When you think of Victorian beach destinations, what pops into your head? Torquay? St Kilda? Lorne? Lakes Entrance? Sorrento? Phillip Island? The one that I nearly guarantee didn’t make your mental list is one that really should have; Warrnambool. And guess what; You shouldn’t reserve visiting till summer, because it is absolutely bloody gorgeous in winter with so much to do, see and eat.
Warrnambool & Port Fairy are two of the friendliest, tastiest and most beautiful smaller Australian cities/towns that I have visited in a very long time. Home to around 40,000 people, the city of Warrnambool and town of Port Fairy has transformed from being one of the most important seaport areas in Australia to become a hub of food, produce and adventures just waiting to be had.
A Quick History Lesson
The area’s rich settled history spans back to 1840 & 50’s where is became the busiest port in the region, fuelling the Victorian gold rush in Beechworth, Ballarat and Bendigo with workers & supplies. But before this, the area was home to the Gunditjmara people.
The Gunditjmara people, or Gundidj for short, were a group or Aboriginals based in and around the Framlingham Forest, Lake Condah and surrounding river systems near current day Warrnambool. The Gundidj were river and lake people, meaning that they had a deep connection with the waterways and had developed very sophisticated systems of aquaculture and eel farming, as well as having constructed sturdy stone buildings. They were also known as the “The Fighting Gunditjmara” because when the Europeans arrived they didn’t just back down; they fought for what was rightfully theirs. We will go into their history at another time because it’s so very rich and tumultuous that it more than deserves its own article.
When I mentioned we were heading down to Warrnambool, by Dad casually mentioned his side of the family landed there. Turns out that in 1860 my great great great (etc. etc.) grandfather landed after an arduous sea voyage from Cornwall with his wife and kids to try their luck in the Gold Rush. He got lucky and ended up purchasing a rather large parcel of land in NSW, clearing it, and then operating it as a successful farm. Well, that’s how the official story goes… We actually believe he wasn’t successful at all in the gold rush as it’s thought that he disappeared for a suspiciously long period of time around then, and rumour has it he actually found his fortunes after a successful career as a bushranger.
Why Should I Go To Warrnambool & Port Fairy In Winter?
Unlike a lot of Victorian coastal towns that shut up shop over winter, Warrnambool & Port Fairy have embraced the colder months and continue to have their doors open to visitors looking for an adventure.
From stunning beaches to whales, penguins to festivals, food to adventure, Warrnambool & Port Fairy has it all.
Where To Eat In Warrnambool & Port Fairy In Winter
Start the day right at Brightbird Espresso
157 Liebig St, Warrnambool
With a clear passion for good food and coffee, the folks at Brightbird Espresso will be sure to get you energised for a jam-packed day out in Warrnambool. We found ourselves returning here again and again because the coffee was just so damn good!
A must try is the Sticky Date Doughnut (baked fresh daily by Jane Dough), filter coffee made fresh with sustainably sourced Cartel Rosters beans, their warming Shakshuka & lastly the 100% perfect house made waffles, with crispy Istra bacon, maple syrup and poached pears.
Dine with a view at Proudfoot’s Boathouse
2 Simpson St, Warrnambool
When you walk through the main doors to Proudfoot’s Boathouse you expect the restaurant to be up on the top level, but after heading down a hallway lined with gorgeous memorabilia and photos of the Boathouse’s history, you find yourself descending a narrow steep staircase to a stunning surprise.
Inside you’re greeted by a bar that I could imagine sitting at for hours just chatting away with friends, an open fireplace warming the indoor dining area, as well as art and photos lining the walls that I later found out were taken and created by the truly multi-skilled Chef Christopher.
When you step outside you can see that Proudfoot’s Boathouse is genuinely on the water, the tables lining a balcony that juts out over the river to give you uninterrupted views whilst you enjoy your ridiculously tasty food. We had the salt & pepper squid (which was hands down the best I have ever had) and the Persian fetta, beetroot & squash stuffed filo pastry with homegrown chard, both of which we will definitely be coming back for.
Watch the boats come in at Pavilion Cafe & Bar
50 Viaduct Rd, Warrnambool
After you’ve finished wandering the breakwater, exploring the boardwalk or have finished fishing, The Pavilion Cafe & Bar is a great way to wind up the day with either a coffee or vino, watching the sun come down over the water.
As an added bonus, if you’re here at sunset you should be able to watch Sammy the Seal, a local celebrity, be fed his dinner by the fisherman down at the small pier from the warmth of the Pavilion.
Feast with the family at Piccolo
73 Liebig St, Warrnambool
Piccolos Restaurant is a true family business, bringing the flair and taste that, as far as I’m concerned, only a family business can. Their passion and talent are evident in their totally sumptuous food, lovely service and super tasty cocktails (you have to try the Peppermint Crisp cocktail!), and we felt instantly at home when we walked in.
We had the slow braised Western District Lamb Shanks served on a creamy potato mash with winter veggies & a rich red wine sauce, as well as the crumbed chicken breast with a mozzarella & basil stuffing served with sweet potato wedges & wilted greens with tomato relish/chutney, both which were next-level tasty and fall-off-the-bone tender. I also must mention that the chutney, which is made in-house by Brice the Chef, was without a doubt the best chutney I had ever had.
Get cozy with wood-fired pizza from Coffin Sally
33 Sackville St, Port Fairy
Just a 20-minute drive from Warrnambool is Port Fairy, and you’d be remiss to not pay a visit to Coffin Sally while you’re in the area.
Set in the gorgeous true-blue building that used to house the town’s coffin maker, the folks over at Coffin Sally craft some of the best pizza I have tried outside of Italy, and that I will crave till I can head back there ASAP.
While you’re there be sure to try out one of the carefully crafted cocktails on the menu. I highly recommend the Gypsy Sour & Rasta Fairyan Rum Punch, which will be sure to keep you warm on a chilly winter night.
What To Do In Warrnambool & Port Fairy In Winter
Walk the walk from Stingray Bay to Thunder Point
Merri Bridge, Viaduct Rd, Warrnambool
The Merri Marine Sanctuary is a 29 hectare protected marine nature reserve which ensures species such as the Little Penguins and Short-tailed Shearwaters have uninterrupted access to their natural habitat to breed and generally exist. You may have heard about this place from the Aussie movie Oddball, which was based on real life Maremma dog Oddball (owned by local farmer ‘Swampy’). And no, I’m not making these names up.
There used to be hundreds of Little Penguins on Middle Island, but due to fox predation, those numbers lingered down to 10. Swampy had a Maremma to protect his chooks and proposed that they try putting Oddball on the island to see if she could protect the Little Penguins from the foxes.
The idea was a raging success (apart from Oddball swimming back to shore after 3 weeks on the island due to loneliness), and recently numbers of penguins on the island have risen close to 200. These days the dogs protecting the island are 2 sister Maremma called Eudy and Tula who spend five days a week on Middle Island during the penguins breeding season. On their days of they live at Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village where visitors can interact with them and learn about what they do.
Oddball passed away at the age of 15 last year, and the town is working at having a statue of the brave dog erected on the coast opposite Middle Island.
Us humans can view the reserve and island from Shelly Beach and by then following the raised boardwalk from the bridge at Stingray Cove right over the rocks to Thunder Point. It’s a lovely walk which takes you to rock pools & inlets to explores, and then back over the rocks to watch native birds and see the waves crash upon the ragged shoreline.
Be Amazed By Port Fairy’s Winter Weekends
Multiple locations across Port Fairy
Port Fairy Winter Weekends are happening every second weekend in June and July, and after having run for over a decade they know how to run a well organised and extremely entertaining ship. I’m more envious than ever that I don’t live in Port Fairy now, and the only thing I could liken this festival to would be if White Night in Melbourne went for 4 weekends.
The famous Dachshund Dash (yes, a Dachshund dog race!), classical music in the bush, cheese making workshops, night markets, roast lunches, more photography workshops that you can poke a stick at (as well as a competition!), Instagram meetups, ghost tours, wine tastings, a vinyl record swap meet, fresh produce markets and so so much more.
Weekend 1 is June 9,10,11, weekend 2 is June 23,24,25, weekend 3 is July 7,8,9 and the final weekend 4 is July 21, 22, 23, and you can download the full program here.
Show off your skills at Mini Golf By The Sea
47 Pertobe Rd, Warrnambool
Mini golf is one of those things that you forget is awesome till you’re actually playing a few holes and Mini Golf By The Sea is no exception. After we passed the last hole (and I managed to go from winning by 4 to losing so spectacularly my great grandchildren will tell takes of this epic loss) we decided to join the kids on the giant air balloon trampoline, and oh my goodness was it fun. Definitely not just for kids!
Watch the waves from the rocks at The Breakwater
Breakwater Rock Pier, 61 Viaduct Rd, Warrnambool
The breakwater was originally built to protect ships landing at Warrnambool pier back in the ports 1800’s heydey, and since the areas new purpose of being a haven for light boats and fishermen, you’re more likely to spot a content looking local throwing out a line to catch his tea rather than a cargo ship.
If you’re facing the sea head to the right to be truly wowed by this area, and (carefully!) clamber along the rocks to watch the powerful waves crash against the rocks. It’s oddly mesmerising, so I suggest you take some warm clothes because you may find yourself there for a while.
Attend the enormous Fun4Kids Festival
Multiple sites around Warrnambool
Who would have thought that the World’s largest kids festival would be in Warrnambool? Held annually in July, this year’s Fun4Kids event will run from July 5th to 9th in the first week of the Victorian school holidays.
I have very little interest in children to be completely honest with you, but as I found out more about this festival my interest was piqued. Not only will comedians like Frank Woodley & Josh Earl be there, but there are some pretty amazing acts and attractions like the Melbourne City Ballet, the Djarragun College Torres Straight Dancers, beatboxing classes, the opportunity to meet the Maremma dogs who protect Middle Island and something called Captain Festus McBoyle and His Travellin’ Variety Show, which I would totally go and see. The more I learn the more I’m tempted to borrow one of my friends’ kids just so I have an excuse to go…
See Sammy The Seal chow down
Pier, 61 Viaduct Rd, Warrnambool
During the colder months head along to the smaller pier next to the main breakwater about an hour before dark, just as the fishermen are back on land cleaning and gutting their catches.
If you hang around you’ll get to watch Sammy the seal dive and dance to catch the off-cuts and guts that the fishermen throw into the water for him. And if you’re lucky
Watch the whales (if you’re lucky)
Logan’s Beach, Warrnambool
Nearly every year between June and September Warrnambool’s Logan’s Beach becomes the home ground for multiple female Southern Right whales to birth their calves and to nurse them till they’re old enough to enter the big wide ocean. The Mums and bubs will frequently swim within 100 meters of the beach, and you can watch them frolic from the viewing platforms, the beach or sand dunes.
Although we were a bit early to see them this year, by the time this article was written there had been multiple sighting of at least 2 mum whales and 2 calfs.
Your best bet for keeping up to date on when and where the whales are making an appearance is by staying tuned to the Great Ocean Road Whales Facebook page.
Be confused by the weird things at the breakwater
Breakwater Rock Pier, 61 Viaduct Rd, Warrnambool
There are 3 dome structures that look like they’re the tip of a much larger underground thing, and for the life of me I couldn’t work out what they were for. Underground grain silos for ships to offload their goods from when this was a port? An overzealous local governments attempt at a nuclear bunker? I was starting to form some really weird conspiracy theories about these till I finally found out what they were.
Turns out the 3 structures did indeed house something underground; Fish! The old Warrnambool aquarium, which opened in 1971 and closed in 1997, was a classic local attraction that was definitely on the quirky side of the design scale. It housed local species only, including blue-bottle octopuses, but when it became too costly to maintain the council filled the buildings in with sand and left them there.
Where To Stay In Warrnambool & Port Fairy In Winter
Corner Banyan Street & Merri Street, Warrnambool
Corner Japan and Koroit St, Warrnambool
41b Gipps St, Port Fairy
98 Gipps St, Port Fairy