Coastal getaways are synonymous with sunny days, frolics on the beach and that blissful feeling of sand between your toes.
However, there’s plenty to enjoy in seaside destinations during off-peak periods when the weather’s not so great. Take winter in Warrnambool. The hub of south-west Victoria might be buzzing in summer, but it’s during the cooler months that holidaymakers can enjoy all this region has to offer, minus the sun-seeking crowds.
With a population of 32,000, Warrnambool is technically a city, however its laid-back vibe and lack of traffic lights make it feel like a big country town. When the mercury rises, families flock to its beaches, but come winter there’s still lots to do.
A hop, skip and a jump from Warrnambool’s Foreshore Promenade is Lake Pertobe, where you can hire motorboats to zip around the man-made lake at any time of the year. Lake Pertobe’s Adventure Playground encompasses this popular patch, eight hectares of pure fun for kids, with a maze, flying fox and plenty of open space to kick the footy.
There’s an impressive mini golf course along the same stretch of Pertobe Road, together with Simon’s Waterfront, a cafe-restaurant where you can sip on a milkshake (or something stronger) with something to eat, while gazing over views of the Southern Ocean.
Warrnambool has a surprising array of excellent eateries. The Whalers Hotel serves up pizza and steak so mouth-watering we returned for a second bite. Cattleya Thai has built a following over the past 10 years for its delicious dishes, while Graze Urban Cafe is a safe bet for breakfast or a moreish coffee.
Almost as hot as the coffee are the Deep Blue thermal springs. Suitable for kids (although there are later times allocated to adults only), the sanctuary includes a series of geothermal rock pools, sensorial caves and other therapeutic spaces. It’s a wonderful way to warm up and calm down on a chilly winter’s day.
Southern right whales are regular visitors to Warrnambool during winter. They migrate from the colder waters of the Antarctic Ocean to the protected waters of Warrnambool Bay to give birth and raise their calves. There’s no guessing when they might arrive or in what numbers, but the whale-viewing platform at Logans Beach is the main spot to try your luck. Ask at the Visitor Information Centre about recent sightings.
No trip to Warrnambool is complete without a visit to Flagstaff Hill, the maritime museum (also attached to the visitors centre) that includes a replica historic village and nightly sound and light show, where local history stories are projected onto a nine-metre waterwall.
If it’s history you love, nearby towns do not disappoint – after all, the region is notable for not only its maritime heritage and famous shipwrecks, but also its abundance of geological wonders and dormant volcanoes, Tower Hill being arguably the most known.
A 15-minute drive from Warrnambool, Tower Hill is estimated to have erupted 32,000 years ago. The explosions created a shallow crater, which later filled with water to form a lake. Further eruptions occurred in the centre of this crater, creating the islands and cone-shaped hills, capped off with a whopping 11-kilometre crater rim. Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve was declared Victoria’s first national park in 1892 and since the 1980s has been home to some of Australia’s most iconic native birds and animals, including koalas, wedge-tailed eagles and a number of ultra-curious emus (loitering in the car park during our visit).
The area surrounding Tower Hill was once a rich source of food and shelter for various clans of the Gunditjmara Nation, whose descendants still live in the area. Working together within the Worn Gundidj co-operative, they lead a series of guided bushwalking tours through Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve. Twice-daily, 90-minute tours provide insights into native wildlife, together with how to identify native plants Aboriginals used for food and medicinal purposes. Dusk tours highlight the activity of nocturnal wildlife and give participants a two-hour cultural experience.
A 10-minute drive from Tower Hill brings you to Port Fairy, famous for its annual Folk Festival and top placing on multiple “most livable” lists. The seaside village certainly holds great attraction for tourists and winter is no exception, thanks to the Port Fairy Winter Weekends that run through much of June and July. The line-up is built for families, embracing art, music, food, film and the much-loved Dachshund Dash.
To the north of Tower Hill is the small town of Koroit, which has a strong Irish heritage that’s evident in its architecture and hospitality. Stop here to enjoy a pint of Guinness at Mickey Bourkes, or for a more modern jar try Noodledoof, the brewing and distilling company that’s housed in a former garage. The two owners-cum-brewers (aka Noodle and Doof) have worked with Worn Gundidj to experiment with native botanicals for their gin.
And if there’s anything that’ll warm the cockles on a cold winter’s day, surely it’s that.