They come on the beaches of Phillip Island at sunset, hundreds of them through the evening. They call it the “Penguin Parade,” a daily ritual of the Little Penguins, a name they acquired from being literally the smallest species at 33 centimeters tall and a kilo in weight. Blue and white in plumage, they go out to sea in the morning to catch fish and come back to their nesting burrows at night.
In the last hour or two of daylight, big waves come splashing on the shore as the tide rises. Then the water recedes as night falls, and by this time there are hundreds of people waiting on the bleachers, all shivering and wet from the winter rain — including our media group last week.
It’s our second day in Australia, having arrived the day before on Cebu Pacific’s inaugural flight to Melbourne, a thrice-weekly direct service that is Cebu Pac’s second destination in Oz following Sydney, which it launched in 2014.
It’s about time the budget airline launched its Melbourne route to make it more accessible to Filipino travelers, because the city and the national parks surrounding it in Victoria state are packed with attractions that are at turns surprising, colorful and delightful. And they make damn good wines and chocolates here, too.
But back to the penguins. If you’ve seen the 2005 French documentary March of the Penguins, the only Oscar-winning docu that really interested me, you know how beyond cute they are.
You’d know, for instance, that some species like the Emperor Penguins can hold their breath for more than 20 minutes underwater, that they can go as deep as 500 meters, that all penguins spend most of their lives at sea, and travel thousands of kilometers a year, and that they are monogamous for each breeding season — in the next mating cycle, all bets are off and new affairs are started.
According to the Penguin Foundation of Australia, the Little Penguins are found only on the southeastern coastlines of Australia and New Zealand, “with Phillip Island in Victoria home to an estimated 32,000 breeding adults.”
Driving around Phillip Island Nature Park, which is two hours by land from Melbourne, you’ll see their nesting burrows (some of them manmade) on wide open fields on either side of the road, along with wallabies, birds and other animals that roam freely.
We are told by the rangers that the penguins would come in groups — one would leap out of the water and then waddle onto the beach to check things out, then it would signal to his mates and they’d all follow him.
And that’s exactly how the Penguin Parade goes.
Lit only by the moon and lights on the bleachers, it’s not so easy to see them come ashore and on to the grassy areas, but you can walk with them as they go “home” because the design of the Penguin Parade Center is such that the path to their burrows is alongside the human path and separated only by a three-foot glass barrier that goes around and past the center.
In fact, this is the way to see them up close. Some of the penguins walk in big waddles of 8 or 12, while others in smaller ones, and there’s always one left behind the bunch — “that one friend,” you imagine them gossiping with each other, their bellies full from the day’s feeding at sea shaking with laughter.
Since the penguins go out to sea all year round, summer (December to February) is the best time to go when the weather’s warm, but it also means that the sunset parade happens around 9 p.m.
Absolutely no photography is allowed because they don’t want to scare the penguins away or disrupt their ritual of a thousand years. And you realize what a joy it is to watch them with your own eyes and not through your phone camera. What a relief it is to not take pictures but to just enjoy the moment.
CHURCHILL ISLAND & YARRA VALLEY
Phillip Island tours usually include Churchill Island Heritage Farm, located on the smaller island and connected by bridge. Here, activities include cow milking, lassoing, and a sheep-shearing show. Children especially love seeing a sheep transform into a skinny one after its wool is sheared off in one piece. The record shearing speed is 49 seconds or 620 in eight hours — that’s a ton of wool!
The farm serves an unforgettable Ausssie lunch of grilled shrimps, stuffed mushrooms, stuffed mushrooms, coleslaw sandwiches and brownies.
I quickly realize that a trip to Melbourne is a journey in gastronomy. Every time we went out to eat, Australia’s bountiful produce, seafood, meats and wines were laid out as if it was our last meal.
Yarra Valley, which is an hour away from Melbourne, is home to the biggest handmade chocolaterie in the country and some of the highest-rated boutique wineries.
At De Bortoli Wines, which produces an even split of reds and whites, we have a wine tasting accompanied by cheeses on its Dixons Creek estate. While I like the chardonnay and pinot, I love its dessert wines. After our tasting ends, our tasting master hands me another glass — the Black Noble with its nutty and raisin flavors.
It tastes and smells like Christmas and makes you feel like you’re drinking happiness! The only other wine that I’ve had a similar experience with is on the other side of the world, in Spain’s sherry-producing Jerez de la Frontrera in Cadiz, which I’ve never found in Manila.
At Yarra Valley Chocolaterie, you feel as if you’ve stepped into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory. You don’t actually see how they’re made — but my god! this is heaven for chocolate lovers.
The chocolate is from Belgium; the chocolatiers from France and Belgium and their creations are hundred of kinds, from chocolate spreads to bars, clusters, candies and truffles, plain or flavored, white, milk and dark. Their Chocolate Wall alone features 34 chocolate varieties. And mind you, they’re not cheap — but they’re worth it.
We do a chocolate tasting of their single-origin premium chocolate —12 flavors whose packaging features paintings of the surrounding areas in Yarra Valley — the chocolaterie on the Mango & Passionfruit bar, Yarrawood Winery on Macadamia & Salted Caramel, Yering Orchard on the Roasted Nuts & Dried Fruit, Yarra River Yea on Cookies & Cream, and so on.
BRIGHT BRIGHTON BEACH
I’ve never been to this part of Australia before, so Melbourne was a wonderful surprise for me — its architecture, its laid-back vibe and Asian feel, and the shopping! But none amused me more than the colorful bathing boxes of Brighton Beach.
Lined up like faithful soldiers on the shore, uniform in size and material but wildly different from each other, the 82 bathing boxes started out as exactly that — rooms for women to change. Now they contain beach stuff like deck chairs, tables and kayaks.
Visitors think of them as a Melbourne icon, but that’s geographically wrong; they are located in the city of Bayside, which is about 20 kilometers away, and they can only be owned by Bayside residents.
The Brighton bathing boxes are some of most expensive real estate in Victoria despite being just timber boxes without electricity or running water. One box auctioned last December fetched above the previous record of AUD$326,000 — and buyers don’t actually own the land, they’re just granted a license by the city council.
There are guidelines to the façade of the boxes issued by the council and among the outstanding designs are the VW van, the Australian flag and so many striking color combinations.
You can picture in your mind what it’s like here in the summer, when the days are long, the bathing boxes are open and the picnic tables and umbrellas are out.
They might even have shrimps on the barbie.
MELBOURNE AT LAST
It feels that I’m getting to know Melbourne last on this trip, as if it was saving itself for the final number, like dessert, like a nightcap, like showing you its neighbors first before opening its arms in embrace.
Our driver and guide throughout this trip is an East Timorese native named Nigel who migrated to Australia with his family when he was a boy. On our first day, he proudly tells us that the city was voted this year as the Most Livable, beating Vancouver, another western city that’s been Asianized with migrants.
Melbourne’s widely regarded as Australia’s cultural and gastronomic capital with its mix of old architecture and new buildings, its Federation Square and its Flinders St. Railway Station, its casino and duty-free shopping, its Divisoria-like Victoria Market where the prices go down as closing time nears, its pubs and Chinatown. I think its openness, its multi-cultural population (4.8 million or 19 percent of the country’s population) has a lot to do with its livability.
A colleague remarks that for a city that’s visited by millions of tourists, it’s not very touristy with its early sleeping hour (or perhaps we were simply on the quieter side of the CBD), but I point out that maybe that’s precisely what makes it the most livable city in the world — for locals to enjoy a balance of life and work and play.
Alongside its wide streets and botanic gardens, its running paths and riverside neighborhoods, its monuments to remembrance and war heroes is Hosier Lane, a street that merges art and horor vacui. Hosier’s a city block spanning two or three branching streets filled with graffiti from the ground up to rooftops — some interesting, mostly trash, at least to me — but it’s a place like no other.
Every day, for one reason or another, we find ourselves walking by Yarra River in the heart of Melbourne. This water flows 242 kilometers through and out of Melbourne, through other cities and valleys. We are told that Yarra is an aboriginal word that means “upside down.”
Maybe that’s part of Melbourne’s secret — the mix of strict order and freedom, of stable and fun, of ridiculously priced bathing boxes and ridiculously good kebab stalls after a pub crawl. You only have to look to the right of Federation Square’s modern arts venue contrasting with the old railway station’s regal architecture to realize that this is a city that’s changed by time and migration but still treasures its history. And it effortlessly convinces people to treasure it too.
* * *
Cebu Pacific flies nonstop from Manila to Melbourne on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 6 a.m.; Melbourne to Manila on the same days at 5 p.m. Its nonstop service from Manila to Sydney is on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 10:15 a.m.; Sydney to Manila on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 11:45 a.m. For inquiries and reservation, call Cebu Pacific’s hotline at 702-0888; for promos and seat sale, log on to www.cebupacificair.com.