Glamping it up with penguins & Coco-Pops on Phillip Island, Victoria

by Monday, February 12, 2018

This week’s Guest Traveller, JTC Editor Danielle Johnston, asked her six-year old to help her write a story about the highlights of their three-night glamping trip on Phillip Island, south-east of Melbourne. What came back – simple and stomach-felt – from the mouth of her babe did not surprise her: “We ate CocoPops for breakfast. We went to the beach everyday. We held a penguin that died. We slept in a tent.” Here’s an ode to reliving childhood holidays, creating new memories with good friends, and encrusting everything with a certain, sandy crunch…

Happy glampers: Four kids; three mums; and three bell-shaped tents. And wallabies, rabbits & frogs.

Pelican feeding happens daily at midday at San Remo, the last town before you cross the bridge to Phillip Island. The massive stingrays hovering in the shallows are a bonus. Tip: Don’t stand on a sting ray.

We couldn’t have wished for a better start to the trip. Wildlife: Up close and personal. The free, daily-at-midday pelican feeding drew over 100 holidaymakers who stood spitting distance from a pod of pelicans raucously ‘sword fighting’ for a gulp of lunch. The massive black stingrays hovering in the nearby shallows left the kids even wider-eyed – and filled with questions. Someone was heard to say that there’s no need to worry about stingrays (a poisonous barb in their tail doesn’t count?!), but we adopted the shuffle-walk through the water anyway. Risk-mitigation is a mum’s main game, especially on a first-time camping trip. With no child stung or carried away by a pelican, we high-fived our parenting prowess and picnicked under a pergola beside a playground.

Money well spent: Hard-working Taison and Ashleigh from Western Glamping Co. arrived ahead of us on Thursday to set up camp, then packed it all down again on Sunday morning. Hallelujah!

On the island, the Newhaven Big 4 caravan park was our base for three nights. The park’s brand new amenities block, jumping pillow and buggies-for-hire all served our active audience well. Our three, adjoining, powered camp sites backed onto a wetland which came alive with weird bird calls at night but, thankfully, no mozzies. (FYI, glampers must book their own campsites directly, then tee up the ‘accommodation’.) If you ask me, every dollar paid to Western Glamping Co. (WG) was a dollar well spent. And to just zip it up and walk away at the end of the holiday: Priceless. Imagine the lather we would have been in pitching tents, unpacking and kid-wrangling for a couple of hours in 40-degree heat. Having read the scorching forecast, we took our own pedestal fans for night-time – just in case – however, we found the well-ventilated tents had cooled down by the time we hit the hay. The sleeping arrangements were spacious and comfortable (gloriously free from blow-up mats, and sweaty sleeping bags). The tents were generously kitted out with a cooking kit (crockery, cutlery, camp stove, etc.) which would have been convenient, had we not opted for eating breakfast cereal out the box, and fish & chip-type dinners. Not having to cook was the mums’ ‘holiday’ part of this vacation. In fact, being away from all whitegoods and household appliances was bliss.

The Chocolate Waterfall at Panny’s Phillip Island Chocolate Factory. An interactive, self-guided tour through the origins of chocolate, with arcade-style games, and multiple opportunities to eat the heavenly stuff literally fresh from the production line. Photo: Panny’s.

Camping takes you out of your comfort zone – literally. It also makes you hyper-aware of how noisy young children can be. In every campsite, there’s always that first-to-wake family with a rooster-like child just bursting to seize the day – and wake the neighbours. In this case, it was my child. Cue pulling out a colouring-in kit to buy everyone else a sleep-in and save our friendships! In a similar vein, sugar spikes are usually to be avoided among kids of any age group, especially when open-air parenting means you have to pack away your gruff yelling voice and be on best-parent-behaviour (at least until someone else caves in).  However, when there’s a chocolate factory less than a kilometre from your caravan park, you’re destined to abandon that plan. When the actual entry ticket is a gold-foil wrapped bar of chocolate, there’s no going back. You’re committed. Fortunately, these weren’t empty calories. It was educational and entertaining – like an old-fashioned games arcade crossed with a museum crossed with a chocolate factory. The kids were engrossed in the machines with buttons to push and levers to pull. There were multiple games of skill, with chocolate as prizes, of course. Especially good was the hands-on chocolate making device where you create your own (in Panny’s words) “chocolate masterpiece that travels along a conveyor belt and is delivered to you, ready to eat”. Back in the cafe, a shot of chilli-flavoured hot chocolate sounded like a good idea (for this mum) but turned out to be a lot ‘hotter’ than expected.

The Penguin Parade is a great family outing but an additional, ‘Behind The Scenes’ tour with a ranger amps up the education, taking the whole experience to the next level. Tip: Book in advance for both – they fill up quickly.

One of the great things about Phillip Island is that, wherever you stay, no attraction is more than an easy, 20-minute drive through paddocks of grazing cattle and sheep, and native eucalyptus forests. So, visiting the most famous of the native inhabitants is no biggie, apart from the child-unfriendly time-slot. You see, the Little Penguins keep nocturnal hours and ‘parade’ up the beach, back to their sand-dune burrows at sunset. For little kids, the darkness and big crowds, coupled with their circadian rhythm, may detract from their enjoyment. We countered with ice-creams – and getting there as late as possible – and this worked a treat. We also returned the next night for a ranger-led ‘Behind The Scenes’ tour. Thirty-minutes long, the tours operate before the Penguin Parade (during School Holidays and selected long weekends), and allow you to ask a ranger a zillion questions about these cute, flightless birds. You also get to touch a taxidermied penguin, play with penguin puppets, and take home a little, hand-knitted penguin jumper. Our fabulous ranger told us about the threat that the humble balloon poses to sealife. ‘When Balloons Fly, Seabirds Die’ is a campaign for blowing bubbles instead of releasing balloons and it makes perfect sense – especially after seeing heartbreaking photos of the poor creatures who have ingested, or become entangled in, balloons, ribbons and ties.

The permanent ‘Antarctic Journey’ exhibition at the Nobbies does a superb job of inviting interactions and entertaining visitors while informing us about the special ways penguins survive the cold.

An afternoon at the Nobbies was a great opportunity for a leg-stretching 45-minute stroll along boardwalk. It also gave us a way of getting out of the heat and into air-conditioning for an hour, to see the ‘Antarctic Journey’ exhibition. A chat to the rangers revealed that Phillip Island was once a volcano and the black rocks we saw were once molten lava – music to the ears of my volcano-obsessed six-year-old. A little bit of online research later backed up the story as The Phillip Island & District Historical Society website (PIDH) says: “About 50 million years ago, molten rock burst out through great fiery craters all over the surface of what is now Phillip Island.  Volcanic lava spread across the land and ash blasted violently into the air. The eruptions continued for several million years and eventually built up the thick deposits of volcanic rock which make up most of the island.  On Round Island at the Nobbies there are six distinct lava flows piled one upon the other.  The black rock found around most of the island’s coastline is basalt (volcanic lava) and the red rock seen at places like Red Rocks is generally tuff (volcanic ash).” We delighted in driving home past the site of the volcanic crater (Quoin Hill – near the Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit) which has been quarried for bluestone since 1958 to make house slabs, footpaths and roads on Phillip Island. Reading more about the local Boon Wurrung people, and how they visited the island in spring and summer when food was plentiful and the water was calm for crossing, has made me want to return and search for their 2,000-year-old shell middens, find evidence of the locally mined pink granite, and see the wreck of the S.S. Speke which, the PIDH says, crashed onto rocks at Watt Point when ploughing through stormy seas on her way to Geelong to load wheat. I had spent countless summers on the island as a child and never known any of this history. In the island’s 150th year of European ‘free settlement’, it was good to dig deeper and recognise the island’s fascinating, and sometimes frightening past.

Shelley Beach. Phillip Island forms a natural breakwater for the shallow waters in Western Port Bay. The island’s south coast feels the brunt of Bass Strait and is where you’ll find the surf beaches. Tip: Take insect repellent to deter sandflies.

Finally, a shout-out to the most beautiful natural attraction of Phillip Island: Stunning beaches. Newhaven beach, on the island’s south side, was perfectly wave-free and just a short walk through tea-tree from the caravan park. Cowes Beach had a gentle swell, and established trees for shade, with a view across to French Island and the Mornington Peninsula. Shelley Beach was a shell-fossicker’s dream and also a goldmine for finding worms to use as bait for… Berry’s Beach which was the kind of unpatrolled surf beach which demanded a particularly watchful eye on children playing in the break zone. If it weren’t for the intense heat, and a few too many sandflies, we would have spent longer there. All in all, the three mums agreed that three nights in a tent was ample and we pledged to do it, in some way, again in 2019. We all loved our time on the island and acknowledged that, next time, we’ll hopefully fit in a nocturnal koala prowl, perhaps throw down a picnic blanket and listen to live music at a local vineyard, and maybe brave the night carnival…

P.S. Sitting on the grass in the cool shade on Churchill Island, with good coffee, face-painting and every other Farmers’ Market delight within arms-reach… a camper’s nirvana. Tip: Take cash. No ATM on site.

The important details: 

Phillip Island tourism.

Antarctic Journey.

Bundled ticket options & 2/3/4/5 Parks Passes. For penguins, koalas, Churchill Island and Antarctic Journey and Eco-Boat Adventure.

Churchill Island Farmers Market. 246 Samuel Amess Drive, Churchill Island (8am-1pm)

Churchill Island Heritage Farm. 246 Samuel Amess Drive, Churchill Island 3925. 03 5951 2800


Penguin Parade General Viewing & Behind The Scenes Tour.

Phillip Island Caravan Park. 24 Old Bridge Drive, Newhaven Vic 3925. 03 5956 7227

Phillip Island Chocolate Factory/Panny’s Amazing World of Chocolate. 930 Phillip Island Rd, Newhaven VIC 3925. 03 5956 6600 Open 10am-5.30pm, 7 days a week.

Western Glamping Co. 0447 500 449 Instagram: @westernglampingco