Phillip Island-The March of the Penguins

Who  doesn’t  love  penguins?  Even  hardhearted cynics find it hard to resist those adorable   flightless   seabirds,   waddling across the grainy brown beach in the gathering  dusk  to  snuggle  into  their  burrows on the sand dunes. Australia’s most popular animal encounter, the Penguin Parade on  Phillip  Island  spotlights  a  cast  of  hundreds  of  Little  penguins,  also  known  as fairy   penguins—Australia’s   only   native penguins,  foot-high  charmers  with  dark-blue   heads,   backs,   and   flippers.   Even though   the   Penguin   Parade   on   Phillip Island has commercialized the experience, with   spectators   packed   into   concrete bleachers  to  watch  the  nightfall  ritual, those   plucky   little   penguins   somehow redeem it, night after night.

Phillip  Island  has  all  the  virtues  of  convenience—handily  connected  by  causeway  to  the  mainland,  it’s  only  a  2-hour drive from Melbourne. Once you get here, you  discover  that  there’s  a  lot  more  to enjoy than just your cocktail hour with the penguins.  On  the  scrubby,  wind-swept Summerland peninsula, just past the Penguin Parade beach,  you’ll  find  Australia’s  largest  colony  of  fur  seals  mobbed onto  the  basalt  outcropping  called  (what else?) Seal Rocks, viewable from observation  decks  on  The  Nobbies  headland. Inside  the  Nobbies  visitor  center, monitors display  close-ups  of  the  seals,  relayed from cameras on Seal Rocks. In the center of  the  island,  cuddly  koalas  drip  from  the eucalyptus trees at the Koala Conservation Center. Just north of here, more koalas, as well as wallabies, echidnas,  owls,  and  bats,  can  be  found along the eucalyptus-scented trails of the Oswin Roberts Woodland (Cowes-Rhyll Rd.);  continue  north  and  east  to  the  protected  wetlands  of  Rhyll  Inlet,  where boardwalks  wind  through  a  mangrove estuary  teeming  with  spoonbills,  oyster-catchers, herons, egrets, cormorants, and the  rare  bar-tailed  godwit  and  whimbrel. Heading  back  toward  the  causeway,  turn left to visit tiny Churchill Island, where the restored  farmstead  at  Churchill  Island Heritage Farm  features ambling Clydesdale draft horses and shaggy  red  Highland  cattle.  Then  detour south to the rocky heights of Cape Woolamai,  where  trails  cross  heath  lands  to fabulous  coastal  views;  from  September to  April,  thousands  of  short-tailed  shearwaters (also known as mutton birds) cover its pink-granite headlands.

The  trick  to  enjoying  Phillip  Island  is avoiding  the  day-trippers.  Staying  here overnight  helps  enormously—that  way you  can  explore  the  other  nature  attractions at your leisure, and get to the koalas before   midafternoon   when   the   buses arrive.  It’s  also  worthwhile  to  upgrade your Penguin Parade ticket: Book the lesscrowded Penguins Plus boardwalk, where rangers   provide   commentary;   the   elevated   Penguin   Sky   Box   (no   children allowed,  unfortunately);  or  the  Ultimate Penguin  Tour  (no  children  15  and  under), held on a separate, more secluded beach with its own penguins. Or come early for a ranger-guided  behind-the-scenes  tour  of Penguin  Parade’s  research  operations. However  you  do  it,  in  peak  season  reservations are essential.