The seaside town of Victor Harbor is close to where two world-changing explorers, Matthew Flinders and Nicholas Bowding, met in 1802. Britain and France were at war at the time, but Flinders and Boudin met cordially and communicated with each other.
As Flinders notes, Encounter Bay is the nursery for another important seafarer, the southern right whale, which can be seen from fall to spring.
Whales hold a special place in the story of Victor Harbor, and the once hunted whales are now a tourist attraction.
One of the best places to see them is on Granite Island, a rock recreation park connected to land by a long causeway, accessible by the world’s last horse-drawn tram.
1. Whale watching
Southern right whales migrate from Antarctica to Encounter Bay between May and October, where they calve or find mates in these sheltered, warm waters.
This species likes to hang out in shallow seas a few hundred meters from the shore.
As such, you can hardly find a better place to discover these beautiful 18-meter giants from land than in Victor Harbor.
You could easily spend an entire afternoon looking out to sea with a pair of binoculars, catching cracks and thrilling glimpses of their mischievous behavior.
There are lookouts all around Victor Harbor, but Granite Island and Rosetta Point (The Bluff) are two great options we’ll discuss below.
2. Granite Island
The 25-hectare island off Victor Harbor is a recreational park connected to the mainland by a 700-meter causeway.
You can walk or take one of the only remaining horse-drawn trams in the world.
Despite its small size, this pre-19th century whaling station has a lot to offer.
As you might guess, the island is dotted with peculiar rock formations, carved by wind and sea.
There is also important public art, commissioned by 18 renowned sculptors.
Granite Island protects a small but growing colony of little penguins, which can be seen on a special tour after dark.
On the east coast, next to the Island Cafe is a late 19th-century wharf designed to facilitate trade.
This is called a screw pile jetty, literally because its piles have to be screwed into the hard limestone on the seabed.
3. Cage Walk
Just where the causeway meets Granite Island, you’ll find a 2.9km light trail looping the start of the coastline.
A counter-clockwise direction will take you past the island’s impressive public art, as well as the peculiar granite formations on Portrait Rock and Umbrella Rock.
On the east coast, there’s a small interpretive center near the Spiral Pier on the island’s growing colony of little penguins, and you can come back in the evening for a guided penguin tour (more on that later). Back on the mainland, Encounter Bay and Rosetta Point, you’ll enjoy stunning views and informative signs that will teach you about the island’s human history, wildlife and geology.
4. Kangaroo Island Sightseeing Tour
Australia’s third-largest island is just across the narrow back stairway on the Fleurieu Peninsula and takes a trip.
Much of Kangaroo Island’s terrain is occupied by nature reserves that protect remnants of native vegetation and wildlife.
The most famous of these is Flinders Chase National Park, known for its stunning granite formations and rich species such as echidnas, monitor lizards and koalas.
Now, if you only have a day to spare, try this 7-hour experience with GetYourGuide.com.
You’ll meet you at Sealink Pier in Penneshaw Harbour and be picked up among Kangaroo Island’s many attractions.
There’s seal viewing, a bird of prey show at a bird sanctuary, a visit to a lavender farm, and an up-close look at extraordinary rocks that have been eroded by wind and waves for over 500 million years.
5. Ocean Victor
An unusual aquarium platform has been established in the lee of Granite Island.
To get there, you’ll land on a high-end maneuvering island, and on arrival you’ll be equipped with a wetsuit, booties, gloves and a mask to dive with southern bluefin tuna.
Known as the “Ferrari of the Sea”, the species can reach speeds of nearly 80 kilometers per hour.
You can feed the sardines to the tuna in the water, but if you want to stay dry, there’s an underwater observatory with a clear view of the aquarium’s inhabitants, while the kids can interact with local marine life in the touch pool.
6. Victor Harbor Horse Tram
Victor Harbor is one of the few places in the world where you can ride a horse-drawn double-decker tram.
The animal in charge was a sizable Clydesdale lead horse pulling the streetcar across the causeway to Granite Island.
This route has been operating since 1894 and is one of only two streetcars that maintain daily service.
The line has six excellent Clydesdales working in shifts of up to three hours.
The tram itself is a replica of the late 19th century original, and its interior is adorned with interpretive displays about the line, the causeway and the history of Victor Harbor.
7. Cockle Train
From Victor Harbor, you can travel along the south coast of the Fleurieu Peninsula on a broad-gauge steam train.
The SteamRanger Heritage Railway, nicknamed the Cockle Train, is a well-preserved section along the Victor Harbor railway line dating back to the 1880s.
This is Australia’s oldest rail line, designed to connect the Murray Estuary with the marine terminals of Port Elliott and Victor Port.
The historic railway has a busy timetable and can take you as far as 18km to Goolwa, past sand dunes, huge sandy beaches and the beautiful Southern Ocean.
“Cockle Train” comes from a large cockle on the beach at the mouth of the Murray.
This historic railway has five steam locomotives in its fleet, the oldest of which was built in 1913
8. Urimbilla Wildlife Park
In a picturesque wetland five minutes from the Victor Harbor CBD, there is a zoo home to more than 400 native Australian animals.
Most of the wildlife you’ll think of in Australia is here, including kangaroos, wombats, wallabies, koalas, emus, salt and freshwater crocodiles, wild dogs, echidnas and more.
There are also Australian breeds of livestock such as sheep, alpacas, chickens and rabbits.
The highlight of this attraction is its interactivity, allowing you to pet and hand-feed kangaroos, koalas and emus, and even handle snakes.
You can pack a picnic or take advantage of the park’s shaded barbecue, and there is a café in the gift shop.
9. South Australia Whale Centre
This ocean-oriented interpretive center is housed in a mid-19th century heritage-listed railroad cargo shed.
On the walls inside, you can still see soot from decades of steam engines.
Established in 1994, the SA Whale Centre has evolved over the past 25+ years with many hands-on exhibits such as touch tables and microscopes.
There are lots of details about Southern Right Whales, past whaling records in Victor Harbor, you can view preserved humpback vertebrae and Southern Right Whale skulls.
Kids can also crawl through the belly of giant squid in search of fossils and encounter the center’s live eastern long-necked turtle, named “Soup.” To accompany all this, there is also a theatre showing fascinating presentations on Seaworld.
10. Penguin Tour
The smallest penguin species, the little penguin has declined dramatically in the Fleurieu Peninsula over the past 30 years.
But just recently, the adorable little bird, measuring no more than 30cm, made a comeback on Granite Island, with numbers increasing from 20 in 2012 to 44 in 2018. The way to visit is with a guided tour.
This seasonal experience lasts up to 90 minutes and allows you to see little penguins in their natural habitat, but you’ll also encounter other species that only appear at night.
11. Waipinga Beach
Heading west along the south coast of the Fleurieu Peninsula, there are a series of beaches open to the full force of the Southern Ocean.
A magnificent example can be found in the Newland Head Conservation Park no more than 15 minutes away.
Waitpinga Beach is 3km long and has no development at all.
This is the wildest coast, with strong winds (“Waitpinga translates as the home of the wind”) and powerful waves that only experienced surfers can ride.
Waipinga and its smaller neighbor Parsons Beach are rich in salmon and mullet, which fishermen fish from the shore.
These fish attract another occasional visitor, the great white shark.
12. Rosetta Head (bluff)
The western boundary of Encounter Bay is a spectacular headland, 87 meters high, with huge granite boulders mixed with grass.
During the decades of the 19th century, Rosetta Point was associated with the whaling industry, with a viewing point for whale watching at its summit and a whaling station served by a wharf on its sheltered north side.
Today, you can walk between the boulders to the summit, enjoy panoramic views of Victor Harbor, and spot southern right whales from May to October.
Near the past pier, there is a peaceful beach for swimming, while surfers ride the waves on the more dangerous south side of the headland.
13. Battlefield Reserve
Along the causeway, completely surrounded by the shops and restaurants of the Ocean Street precinct as well as Victor Harbor attractions such as the carriage, there is a welcome greenery where you can gather ideas for a minute or two.
Given its central location, it’s no surprise that Warland Reserve is a venue for outdoor activities, from markets to live music to New Year’s fireworks.
But if you need some time, there’s a long shaded avenue, plenty of legroom, BBQ areas and age-specific playgrounds.
There is also one of Victor Harbor’s landmarks, a fountain with a whale tail, made in 1993 by sculptor Silvio Apponyi.
14. Victor Harbor Station Master’s Residence
A fascinating document of Encounter Bay’s 19th century history, this National Trust building by the Warland Reserve was the former customs house and stationmaster’s residence built in 1866. First, the house is filled with items from the time, including furniture, art deco, and black-and-white photographs of Victor Harbor.
The Interpretive Centre has three galleries that introduce you to many aspects of local history, including the dreamy tales of the Ramindjeri family, the meeting of Flinders and Bowdan in 1802, the whaling industry, the sufferings of early settlers and modern development.
15. Seal Island Cruise
About 2.5 kilometers southeast of Granite Island is a smaller island commonly known as Seal Rock.
This granite block is about one hectare in size and 12 meters high.
Fascinating are the wildlife, which you can encounter on a 45-minute cruise.
This tour, offered by GetYourGuide.com, takes you first around the coast of Granite Island, past the historic horse-drawn tram and screw-pile pier, before heading to the smaller neighbors.
As the name suggests, seals and sea lions are often seen here.
Other occasional animals are the common bottlenose dolphin, and aquatic birds such as cormorants, petrels and gulls.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Victor Harbor, Australia
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