Phillip Island is one of our favourite day trips from Melbourne.
This beautiful island is home to a wealth of activities, from its famous Penguin Parade to its hundred-year-old shipwreck; its rugged beaches to its rolling hills.
For such a small island, there’s a surprising amount of attractions to dig into, and you could happily spend three or four days crossing them all off. On a day trip, however, when you don’t have the blessing of unlimited time, you’ve got to pick and choose the best parts to see.
That’s where I come in. I’ve visited Phillip Island half a dozen times in my lifetime, on trips ranging from one day to seven; subsequently, I’ve experienced every activity on offer. With one day to spare, you can see so much of what makes this destination so wonderful.
Granted, you won’t be lounging on the beach and soaking up serene vibes, but you’ll instead be able to spot plenty of wildlife, look out from wild, windswept viewpoints, and explore one of Victoria’s most underrated destinations.
Let’s first cover some important things to know about day tripping Phillip Island.
What to Know Before You Go
Before you arrive on Phillip Island, I recommend buying your Three Parks Pass.
This pass gives you entry to the Penguin Parade, Churchill Farm, and the Koala Conservation Centre at a discount, saving you up to 20% on the entrance fees. And yes, you’ll be wanting to visit all three places while you’re on the island.
You can opt for the standard Penguin Parade, the Penguin Parade Plus (better seats), or the Underground Penguin Parade (observing from ground level) through the Three Parks Pass.
I recommend buying the pass as far out from your trip as possible. While the Penguin Parade doesn’t usually sell out, the better seats often do. On my most recent trip to Phillip Island, in November 2023, all of the Plus and Underground tickets were sold out for my dates! That was a bummer.
I also recommend bringing a picnic blanket with you for the Penguin Parade, so be sure to grab one before you leave — I’ll share more on that later.
The Penguin Parade takes place just after sunset; the times of which vary throughout the year. In summer, you’ll be looking at a 8:30 p.m. start, while the colder months might see you arriving at the parade as early as 4 p.m.
For this itinerary, I’ve assumed that you’ll be visiting during the summer months (as that’s when most people travel to Phillip Island). If you’ll be visiting during the winter, simply cut out all of the beach activities from the itinerary to make the timings work.
You might be wondering if it’s best to take a tour for your day trip to Phillip Island.
The benefit of doing so is getting to avoid the long drive back to Melbourne in the evening. You’ll have somebody else taking care of your itinerary, can gain a better insight into the places you’re visiting from your guide, and won’t have to worry about running out of time.
The downside is that you’ll see way, way less than you would by following my itinerary. You’ll be following a route that may not best suit your requirements, spending a solid $150 for the entire day, and lacking the freedom to spend longer at any attraction you fall in love with.
If a tour sounds like the easiest way to explore the island, I recommend the going with this 12-hour day trip from Bunyip Tours. Their eco-friendly tour of Phillip Island comes in at $149 per person.
And now, the itinerary!
Get an Early Start Out of Melbourne
Phillip Island is a two-hour drive from Melbourne, so you’re going to want to leave early in order to maximise your limited amount of time. We have an in-depth guide on how to get to Phillip Island, by the way, so take a look at that if you’re looking for itinerary advice or a breakdown of how to get there by public transport.
I would recommend leaving Melbourne at around 7:30 a.m., which should have you arriving on the island by 9:45 in the morning. Our first activity opens at 10 a.m., so you should be arriving at its gates right on time.
Now, where to first?
Embrace the Serenity of Churchill Farm
Our first stop of the day is going to be Churchill Farm, which you’ll find signposted to your right as soon as you drive on to the island; we’ll aim to spend an hour exploring the complex.
If you’re travelling with children, this is going to be a fun-filled stop for them, diving into one of the oldest working farms in Victoria. It dates back to 1850s, in fact, and staff put on demonstrations throughout the day, from blacksmithing to whip-cracking; sheep-shearing and more.
Most of the activities take place later on in the afternoon, so as we’re on a day trip, I recommend instead taking the time to explore the farm’s grounds. There’s plenty of standard farmyard animals to check in on as you wander the premises, like sheep, cows (even highland cows from Scotland!), horses, pigs, and chickens.
What I really enjoyed, though, was taking a walk through the historic property, Amess House. Originally built in 1872 by stonemason Samuel Amess, back then, it served as a holiday home for multiple generations of his family. These days, it’s been restored back to its Victorian-era glory, with each of its rooms reflecting the furniture and decorations that would have been popular at the time. It’s so enjoyable to take a step back in time here, gaining a glimpse at how life would have been for early settlers with wealth.
Before you leave Churchill Island, I recommend taking a walk around part of the farm’s perimeter, and specifically the North Point Loop. This is my favourite part of the entire island.
It takes roughly half an hour to walk the gentle 2 km (1.2 mile) track, and the views make it more than worth it. Few visitors opt to tackle the walking trails here, so it provides a great opportunity to get away from the crowds and soak up the views. My photo at the top of this section was taken on the North Point Loop.
You’ll pass numerous beaches, bays, and coves on the trail, and spot plenty of birdlife as you go. Keep an eye out for the gnarled Moonah trees, in particular, which are said to be over 500 years old!
The trail finishes at the car park, which is convenient, as it’s now time to move on to our next stop.
Stop in at the Phillip Island Chocolate Factory
It takes less than 10 minutes to drive from Churchill Island to the Phillip Island Chocolate Factory: a popular destination for visitors to the island. The store is most well-known for their faithful recreation of the Penguin Parade; made entirely out of chocolate! It’s worth visiting just to see it with your own eyes!
Now, I’ll be honest here and confess that I’ve personally never been impressed by any of the chocolate I’ve purchased here, so if you want to just check out the display then move on, I won’t hold it against you. If you do want to sample some of their treats, however, there’s hundreds of different options to choose from.
There’s also an opportunity to tour the factory itself, which usually takes an hour or so to complete. If you have kids, they’ll likely love getting to play chocolate-themed games, learn how chocolate is made, and check out the world’s largest chocolate waterfall. If you’re childfree, stay far, far away from this activity, unless you enjoy being surrounded by dozens of very loud, very hyperactive little ones!
Watch the Surfers at Woolamai Surf Beach
Phillip Island is, of course, an island, and what that means is that it has beaches. Dozens of them, in fact! Many of them beautiful. We’ll finish off our morning of exploration by stopping in on Woolamai Surf Beach. Set your GPS for the Woolamai Beach Surf Life Saving Club to get to the right spot.
It’s a five-minute drive from the chocolate factory to the beach, and it’s here where you’ll be able to gain a small introduction to the merciless Cape Woolamai. Inaccessible to cars, this small peninsula is home to one of the best hiking trails on the island.
The Cape Woolamai Circuit Walk is a great one, taking you up on to the exposed headland where you can look down on dangerous swells, eroded rock formations, and an old granite quarry. It takes two-to-three hours to complete the hike, however, so this isn’t one for the day trippers.
Instead, take some time to cross the sand on Woolamai Surf Beach. This pristine stretch of sand is a beautiful one, regularly kept smooth by the violent waves that charge up against the shoreline. If you see any surfers out in the water, you can rest assured that they’re extremely experienced.
In other words, you absolutely don’t want to go swimming here.
Keep an eye on the time as you stroll up and down the beach, because you want to make sure you’re in San Remo by 11:50 a.m. — it’s a 10 minute drive from the car park.
Catch the Pelican Feeding in San Remo
The San Remo pelican feeding is one of my favourite activities to do on a Phillip Island day trip — even though it’s technically not even on the island.
It takes place at midday every single day, so you’ll want to aim to get there about 10 minutes beforehand in order to nab a good spot. I recommend standing on the beach beside the rope, as you’ll get closest to the pelicans from there and shouldn’t have anybody obstructing your view.
So what’s the deal with the feeding?
Well, every single lunchtime, since 1985, the Fisherman’s Co-Op of San Remo has been holding a daily pelican feeding. It started, back then, when the fishermen would feed the local pelicans the offcuts from their catches that morning. More and more pelicans began to gather on the beach, expectantly waiting for lunch, and eventually, the fishermen decided to transform the whole experience into an opportunity for education.
Now, you’ll get to spend half an hour learning about the Australian pelican: a bird that grows the longest bill of any avian species; as long as 50 cm (20 in.) in some cases! You’ll get to watch a local volunteer feed the hungry pelicans by hand and get to marvel at just how funny-looking these birds really are. You’ll see them tussle around with each other, attempt to sneak their way into the fish container, and complain if they haven’t been fed their fair share.
Honestly, this is such a hilarious activity that I recommend it to everybody who visits Phillip Island. You won’t have seen anything like it before in your life.
Devour the Fish and Chips from the San Remo Fisherman’s Co-Op
The Fisherman’s Co-Op could quite easily be terrible.
They have a captive audience, after all, thanks to their pelican feeding. Once it’s all wrapped up, in fact, they ask visitors to have lunch at their restaurant in exchange for watching the show. With a guaranteed stream of tourists passing through their doors, then, they could serve up mediocre fish and chips and get away with it.
Happily, this isn’t the case.
In fact, I would say the Fisherman’s Co-Op has better food than the vast majority of the eateries on Phillip Island. I always enjoy coming here for a lunch post-pelican feeding.
It’s all about the gummy shark, so grab yourself a portion of perfectly-battered flake and chips and sit down on the grass outside to eat it. On a sunny day in January, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.
Go A-Wandering Through Forrest Caves
Forrest Caves is one of those places that’s worth visiting at any time of day. When it’s low tide, you’ll be able to wander hither and thither through the complex of caves; at high tide, you can stand on top of the rocks and watch seawater spraying up through the crevasses.
It’s a picturesque spot, drawing your eyes to the bright-red volcanic rock that’s scattered across the golden-sand beach. Erosion has been wearing the basalt away for thousands of years, creating the tunnels we see today. It’s only at the lowest of low tides that you can safely walk all the way into the caves; my favourite is the one that has a worn-away ceiling, creating a natural skylight to help illuminate your surroundings.
This is a lesser-known part of Phillip Island — there’s never been more than a dozen people there when I’ve visited — so you’ll be grateful for its solitude if you happen to be visiting the island on a busy day.
Most likely, you’ll spend 15-20 minutes here; longer if you’re visiting at low tide.
Note: Google Maps has a tendency to take visitors to the wrong place. You want to search for “Forrest Caves Parking” rather than “Forrest Caves” to ensure you end up in the correct location.
Stop in at the Koala Conservation Reserve
It’s a 10-minute drive from Forrest Caves to the Koala Conservation Reserve.
Seeing the koalas is always one of my highlights of visiting Phillip Island: every time I’ve swung by, I’ve been able to get within a metre of several different koalas. When I visited in November, almost every single koala had a newborn joey riding on its back!
The park has been set up to bring you to the koalas — rather than the other way around. Comprising two sets of treetop boardwalks, you make your way up into the forest, where there’s nearly always a few koalas sleeping nearby.
Koalas are most active in the cooler hours of the day, but I’ve still managed to spot plenty here in the hot afternoons. In fact, sometimes they’ve all been on the move during the hottest parts of the day! On one visit, I watched two koala mums growling at each other because they couldn’t pass by each other on their narrow branch.
If the koalas are active, you could easily spend two hours here, just watching them in their natural habitat. With only a short amount of time on Phillip Island, however, I recommend limiting yourself to one hour in total.
Feed the ‘Roos at Phillip Island Wildlife Park
If you’re no stranger to Australian wildlife, this isn’t going to be the most exciting of stops for you, so feel free to skip it if you’re a local.
If you’re a visitor, however, and have yet to see much of this country’s animals, this is an excellent place to stop. Your entrance ticket entitles you to a free bag of food, which you can then use to feed the kangaroos, wallabies, and emus that roam through the park.
I had so much fun with this. The animals have all adapted to regular human contact, so are subsequently safe to interact with and happy to be fed. The kangaroos and wallabies were surprisingly gentle when feeding, while the emus aggressively pecked into your hand with their rough beaks. A little alarming, I’ll admit, but generally hilarious to experience.
There’s lots of animals located within the complex, from Tasmanian devils to wombats; dingoes to echidnas; cassowaries to tawny frogmouths. If you’re not local to Australia, this provides an excellent opportunity to get up close to the vast majority of our wonderful wildlife.
Admire the Views From Pyramid Rock Lookout
From the Phillip Island Wildlife Park, drive south for 10 minutes and you’ll reach the Pyramid Rock Lookout car park. From here, it’s just a five minute walk along some meandering boardwalks to get to the main Pyramid Rock viewpoint.
Note that the lookout is located on the south coast of Phillip Island and is jutting right out into the ocean, so it can get extremely windy here. Even on a hot day, you might want to bring a jacket for the walk to protect yourself from the gusts.
The walk is definitely worth it, though. You’ll be able to look all along the coastline, to the east and the west, spotting beaches and cliffs the whole way across. Just like the Forrest Caves, this part of the island was created by volcanic activity — the pyramid you see is actually the remnants of a lava flow in the area!
Explore the SS Speke: A Shipwreck from 1905
Next up, the most famous shipwreck on Phillip Island. It’s a 10-minute drive west of the Pyramid Rock Lookout
The shipwreck of the SS Speke took place over a hundred years ago. At the time, it was the largest three-masted ship in the world, measuring 90 metres in length.
It’s hard to believe it was quite so sizeable when you turn up at Kitty Miller Bay and see the wreckage. Sure, there’s not much left to see — everything but the ship’s bow was destroyed by the rocky coastline — but what does remain is still worth inspecting.
Unlike Forrest Caves, the SS Speke can only be walked up to at low tide, as it’s completely engulfed by water at higher tides. Make sure you have a quick Google, then, before you drive here to check you’ll be visiting in the couple of hours around low tide.
Park your car at Kitty Miller Bay car park and then follow the SS Speke Walking Track all the way to the shipwreck. It takes just under 15 minutes to walk there and along the way you’ll be scrambling over loose gravel and rocks, so you’ll want to be confident in your walking shoes and stability.
Get Blown Away at the Nobbies
Nothing is ever too far away when you’re on Phillip Island, so when you get back in your car, you’ll be travelling for less than 10 minutes until you get to the Nobbies Centre.
This spot is located on the south-western tip of Phillip Island and exploring this region involves traversing a wooden boardwalk that takes you past some of the most rugged landscapes of the island.
From the car park, head to the Visitors Centre, where you’ll then be able to take the wooden pathway across the windswept headland. In the distance, you’ll see Seal Rock, which is home to Australia’s largest colony of fur seals (bring binoculars if you’re keen to spot them). In the spring, seabirds blanket the volcanic rocks. On windy days, the local blowhole sends water skyrocketing metres into the air. There’s always something to see here.
Go Rock-Pooling at Red Rocks Beach
After the wild landscapes of the Nobbies, it’s time to visit somewhere a little more sedate.
Red Rocks Beach is just a 12 minute drive from the Nobbies car park and is one of the lesser-known beaches of Phillip Island. This is one of my favourite spots on the island for getting away from the crowds.
It’s a peaceful little beach, sheltered from the harsh winds of the southern coast and home to calm, tranquil waters. The crimson-red rocks provide ample opportunity for rock-pooling, while the chilly ocean is perfect for cooling down on a hot, summer’s day.
This is our final stop before rolling into Cowes for dinner, so if you have plenty of daylight left, it’s here where you’ll want to make the most of it. Lay down a beach towel, strip down to your bathers, and enjoy cultivating higher levels of resilience through cold water immersion.
Stroll Along the Beach in Cowes
Every single time I arrive in Cowes and set eyes on its beautiful beach, I start to wonder if I should have a holiday home here. I daresay you might come to the same conclusion.
It’s a surprisingly lovely stretch of sand for a town beach and because it’s north-facing (i.e., away from the open ocean and its accompanying winds), it’s great for both swimming and picnicking.
If you have time before dinner, take a late-afternoon walk along the beach and soak up the atmosphere. There’s often plenty of locals out and about, walking their dogs, reading books, and generally enjoying the fact that they live in such a wonderful place.
Have Dinner in Cowes
I’ll be honest with you: the food options in Cowes aren’t the greatest. They’re also really expensive!
I’ve had more mediocre meals here than I’ve had excellent ones, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few standouts.
Bani’s Restaurant & Bar is the obvious option. They serve up delicious Greek food and are one of the best-rated establishments in town. I really enjoyed my lamb shoulder dinner; eaten while overlooking the ocean, although it was very expensive at $50[!].
If you’re on more of a budget, you might want to head to the Mighty Kebab van for a cheap eat for $12 or so. Pino’s Trattoria has decent pizzas for under $20, and if you’re craving fish and chips for a second time in a day — I won’t judge — Nat’s Rustic Beach Feed has some excellent options for $16.
And finally, there is a huge Coles close to the centre of town. During my last trip, I was still full from my fish and chips lunch, so I grabbed some snacks from Coles and created my own mini-picnic on the grassy verges beside the beach.
Once you’re finished with dinner, it’s time to kick back, relax, and wait for sunset.
The Grand Finale: The Penguin Parade
The Penguin Parade is the main attraction of Phillip Island, so don’t even think about leaving the island without seeing it first.
If you’ve bought tickets for the Underground or Plus experience, you’re essentially guaranteed to have a good seat for the parade; I don’t have much advice for you. I’d still recommend getting there early so that you can position yourself right at the very front, but it’s not the end of the world if you decide to turn up just before sunset.
Because sunset is when the magic happens.
If you’ve decided to opt for the standard Penguin Parade experience, I’ve got plenty of thoughts.
If you want to get the best seat for the parade, you’ll want to arrive at the visitor centre roughly one hour and 15 minutes before the penguins are due to arrive. (Staff recommend that you arrive one hour before the penguins, which means that everybody arrives one hour beforehand; by arriving 75 minutes before, you’ll be able to beat the crowds).
You can see the expected arrival times on the Penguin Parade’s website. In summer, it will likely be between 8 and 8:30 p.m.
Now, once you get to the visitor centre, skip the exhibitions and gift shop, as they’ll still be open when the parade is finished. Instead, make your way over to the seating area. When you get to the benches, you want to turn to the right and try to sit as far in that direction as possible.
When the penguins make their way up the sand dunes they do so first and foremost in the west, which is to the right when you’re facing the ocean. Try to get a seat that’s as close to the front, and as close to the railings, as possible.
You can see the penguin footsteps up the sand dunes in my photo above: if you’re sat away from the railings, with 10 people to the right of you, you’ll barely be able to see them as they go past!
There’s also another option.
Every single time that I’ve attended the Penguin Parade, I’ve come away with a resolution to bring a blanket next time.
The main reason being — as you can see from my photo above — if you have a blanket, you can sit down on the sand and automatically have a front row seat. But not only that: because so few people do bring a blanket, you can actually turn up on the premises at exactly sunset, sit down at the front, and wait just five minutes for the penguins to arrive.
Meanwhile, the rest of us have been impatiently shivering in icy winds for over an hour.
So that’s my recommendation: bring a blanket with you, rock up to the centre 15 minutes before sunset, and then park yourself on the sand. You’ll end up scoring a better view than most of us.
When the penguins finally arrive, it’s a magical experience.
These Little Penguins are the smallest type of penguins in the world, and they cut an adorable shape as they waddle their way up the beach. Sometimes they trip and fall over. Often they get scared and run back in the sea. Occasionally they start a fight with another penguin. There’s so much to see and experience.
What a lot of visitors don’t realise, however, is that the parade up the beach isn’t the best part.
No, once you’ve been watching the penguins for 15-20 minutes, get up from your seats and head back up to the boardwalks.
It’s up at the top where the penguins’ burrows are located and you’ll be able to come within centimetres of them, watching them scurry beneath your feet. One of my most memorable moments was watching a penguin feeding fish to its two newborn chicks outside their burrow; it felt like I was living in a nature documentary!
It’s Time to Head Back to Melbourne
Hopefully you’ve had an amazing day trip to Phillip Island. This is a beautiful part of the world with so much to see, and I’m glad I was able to show you how to see it at its best.
The drive back to Melbourne is an easy one, but it’ll likely feel long and boring after such an action-packed day. In the evening, traffic is usually non-existent, so you can usually get back to the city within 90 minutes or so.