Sixty kilometers south of Melbourne, you’ll find French Island and its more famous counterpart, Phillip Island. They are located in Western Port, Victoria, Australia.
French Island is a relatively uninhabited and undeveloped island that is 18km by 12km, with 144km of coastline. The resident population hovers somewhere between 60 and 90 people.
This island is a breath of fresh air with a dollop of peace and quiet, as it has avoided the worst of development over the past few decades. Two thirds of the island was declared a state park, and then a national park in 1997 – the French Island National Park. The waters north of the island are also a protected Marine National Park.
The island does not have electricity, a pipe-based water supply, or any medical services. Tankerton offers just one small general store and a post office.
French Island was originally mistaken to be part of the mainland. Later, a French expedition traveled to the island and named it “Ile de Francoise” in 1802.
Very little permanent settlement took place on the island until a chicory farm was established there in the 1890s.
A low-security prison and farm was established in 1915, where inmates served the last portion of their sentences on a compound which included a golf course and tennis courts. The prison closed in 1975.
Today, most of the island’s 65 residents rely on the tourism industry as their main source of income.
The island’s coastline consists mostly of salt marsh and complementary mangrove marine ecosystems along the mudflats. Inland, the island is known for its diverse wildflowers along the heathland – the best time to see them is during the spring. Other habitats include swamps, grasslands, and blue gum forests.
Over six hundred species of plants (including 100 species of orchid) and over two hundred and thirty bird species have been spotted on French Island, making it an attraction for bird watchers. Sightings have included the white-breasted sea eagle, pelican, mutton bird, ibis rookeries, king quail, and the critically endangered orange-bellied parrot.
French Island is also known for supporting Australia’s largest koala population. Koalas – so great in number that some are exported to overseas zoos each year so that they do not destroy the environment – can be seen all over the island. Other animals on the island include: Sambur deer, water rats, and the seldom-seen long-nosed potoroo (rat-kangaroo species).
Activities (Nature and Wildlife Interest)
The island’s well-preserved natural environment is a draw to visitors. Activities are mostly nature-oriented, and include: hiking, cycling, swimming, nature studies, scenic bus tours, sea kayaking, horse riding, fishing, or camping.
Walks in particular are very popular, and vary from a couple of hours to full-day hikes, and start from Tankerton Foreshore Reserve.
To cover more ground, consider hiring a bicycle from the General Store, Macleod Eco Farm, or Bayview; or signing up for a four-hour bus tour of the island with French Island Tours or French Island Eco Tours, during which time you can observe the natural environment, learn about the island’ s history, and visit the prison.
Because only residents are permitted cars, the island’s network of 40km of gravel and dirt roads are very quiet for bicycling.
The terrain is mostly flat, with several low hills – the highest point on the island being just 96m above sea level (Mt Wellington).
The island has just a few options for accommodation. Accommodations include:
- French Island – Tortoise Head Guesthouse (B&B): Bed and breakfast style accommodation, suitable for small groups or conferences
- French Island Farm B&B: Eco-friendly, with ensuite accommodation and private verandahs with sea views
- French Island B&B: Cottages with self-catering or full meal packages available
- McLeod Eco-Farm and Historical Prison: Large organic farm, accommodation for up to 180 people ranging from 2-person bunk rooms to a deluxe guest house, with: bicycle hire, prison tours, restaurant, self-catering facilities – set on 558 acres along the beach. This accommodation specializes in groups.
Three campgrounds (one free and two private) exist on the island.
A private campground is located at the French Island Tourist Information Centre.
A second is located on the grounds of the McLeod eco-farm and historical prison.
Lastly, a basic and free campground is located in the National Park at Fairhaven (with bathroom facilities and freshwater), which is located 4km north of Tankerton on the western shore. Fires are not permitted, so please remember to bring a gas-powered stove. The campsite is located within a stand of trees near the beach.
Be aware that non-resident cars are not allowed on the island. Visitors are encouraged to explore the island on a coach tour, by bicycle, or on foot.
Melbourne is the launching pad to French Island. From there, you can travel:
Drive straight to Stony Point, via Frankston or via Dandenong. There is a public car park at Stony Point, from where you can walk 200m along the jetty to the ferry pick up point – see “By Sea”
Or, hop a train on the Frankston railway line to Frankston station; switch to a diesel train service on the Stony Point railway line to Stony Point, and walk a short way to the jetty to catch a ferry to Tankerton Jetty on French Island – see “By Sea”
Ferries run from the mainland to Phillip Island. Interisland Ferries operate a route between Tankerton Jetty on the island, picking up passengers at Stony Point Jetty and at Cowes Jetty on Phillip Island. The trip from Stony Point to Tankerton is just 10 minutes, or 20 minutes from Cowes Jetty.
Drive to Moorabbin Airport and take a light plane to the island with Tristar Aviation.
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