Phillip Island guide

Just like many resident Victorians, Phillip Island has been a long-standing summer destination for my family for many years. The popular coastal island in South Gippsland is the go-to for a beach holiday, with a rugged coastline indented with sandy beaches, waves worthy of surfers of all levels, and the bubbly main hub of Cowes. However, not until I really got to explore the island on my own recently, did I realise that there’s actually so many things to do on Phillip Island.

It really is a destination for everyone and at any time of the year, with incredible wildlife encounters (and it’s not just the famous Penguin Parade), interesting windswept rock formations, and some of the most spectacular sunsets on the south coast.

Whether you’re planning a weekend away or a longer holiday, here’s a comprehensive look at the best things to do on Phillip Island, from all the best beaches and walks to cafes to visit and events not to miss.

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Why You Should Spend a Weekend at Phillip Island

It’s not hard to convince people to head to Phillip Island. In fact, it’s one of the most popular holiday destinations in Victoria with many families heading down to “the island” over summer. The permanent population is about 10,000 but this swells to more than double as the island comes to life in the warmer months.

But there’s much more to Phillip Island than the Penguin Parade. This is undoubtedly the main attraction. Many people drive all the way from Melbourne on a day trip or for a weekend just to see the fairy penguins come ashore, but I can wholeheartedly say that you should leave enough time to explore the rest of the island.

From its wild and rugged coastline indented with sandy beaches and hidden coves to the vibrant hub of Cowes with plenty of cosy cafes and unique boutique shops, the island offers something for everyone. The laidback island lifestyle means surfing, beach hopping, coffee sipping, sunset watching, and long walks on the beach are on the menu. So, grab your bathers, pack your walking shoes, and bring a sense of adventure to explore Phillip Island.

best things to do on Phillip Island pin

Bit of History

Phillip Island belongs to the Custodial Land of the Yallock Bulluk people of the Bunurong/Boonwurrung clan of the Kulin nation. They referred to the island as Millowl, and it was an important hunting ground for fish and small marsupials. Ochre was also available on the island, a natural clay used for body decorations during ceremonies. 

George Bass was the first European to visit the island in 1798 on his voyage of the south coast. The island was named after Sir Arthur Phillip, who was the first governor of New South Wales.

Right Point carpark

How to Get to Phillip Island

Melbourne to Phillip Island: 142 km or about a 2 hour drive via M1and taking the Healesville-Koo Wee Rup Road Exit, then following the South Gippsland Highway from Koo Wee Rup to San Remo and across the bridge to Phillip Island

Cowes is the main town on the island. Once you cross the bridge from the mainland at San Remo, Phillip Island Road will basically lead you to Cowes on the northern coast of the island. This is where most people base themselves for a visit, with many accommodation and dining options found in the town.

However, there are other small towns on the island too, like the small fishing village of Rhyll, the surf village of Cape Woolamai, and holiday house haven of Smiths Beach.

It’s not a very big island, so getting around by car is pretty easy. You’ll be able to explore large parts of the island all within a day.

Need public transport to reach the island? V/Line runs daily services between Southern Cross Station in Melbourne and Cowes, via Grantville, Corinella, Bass, San Remo and Newhaven. Check the schedule here.

Phillip Island sunset

Where to Stay on Phillip Island

Phillip Island accommodation comes in all different budgets, sizes and types. The island has hundreds of choices, thanks to many of the houses and apartments being holiday homes that people rent out. If you want a few options for inspiration, check out these places to stay:

Seahorse Motel Cowes: Located a few minutes walk from the beach, this motel offers comfortable rooms for a relatively good price. Check availability here.

Anchor Belle Holiday Park: A laid-back caravan park a couple of kilometres from Cowes Main Street, they offer a range of caravan sites, cabins and villas. Check prices here.

Glen Isla House: Set inside an old homestead, this stunning holiday house is set just back from the beach near Cowes offering an indulgent stay. Check prices here.

Hilltop Apartments Phillip Island: Offering a range of apartment options for different budgets, this accommodation is in Ventnor away from the bustling centre of Cowes. Check availability here.

Read next: 10 Best Places to Stay on Phillip Island

Sunrise at Berrys Beach
Sunrise at Berrys Beach

When to Visit Phillip Island

You can really visit Phillip Island at any time of the year. Summer can get very chaotic and busy, with traffic backed up from Cowes all the way across the bridge to San Remo and beyond. This also means the beaches will be packed and it’ll be hard to get a spot at one of the cafes. But, you will at least get to enjoy some warm weather!

Phillip Island does get pretty damn cold, especially on icy windy days in winter, when visiting the beaches can be quite unpleasant. For this reason, autumn and spring are great seasons to visit, especially if you want fewer crowds and cheaper prices.

I’ve visited mostly over summer, but my most recent trip was in early autumn and I have to say it was pretty magical. February to April probably presents the best time, in my opinion, the summer crowds have gone but some warmer weather tends to stick around a bit longer. 

Best Things to Do on Phillip Island

There’s so much to do down on the island. While most people might just head for a day trip to see the Penguin Parade, it really offers so much for people open to exploring the coastline. From the shopping and dining hub of Cowes to the stunning beaches all around the entire coast, you’ll find something to do for everyone from families to couples, and solo adventurers.

The Pinnacles Cape Woolamai
The Pinnacles

Complete the Cape Woolamai Circuit Walk

If you want to get outdoors and admire some of the most spectacular stretches of the island’s coastline, then heading out to Cape Woolamai is your best bet. While it’s known as being home to one of the best surf beaches in Victoria, Cape Woolamai also has the best walks to do on Phillip Island.

I’d highly recommend going for the full circuit hike. This 8.5km Cape Woolamai Circuit Walk takes in the best viewpoints and dramatic cliffs of the headland, including the highest point on the island at Woolamai Hill. The trail can be pretty quiet too, with few people opting to do the full loop, so you can gaze over the island without the crowds.

There are also shorter walking options at Cape Woolamai, like an out and back walk to the Pinnacles, or you can simply go for a walk along the surf beach too.

Read more: Guide to the Cape Woolamai Circuit Walk

Surfing on Phillip Island

Watch the Phillip Island Pro Surf Contest at Cape Woolamai

Woolamai Surf Beach is home to one of the most soughtafter annual World Surfing League surf competitions in Australia: the Phillip Island Pro QS1000. Held in November every year, the surf contest draws competitors from around the country and across the world who are looking to gain points for qualification into the Challenger Series, the pathway to qualifying for the World Tour.

With only a few hundred spectators expected each year at the event, it’s a much easier surf contest to get up close and personal with talented surfers than bigger events like at Bells Beach in Torquay.

Churchill Island
Churchill Island

Explore Churchill Island

A popular family activity on Phillip Island, Churchill Island is a small island off the coast. It was known as Moonar’mia by the Bunurong People, however, it was turned into a farming and holiday retreat for Europeans after Lt. James Grant disembarked there from Lady Nelson in 1801.

The historical buildings and Victorian gardens are now open for visitors to explore on foot. It’s also still home to an active farm, with farm animals in the paddocks around the island. To access the buildings and farm, however, you’ll need to purchase an entry ticket. But, the walking trails and cafe are free to visit.

If you park in the main carpark, you’re free to head off on the trails that circumnavigate the island or sit in the garden to enjoy a picnic. It’s a very popular place for families, especially with the farm animals and range of activities like milking a cow and sheep shearing for kids.

Forrest Caves
Forrest Caves

Find the Forrest Caves

And no, the caves are not actually in the forest. A hidden but now not-so-hidden gem on Phillip Island is Forrest Caves. While the turnoff to the carpark just before Surf Beach seems a little off the beaten track, it has become a popular little spot. Once you head down the steps to the beach, turn left and walk for a few hundred metres to find these sea caves created over thousands of years of erosion. 

It’s definitely an Instagram-worthy spot, with the unique caves as a beautiful backdrop to interesting photos. However, be sure to visit at low tide, as the caves can only be accessed at this time. It makes for a quick little stop on the drive to Cowes, so check tide times before arriving.

Read next: 7 Best Walks to Do on Phillip Island

Rhyll boardwalk
Rhyll boardwalk

Escape the Crowds at Rhyll Wetland and Bird Sanctuary

For a peaceful retreat away from the crowds on the island, a wander through the Rhyll Wetland and Bird Sanctuary is ideal. Known as an important habitat for migratory waders and resident birds, the mangroves and wetlands are protected for international conservation efforts.

There are a couple of walks and boardwalks to explore in the sanctuary around the fishing village of Rhyll. The full trail from Rhyll to Conservation Hill carpark is 7km return, or you can just do the mangrove boardwalk from Conservation Hill for 1.2km return.

Smiths Beach
Smiths Beach

Learn to Surf at Smiths Beach (and YCW Beach)

I’ve never seen so many surfers in the water than I did at YCW Beach and Smiths Beach. On a weekend, this place is pumping full of surfers of all skill levels. It’s widely considered the best place to learn to surf on the island too, so you’ll see groups of groms with instructors out there.

Smiths Beach is the main beach with a small village of houses and shops. Parking can be full on a weekend, so arrive early. You’ll also find the Smiths Beach General Store and Island Surf Boards and Surf School just back from the beach for your morning coffee, board hire, and lessons.

The next cove to the west is known as YCW Beach. If Smiths Beach is too busy with surf school groups, you can head there for some waves too.

Pyramid Rock
Pyramid Rock

Check Out Pyramid Rock Lookout

One of the best lookouts on Phillip Island is Pyramid Rock. The pyramid-shaped rocky outcrop sits off the southern coast of the island, and is a landmark that can be seen from so many other places, like Cape Woolamai and The Nobbies.

While it requires a 3km drive on a dirt road off Back Beach Road, the short walk to the viewpoint on the boardwalk is well-worth it. You can gaze down both sides of the coastline of the island, and perhaps even spot some whales in winter.

It’s also the start or end of the Pyramid Rock to Berrys Beach Walk detailed next.

Surfers at Berrys Beach
Surfers at Berrys Beach

Do the Pyramid Rock to Berrys Beach Walk

One of the best things to do on Phillip Island for outdoor lovers is the walk from Pyramid Rock to Berrys Beach. The 2.6km one way hike is not overly difficult, as it follows the top of the cliffs between these two scenic spots on a well-maintained trail. 

From Pyramid Rock, the walk heads west to Berrys Beach. There’s a great lookout about 1.3km along at Red Bluff, which can make for a shorter out and back option for those short on time. But, it’s worth continuing to Berrys Beach, if you can.

Berrys Beach is a really beautiful surf beach, that is often where you’ll find local surfers getting away from the crowds. There are also rockpools to explore at low tide around the edges. There’s a toilet at Berrys Beach carpark and Pyramid Rock carpark.

S.S. Speke Ship Wreck
S.S. Speke Ship Wreck

Head Out to S.S. Speke Ship Wreck at Kitty Miller Bay

A ship wreck is always an intriguing point of interest and Phillip Island has its own at Kitty Miller Bay. There’s a short walk from the beach carpark around the cliffs to reach a viewpoint of the shipwreck, from where you can scramble down to the beach to get a closer look.

The SS Speke was a huge three-masted steel ship built in Wales in 1891, and was one of the largest in the world at the time. In 1907, a navigational error meant the ship ran aground close to the reef. One passenger drowned, but the rest of the crew survived and made it to land safely. The ship was cracked in two by the strong waves, so it was left to wreck where it still lies today.

The bow or nose of the ship is the most prominent remaining piece, as it lies on its side on the reef. It’s obviously best seen at low tide when you can see more of the wreck.

To get to the wreck, park at Kitty Miller Bay carpark and walk down to the beach. Turn left and walk along the sand a bit, and you should see a path heading up and over the headland. Cross the rocks and reach the trail, which is easy to follow up to the top of the cliffs. At the end of the trail, you’ll have a good view looking down to the wreck, but to reach it you’ll have to walk a bit further down and around to the beach. It’s only about 2km return all together.

The Nobbies
The Nobbies

Drive Out to The Nobbies

At the very far end of the island is The Nobbies. If anything characterises the rugged coast of the island, then The Nobbie is it. This incredible outcrop of rock formations has been sculpted over time by high winds and strong swells that come directly from Antarctica to the south.

At the carpark, there’s the Nobbies Centre – Home of the Antarctic Journey, which has a paid entry ticket to its museum. But you can just simply access the boardwalk of The Nobbies for free. The short walk has a few lookouts over the rocky peninsula and back along the coast towards Cape Woolamai in the distance.

There’s usually plenty of sea birds to see, as well as seals and penguins if you’re lucky. It’s a great spot to explore before heading to the Penguin Parade (more on this below).

Join the Crowd at the Penguin Parade

Did I purposely not put this on top of the list… perhaps. Phillip Island Penguin Parade is undoubtedly the main attraction on the island. It’s also one of the biggest tourist attractions in Victoria, with people flocking towards Summerlands in the evening all year round to watch over 30,000 Fairy Penguins come ashore.

After spending the daytime searching for food in the Southern Ocean, these little penguins return to their protected nests on the far coast of Phillip Island. Amongst the dunes of Summerland Bay at dusk, there are viewing platforms and boardwalks to watch this natural wonder occur from a safe distance as not to disturb the little guys.

This is serious business now. It’s a heavily regulated experience, which means you must book tickets in advance to attend. These can sell out well in advance during summer and on weekends, but less so for the rest of the year. General viewing tickets start from $30 per adult, or there are more exclusive viewing options, including underground viewing from $85 per adult. Book a tour below.

Shelly Beach at Cat Bay
View of Shelly Beach from Right Point

Meet Local Surfers at Shelly Beach and Right Point

As part of the four breaks on Phillip Island recognised as a National Surfing Reserve, Cat Bay is where you’ll find experienced surfers catching left and right-hand reef breaks around the bay. Located on the north coast in Summerlands, just inside the gateway to the Penguin Parade and The Nobbie area on Ventnor Road, it’s one of the best surf spots on the island.

Of the breaks in the bay, Shelly Beach has a large carpark and a wide cove that is known for great surfing opportunities for beginners. Waves rarely get too crazy there, but it can get busy especially if the waves at the south coast beaches are onshore.

On the other hand, Right Point just over from Shelley Beach has reef breaks that local surfers prefer. There’s a good carpark there and viewing area, which is also great for surf photographers.

Old Pier in Cat Bay
Old Pier in Cat Bay

Find the Old Pier at Cat Bay

If you’re standing at Right Point, then you’ll see to your right in Cat Bay is the remnants of an old wooden pier. While this isn’t really anything that exciting, it does make for a stunning photography location.

The old wooden beams are still standing and very few people other than surfers venture onto the sand there, so you’ll likely have the place to yourself for photos. It’s obviously best at sunset time, although be aware of the closure of the gates on Ventnor Road after sunset time.

Flynns Beach
Flynns Beach

Visit Flynns Beach

Located on the north-eastern side of Cat Bay, Flynns Beach is a long stretch of sand popular for families, surfers and those looking to relax on the sand. There’s a decent carpark there and a lovely walk through overhanging trees to get to the beach. There’s a good viewpoint over the beach, from where you can watch surfers do their thing.

Otherwise, it’s a great spot to walk or relax on the sand. Although, the beach is not patrolled so swimming is not advised with strong rips present.

Grossard Point Lookout
Grossard Point Lookout

Watch the Sunset from Grossard Point Lookout

I think this actually might be a true hidden gem on Phillip Island. I stumbled upon this spot when I was driving around and looking for somewhere to watch the sunset. At the end of Grossard Point Road in Ventnor, I found a gravel carpark area and a little side trail that led to a viewing platform. It’s perfect for sunset!

You can also get down to the beach from the carpark and go for a walk along the sand. It’s far quieter than other places, although Ventnor is full of holiday homes so it can get busier in summer.

Red Rock Beach
Red Rock Beach

Relax on Red Rocks Beach

A unique beach on Phillip Island, Red Rock Beach is characterised by its distinct red-coloured cliffs. The unique red rocks provide a stunning backdrop to relatively calm waters and hard packed golden sand, perfect for laying a towel down for the day.

To reach the beach, park at one of the spots along Penguin Avenue to the west side of Cowes town. However, parking is limited there, so you may have to park along Church Street or walk up the beach from Cowes.

Cowes Pier
Cowes Pier

Spend the Day at Cowes Jetty and Beach

This is where you’ll find most people hanging out on a hot day. Cowes is the main hub of activity on the island and the front beach and jetty are where you’ll find everyone enjoying the sea.

The beach here is usually quite calm and protected and is perfect for families. There’s plenty of space on the sand or up on the grass slopes behind the beach to leave your towel while you go for a dip.

The jetty is one of the best places to be at sunset time, or you can just enjoy a stroll at any time of the day to watch the fishermen and get a nice view of town. It’s also where some of the tours and whale watching cruises leave from (more details below).

The esplanade along the main beach and jetty in Cowes is also where the fantastic Island Foreshore Market takes place. Scattered around amongst the trees and boardwalk behind the beach, you’ll find food, clothes, jewellery and other crafts for sale over the afternoon and evening. Dates vary throughout the year, but it happens weekly in the height of summer on Saturdays.

Cowes Thompson Avenue
Thompson Avenue at dusk

Browse the Cowes Shops and Cafes

The popular town of Cowes may feel a little tourist-oriented at first glance, but it has some incredible cafes, bars, and boutique shops that are worth checking out. Walking up the main street, Thompson Avenue, on one side and coming back down the other, you’ll find lots of hidden gems for shopping and eating, here are some not to be missed shops and cafes:

  • Island Wholefoods: My fave cafe hands down. Serving fully plant based and organic ingredients, this small cafe is always busy with some delicious dishes on the menu that will even sway meat eaters. They also have great Gluten Free options, and their smoothies and hot drinks are to die for.
  • Isola Gelato: Close to the pier at the northern end of Thompson Avenue, this is the best spot for some ice cream. They also have dairy free options, with the dark chocolate being the clear winner for me.
  • Phillip Island Coffee Co.: Often considered to have the best coffee in town, Phillip Island Coffee Co on Thompson Avenue is your go-to for a take away or a cosy brunch spot.
  • Luxe Isle: Close to Island Wholefoods, this boho chic boutique has stunning pieces, including jewellery, swim suits, and flowing dresses, all perfect for your island dream fit.
  • Salvos Stores Cowes: Calling all op shoppers out there, this is definitely one of the best I’ve been to. I spent so much time browsing all the racks and came out with a bunch of new items for under $50 total. It’s a must visit!

Do a Lap at the Grand Prix Circuit

Taking up a large tract of land on the south of the island, the Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit hosts famous motorsport events including the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix and Superbike World Championships. 

When these events aren’t on however, the precinct is home to a go-kart track where you can imagine yourself driving an F1 vehicle around the circuit. The replica track is available for 10-minute sessions, from $35 per driver. It’s a fun activity for the whole family or for a special occasion.

Koala in the Otways

Spot Koalas at the Koala Conservation Reserve

One of the best family-friendly places on Phillip Island is the Koala Conservation Reserve. Set amongst some beautiful native bushland, the reserve has a couple of treetop boardwalks where you’re guaranteed to see koalas in their natural habitat. 

Otherwise, there are other trails amongst the six acres of the reserve or you can learn more about the conservation efforts through displays in the visitor centre. Tickets start from around $15 per adult and can be bought online.

Discover the Farm-to-Table Culture

You might be surprised to find that much of the island is actually covered in productive farmland. From dairy farms to vineyards, there’s an active culture of farm-to-table cuisine and produce. Some of the best ways to explore this side of the island is to visit the farm stores and local cafes specialising in farm-to-table goodness.

The Store in Ventnor is a fabulous little cafe and shop, selling quality coffee, fresh sourdough, local cheeses, delicious toasties, fruit and veggies, fresh flowers and plants.

For something a bit more sophisticated, the Wild Food Farm in Rhyll is a cafe that focuses on native bush ingredients and local produce. Open for breakfast and lunch, it’s also worth heading into their shop where you can pick up homemade muesli, tea, spices, relishes, jams, and sauces.

Whale watching
Whale watching

Spot Whales and Seals on a Wildlife Cruise

During the winter months from May until October, you can spot migratory whales off the coast of Phillip Island. The best way to get closer to humpback whales, southern right whales and orcas as they migrate from Antarctica to Australia’s shores is on a whale watching tour.

If you’re not visiting during winter, you can still head out on a wildlife cruise to see seals and other birds that are at home on the island throughout the year. Departing from Cowes and Rhyll, it’s ideal to book in advance if visiting on a weekend. Have a look below.

See the Island from Above on a Scenic Helicopter Flight

While seeing the island and it’s dramatic coastline from earthside is worthwhile, there’s nothing quite like taking a helicopter ride over the sea cliffs. From the air, you’ll be able to see all the major attractions on the island from a birds eye view perspective, including Cape Woolamai, The Nobbies, Pyramid Rock, and the Grand Prix Circuit. 

From a few minutes to half an hour, there’s multiple options for flight paths around the island depending on what you want to see.

Indulge at the Phillip Island Chocolate Factory

For sweet tooth’s looking for a chocolate fix, the Phillip Island Chocolate Factory is one of the most popular places on the island. Families flock to the venue, open every day of the year except Christmas. There’s a lot to explore, from the shop and cafe to a tour of the factory, where you can delve into the magic behind making the delicious Belgian chocolates.

Another spot that can get busy during school holidays and weekends, I’d recommend visiting outside of peak times. It’s located on the main Phillip Island Road in Newhaven, so it makes for a nice stop before you get to Cowes.

Sunset San Remo
Sunset in San Remo

Eat Fish n Chips at San Remo Fishermans Co-Op

Just off the island where the bridge begins, a must stop is at San Remo. If you time it well for lunchtime, you’ll be able to indulge in some of the best fish and chips you’ll find on the Bass Coast. Sitting back with the view of Phillip Island and the San Remo jetty, they serve some of the freshest fish you can get.

They also sell fresh fish in their shop, if you prefer to take some and cook it up yourself later. The kids will also love the pelican feeding event that happens right in front of the co-op every day at midday!

View over Half Moon Bay
View over Half Moon Bay

Hike the George Bass Coastal Walk

Technically not on Phillip Island, but close enough? The George Bass Coastal Walk is one of the best day hikes in Victoria. The 8km one way coastal trail links San Remo and Kilcunda along the Bass Coast. It’s a stunning walk, as it follows the clifftops and skirts around coves and beaches between the two towns.

It can easily be completed as a day trip from Phillip Island or on your way down to the island. Along with the Cape Woolamai Circuit, the George Bass Coastal Walk will have you in absolute awe of the rugged Gippsland coast.

Read more: Guide to the George Bass Coastal Walk

Where to Next?

If you’re looking for more incredible places to visit in Victoria for a weekend or extended road trip, then check out some of these other guides:

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