Warrnambool in winter

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Whale watching 5A winter weekend in Warrnambool might seem a strange choice for tropical heat lovers like us, considering the Antarctic winds that buffer this booming town in Victoria’s southwest. But on Tash’s advice, we packed raincoats, gloves and boots and braved the elements for a weekend away.

The tourist brochures say Warrnambool is 3 hr and 15 min drive from Melbourne, but with a 3-and-a-half-year-old in tow and a partner with a penchant for op shops, our trip took closer to 5 hours.

At our first stop we enjoyed excellent coffee and cakes at the Winchelsea Larder; I was only sorry we weren’t there at lunchtime for what looked like a great Ploughman’s Platter (AUD$12.90), plus kid’s menu version ($5.30); a genuinely kid-friendly venue with fabulous food and produce.

We lingered longer in Colac, first at the adventure playground situated on the edge of the lovely Botanic Gardens overlooking Lake Colac (follow the signs from the highway down Queen St and turn right into Fyans St; the playground is opposite the caravan park). The park has everything from a wheelchair-accessible swing to an old-school roundabout and half-dome climbing frame. Our personal favourite was the boat on a spring overlooking the lake, which fitted all three of us.

Colac playground 4

We had lunch at the Botanic Cafe, situated at the opposite end of Fyans St from the playground, also overlooking Lake Colac. Kid-friendly, good value and picturesque location.

Then it was on to Warrnambool, where we stayed with our friends Tam and Bill in a house overlooking the Hopkins River. It was raining when we arrived but as soon as it cleared, we headed to nearby Logan’s Beach for some whale watching. We got lucky: the mother and calf hanging out in the area showed their heads and tails, and at least one of them was blowing while we watched. It turned out to be the one and only time we saw whales in three visits to the viewing platform. Then again, Tash was more entertained playing with Tam’s “binnochios” (binnoculars) than she was by the distant whales.

Tower Hill 1Sunday, on Bill’s advice, we headed for Tower Hill Reserve, a lush wildlife sanctuary inside a dormant volcano that collapsed in on itself some 30,000 years ago. We parked by the Visitor Centre and within moments we were getting up close and personal with a couple friendly emus, and spied four koalas in nearby trees. We also saw black swans by the lake and a kangaroo in the wetlands area.

Tower Hill has a fascinating history. Despite being declared Victoria’s first national park in 1892, the area had been virtually clear-felled by the 1930s. Restoration work begun in the 1960s, based on a detailed painting of the Tower Hill in 1855 by Victorian artist Eugene Von Guerard. As the In The Artist’s Footsteps website notes, “It is the classic example of where a painting, by a realist artist, at a time when photography was in its infancy, can be a very valuable conservation resource.” These days the conservation efforts are so effective that koalas have to be periodically relocated from the area to prevent them from taking over.

Tower Hill 3From Tower Hill we drove to Port Fairy and would have meandered longer around this pretty town except that the port area was closed off for a bicycle race. We opted instead for lunch at Time & Tide, as recommended by Tam, a cafe with gorgeous sea views and even more gorgeous cakes. My smoked salmon fritta was truly delectable and the coffee good, too. No kids menu but they were able to rustle up a kid-friendly dish or two ($4.50), and Tash’s hot chocolate came out with a smiley face sketched in chocolate syrup. The gallery setting means it’s better suited to immobile babies than active toddlers. The turn off to Time & Tide is after the Catholic church and just before the water tower; follow the signs down the unsealed road to the beach.

Rain ruined our plans to build sand castles on the beach out front of the cafe. Instead we drove back to Warrnambool, put on our raincoats and went out to play at the Lake Pertobe Adventure Playground. The playground is a fabulous feat of engineering, built on a former swamp whose “pestiferous exhalations” were the subject of written complaints as early as 1879. (The name ‘Warrnambool’ allegedly derives from a Kuurn Kopan Noot Aboriginal term, meaning ‘two swamps’). Nowadays the park is 20 hectares of lakes, lawn and playgrounds and home to abundant bird life.

Terang playground 2

Having become playground aficionados since the birth of our daughter, I reckon Lake Pertobe is one of our best finds, not least of all because it caters for adults as well as kids: the highlight for all 3 of us were the flying foxes, one for under-12s and another for over-12s. (We were having too much fun to take photos, but there are some here). To find the flying fox station, head right from the main car-park past the maze.

What worked for us over our weekend in Warrnambool was to come equipped for inclement weather, make the most of fine spells to get out and about, and not to be deterred by a shower or two. We had a busy, fun time and I felt we’d only scratched the surface in terms of what the region has to offer.

Also worth noting for the trip back is the castle-like Apex Playground in Terang, which has low doorways hazardous to unsuspecting adults and was a bit slippery in the wet, but is beautifully located overlooking the croquet club and has everything a would-be princess needs to fire her imagination.

Other recommended food stops are the Cobb Loaf Cafe in Camperdown, and Cafe Gravity in Colac (impressive kids’ menu with $7 dishes), both on the main street/highway on the right side heading towards Melbourne.

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