Penguins Roadtrip to Phillip Island
A lovely drive to the rural Australian seaside, Phillip Island delivers everything you could hope for in a perfect daytrip.
Hot Take: The penguins are the highlight, but our trip to Phillip Island was the best day of our 2 months in Australia. (5.0 stars)
Pro Tip: Check the weather (you will be outside all day) and go on a weekday to avoid the crowds.
As Americans, the only penguins we have ever seen live in a zoo (in fact there are no native penguins anywhere in the northern hemisphere). So when we heard there were colonies of penguins within an easy day trip of Melbourne (a trip that would also include koalas and wallabies as well as chocolate and wine tastings), we said “Sign us up!” We checked the weather (temperate/cool with full sunshine) and decided to head off.
Phillip Island is a smallish island located 1.5 hours south of Melbourne. It is easy to reach by rental car or bus tour (note: no good public transportation options exist for a day trip)…but we love to self-drive when exploring in nature. So we rented a small car with a manual transmission for the day in downtown Melbourne for just $24.67. I showed up right after the ‘driving-the-Great-Ocean-Road’ crowd 9a and we were on the road by 9:45a. We used Google Maps to find a toll free route out of the city (which saved us ~$10 for the day). Once you include the $20 we spent on petrol, the grand total was ~$45 for up to 5 people (4 comfortably) or ~$22 each for the two of us (note: the cheapest bus tour we could find was ~$80 each, so we were $115 ahead already). We were able to turn our rental in at 10p when we got back to save ourselves from having to pay to park in the city. One important note: Melbourne and path down to Phillip Island is littered with speed cameras. Your cheap rental may not be able to go fast, but there is a zero-tolerance policy on speeding by even a little bit (so California drivers, consider yourself warned); however, we went with the flow and didn’t suffer anything catastrophic.
The penguins spend their days out at sea and don’t come back until after sunset, so we spent the day exploring the sites of Phillip Island. There are many things to do, so we recommend that you type “Phillip Island” into tripadvisor.com’s things to do section and pick the ones that look best to you. Here is what we choose:
Located down a dirt road with some of most spectacular ocean views we have ever seen while traveling to a winery, Purple Hen Winery has the awards to prove you don’t need to be in the Yarra Valley to make great wines. Greeted by the owner (who can be prickly to some, but we found him charming), we were walked through his entire range of wines (which were much better than we imagined they would be) and took the time to talk wine, terroir, and politics with us. He waived the $5 tasting fee per person since we purchased bottles (the Chardonnay was particularly good).
While driving to our next stop, we passed a sign that said “Chocolate Tasting”. One quasi-legal u-turn later and we found ourselves in a massive chocolate factory being handed a free truffle. After looking around (and Kelly quizzing the counter-lady about each and every chocolate on offer), we bought $10 worth of truffles and were on our way (note: they were delicious treats we enjoyed throughout the day. For those who are REALLY into chocolate, there is a factory tour (~$13 each) but we wanted to see more of the island, so we kept moving.
Our next stop was a real highlight (an something you definitely would not want to do with a big tour bus group); we went to a koala park. As many readers know, we are not into exploitative animal experiences or zoos, so we chose this conservation focused habitat center and were glad that our ~$10 each entry fees were being used to study and preserve the koalas. Ranked only after the penguins themselves, the Koala Conservation Centre was definitely one of the highlights of the trip and we would recommend it to anyone. We spend 2 hours here (but could easily have spent more) as we walked the tree-level boardwalks and got within 5 feet of multiple (mostly sleeping) koalas. Despite a noisy group of Asian tourists who (blessedly) quickly grew bored and moved on, we mostly had the boardwalks to ourselves and watched in awe as the koalas (which spend about 20 hours a day asleep) would periodically wake up, sleepily open their eyes to peer around, maybe munch a eucalyptus leaf or two, then fall back to sleep.
Totally adorable doesn’t even begin to describe how cute and vulnerable these creatures are (frankly, it is a good thing they evolved in Australia where they have no natural predators…because a big cat would make an easy meal out of them). In addition to the koalas (we saw 11 or the 12 in residence), the Conservation Centre is home to many native wallaby which we found (almost) as exciting to watch as the koalas. We took a nice long stroll around the property (virtually by ourselves) and spotted 5 wallaby grazing in the restored bush.
With an hour to kill before dinner the penguins, we took the time to go to one of the natural limestone cliff overlooks that ring the island. Maybe it was the wine or watching the koala, but we took a 30 minute nap in the car in the empty parking lot (note: BoldlyGoTravel is an enthusiastic supporter of naps). After we woke up, we spent 30 minutes admiring the rocks and waves as we walked along an excellent seaside trail. To be honest, it reminded us a lot of the California coast and made us a bit homesick.
Penguin Main Event
For us (and we’ll bet virtually anyone else) the highlight of the day was the Penguin Parade. Though no photos are allowed (flashes disorient the birds), this was probably the top highlight of our whole time in Australia and will make even the most jaded ‘I’ve-been-there-and-seen-it-all’ traveler turn into a little kid. First, know that this isn’t a cheap experience at ~$40 each (though we spent far more for far less on other Australian activities). Now there is an option to do this for half that price (the General Viewing grandstand), but spend the extra money for Penguins Plus (like we did) or do not do it at all. The General Viewing grandstand is located pretty far (300 feet/100 meters) away from the route of the penguins, where as we saw 300+ penguins march within 3 feet (1 meters) from us with about 30 of them coming literally under our feet (we were less than a foot away!!). Since these fairy penguins are only a foot tall, the difference between needing binoculars and being able to see all the details (including more than 1 actively mating pair) was well worth the difference. Another important note is to bring warm clothing and a blanket to sit on. As the march is after dark and on the beach, it gets cold out there for the 3 hours or so you will be there. Don’t be one of the many tourists that leave after the first group of penguins because they can’t stand the cold anymore. Our final piece of practical advice is to make sure that you are at the main building above the Penguin Parade by 4:45p. At 5p, they open the gates and it is first come, first serve on seating. We managed front row seats, but if we had been there 30 minutes later we would have been literally 10 times further away from the penguins!
After an hour of watching group after group of these marvelous little birds timidly peak around for danger then hop/waddle delicately over rocks before scurrying up the hillside to their burrows, the rangers eventually chased us up the boardwalk (we were the very last tourists) where we walked alongside some of the last penguins as they marched over half a mile (~1 kilometer) up from the sea to their burrows. We even got to watch from the visitors center as the last penguins crossed the road to their homes for the night. To say we were un cuteness overload would be an understatement and we relived every moment as we drove back to Melbourne.