last of the main attractions at Phillip Island, we visited the Koala Conservation Centre on a different day. Since being in Australia for a year, we have seen our share of koalas both in captivity and in the wild, but we never tire of these cuddly iconic Aussie animals. What I found fascinating with the Koala Conservation Centre is that they have completed re-forested the area to bolster the dwindling koala population on the island. Each attraction we visited, we were super impressed with the conservation efforts we observed. We even managed to learn quite a few new things about koalas at the Visitor Centre.
There are two koala boardwalks where you can see koalas in their native environment. We visited on a very rainy day, but still managed to see 9 koalas. There is also a Woodlands trail that you can explore to see more native wildlife. We saw lots of birds and a few wallabies as well and enjoyed being in the bush.
The Antarctic Journey is located at the Nobbies, a rocky headland where you can see Seal Rocks, the home of Autralia’s largest fur seal colony. You can take Eco-boats out to see the seals and other wildlife. Alternatively you can walk the boardwalks and enjoy the views of this rugged coast. There are lots of penguin nesting boxes and native nests that you can see from the boardwalks and our kids enjoyed seeing a few penguins in their nests. Since it was spring time, there were lots of eggs in nests so one parent was staying home daily to watch over the nest while the other went out fishing.
The island has so many walking trails to explore, tailored to all abilities. We cycled (but you can easily walk) from Conservation Hill to Rhyll Inlet on the raised boardwalks through the wetland. This path is suitable for a pram and is a good one for families. I have never seen so many butterflies in my life and we saw lots of interesting birds and a few wallabies. The view over Rhyll Inlet is very impressive and we enjoyed watching all of the boats coming and going.
Phillip Island has a ton of spectacular beaches that we didn’t have the opportunity to explore (that is why we are going back!). What I loved about the beaches was how pristine and rugged they felt. The houses are set back behind the dunes, making the beaches very private and wild.
Phillip Island beaches are renowned for surfing and many aren’t suitable for young kids. Have a look at this guide to the beaches on the island and which are better suited to families.
The main town on Phillip Island, we weren’t sure how a town came to be called “Cowes”. There are lots of restaurants and shops here and in better weather, the beach actually looked quite nice.
Where to Stay on Phillip Island
Big 4 Phillip Island – located right across the bridge from San Remo, we spent the weekend at this campsite. They also have cabins you can rent. Our kids loved the jumping pillow and beach. Click here to check prices.
Comfort Resort Kaloha – this is the best option for families on the island with townhouse accommodation, swimming pool and jumping pillow and walking distance to the beach. Located right in Cowes, it is very accessible. Click here to check prices.
Seahorse Motel – another great option with great reviews in Cowes, Seahorse offers family rooms with kitchenettes, swimming pool and a great location. Click here to check prices.
Where to Eat on Phillip Island
Rusty Water Brewery – we are a sucker for breweries wherever we go and love a delicious tasting paddle. The best thing about this Brewery is that the food was equally as good as the beer. And our kids loved their Chicken Parm kids meals. They do get really busy on weekends, so call and book a reservation. It is located in the centre of the island, near the Koala Conservation Centre.
Isola di Capri – located right in Cowes, this waterfront restaurant has the best views around. Their pizzas were delicious and very reasonably priced.
We dropped into Phillip Island Chocolate Factory and would recommend giving it a miss. It was extremely touristy with extremely expensive, nothing special chocolate. To do the self-guided chocolate making tour would have set our family back over $70! We had wanted to eat at the beautifully located Cape Kitchen, but you need reservations on weekends to eat there.
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Disclaimer: We were hosted by Phillip Island Nature Parks, but as always all opinions are our own. This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you make a booking through our link, we make a small commission. This helps us continue to generate great content.