Looking for things to do on French Island? Or even – reasons to visit French Island? While it seems remote, this island is not as hard to get to as you may think. Read on to find out more about visiting this unique eco-destination in Victoria.
Want to head somewhere that feels truly remote, but is surprisingly easy to get to from Melbourne?
I recommend a day trip or weekend break to French Island.
This island sits south-east of Melbourne, just off the Mornington Peninsula and north of popular holiday destination, Phillip Island.
It’s home to an array of wildlife (including some gorgeous birdlife). While the island is inhabited, less than 150 people call it home.
Despite this, there’s plenty of things to do on French Island, especially if you’re into nature.
Eco-friendly things to do on French Island
Some quick facts about French Island:
- the island is off-the-grid, running on solar and tank water. It’s unincorporated – meaning there’s no local council
- around 120 people live on the island. Their most famous prior inhabitant is pop star Kylie Minogue
- there’s a large population of koalas – however they’re not endemic to the island, having been introduced in the 1890s
- there are no medical facilities on the island, so don’t head there without health or travel insurance
- the island is home to two national parks – French Island National Park and French Island Marine Park, off the north coast
- a prison farm on the island was once a popular tourist site. It closed to the public after being sold in 2017
- French Island hopes to one day become predator free (like other islands around the world), and had programs in place to eliminate introduced threats such as feral cats.
With that done, here are some things to do on French Island.
1. See koalas in the wild
Koalas are one of the top attractions on French Island. That’s because unlike mainland Australia, where they are largely threatened or extinct due to destruction of their habitat, there is an abundance of koalas living here.
Introduced in the late 1800s, their numbers easily spread, to the point where their population is kinda out of control.
Happily, the French Island koalas don’t suffer from chlamydia, like their mainland counterparts. So, these cute creatures are often used to prop up numbers around Australia.
You can see quite a few koalas on a walk up from the General Store, where the road (Tankerton Road, specifically) is lined with eucalyptus trees. Clump Road is also a good place for this.
My advice if there’s more than one of you, is to make a competition out of how many you each can spot. Then raise your hands in victory and brag about it for at least the next hour, when you manage to beat your partner on two separate occasions.
Other places you can head to in Victoria to easily see koalas are Raymond Island in Gippsland and on the Kennett River Koala Walk, which you can visit while driving along the Great Ocean Road.
2. Have a meal at Fig’s Cafe
The French Island General Store is home to the cosy Fig’s Cafe.
It’s the only place you can grab a cuppa and a bite to eat – whether that be some delicious homemade cake, a chicken schnitzel sandwich (recommended), or hot pie with chips and salad.
The store also sells provisions and acts as the local post office, newsagency and bottle shop. It wears many hats!
Best of all, it runs a courtesy bus on the weekend, taking visitors on the island to the store and back, from the jetty.
Details for bookings for this service are on the website.
You can also rent a car at the General Store, which is essential if you want to explore every inch of this quite large island.
3. Ride a bike around the island
Once you’re at the general store, you can hire a bike and helmet for the day and take to two wheels to explore French Island.
Alternatively, it’s very easy to bring your own bike onto the island. You can either drive it to the ferry terminal on Mornington Peninsula, or catch the train from Melbourne to Stony Point station. The ferry allows passengers to bring bikes onboard at a cost of $4.50.
The roads around the island are gravel, so mountain bikes are best suited for this sort of adventuring. Or just swap your tyres to something a bit more heavy duty before visiting.
You can cycle up to Fairhaven Campsite from Tankerton Jetty, or follow a couple of dedicates rides:
- Redbill Manna Gum Woodland Ride (8km)
- Gartsides Ride (24km).
Check out the visitor guide for more information.
4. Visit the local winery
French Island Winery produce cool-climate wines, such as shiraz, pinot noir, pinot grigio and pinot gris.
Their cellar door is usually open every Saturday and Sunday, from 11am-5pm during the summer.
Note: the heavy rainfall of summer 2022/2023 has had a devastating effect on the vineyard’s grapes. Unable to produce their usual amount of wine, they’ve closed their cellar door this year, as they’re about to sell out of their stock. Bottles of red are available at the General Store, for now.
5. See all kinds of birdlife
Over 230 bird species have been recorded on French Island. Keen birders will have the opportunity to glimpse rare birds, such as the White-Bellied Sea-Eagle, King Quail, and the Orange-Bellied Parrot.
Rams Island, just off the coast of French Island, is closed to the public in the summer months, as it’s the breeding ground for Fairy Tern. This species is considered endangered in Victoria and vulnerable worldwide.
You’ll also see eagles, rosella, perhaps penguins, Cape Barren Geese, Purple Swamphens… the list goes on.
6. Check out the chicory kiln
Before coffee became the accepted drug of choice worldwide, chicory was popular as a substitute.
Production of this on French Island started in the late 1890s, running right through to the 1960s, when the industry was ended by the invention of instant coffee.
The kiln remains on the island. While it’s privately owned, it’s possible to visit.
I recommend inquiring at the General Store, if you’re keen to do this.
7. Go for a hike
Another great reason to take a day trip to French Island is to do a hike in a remote setting.
After catching the ferry across Western Port, you can choose between:
- Old Coast Road Track (5km, 1.5 hours one way): this track starts at the Tankerton Jetty and takes you to the campgrounds, through heathland and woodland.
- West Coast Wetlands Walking Track (9.6km, 3.2 hours return): starting at Fairhaven Campsite, this track leads to The Pinnacles Lookout, passing a few other French Island attractions such as wetlands and swamps.
- Fairhaven Northern Beach Walk (4km, 2 hours return): a walk up the coast from the campsite, where you can spot shorebirds, waders and saltmarsh.
8. Camp somewhere truly remote
Fairhaven Campsite is the main campgrounds on the island, located 5 kilometres from the jetty.
It’s nestled on the dunes behind the beach, in a wonderfully picturesque spot.
There’s basic toilet facilities and you need to purify or boil water before drinking it. You can dine on the provided picnic tables and utilise the onsite BBQ for dinner. Alternatively, bring a portable gas stove, as fires are prohibited.
There’s only space for around 40 people and 10 campsites, so book your place in advance – a permit is needed in any case, to camp here.
9. Say hi to wildlife
Along with koalas, French Island is home to the Long-nosed Potaroo and the critically endangered Eastern-barred Bandicoots, which were released on the island as part of a breeding program.
I am personally delighted by the abundance of echidna, seeing three in a two hour span – one even waddled its way right up to my boyfriend’s foot.
Hopefully goes without saying, but don’t feed wild or birdlife – or try to pat them.
How to get to French Island
French Island is only accessible by ferry.
Taking the ferry is by far the cheaper option, at around $30 per person (plus if you’re a Senior Card holder, you can travel on the weekend or on public holidays for free).
The ferry leaves from Stony Point on the Mornington Peninsula and travels across to Tankerton jetty, which takes around 15 minutes.
From there, it heads on to Cowes on Phillip Island. So it’s possible to access French Island from either Mornington or Phillip Island.
Getting around French Island
Once you’re on French Island, the easiest way to get around is by bike.
Bring your own or organise a trip on the courtesy bus to the general store, to hire a bike for $30.
You get a helmet and a map and are free to cover as much of the island as possible on two wheels, before your ferry leaves.
Where to stay on French Island
Accommodation is rather limited on the island.
As previously mentioned, if you’re camping, you can stay at Fairhaven Campground, on the island’s west coast. It’s managed by Parks Victoria and you’ll need to secure a permit to stay.
Alternatively, the local general store/cafe offers accommodation in an onsite cottage and stables.
Here are some other eco-retreats in Victoria you can build a weekend getaway around.
Should you take a day trip to French Island?
Yes, you absolutely should take a day trip to this remote and wonderful destination.
If you’re concerned you won’t have enough time to take in all the sights, you can book in with Naturliste Tours. The local guides can take you on a whirlwind tour of the island’s attractions in their 4WD.
There are plenty of things to do on French Island, so no matter how much you see in a day or weekend, you won’t be disappointed.
If you enjoy wildlife, nature, bike riding or just going places you can brag about to people after, then this is the destination for you.
Looking for other places to explore in Victoria? Head to the King Valley in the High Country or explore the original Silo Art Trail in the state’s north-west. For more unique experiences, go glamping in the alpine region or take a llama for a walk around Hanging Rock.