Historic... PORT FAIRY
One of Victoria’s earliest settlements was officially discovered by Captain James Wishart, who sailed his cutter Fairy into the Moyne River estuary to shelter from a storm in 1827. A busy whaling station was soon established on Griffiths Island at the Moyne’s mouth, with more than a hundred men employed harvesting plentiful southern right whales and fur seals.
By the early 1840s both the seals and whales were hunted to virtual extinction, and the station’s heydays ended. Bones of the great whales littered the beaches for many years afterwards.
However, the seeds of a settlement had already been sown. For decades Port Fairy thrived, and its early development has left a wonderful heritage for today’s visitors. Port Fairy is considered Victoria’s finest, most original, colonial coastal village. Thanks to the astute use of local bluestone 150 years ago, many fine examples of the State’s earliest architecture remain intact and more than fifty buildings are classified by the National Trust.
In the business end of town, old-fashioned shop facades shaded by broad verandahs reveal cafes serving great expresso coffee and fresk-baked cakes. Antiquated pubs like the Caledonian Inn, c1844, still serve refreshingly cold beer to crusty professional fishermen - but now they’re just as likely to proffer a filling bistro meal to the whole family.
A walk around the streets reveals the wealth of Victorian history in the simple rustic walls of bluestone cottages with colourful flower-filled gardens, imposing churches, the old courthouse by the river, and main street banks and post office. Worth a closer look are Captain Mills’ house and Mott’s cottage.
Down on the river, still one of the busiest fishing ports in the State, fishermen unload their catch of scale fish at the dockside. Cruising boats and expensive racing yachts add colour to mirror images in calm water, and anglers try their luck with the river’s whiting.
Unlucky anglers will find the local fish and chips a great consolation, and lunching at one of the great cafés or bakeries here is definitely de rigeur. Antique and art and craft shops might provide a memorable, and valued, reminder of a Port Fairy visit.
If you walk cross the little footbridge and amble through the trees of a little park called Battery Hill, you’ll stumble across cannon emplacement and signal station built in the 1860s to protect against Russian invaders. It’s possible to take a boat trip to Lady Julia Percy Island 10km offshore to view a thriving colony of fur seals - pick a calm day!
Highly recommended is a trek around Griffiths Island, connected to town by a causeway. It takes about two leisurely hours, and you can explore rocky coves, tiny beaches, the gleaming white lighthouse and a shearwater (mutton bird) rookery in spring. River and surf fishing is popular.
These rugged, storm-lashed west coast shores have accumulated a tragic history of sailing-ship wrecks and great loss life; together with the gruesome decades of whaling it might appear that Victoria’s formative years are a grim past. But judging by Port Fairy’s popularity with tourists and million-dollar real estate, the blend of colonial history and natural attractions is just about right.
TIP: for great coffee and pastries with ocean views, go to time&tide cafe, off Thistle Place just to the west of town. Expert pastry chef - sensational food. 03 5568 2134
Getting there: Port Fairy is 290km west of Melbourne. Take the Princes Highway through Geelong, Colac and Warrnambool. It’s a three and a half hour drive. A longer alternative route is via the Great Ocean Road, about six hours one-way.
STAY THE WEEKEND AT:
Hearn's Beachside - spacious timber, stone and glass apartments at South Beach. One or 2 bedrooms, spas, beachfront. ph 03 5568 3150
Oscars Waterfront boutique B&B. Luxury two-storey luxury B&B right on the riverfront in the most popular part of Port Fairy. minutes to restaurants, Griffiths Island, fishing wharves ph 03 5568 3022