Catriona is heading off to picnic in the Mornington Peninsula … but wait til she meets her date!
French Island is just 115km south-east of Melbourne and the 11,100ha of land offers peace and serenity for the weary traveller. It offers a wonderful variety of environments, ranging from mangrove salt marsh to open woodlands, and is home to a diverse range of wildlife.
Mostly flat or gently undulating, its highest point, Mt Wellington, is 98m above sea level. There is accommodation available, including farm stays and B&Bs.
A wonderful way to experience French Island is to visit Tanderum Farm, 17ha belonging to Jane Unwin and Alison Pitt. Both are academics who have traded in that life for the pleasures of growing olives and keeping llamas. They planted 1000 olive trees using organic methods and they have produced French Island's first olive oil. They grow organic vegetables, have a small mixed fruit orchard and have planted more than 1000 native trees.
The property is run by an alternative energy system almost entirely dependent on wind and solar power. There is constant hot water provided by sun and rain, supplemented by a wood heater, fed with dead wood they find on the island.
The owners meet visitors at the ferry and take them to Tanderum where you are served morning tea while they tend to the llamas which carry the daily equipment on their backs. They have eight llamas, a couple of Clydesdales and assorted alpacas, goats, fowls, ducks, a couple of orphaned angora goats and dogs.
Everyone is given a llama on a rope to take as company on the two hour leisurely walk through paddocks, along bush tracks, gravel roads, past the olive grove and along lanes where you can spot koalas. Added to all that are magnificent views over Westernport Bay to Phillip Island.
Lunch, which has been packed in ice and carried by the llamas, is served under shady trees and it is not your mere ham sandwich kind of fare! The llamas are rewarded with treats. The three course meal starts with delicious home-made bread, olives, olive oil and cheese. Then there may be a flan, salad of locally grown greens with lime and yoghurt dressing, and dessert may be a citrus tart or chocolate mud cake topped with strawberries and cream.
The preferable option would probably be to snooze in the fresh air, but the short walk back to the farm with your new four-legged friend must be. You say your goodbyes to the llama with some pellets and the owners take you back in time to catch the 4.30pm ferry to Stony Point.
Walks are subject to weather, and are run mostly on weekends. Half-day oil-tasting walks can be arranged, and for those staying on French Island, there is an evening champagne walk.
Boats from the French expedition ship, Le Naturaliste, first sailed into Western Port in 1802, armed with the maps of George Bass. The French circumnavigated the little island and named it "Ile De Francoiºe", but there is no record of European settlement prior to 1842. The first pastoral run was leased in 1850 and in 1890 a 60-year thriving chicory began. In 1916 McLeod Prison Farm was established there and it is where long-term prisoners served their final years.
The island has around 70 permanent residents today and most of them are descendants of the first settlers. The southern fertile soils are productive for farming, leaving two-thirds as national park.
French Island supports large numbers of long-nosed potoroo and Victoria's most significant koala population. So good are the conditions, the koalas successfully reproduce and literally eat themselves out of house and home, necessitation re-location of more than 200 each year to other Victorian locations.
Over 230 bird species have been recorded, as well as 33 species of waders which forage along the coast at low tide, as well as enjoying wetlands, mangroves, salt marshes, vast beds of sea-grass, underwater meadows, heaths and open woodlands.
The mudflats provide plenty of nourishment for the birds in the form of shellfish, crabs, worms and other small animals.
Spring provides more than 580 indigenous vegetation species in a blaze of colour. There are more than 100 orchid varieties.