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.