Port Fairy: A colourful past and a creative future
CALM and accepting, warm and friendly – there is an aura to Port Fairy beyond the rugged setting.
Nestled on the southern coastline of Victoria it has a welcoming feel to it, just as it would for those on sailing ships or hunting seals about 200 years ago.
While those brave souls were seeking refuge from the elements, there is another wave of settlers coming to this historic seaside town today.
People living here just love it. Little wonder that in 2012 Port Fairy was voted as the world’s most liveable community of towns with a population of less than 20,000 in the UN-recognised LivCom award.
This was due mainly to the planning, environmental practices, healthy lifestyle and heritage of the town, originally known as Belfast.
Home to the Port Fairy Folk Festival that is held in the picturesque setting right on South Beach, it boasts a gentle way of life. A place where you can fish in the morning, depending on the tide or wind, and work from home later – thanks to the marvels of communication.
At the end of the Great Ocean Road and about 300kms south west of Melbourne, it is on the Moyne River and part of Victoria’s famed Shipwreck Coast.
Sailing ships nearing the end of their voyage from England in the 1800s and having negotiated the Cape of Good Hope were often caught up in the storms and buffeted against the rocks of Australia’s coastline.
It is open to the extremes of weather: from the warmth of summer to the depths of winter, from balmy sea breezes to roaring storms that gather deep in the Southern Ocean.
Cape Nelson is the southerly point of the coastline so you get cold fronts but they move through quickly and the ocean has a moderating effect in summer. You get sea breezes in the afternoons to counter the north winds that come down from the Wimmera and Mallee.
It’s very rare that you would get a frost and the large crescent-shaped bay in the shelter of the headland provides safe anchorage for all sorts of sea-going vessels.
Port Fairy boasts wide streets lined with 19th century cottages, Norfolk pines and stone churches.
Indeed, more than 50 buildings are classified by the National Trust. Each one with its own story to tell.
There are no plastic bags at the IGA supermarket, so either buy a brown paper bag or take your own. The pizza places use local, not imported toppings, and there are no franchised fast-food outlets.
The IGA has a liquor shop and there are three operating hotels – the Caledonian Inn, The Victoria and Star of the West.
What you notice is what isn’t there, such as limited pokies and just TAB facilities.
Otherwise their reputation is built on good cheer and hospitality, as well as that sense of heritage.
The Caledonian for instance, that was built in 1844, is regarded as Victoria’s oldest continuously operating hotel licence in the same hotel building.
The beauty is you can walk everywhere or go cycling on the rail trail, along the old railway line that once brought agricultural produce to the port from throughout the golden west of Victoria.
There is the protected surf at East Beach, as well as the sailing course, while South Beach has a reef, with surfing outside and calm swimming inside.
The port is home to shark, crayfish and abalone boats, as well as off-shore charter boats.
Enjoy endless walks, such as out to the lighthouse on Griffith Island, and become aware of the wildlife, from secretive wallabies to flocks of shearwater.
It is central to some of the most scenic and historic places in Victoria – from Loch Ard Gorge and the Twelve Apostles along the Great Ocean Road, to the Southern Grampians and a host of volcanic craters and lakes.
Tower Hill Reserve features a volcanic crater lake formed some 32,000 years ago and declared Victoria’s first national park in 1892.
John Griffiths established Port Fairy’s whaling industry on the island in the 1830s.
Yet so many whales were taken that supply was quickly exhausted and the station closed in the mid-1840s.
Sheep and cattle were brought from Tasmania and in 1843 James Atkinson and William Rutledge purchased land under the condition a town be established.
Atkinson named it Belfast after his birthplace and Irish immigrants were encouraged to settle.
This strong Celtic influence is still evident today in Port Fairy and surrounding areas, such as Koroit, Killarney and Yambuk.
In 1887 residents petitioned to have the town renamed Port Fairy. The collapse of the mercantile
firm of William Rutledge & Co in 1862 saw investors abandon Port Fairy in favour of other towns such as Warrnambool.
That economic downturn is perhaps why there are so many historic buildings today, with the town not having the pressure to build new and bigger buildings.
IN 1801, Lt James Grant explored the coast of Victoria in The Lady Nelson and named features along the way, including Portland Bay after the Duke of Portland.
Sealer, whaler and master mariner William Dutton had been visiting the area and in 1833 establish a whaling station on behalf of Capt. John Griffiths.
Capt. Wishart, on a sailing expedition from Tasmania in his cutter Fairy, became caught in a storm and sheltered in a little bay. At dawn he found it was the mouth of an excellent river and named the area Port Fairy.
Ships originally anchored in the bay, transferring their passengers and cargo to the port area by smaller boats due to the shallow river entrance.
The Casino was purchased by the Belfast and Koroit Steam Navigation Company (BKSN) in 1882, to ensure produce from the Port Fairy area could be traded between Portland, Warrnambool, Apollo Bay and Melbourne.
The bay and surrounding waters host 17 shipwrecks; most being driven ashore by strong south-easterly winds.
Griffith Island Lighthouse was built in 1859, to allow seaman to locate the bay.
The lighthouse today is a solar powered light with a wind-assisted generator.