200km (124 miles) SE of Melbourne
Victoria's major touring routes will take you through Gippsland, taking in some wonderful coastal and alpine scenery. The Great Alpine Road tours through forests and national parks that are popular destinations for skiing in winter and bushwalking, fishing, and cycling in the warmer months. The Sydney to Melbourne Coastal Drive is a great way to tour the coastline and countryside. This drive will take you to -- or near enough to divert for a visit -- some of Victoria's best-loved holiday spots, including several of the state's most beautiful national parks. It's worth the time to explore these places, even briefly.
Beyond Phillip Island, the Bass Coast Highway follows the coast to the towns of Wonthaggi and Inverloch. Inverloch has inviting sandy beaches (patrolled in summer), as well as plenty of small galleries, markets, and antiques stores. The road to Wilson's Promontory will take you through many small villages; one of the cutest is Fish Creek, where everything "fishy" will greet you, from the giant mullet atop the Fishy Pub (Promontory Gate Hotel) to the fish-shaped seats and the roof of the local church. Take time to stop off at the Celia Rosser Gallery (tel. 03/5683 2628; www.celiarossergallery.com.au), home to one of Australia's foremost botanical artists famed for her banksia drawings, which are even owned by the Queen.
Wilsons Promontory is affectionately known as "the Prom" by Victorians who have flocked here for generations for holidays. The southernmost point of the Australian mainland, the Prom is famous for abundant flora and fauna, wild beaches, rugged landscapes, and coastal beauty. The 50,000-hectare (123,000-acre) national park has a 30km (19-mile) coastline and features a host of winding walking tracks and plenty to do. The park contains the largest coastal wilderness area in Victoria. From the entrance at Yanakie, it is 30km (19 miles) to the Tidal River settlement, which has car parking, camping, caravan sites and cabins to rent (bookings essential), a cafe, and a lovely sandy beach at Norman Bay. Other major attractions are Squeaky Beach (yes, it does), and Mount Oberon for one of Victoria's best views. A guide to good walks -- short and long -- is Discovering the Prom, available from the park's information center at Tidal River. Wilsons Promontory is a 3-hour drive from Melbourne on the South Gippsland Highway via Meeniyan or Foster.
Other highlights along the coast include Cape Conran Coastal Park, Point Hicks, and Croajingolong National Park. Cape Conran Coastal Park is located near Marlo, 396km (246 miles) from Melbourne. The park covers 11,700 hectares (29,000 acres) and has 60km (38 miles) of beach facing south over Bass Strait. The park also has banksia woodlands brimming with birdlife.
One of Australia's most spectacular parks, Croajingolong is so extraordinary that UNESCO made it a World Biosphere Reserve. From white sandy beaches to rocky coastal headlands and granite peaks, to rambling heaths, rainforests, and towering eucalypt forests, it supports more than 1,000 native plant species and 300 bird species. If that all sounds too fragile, don't worry -- it is a great spot for hiking, surfing, swimming, diving, snorkelling and sea kayaking, and touring by four-wheel drive or mountain bike. Take the short walk to West Beach via Sledge Track or try the longer Dunes Walk, starting from Thurra Campground.
Within Croajingolong National Park, you will find mainland Australia's tallest lighthouse, Point Hicks Light Station. Unless you are staying at the lighthouse cottages, you will have to walk the 2km (1.2 miles) or so from the padlocked entry gate -- but it's worth the hike! Built in 1890, the lighthouse marks Captain Cook's first sighting of Australia's east coast in 1770. Point Hicks was named for Lieutenant Zachary Hicks, who first sighted the headland from aboard Endeavour. Wander out to the monument to Cook and Hicks on the headland beyond the light station and then tackle the 162 steps of the spiral staircase to the top of the lighthouse -- easier than it sounds -- for great views of the coastline. Lighthouse tours cost A$20 per cottage or A$7 adults and A$4 children and run at 1pm Friday to Sunday and daily during Easter and Christmas school holidays (except Christmas Day and New Year's Day). Point Hicks lighthouse cottages (tel. 03/5158 4268 [10am-3pm weekdays only]; www.pointhicks.com.au) cost A$330 per night and sleep up to eight. A bungalow (sleeps two) is available for A$100 per night.
Back on the Princes, the road leads to Mallacoota, an unspoiled seaside village with the distinction of recording Victoria's warmest winter temperatures.