The oft-forgotten cousin of the relatively glitzy and touristy Phillip Island, French Island is perfect for a day trip or overnight adventure from Melbourne. On a part of the map which is largely taken up with an urban grid of roads and buildings, French Island adds a healthy splash of green, which is always a good sign…
- Easily accessible by public transport – no car needed
- A deep sense of isolation only a short trip from the suburbs
- Perfect for hikers and cyclists
- Ferry-only access keeps the crowds down
The Promise Of An Empty Weekend
Finding time to cram adventures into an already busy life can be tough. When those adventures need to be coordinated to suit two people and their schedules, it’s even tougher. So when a weekend appeared empty in our calendar, my wife and I knew we’d be packing up the bikes with camping gear to head out and explore.
The idea of a weekender to French Island had been floating around in my mind for a few months, so a lot of our research had already been done. On an overcast November Saturday morning we rolled out of the driveway, picked up some bakery supplies and took a Metro train to Frankston before jumping on the V/Line service to Stony Point. From there, the ferry is a short 2 minute stroll along the jetty.
Setting Foot (Or Wheels) On French Island
Once you’ve arrived, just a few hundred metres from the jetty is the turn off to the Fairhaven campsite along the Coast Road. Paralleling the coast, you can catch occasional glimpses of Western Port Bay as you pick your lines through the corrugations and sand patches that litter the roads here.
It was about here that we realised we may be a little undergunned in the bike department – the roads and tracks are best suited to bikes with some front suspension and fat mountain bike tyres as opposed to a touring-orientated set up. A dedicated hiking track runs through the adjacent wetlands, giving a seperate experience to those travelling by foot.
We pushed on to the campsite with disregard for our choice of bikes, the ride punctuated by shrieks of laughter as our bikes slid and snaked through the sand. Fairhaven campsite is the only free camping on the island and it’s set right on the beach. It has clean drop toilets, a rainwater tank and a few tables for dining.
After selecting our site it was time to explore and a 35km loop taking in sections of the French Island National Park and the island’s lofty 96m summit of Mt Wellington took our fancy.
A Bike ‘N’ Hike Haven
The great appeal of French Island from a cyclist’s point of view is the lack of cars. It makes for empty roads, stress-free riding and a true sense of being miles from anywhere. Of course, these benefits extend to hikers and the wider environment. In fact, French Island National Park covers two thirds of the island and is home to a large koala population, many rare birds and a surprising amount of varying landscapes.
Following our ride and a quick stop at the French Island General Store for some evening supplies courtesy of the local winery, we settled in at camp and quickly got talking to Mat. A fellow bike tourer out on his very first tour, Mat’s campsite etiquette was top notch – he joined our table with a full bottle of scotch and the conversation flowed well into the evening as we watched the sunset over Western Port Bay.
A Quick Bike Loop
With a goal of catching the ferry home just after 1pm on Sunday, we chose a shorter ride for the morning – a 12km loop that took us along some overgrown tracks and swamps as well as The Pinnacles. At just 60m above sea level, the lookout offers surprising panoramic views across Western Port Bay across to the Mornington Peninsula. The loop took in almost every landscape the island has to offer, including Pobblebonk Swamp, named after the inhabiting frogs.
As always, the trip back home was bittersweet – we both fell asleep on the train, our legs heavy after a weekend of riding through sand pits, our hearts heavy with the knowledge that we had to return to normal life the following morning. But once more, our eyes were already shifting towards the next adventure – stay tuned!
- Food and water – Even though the General Store carries basic groceries (and booze!), carry in your own food to cook at the campsite. There is a rainwater tank located at the campsite but as always don’t count on it being full.
- Bikes – The riding here is definitely more mountain bike friendly. Avoid bulky panniers and skinny-tyred bikes, or at least be prepared to walk them through some of the sandier patches. I had 2.1 inch tyres on my bike, my wife 35mm – I managed, my wife struggled in places.
- Clothing – We travelled pretty light, but packed a jacket to keep warm. Even in early December, the wind can rip through and bring the temperature right down.
- Insect repellent – French Island has a reputation for bugs and it’s somewhat justified. Pack the repellent and you’ll enjoy your visit that much more.
- Camping gear – You’ll be hiking or riding in to the site, so keep it light!
How To Get There
The ferry terminal is located directly opposite Stony Point V-Line station, making this adventure very accessible for those reliant on public transport. For those with a bit more time, there is a network of bike paths and quiet roads from Melbourne’s eastern suburbs to facilitate a ride down. Finally, if you choose to drive there is parking available near the jetty.
Hiking and riding are the two main activities within the park. The island is also known for its large koala population and birdlife, so it’s great for the wildlife spotters. There’s also a winery on the island that offers tastings and occasional music events.
If you plan on cycling, you’ll need to be aware of the sandy patches on both the island’s main roads and tracks inside the national park. They have the ability to turn a pleasant weekend ride into a bike-breaking hospital visit in no time. For this reason, mountain bikes or fat-tyred equivalents are recommended. From what we saw, the hiking trails offer walks of various length and difficulty.
All up, we covered around 50-55km of gravel and sand-based roads and tracks. There are plenty more roads and tracks begging to be explored. Due to the island’s relatively flat topography the climbs are few and far between, however there are some short, punchy ascents that will have even the most determined rider pushing up the last few metres. All up, we climbed around 250m for the weekend. Ride duration is going to vary depending on the loop, just give yourself enough time to enjoy the untouched wilderness on offer.
Pack those panniers…