French Island – a strange island in Victoria, Australia

Tuesday, 17 January 2023

Three years ago I wrote Tony Wheeler’s Islands of Australia for the National Library of Australia. It was a wonderful project to be involved with, starting with the discovery (why didn’t I know?) that Australia has more than 8,000 islands. More than the 28 nations and territories of the island-studded Caribbean can muster. My second eye-opener was that Western Australia has the largest number of Australian islands, 3,747 of them, lots more than Queensland with all those Great Barrier Reef islands can come up with.

▲ Although there is no bridge to connect French Island to the mainland there is a regular Westernport Ferries service connecting Stony Point on the mainland to Tankerton on French Island and Cowes on Phillip Island. It’s only 15 minutes between Stony Point and French Island, the adult return fare is A$29. The catamaran ferry is appropriately named Naturaliste, the name of the French explorer’s vessel which first arrived here two centuries ago. Of course I didn’t visit all those Australian islands before I wrote the book but I’m still adding ticks to my island list, dropping in on islands I wrote about even though I hadn’t been there. This month it was French Island, less than 100km from where I live in Melbourne, Victoria.

◄ Chicory kiln at Mandalaye Park homestead. Chicory is one of the few economic activities with a consistent history on the island and although production ceased in the 1960s there are numerous chicory kilns in various states of disrepair. Instant coffee killed the chicory business. From 1844 there was a business making barilla by burning the island’s extensive fringing mangroves to produce an ash used for making soap and glass. The remnants of the rail line to Tankerton Jetty are reminders of that era.

Then there was a prison farm which closed in 1975, became holiday camp for a spell and then an eco-village before being bought by Chinese interests which in turn folded. In 1967 there was actually a proposal to build a nuclear power plant on the island.

Some strange French Island facts:

• It was named Île de Françoise by French explorer Jacques Hamelin who arrived in 1802 on the expedition ship Naturaliste. It was only 14 years since the British First Fleet had arrived in Sydney and there was great fear that the French might turn up and steal their new colony away from them.
• French Island is in Western Port Bay which is a rather strange name considering it’s east of Melbourne, not west. In fact the bay was named by British explorer George Bass who sailed there from Sydney in 1798 and this was as far west (of Sydney) as he got. Melbourne did not exist at the time, the city was first named in 1837 after briefly being known as Batmania, after one of its founders, John Batman.
• French Island at 170 square km is much larger than 101 square km Phillip Island, Western Port Bay’s other main island. Phillip Island is an extremely popular Melbourne getaway and has a population of over 10,000. French Island’s population is only just over 100. It shows what a difference it makes to be a busy holiday retreat. With the fairy penguin parade which is one of Australia’s biggest tourist attractions. And the motor racing circuit where the Australian Moto GP motorcycle race is held. And with a bridge.
• French Island is not officially part of the road system of the state of Victoria so you don’t have to register your car. A large proportion of French island’s very dusty and beat up car population don’t sport a license plate. It can cause problems if they have an accident.
• Of course the indigenous Boonwurrung people people of the Kulin nation were here long before European explorers and settlers arrived although it appears they used the island as a hunting ground, but lived on the mainland.

◄ French Island’s major attraction is koalas. There are lots of them, they find French Island such an excellent place there’s a danger that they’ll overpopulate the island and there are programmes to relocate surplus koalas to other locations where they are in short supply. This one is in the traditional koala position, flaked out.

Download the French Island Visitor Guide from Parks Victoria which includes a useful map of the island.






◄ FIG – French Island General Store

There’s no public transport on the island and bringing your car across to tackle French Island’s dusty and often rough roads is not cheap. You can rent a sturdy 4WD for A$280 a day from French Island Self Drive Tours. Or you can bring a bicycle – preferably a sturdy mountain bike! – on the ferry for A$4.50 each way.

Or you can take a French Island tour with Naturaliste Tours for A$109 including the ferry to and from the island and lunch. The tour is fine, if there aren’t too many visitors on the day you go. On my visit the sole guide and vehicle had to hustle back to the pier to drop two visitors off and collect another party and drop them at the Mandalaye Park lunch stop.

Meanwhile we were parked at the French Island General Store, which is fine for a 15 minute visit, no fun at all if you’re stuck there for an hour. And as a result we never got to some of the attractions we’d been promised – Fairhaven Beach and Pinnacles Lookout for starters.

For longer stays the island has an assortment of cabin, guest house and bed & breakfast facilities and a campsite at Fairhaven Beach.

▲ Smooth Stingray – we had a final wildlife sighting as we arrived back at Stony Point. Three huge smooth stingrays swam in to the shallow water right by the pier. The largest Australian stingray they can be up to 2 metres across and this trio looked like they were easily that size.