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PHILLIP ISLAND: Penguins on Parade

139 km (86 miles) S of Melbourne

Phillip Island’s penguin parade, which happens every evening at dusk, is one of Australia’s most popular animal attractions. There are other, less crowded places in Australia where watching homecoming penguins feels less staged, but at least the guides and boardwalks protect the little ones and their nesting holes from the throngs. Nevertheless, the commercialism of the penguin parade puts a lot of people off—busloads of tourists squashed into a sort of amphitheater hardly feels like being one with nature. But Phillip Island also offers nice beaches, good bushwalking, fishing, and Seal Rocks.

Getting There -- Most visitors come to Phillip Island on a day trip from Melbourne and arrive in time for the penguin parade and dinner. Several tour companies run day trips. Among them are Gray Line (tel. 1300/858 687 in Australia; www.grayline.com or www.grayline.com.au), which operates a number of different tours, including the daily “penguin express” trips for those who are short of time. The express tour departs Melbourne at 3pm and returns at around 9pm. Tours cost A$126 for adults and A$63 for children, and can be booked online in U.S. dollars before arrival. Upgrades to premium seating at the penguin parade and various other options are available.

If you’re driving yourself, Phillip Island is an easy 2-hour trip from Melbourne along the South Gippsland Highway and then the Bass Highway. A bridge connects the island to the mainland.

V/Line (tel. 13 61 96 in Australia; www.vline.com.au) runs a bus from Melbourne to Cowes, but does not take you to any of the attractions on Phillip Island. Once on the island, you need to hire a car, take a tour, or hire a push bike to get around. The parade is 15 km (9 1/2 miles) from the center of Cowes.

Visitor Information -- There are two information centers on the island. The Phillip Island Information Centre is at 895 Phillip Island Tourist Rd., Newhaven, just a few kilometers onto the island, and is open daily from 9am to 5pm (6pm in Dec and Jan) and closed Christmas Day. The Cowes Visitor Information Centre is at Thompson Avenue, Cowes and is open 9am to 5pm daily (except Christmas Day). The centers share the toll-free number tel. 1300/366 422 in Australia and the website www.visitphillipisland.com.

Exploring Phillip Island

Visitors approach the island from the east, passing through the town of Newhaven. The main town on the island, Cowes (pop. 2,400), is on the north coast. The penguin parade is on the far southwest coast.

A ThreeParks Pass gives discounted entry to the top attractions, the Koala Conservation Centre, the penguin parade, and Churchill Island Heritage Farm (tel. 03/5956 7214; www.churchillisland.org.au). The pass costs A$38 adults, A$19 children ages 4 to 15, and A$96 for families of four; it can be purchased online (www.penguins.org.au) or at any of the attractions.

The trip to the west coast of Phillip Island’s Summerland Peninsula ends in an interesting rock formation called the Nobbies. This strange-looking outcropping can be reached at low tide by a basalt causeway. You’ll get some spectacular views of the coastline and two offshore islands from here. On the farthest of these islands is a population of up to 12,000 Australian fur seals, the largest colony in Australia. Bring your binoculars. This area is also home to thousands of nesting silver gulls. The Nobbies Centre (tel. 03/5951 2800; www.penguins.org.au) is a marine interpretive center with information about the wildlife, binoculars for better viewing, and a cafe. Entry is free from 11am daily until an hour before sunset, when the area is closed to the public to protect the wildlife.

On the north coast of the island, you can explore Rhyll Inlet, an intertidal mangrove wetland inhabited by wading birds such as spoonbills, oystercatchers, herons, egrets, cormorants, and the rare bar-tailed godwit and whimbrel. Birders will also love Swan Lake, another breeding habitat for wetland birds.

Elsewhere, walking trails lead through heath and pink granite to Cape Woolamai, the island’s highest point, where there are fabulous coastal views. From September through April, the cape is home to thousands of short-tailed shearwaters (also known as mutton birds).

THE MORNINGTON PENINSULA
80 km (50 miles) S of Melbourne

The Mornington Peninsula, a scenic 40 km (25-mile) stretch of windswept coastline and hinterland, is one of Melbourne’s favorite day-trip and weekend-getaway destinations—and not just because it’s a popular wine-producing region. The peninsula’s fertile soil, temperate climate, and rolling hills produce excellent wine, particularly pinot noir, shiraz, and chardonnay. Many wineries offer cellar-door tastings; others have excellent restaurants.

Getting There -- From Melbourne, you can drive to the Mornington Peninsula in about an hour. There are two toll roads, but taking the toll-free Neapean Highway, and then the Point Nepean Road, is just as easy. Getting there by public transport is a time-consuming process, and does not solve the problem of how to get around once you are there.

Visitor Information -- The Peninsula Visitor Information Centre, 359 Point Nepean Rd., Dromana (tel. 1800/804 009 in Australia, or 03/5987 3078; www.visitmorningtonpeninsula.org), has plenty of maps and information on the area and can also help book accommodations. It’s open daily from 9am to 5pm, except Christmas Day and Good Friday, and from 1 to 5pm on Anzac Day (Apr 25).

Exploring the Mornington Peninsula

The coastline of the Mornington Peninsula is lined with good beaches and thick bush. The Cape Shanck Coastal Park stretches along the peninsula’s Bass Strait foreshore from Portsea to Cape Shanck. It’s home to gray kangaroos, southern brown bandicoots, echidnas, native rats, mice, reptiles, bats, and many forest and ocean birds. The park has numerous interconnecting walking tracks providing access to some remote beaches. You can get more information on this and all the other Victorian national parks from www.parkweb.vic.gov.au or by calling tel. 13 19 63.

Along the route to the south, stop at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, Dunns Road, Mornington (tel. 03/5975 4395; http://mprg.mornpen.vic.gov.au), to check out the work of well-known Australian artists (Tues–Sun 10am–5pm; admission A$4), or visit the summit at Arthurs Seat State Park for glorious views of the coastline. At Sorrento, take time out to spot pelicans on the jetty or visit the town’s many galleries.

If you are traveling with kids, stop in at Australia’s oldest maze, Ashcombe Maze & Lavender Gardens, 15 Shoreham Rd., Shoreham (tel. 03/5989 8387; www.ashcombemaze.com.au). My kids loved it. In addition to the big hedge maze, there is also a rose maze made out of 1,200 rose bushes, and the gardens are huge. It also has a pleasant cafe with indoor and outdoor dining. The park is open daily from 8am to 5pm, except Christmas Day; admission is A$19 for adults, A$10 for children 4 to 15, and A$52 to A$66 for families.

For fabulous wildlife viewing, take a night tour of Moonlit Sanctuary Wildlife Conservation Park, 550 Tyabb Tooradin Rd., Pearcedale (tel. 03/5978 7935; www.pearcedale-conservation-park.com.au), at the northern end of the peninsula. The sanctuary is open daily from 10am to 5pm (except Christmas Day), but the best way to see Australia’s nocturnal animals is on a guided evening tour. The bushland tour will enable you to see animals such as the eastern quoll, the red-bellied pademelon, and the southern bettong, all of which are extinct in the wild on Australia’s mainland. Night tours must be booked in advance. I highly recommend this—it’s a wonderful way to see and interact with animals and birds you’d never see during daylight hours! Day admission is A$18 for adults, A$9 for children, and A$48 for families of four. Night-time admission and guided tour is A$40 for adults, A$25 for children 4 to 15, A$15 for children under 4, or A$120 for a family of four.

THE MACEDON RANGES

Some of Victoria’s finest gardens dot the hills and valleys of the Macedon Ranges, just an hour from Melbourne. In bygone times, the wealthy swapped the city’s summer heat for the cooler climes of Macedon. Their legacy of “hill station” private gardens and impressive mansions, along with the region’s 40 cool-climate wineries and gourmet foods, are enough reason to visit.

Getting There & Getting Around -- The Macedon Ranges are less than an hour’s drive from Melbourne along the Calder Freeway, which is a continuation of the Tullamarine Freeway. Follow the signs towards Bendigo until you reach Gisborne, and then move off the freeway. V/Line (tel. 13 61 96 in Australia; www.vline.com.au) trains from Melbourne to Bendigo pass through the Macedon Ranges, stopping at stations including Macedon, Woodend, Kyneton, and Malmsbury. Fares range from A$14 round-trip to Macedon to A$22 round-trip to Malmsbury.

Visitor Information -- There are two visitor information centers in the region: the Woodend Visitor Centre, 711 High St., Woodend (tel. 03/5427 2033), and the Kyneton Visitor Information Centre, 127 High St., Kyneton (tel. 03/5422 6110). Both share the same telephone information line (tel. 1800/244 711) and are open daily 9am to 5pm (except Christmas Day and Good Friday). The website www.visitmacedonranges.com is also a good source of information.

Exploring the Macedon Ranges

The best times to visit the Macedon Ranges for the gardens are April (autumn) and November (spring). During Open Garden months (www.opengarden.org.au), private gardens can be viewed by the public. Some homestead gardens open at other times, too, including Duneira (tel. 03/5426 1490; www.duneira.com.au) and Tieve Tara (tel. 0418/337 813 mobile phone; www.gardensoftievetara.com) at Mount Macedon; Bringalbit, near Kyneton (tel. 03/5423 7223; www.bringalbit.com.au); and the Edna Walling garden at Campaspe Country House, Woodend (tel. 03/5427 2273; www.campaspehouse.com.au). It pays to call ahead to check times and access (the gardens are often closed in winter). Entry fees apply.

At Hanging Rock Reserve, South Rock Road, Woodend (tel. 1800/244 711), the ghost of Miranda, the fictional schoolgirl who vanished at Hanging Rock in author Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock, is never far away. Peter Weir’s 1975 film of the novel cemented its fame, but the natural beauty of the area overshadows its slightly spooky reputation. You can climb the rock, walk the tracks, and explore caves like the Black Hole of Calcutta and the Cathedral. You can take a guided tour (night tours are offered in summer). The Hanging Rock Discovery Centre explains the geology and history of the area and revisits the book and movie. The reserve is also home to lots of wildlife including koalas, kangaroos, sugar gliders, echidnas, and wallabies. It’s open daily 9am to 5pm. Admission is A$10 per car or A$4 per pedestrian.

After the gold rush of the 1850s, Woodend became a resort town with guesthouses, private gardens, a racecourse, a golf club, and hotels. Reminders of those days can be found in the historical buildings and clock tower on High Street. Cafes, provedores, boutiques, and galleries abound. For example, stop in for a beer at the family-run Holgate Brewhouse, in the historic Keatings Hotel on High Street (tel. 03/5427 2510; www.holgatebrewhouse.com). The brewery produces a range of draught beers, and you can buy “tastings” until you decide on your favorite. The beer is brewed using just four ingredients—malt, hops, yeast, and pure Macedon Ranges water. It’s open daily noon [']til late (except Christmas Day).

The hamlet of Malmsbury has two main things worth stopping for on the Calder Highway. First, the Malmsbury Botanic Gardens, next to the Town Hall, were designed to take advantage of the Coliban River valley and a billabong that was transformed into a group of ornamental lakes. The 5-hectare (12-acre) gardens have a superb collection of mature trees; it’s also a popular spot for barbecues, and at Apple Hole you’ll find kids leaping into the river from a rope swing. At quiet times, you may even spot a platypus. But Malmsbury’s most famous landmark may be the bluestone railway viaduct built by 4,000 men in 1859. At 25 m (82 ft.) high, with five 18 m (59-ft.) spans, it is one of Australia’s longest stone bridges and is best viewed from the gardens. I also like to pop in to Tin Shed Arts (tel. 03/5423 2144), a spacious gallery on the highway that always has something interesting and unexpected. It hangs contemporary and traditional art from both local artists and well-known names from around Australia. You’ll find paintings, mixed media, sculpture, and craftwork. It’s open Thursday to Monday 10am to 5pm. The gallery is next door to the Malmsbury Bakery (tel. 03/5423 2369), a local institution where you’ll find plenty of hot pies, bread, and snacks to tempt you. They share a website: www.malmsburybakeryandgallery.com.au.

In Kyneton, turn down Piper Street for antiques, homewares, cafes, a heritage pub, and much more. The Kyneton Farmers’Market is held at Saint Paul’s Park in Piper Street on the second Saturday of the month from 8am to 1pm.

With more than 40 vineyards and 20 cellar doors in the region, wine buffs who want to sample the product should consider a tour. Victoria Winery Tours (tel. 1300/946 386; www.winetours.com.au) runs small-group (minimum two people) day tours from Melbourne, visiting four or five wineries. Pickup in Melbourne is at 9am, returning by about 5:30pm. The cost is A$150 per person, including morning tea and lunch.

DAYLESFORD
108 km (67 miles) NW of Melbourne

Daylesford can be a terrific day trip from Melbourne or can easily be combined with a trip to the Macedon Ranges. Part of “spa country,” this village is a bit of a trendy getaway for Melbournians. Along the main street, you’ll find small galleries, homewares shops, and some smart foodie outlets.

Getting There -- From Melbourne, take the Citylink toll road (the M2) north toward Melbourne Airport. Take the Calder Highway turnoff toward Bendigo (M79), and continue until you see the turnoff to Daylesford (C792); then follow the signs. The road will take you through Woodend, Tylden, and Trentham. At Trentham take the C317 to Daylesford. When you arrive in Daylesford, turn right at the roundabout as signposted to get to Hepburn Springs.

Visitor Information -- The Daylesford Regional Visitor Information Centre, 98 Vincent St. (tel. 03/5321 6123; www.visitdaylesford.com), features an interpretive display about the area’s mineral waters. It’s open daily from 9am to 5pm, except Christmas Day.

Exploring Daylesford

Australians have been heading to Hepburn Springs, on the edge of Daylesford, to “take the waters” since 1895, and the region now has about a dozen or so day spas. The original, and most famous, is Hepburn Bathhouse & Spa (tel. 03/5321 6000; www.hepburnbathhouse.com). Not everyone likes the slick, modern, and rather cold new extension that has replaced the elegant old wooden building, but sink into the hot pools, and it’s easy to forget what the exterior looks like. There’s traditional communal bathing in the Bathhouse and the Sanctuary, or you can book in to the Spa (in the original bathhouse building; reservations essential) for the usual range of therapies and treatments. The complex includes an aroma steam room, salt therapy pool, relaxation pool, and “spa couches” submerged in mineral water (which I didn’t find very comfortable). The complex is on Mineral Springs Reserve Road and is open daily 9am to 6:30pm (except Christmas Day). Entry to the Bathhouse for 2 hours costs A$26 for adults, A$19 for children 2 to 16, and A$79 for a family of four Tuesday to Thursday; and A$39 for adults, A$27 for children, and A$109 for families Friday to Monday and on public holidays. Entry to the Sanctuary is A$58 Tuesday to Thursday and A$83 Friday to Monday and public holidays. Towel hire is A$5. A 30-minute private mineral bath at The Spa costs from A$70 to A$77 depending on the day of the week.

On the hill behind Daylesford’s main street is The Convent (tel. 03/5348 3211; www.theconvent.com.au), a three-level historic 19th-century mansion, complete with twisting staircases. It is comprised of a restaurant, a gallery, gardens, a chapel, and shops, as well as a small museum that speaks to its origins as a private home, which later became the Holy Cross Convent and Boarding School for Girls. After years of dereliction, it reopened as a gallery in 1991, but the nuns’infirmary and one of the “cells,” or bedrooms, were left unrestored. You’ll find it on the corner of Hill and Daly streets. It’s open daily 10am to 4pm (3pm on New Year’s Eve), closed Good Friday, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day (Dec 26). Admission is A$5 per person. Take time to wander through the lovely gardens, with their sculptures and bench seats.

Just outside Daylesford is Lavandula (tel. 03/5476 4393; www.lavandula.com.au), a Swiss-Italian lavender farm that has a rustic trattoria-style cafe and a cobblestone courtyard with a cluster of farmhouse buildings. Swiss immigrants ran a dairy farm here in the 1860s, but today you can see the process of lavender farming and buy lavender products. The restored stone farmhouse is a picturesque backdrop to gardens where you can picnic, play boules (like bocce), or just relax and admire the scenery. The lavender is in full bloom in December, with harvesting in January. Lavandula is at 350 Hepburn-Newstead Rd., Shepherds Flat, about 10 minutes’drive north of Daylesford. It is open daily from 10:30am to 5:30pm September to May (except Dec 24–26) and on weekends, public holidays, and school holidays only in June, July, and August. The cafe is closed during August. Admission is A$3.50 for adults, A$1 for school-age children.

BALLARAT
113 km (70 miles) W of Melbourne

History buffs will love Ballarat. Victoria’s largest inland city (pop. 90,000) is synonymous with two major events in Australia’s past: the gold rush of the 1850s and the birth of Australian democracy in the early 20th century. It all started with gold; in 1851 two prospectors found gold nuggets scattered on the ground at a place known as, ironically, Poverty Point. Within a year, 20,000 people had drifted into the area, and Australia’s El Dorado gold rush had begun.

In 1858, the second-largest chunk of gold discovered in Australia (the Welcome Nugget) was found, but by the early 1860s, most of the easy diggings were gone. Larger operators continued digging until 1918, but by then Ballarat had developed enough industry to survive without mining. Today, you can still see the gold rush’s effects in the impressive buildings, built from the miners’fortunes, lining Ballarat’s streets.

Getting There -- From Melbourne, Ballarat is a 1 1/2-hour drive on the Great Western Highway. V/Line (tel. 13 61 96 in Victoria, or 03/8608 5011; www.vline.com.au) runs trains between the cities every day; the trip takes about 90 minutes. The return fare is A$30 for adults and A$15 for children. Ask about off-peak and family-saver fares.

Several companies offer day trips from Melbourne. They include AAT Kings (tel. 1300/228 546 in Australia; www.aatkings.com). A full-day tour costs A$149 for adults and A$75 for children.

Visitor Information -- The Ballarat Visitor Information Centre is at 43 Lydiard St. (tel. 1800/446 633 in Australia, or 03/5320 5741; www.visitballarat.com.au), opposite the Art Gallery of Ballarat. It is open daily from 9am to 5pm (except Christmas Day).

A Eureka Moment

The story that is central to Ballarat’s history, and many of its attractions, is that of the Eureka Uprising in 1854. The story goes like this: After gold was discovered, the government introduced gold licenses, charging miners even if they came up empty-handed. The miners had to buy a license every month, and corrupt gold-field police (many of whom were former convicts) instituted a vicious campaign to extract the money. When license checks intensified in 1854, resentment flared. Prospectors began demanding political reforms, such as the right to vote, parliamentary elections, and secret ballots. The situation exploded when the Eureka Hotel’s owner murdered a miner but was set free by the government. The hotel was burned down in revenge, and more than 20,000 prospectors joined together, burned their licenses in a huge bonfire, and built a stockade over which they raised a flag. Troops arrived at the “Eureka Stockade” the next month, but only 150 miners remained. The stockade was attacked at dawn, with 24 miners killed and 30 wounded. The uprising forced the government to act: The licenses were replaced with “miners’ rights” and cheaper fees, and the vote was introduced to Victoria. It was a definitive moment in Australia’s history, and the Eureka flag is still a potent (and often controversial) symbol of nationalism.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.