Located in the far south-west corner of Victoria, a mere 100km from the end of the Great Ocean Road lies the town of Portland. This much-overlooked coastal town is full of history and rugged beauty, with an industrial port that mingles effortlessly in with the abundance of wildlife that saturates the area. This town has something to offer everyone and is well worth venturing past the GOR finish line to check out.
Dive into the history
Portland is the oldest permanent European settlement in Victoria, having been established in 1834 and quickly prospering due to fishing and agricultural industries. The Portland Maritime Museum (located within the Visitor Centre) is a great place to kick off your exploring and get a feel for the town’s history.
Of particular interest in the museum is the Portland Lifeboat, which was built in 1858 and is one of the oldest lifeboats remaining in the world. If you have little ones be sure to grab a copy of the town and museum treasure hunt to keep your little explorers engaged and amused!
The township itself boasts some 200 National Trust listed buildings, many of them constructed of beautiful bluestone and still maintained as homes or businesses. The best way to explore the town is by either jumping aboard the historic cable tram for a guided tour along the foreshore, or by setting off on foot and following one of the many self-guided walks to soak in all the history, such as where Saint Mary McKillop once lived and worked.
A visit to Cape Nelson Lighthouse is an absolute must. This beautiful old girl was first lit back in 1884 and still operates to keep the seas safe to this day. Tours of the lighthouse are available and there is a cosy café and accommodation onsite too.
Not to be forgotten is the much smaller Whalers Bluff Lighthouse, which is located just 1.5km out of town. This lighthouse was built in 1859 in Battery Point but was painstakingly relocated and rebuilt brick by brick in 1889 in its current location.
Get back to nature
The coastline of Portland is rugged and unforgiving, with foaming white wash and dramatic volcanic cliff drops. When we visited the weather was pretty stormy, resulting in some great views of the hostile coast and landscape, however there are short stretches of beachfront such as Bridgewater Bay Beach or Nuns Beach that are perfect for swimming in better conditions.
Portland is a walker’s paradise and is the start/end point of the Great South West Walk, a 250km walking trail that winds around three national parks, taking in some of Australia’s most beautiful natural scenery and wildlife. The walk is broken up into 15 shorter sections offering a selection of duration and difficulties that caters for most ages and abilities. Information on each section is available online or at the Information Centre.
If you’re exploring by car then be sure to take the easy and scenic 20-minute drive from town to Cape Bridgewater. Stop along the way to admire the 130m views from Stony Hill (the highest cliff top of the Victorian coastline) then continue to the aptly named Blow Holes and Petrified Forest which is collection of hollow tubes of limestone that were once thought to be petrified tree trunks. Nearby Tarragal Limestone Caves is also worth a quick stop and 50m uphill hike for some lovely views.
Perhaps the most scenic of all the locations we visited was Yellow Rock, located along the Cape Nelson Lighthouse Road. A long series of wooden stairs wind down the limestone cliff past a large yellow rock formation. At the base gnarly waves create perfect sets for experienced surfers willing to brave the cold. This is one of many epic surf spots across Portland, making it one of the most underrated and unpopulated surfing destinations along the Great Ocean Road.
The Portland Wind Farm is one of the largest in Australia and consists of four separate sites capable of meeting 7% of Victoria’s residential energy demands. In a town where history and nature prevails, the addition of these million dollar turbines scattered across the landscape provides both a pleasant juxtaposition and a timely reminder about the importance of preserving the environment.
Wonder at the wildlife
Portland is a premier destination for whale, seal and gannet sight-seeing. In fact whaling was an integral part of Portland’s economy in the early years of European settlement. In the 1830s and 1840s, whaling was the town’s main industry and the migrating whales and females entering the bay to give birth were hunted to the brink of extinction before the industry wound up.
Thankfully, today the whale population has increased and we are still blessed to witness these majestic creatures as they frequent the Portland Bay, Cape Nelson and Cape Bridgewater. The southern right whale often visits during winter months of May to October, and during the summer months of November to May you may be lucky enough to spot the world’s largest mammal, the blue whale.
Another drawcard is Point Danger, where Australia’s only mainland colony of Australasian gannets lives. Bird lovers flock to watch these impressive birds as they nest and feed on small sea fish by diving into the sea from heights of 30m, whilst travelling at speeds of up to 100km/h. Options for viewing include an elevated viewing platform, a video linked screen at the Visitor Centre, or a free guided tour arranged by the Visitor Centre.
Not to be outdone by the birds, Portland is also home to a large population of Australian and New Zealand fur seals. Their mainland-breeding colony at Cape Bridgewater is one of only a few in Australia and can be viewed from the cliff tops above or by taking a boat tour to get up close and personal.
Get out there
As you can see, Portland has an awful lot to offer. So why not escape the crowds, get off the beaten path and support another well-deserving coastal town?
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