Phillip Island is nebulous and inchoate – both to itself and the hordes of visitors. A very driveable 90 minutes from Melbourne, 79 minutes of which seems to be spent getting out of Melbourne, it tries hard to be the complete holiday destination. Some days it succeeds.
You arrive at Phillip Island after a brief drive through the countryside of south Gippsland, passing such exotic attractions as the State Coal Mine and a deer abbatoir.
The trip would be shorter except road access to the island is via a causeway on the the eastern end, rather than the more conveniently located western side. It is unclear whether this is a failure of planning or just a cunning plan to ensure that visitors are forced to drive through the mudflat called Tooradin.
The Island, as the locals call it, was previously largely agricultural but that has definitively shifted in the direction of tourism. The main drawcard for most tourists, especially the international ones, is the Little Penguin sanctuary. Every night hundreds of birds the size of a hand come ashore on a handful of specific beaches and proceed to march up the dunes in search of their burrows. They’ve spent the day fishing in the sea, and I do wonder whether floodlights and human cooing is in their best interests. Regardless, they’re cute and the tourists lap it up.
It was the Japanese in the 1980s who really made the penguin parade a major attraction. Having a national fixation with all things cute, these tiny waddling birds were like catnip to the wealthy Japanese salarymen of the day. As Japan’s influence has faded and China’s has risen there has been a smooth transition from yen to yuan.
Acceptance of overseas visitors is variable, but it seems to me that the Chinese are less welcome. Lacking the over-the-top politeness of the Japanese, their habits of dress, behaviour, and rudeness (by Australian standards) are tolerated rather than endorsed. I was walking down the main street one afternoon when I saw a minibus disgorge a clot of Chinese passengers, who proceeded to wander up and down the street three abreast before being herded into a truly unsanitary looking Chinese restaurant. When in Rome, I suppose.
For many of the native Australian visitors, the main attraction is the Moto GP, a weekend of motorbike racing on the course in the centre of the island. It attracts a crowd of petrol-heads, motorsport enthusiasts and other Ostrogoths, and the town sells out of beer in short order. As I understand it this is a major event, but the world of loud engines generally leaves me cold and I haven’t sought to expand my knowledge.
That said, I had my own encounter with the track itself a few years ago. A group of my work colleagues planned to do a Tough Mudder mud-run event a few years ago, which was located on the track. There were worse ways to spend a day, although it was neither as gruelling nor as rewarding as I’d been led to believe, ice-dunk notwithstanding. Although these races claim to be democratic in their appeal, our group learned early on that it helps having a heroically square-jawed, 6’2″ athlete on your team.
For many locals, and indeed for visitors like me, Phillip Island is mainly a beach holiday destination. This overlooks the fact that it’s cold and rainy for nine months of the year. But it has the distinct advantage of being driving distance from home and doesn’t require negotiating the horror of Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport.
As a coastal destination, The Island (as the locals call it) caters both to family beach holidays and also to surfers and other daredevils. The north coast is sheltered on three sides and has vast sandy beaches.
The south coast is rugged and faces directly onto the Southern Ocean. The aptly named Surf Beach is one of several venues for what is reportedly some of the better surfing to be had in this end of the country. The local Island brand of surfboards attests to this, and is advertised by every second car on the streets. Some truly hideous boxy houses have been built by the wealthy on the more popular beachfronts, all the better for Felicity and Fiona to host their girlfriends during the school holidays.
Winter is tough though. Some hardy souls continue surfing in full wesuits but swimming is right out. The full blast of the Southern Ocean scours the island clean of tourists, petrol-heads and penguin-fanciers alike. Only the hardiest come to visit, despite the sleet and grey brutality.
If I were a local, it would be my favourite time of year.