Phillip Island

Phillip Island is an extraordinary place to visit, famous around the world for its international motorcycle racing circuit and its colony of Little (Fairy) Penguins. No other place can combine the thrill and excitement of world championship 500cc and Superbike events and national touring car races with the wonder of watching a colony of the world's smallest penguins come ashore each night to roost. The island also has the largest seal colony in Australia near its Seal Rocks Sea Life Centre and a Koala Conservation Centre where visitors can see these unique marsupials from a tree-top level boardwalk.

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Phillip Island is just 135km south-east of Melbourne dividing Western Port Bay and Bass Strait. It can be a long day trip, but that means a night drive back to the city as the penguins do not begin to come ashore until nightfall. During the summer months, that's about 9pm as Victoria is a long way south of the equator and enjoys a long twilight. There's a lot to see and do on the island and a vast range of accommodation, cafes and restaurants, so its well worth an overnight stay.

Phillip Island is connected to the mainland by a road bridge. The island is just 20km long by about 10km wide with easy access to attractions. Its main town is Cowes in the centre of the northern, most sheltered shore of the island. But be warned, the island can be very busy on holiday weekends and booked solid during the 500cc motorcycle Grand Prix and other big bike and car racing events, so reservations are essential.

The Penguin Parade is a remarkable experience. Depending on the season, 300 to 750 of the sleek little birds come ashore at Summerland Beach on the south-western shore of the island at sunset after a days fishing. They swim 15 to 50km a day to hunt. As protection from their predators, sharks and seals, the Little Penguins (formerly called Fairy Penguins) swim in packs known as 'rafts'. These have been known to be up to 300 strong. The penguins tumble ashore to waddle up beach tracks to their burrows in sand dunes, stopping along the way to preen. The birds breed between August and March, raising 2 clutches of young in a good season. Visitors must keep to designated paths and flash photography is not allowed. Some lights have been erected to enable photography with high-speed film. The beach can be very cold and windy so take warm clothes in winter and a windcheater in summer. Anyone with the slightest interest in nature, particularly children, should not miss the parade.

The Seal Rocks Sea Life Centre on the western tip of the island, is a fine example of bringing the habitat to people without letting people endanger the very thing they came to see. Close-up recorded underwater video displays at the centre show the seals fishing and playing. Another display features the Great White Shark, a protected and endangered species which grows to 6 metres (20 feet). Though the shark is their main predator, it is credited with keeping the seal colony strong by hunting weak and injured seals. Experts say the sharks keep the seal population from growing so large that the available fish supply would not be able to sustain it.

The Great White (White Pointer) is regarded as Australia's most dangerous shark, responsible for several fatal attacks on humans. Most victims have been divers who, wearing wetsuits and flippers, resemble seals - so the popular theory goes. The centre is open daily from 10am until dusk and has a cafÃïÃÂÂÃïé, brasserie and restaurant. Boardwalks around the point offer great views.

Bay Connections runs seal watching cruises from its base at Cowes, and at San Remo near the bridge crossing to the island. The cruises get close enough to the Seal Rocks colony for the company to guarantee visitors will see more than 4700 seals. Who counts is a mystery. It also runs cruise tours to nearby French Island which has a large population of koalas in the wild, a lot of bird life and an historic prison farm.

The Koala Conservation Centre near the middle of Phillip Island has 1km of paths winding through the trees, and a boardwalk at treetop level where people can get a closer look at these unique Australian marsupials. Churchill Island, a wetland reserve with a walking track, is at the eastern end of the main island. It's known for its birdlife and scenery.

The Phillip Island Nature Park controls the Penguin Parade, Seal Rocks, the Koala Conservation Centre and Churchill Island. They charge an individual admission fee, or visitors can buy a pass, which covers all four. The attractions place a heavy emphasis on research and education as well as entertainment.

Phillip Island Wildlife Park, the largest privately owned wildlife park in Victoria, lets visitors feed some of its animals, many of which wander freely in the park. A Maze 'n Things features a 3-dimensional timber maze and a puzzle centre, and Lavinia's Dolls of the World has 500 international and character dolls on display. Add that to the island's coastal scenery and it is easy to see why the area is one of Victoria's most popular tourist drawcards.

But not all is serene and natural. Lovers of fast bikes and fast cars must visit the Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit. This is the best motorcycle racing circuit in Australia and a major venue for touring cars as well. It is part of the world 500cc motorcycle championship and international Superbike circuit. Near the centre of the southern shore of the island, the GP Circuit has a motorsport display at its visitor centre featuring bikes, cars and memorabilia dating back to 1928. Mini-bus tours take visitors the full length of the track, which encloses bird aviaries, a water garden and trout tanks as extra attractions. The major GP Circuit event dates vary, though the Superbike championship is generally at Easter, the 500cc World Championship in October, and the V8 Supercars in May.

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