French Island - A Tranquil Retreat Away From the Crowds

French Island is a gem of a destination for a day trip from Phillip Island.

Although you can’t miss seeing it from the island, it doesn’t get its fair share of the tourists who flock to Phillip Island in summer - which makes it a special trip if you want to escape the crowds.

A 20 minute ferry trip from Cowes will take you to Tankerton jetty where you disembark to explore the island.

Mudflats and Mangroves

French Island was originally named Western Island by Lieutenant James Grant, who explored the area in 1801. He established the first farm in Victoria on Churchill Island during this same voyage.

Now Churchill Island Heritage Farm, it is well worth a visit.

In 1802 the name was changed to Isle des Francais by a French scientific expedition from the ship L’Naturaliste.

When the island was settled by English migrants around 1850, the name was anglicised to French Island.

Early settlers grazed sheep and cattle, and various enterprises such as salt and chicory were begun but were not sustainable.

A prison was established in 1916. A farm was operated at the prison to help make the prison community self-sufficient – vegetables were grown and animals grazed.

The number of escapes and cost of running the prison led to its closure in 1975.

Some of the old buildings still remain and the site is now run as McLeod Eco Farm with produce sold on the mainland.

Today there are around 90 permanent and 30 weekend residents on the island.

Private vehicles are not permitted to be brought onto the island (except those belonging to residents). So the only way of getting around is to walk, ride a bicycle or take a Lois Airs Tour.

Lois has since retired from taking her tours around French Island.

The French Island General Store has a courtesy bus which will transfer visitors from the jetty to to the store. The store has a cafe free wi-fi, meals and a coffee loyalty card.

"We pick people up from the ferry, bring them to the cafe for lunch, and drop them off for them to take part in the Pinnacles walk, before dropping them back at the ferry" says the owner.

We chose the Lois Airs Tour.

Lois, a fourth generation islander, picked us up at the jetty and we headed off in her bus on a fast-paced tour of parts of the island.

Mudflats and mangroves near the jetty host many birds such as black swans, pelicans, spoonbills, ibis and several species of migratory birds.

french Island Koala

Sleepy Koala on French Island

As we raced along the unsealed roads, Lois pointed out koalas perched in the trees along the road. Luckily the swamp gums in the road reserve are not tall so it was easy to get close up to the koalas – they were quite content to pose as they dreamily observed us!

We passed farms with llama and alpaca, plus Corregiola Olive Farm.

Flocks of Cape Barren geese grazed in paddocks as we sped past, taking in the rural aspect of French Island.

We stopped to admire an area of hyacinth orchids, growing in the bushland. Visiting in January, the orchids were in full bloom of beautiful purple/mauve flowers on tall slender stems.

The island is home for at least 86 species of native orchids – a treat for flora enthusiasts. The Island spider orchid is unique to French Island.

Hyacinth Orchid

Hyacinth Orchid

Our tour took us across the island to the barge landing – the lifeline for islanders transporting stock and machinery plus other large goods to and from Corinella on the mainland.

Lois showed us where two breeding pairs of white-bellied sea eagles nest in tall dead trees near the landing.

This bird is the second largest of Australia’s eagles with a wing span of around 200cm. Unfortunately, due to habitat loss this magnificent bird is classified as endangered.

Near the landing we went for a short stroll hoping to see short-beaked echidna but came up empty handed. Maybe because we were too busy making sure there were no snakes on the path!

Another faunal resident of French Island is the long-nosed potoroo. This nocturnal marsupial is the size of a rabbit but with a tail about 200cm long and a long pointed nose.

A sighting might be a good reason to stay overnight!

Although the species is listed as endangered in Victoria, the lack of predators on French Island such as foxes has ensured the survival of potoroos.

Lois picked some warrigal spinach from along the roadside which we sampled. Eaten raw, the flavour was not particularly pleasant but I’m sure it would taste fine when cooked as you would cook  “normal” spinach.

It certainly would have been eaten by the early settlers to Australia.

Next stop was Bayview Chicory Kiln for afternoon tea.

Bayview is the original property of Lois’ great-grandparents. A Devonshire tea was served in the old chicory kiln – a fascinating relic of the once important chicory industry on both French and Phillip Islands.

The kiln museum contains lots of chicory and farm memorabilia. Plus a barred window from one of the cells of the old jail!

As well as tea and coffee, we were given the opportunity to try chicory flavoured drinks – still commercially available.

Preserves served with the scones were all locally made – a lovely touch.

After refreshing ourselves there was plenty of time to wander around the farm. Children (or adults!) could pet and feed Lois’ pet sheep, chickens and birds. This was a welcome break for the small children in our tour.

Koalas could also be spotted reclining in the narrow-leaf peppermint gums.

On the way back to Tankerton jetty, we stopped at the general store. Local produce such as preserves, honey and wine are available for purchase. Or just buy an ice cream!

Lois managed to get us back to the jetty in time to catch the ferry back to Cowes on Phillip Island (via Stony Point).

If you have time for just a day trip from Phillip Island to French Island, a tour with Lois is a must.

If you prefer a longer stay, there is accommodation available at French Island Eco Inn.

If camping is your preferred style, there is a camp site at Fairhaven in French Island National Park. Check conditions and facilities available there through Parks Victoria.

Bicycles are available for hire at the general store which is about 2.5km from Tankerton jetty. 

Destinations can take some time to reach - if you are just on the island for the day and need to catch the ferry back to Phillip Island, keep this in mind.

For information about the ferry to French Island click here

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