Paynesville, located about four hours from Melbourne, ticks all the boxes for a nature filled break, whether for a weekend or a week away. With its nautical feel, laid back ambience and great mix of adventure and relaxation, this enchanting town is perfect all year round.
A koala is munching on leaves, curled into branches whilst simultaneously keeping an eye on us. Kangaroos graze nearby, unperturbed by our presence. I can hear kookaburras, magpies and rainbow lorikeets flitting through the trees, on an island which has over 60 bird species. Further on we spot an echidna. This island life is working its charm on me and I’m relishing the ambience and soaking up the winter sunshine. It feels like I’m in an Australian wildlife documentary, narrated by David Attenborough, a slow and languid immersion, though in reality I’m exploring a residential street.
This is life on Raymond Island, a relaxed lifestyle where wildlife and humans co-exist happily and just a hop, skip and ferry ride from the fishing village of Paynesville. You can only reach the island by ferry, however we miss the first one, so we take the opportunity to wander along the esplanade to check out places for dinner. There’s Pier 70 which looks out onto the water and has prime waterfront views. Across the road, the award-winning Sardine Eatery and Bar catches my eye. It’s one of the top eateries in Gippsland and I’ve read rave reviews about the food in this Michelin star restaurant.
We arrive back at the ferry to find locals and visitors waiting. There’s no cost for pedestrians and cyclists. A quick five-minute trip takes us across the 700 metre McMillan Straight. At the other end we step onto the island and immediately feel the slow vibe. It’s a small island, barely 6km long by 2km wide, however what it lacks in size it makes up for in heart and natural appeal with its biggest attraction the resident furry koala population.
Raymond Island is one of the best places in Victoria to see koalas in their natural habitat, however over the years their numbers have dwindled. Koalas were first introduced to the Island back in 1953 as a safeguard against extinction, when 32 koalas were taken from Phillip Island to their new home. Over the years up to 600 have been recorded here. These days there are less than 300 on the island and there’s concern that, with more buildings going up and trees being removed, their habitat is being compromised. The debate continues about how that to strike a sustainable balance.
Raymond Island continues to be a drawcard for Paynesville, attracting families and nature lovers all year round. There’s a playground and barbeque facilities close to the ferry landing where you can enjoy a picnic lunch before or after wandering along the well-marked koala trail.
We enjoy a peaceful stroll to the centre of the island, with more wildlife encounters along the way, before finding our way to the boardwalk that leads back to the jetty. We discover plenty of walking and cycle tracks that criss-cross the island and along the way pass boats and yachts, pelicans and sea birds and picnic benches to stop and take in the views. For those who want to linger there’s beaches and places to swim on the southern side of the island, as well as numerous places to throw in a line or simply enjoy lunch on the foreshore.
Back in Paynesville, after a couple of enjoyable hours on the island, the town is quiet with most of the activity out on the water. With its location in the middle of the Gippsland Lakes, surrounded on three sides by Lake King and Lake Victoria, it’s no wonder that Paynesville is known as the boating capital of Victoria.
Diverse boats, ranging from mega super yachts to small pleasure craft are moored at the numerous colourful marinas and jetties. It’s July and cool when we visit, however in the centre of town at the Fishermen’s Wharf a handful of people are enjoying the sunshine with afternoon drinks at the waterfront café. It might be sleepy in winter but in the summer the population swells to thousands when holiday makers flock to the area.
Not far from Paynesville is the hamlet of Eagle Point, where the Mitchell River enters Lake King. Keep an eye out for the signs to the silt jetties near the Eagle Point Caravan Park. Up at the Bluff Lookout there’s some fantastic views overlooking the lake, river and countryside. At the river mouth there are two narrow peninsulas of land known as the silt jetties that stretch out for eight kilometres to Lake King. They’re the second longest of their type in the world, created by silt deposits over thousands of years.
We take a drive along the narrow dirt road along one of the jetties, an outcrop of land, ideal for those who want to fish and explore the waterways. It’s amazing to see the water all around us. We stop and chat with a local heading out to fish before continuing down the narrow gravel road. Three quarters of the way we come across a locked gate with a keep out sign. Restoration work means we can’t go any further. Still, it’s an impressive sight and well worth the drive. If you fancy a walk amongst nature close by there’s the Eagle Point Flora and Fauna Reserve to explore.
The water fun continues at Lakes Entrance
As the name suggests Lakes Entrance is where the lakes of the Gippsland region meet the Southern Ocean. The man-made entrance allows the ocean to mingle with lagoons and lakes, a safe and expansive harbour to enjoy loads of water-based activities. It’s here we find ourselves on the second day, with a slight detour to the pretty fishing village of Metung along the way. Good coffee at The Smiling Chef Café is a welcome detour to satisfy hubby’s caffeine craving.
Arriving in Lakes with a couple of hours to kill before our scheduled boat tour we walk across the iconic footbridge which has recently been given a complete facelift. This footbridge links the foreshore and Cunninghame Arm to the magnificent Ninety Mile Beach. We enjoy an invigorating walk by the ocean before heading to Eastern Beach Reserve to cook up a few snags before our scheduled cruise.
Our afternoon aboard the restored fishing vessel the Lonsdale is a blissful foray into the lakes system. Three-hour tours leave from the Post Office jetty most days and give a true appreciation into the vastness of the Gippsland lakes. We sail from the impressive Entrance to Lake King, Metung, outer islands and hidden coves and along the way spot dolphins, seals, sea birds, pelicans and a huge array of birdlife.
Our knowledgeable skipper Tony provides an entertaining commentary and his first mate Mel cooks up the best scones I’ve ever eaten on the high seas. Our cruise is undeniably a highlight of our day and a must do if you’re in this area. Those who are feeling a bit Robinson Crusoe can charter their own boat, hire some fishing gear and take to the water to try and catch a big one for dinner. Even if you’ve never driven a boat it’s easy to skipper a Bulls Cruiser, the largest fleet for hire on the Gippsland lakes.
Back in Paynesville we end the day with a superb dinner at Sardine Eatery and Bar. Chef Mark Briggs, once the head chef at Vue de Monde, takes the freshest of local produce and turns them into pure magic. This little fine dining eatery on the waterfront rivals any big city five-star restaurant. There’s also the Paynesville Hotel, Pizza houses, Chinese and a few other places to eat for more family friendly options.
On our last night an invigorating walk along the esplanade and down to Sunset Drive is a wonderful conclusion to our adventure. We watch a pair of swans as they swim into the sunset, as though on cue. What a magical stay.
After each of our adventurous days it was great to come home to our central accommodation at Resthaven Caravan Park. Neat and well-kept, this pet friendly Top Park is just minutes from the Raymond Island ferry and the restaurants and cafes that dot the esplanade. Recently upgraded with new amenities it also boasts several two and three-bedroom cabins, fully self-contained and ideal for families. For those with big rigs there are drive through sites and ensuite sites, most have concrete slabs.
A large solar heated pool is extremely inviting though it’s too cold to swim when we’re there. Still I tried out the jumping castle area and I can vouch it’s a lot of fun! There’s a games room and a well-equipped camp kitchen as well as a great barbeque area, located near the pool for some alfresco cooking.