Port Fairy’s location lends itself to a stopover at the start or end of a drive along the Great Ocean Road. To discover more than the beaches you would need more than a one-night stay. You will not be disappointed.
Ancient middens, relics of the indigenous Koori people who lived here for 1000’s of years; a picturesque coastline; a river that meanders through emerald pastures; boats, jetties and working wharves; walls and buildings that whisper of early Australian history; resources for genealogy buffs; bird life for ornithologists; fishing; pubs, including the oldest continuously licensed one in Victoria; an island to explore complete with lighthouse; cafes that serve good coffee; gourmet restaurants, bakeries and providores; art galleries, craft shops, special little boutiques and a secure, child-friendly environment with activities for children of all ages. You can tick all of the above boxes. Port Fairy has them all in Spades.
At this end of the Great Ocean Road, ancient volcanoes from the Western Plains once spewed out lava that raced down to the sea until abruptly pulled up by the icy chill of the Southern Ocean. The resulting basalt strung itself along the coast around shallow waters and white sand beaches, creating reefs, coves and pools. The black rocks and outcrops add drama to the blues and whites of sun and sand, creating seascapes that send artists and photographers scurrying for their brushes or cameras.
Whaling and sealing brought men from Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) to this part of mainland Australia in the 1800s. Since then, snippets of early Australian history have clung to Port Fairy, like the barnacles on those whales. Its name derives from the ship the “Fairy” that first sailed up the river and anchored here, around 1827. The settlement was established in 1843, long before Melbourne had been conceived. The settlers were mainly Irish, the town became ‘Belfast’ the river the ‘Moyne’ and the rich loamy soil made potatoes the ideal crop. The modest cottages of wattle and daub and later limestone, built by fishermen and potato farmers with gable roofs and skillions at the back, line Port Fairy streets.
But Port Fairy is definitely more than a nostalgic walk down Grandma’s memory lane. It is an organic, functioning town where the community has taken the initiative in directing its growth. Make that ‘Community’ with a big C. Take the streetscapes – the Community has monitored new developments with an eye to combining heritage and growth harmoniously. Many or most of the Victorian cottages are comfortably modern inside but the streetscape remains old world.
When the Community saw the need for a heated swimming pool it took on the responsibility of building it through fund raising, substantial donations and volunteer labour. The town has drawn a line on the sand (pardon the pun) and refused to allow fast-food chains and pokies in the town. The local school kids have even designed and popularized hemp shopping bags.
Incredibly it has, mainly with local volunteer help, created events throughout the calendar year to attract tourists. And these events have become iconic in the Aussie cultural calendar, firm favorites with many, who return annually to attend. The Port Fairy Folk Festival (Labor Day week-end in March), now known internationally, is one such; the Spring Music Festival (October), the Winter Weekend extravaganzas (June/July) and the Ex Libris Port Fairy Book Fair (September) are some others.
Port Fairy had to reinvent itself to survive. The people have done so with great flair and confidence. This down-to-earth, vibrant energy, buzz even, is in the air and makes it special. Like those barnacles again, memories of Port Fairy will cling, stay with you, linger on. You might even come back.