Men’s Style spends a long weekend on Phillip Island – and finds out there’s far more to it than just fairy penguins and motorbikes.
Let’s get something straight: yes, Men’s Style’s correspondent did get a bad fright from the local wildlife when he went to Phillip Island. But he did not – repeat, not – run screaming up the beach after getting spooked during the nightly penguin parade.
No, this particular heart attack occurred at the base of the Sam Remo Bridge, which connects the island to the mainland and serves as a feeding spot of sorts for a pod of stingrays. Not the little ones, mind you – as my guide, Ash Belsar, cheerfully informs me while he plants bits of dead fish just below the water to attract them, “Nah, these are the big ones. The same ones that got Steve Irwin.”
And I’m just about to go snorkelling with them. Great. I remind myself not to swim directly over and slightly to the rear of the beasts, which would put me right in the crosshairs of the huge, deadly barbs in their tails. So sure enough, after about one minute of diving, I look down and a 200kg, six-feet-wide ray is below and just in front of me, with that weapon seemingly target-locked on my sternum…
It was the most intense surprise of Men’s Style’s trip, but definitely not the only one. Say “Phillip Island” to the vast majority of Australians and two things will come to mind: the world-famous fairy penguin parade, and hordes of petrolheads flocking to the track to watch world-class motor sport. But if you’re after a more upmarket, laid-back stay complete with fine food, beer and wine – its lesser-known attractions have got you covered, too.
Of course, Style did take in some motorbike racing and fairy penguin action, and we did so in the best way possible: in a chopper. There isn’t a better introduction to the island than getting a crash course in local knowledge from Phillip Island Helicopters pilot Steve Hanson as you do a 20-minute lap of the place. As you hug the southern coastline you’ll get in a quick lap of the racetrack. The World Superbikes were running during our flight, so Steve pitted us against the 320km/h missiles. “We got them in the corners, but they murdered us on the straight,” he says as we continue on and watch Bass Strait hammer big sets into some of the best surf beaches in the country.
Which brings us to one of those aforementioned mind-blowing experiences: surf school. While Phillip Island has insanely dangerous breaks like Express Point, it also has Smiths Beach, which is a paradise for novices. Just turn up to Island Surf School with a towel and they’ll take care of the rest. Wetsuit, board, expert tips, refraining from laughing as you fall off for the 32nd time in a row – it’s a seamless process that’s practically guaranteed to have you standing up by the end of your two-hour lesson. You can save a bit of money and be part of a big group, or spend a bit more and learn with four or five others, like Style did. The latter can’t be recommended highly enough. They say surfing’s like riding nature, and doing it for the first time is a rush you won’t forget until the Alzheimer’s sets in.
Your next stop? It could be the National Vietnam Veterans Museum, a huge and hidden gem that holds 6,000 pieces of memorabilia, including completely reconstructed aircraft, artillery pieces and tanks.It’s also close to the Cape Woolamai State Faunal Reserve on the island’s westernmost tip, which is home to some of the most rugged coast you’re likely to see Down Under.
If you’re still keen for more, try catching a rainbow trout at the Rhyll Bush Tucker Farm, chartering a boat so you can dangle a hook far offshore, taking a guided ocean kayaking tour, or getting some face time with the world’s most relaxed marsupials at the Koala Conservation Centre. But if all you’re keen for is a quality meal washed down with some life-affirming alcohol, that’s easily sorted. Cowes, the island’s biggest town boasts several restaurants, such as the well-reviewed Fig & Olive, and the Goat in the Boat Mediterranean grill, which filled Style up with enough slow-cooked Greek excellence to result in a food coma that lasted a year. Things gastronomic aren’t restricted to Cowes, however. The food – and especially the beer – at the Rusty Water Brewery restaurant are top-notch, and you can judge the locals’ vino-making skills at the Phillip Island Vineyard and Winery.
Anyone looking to spend time here should bear in mind that things slow down somewhat in winter, and some attractions might be closed or cut down on their opening hours. For example, stingray-wrangling Ash, who works for Out There Outdoor Activities, won’t give you the Steve Irwin treatment past the end of April. Oh, and don’t be put off by the barbs – snorkelling with the rays is flat-out awesome. You can even touch and feed them. The underwater tour is an eye-opener; a whole slew of attractions are just waiting for someone to dig below the surface a bit. The same certainly goes for the Island as a whole.