Travelling east along the Princes Highway, the city of Bairnsdale heralds the massive expanse of the Gippsland Lakes.
In minutes you can be at places like Raymond Island where koalas laze in the trees and you can see endangered dolphins playing in the water.
But the city itself merits as much time as you can give it, for the dainty gardens on Main Street, the solemn St Mary’s Catholic Church and the peace and greenery on the banks of the Mitchell River.
Bairnsdale is surrounded by pretty countryside, laced with twisting rivers.
You can strike out for a walk or bike ride along converted railway lines, or retreat to a winery to sip Pinot Noir over rambling, vine-clad hills.
1. St Mary’s Catholic Church
A linchpin for Bairnsdale on Main Street, this Romanesque Revival church was begun in 1913, replacing an earlier building from 1883. St Mary’s is composed of bricks with stone dressings, and has a solemn tower with an image of Mary in a stone niche.
Inside you can appreciate the delicate frescos, painted on the barrel vault of the nave and in the apse and depicting the Holy Trinity, Heaven, Hell, Purgatory and various saints.
These are to a very high standard, by Italian painter Francesco Floreani, painted in the Great Depression when he was out of work.
Also take time to admire the stained glass in the rose window above the entrance and behind the altar in the apse.
2. Main Street Gardens
One of Bairnsdale’s loveliest features is this thread of well-kept greenery through the middle of Main Street (Princes Highway). This runs west to east for almost the whole city, continuing for about four kilometres.
The main stretch, through Bairnsdale’s CBD, is 500 metres and enriched with mature deciduous and evergreen trees, beds of annuals and perennials, and monuments commemorating the district centenary and the Boer War.
One structure hard to miss is the 30-metre water tower, completed in 1927 and out of commission since the 80s.
The most central strip, fronted by a twin row of eateries and shops, boasts the historic band rotunda, first raised in 1910.
3. Mitchell River Walk
Bairnsdale may be on the Mitchell River, but, because of flooding, this watercourse doesn’t so much run through the city as skirt round it.
There was a cemetery here in the 19th century, but one flood in 1870 inundated graves and even washed caskets downstream.
That leaves the banks free of construction, and at times you’ll forget that there’s a city here at all.
The Mitchell River Walk follows both banks for a total walk of 5.4 kilometres, using a former railway bridge at the east end (now on the East Gippsland Rail Trail), and a newly built connection on Riverine Street to the west.
For a break there will be lots of grassy spaces shaded by trees, and you can check out a few information boards going into the history of the river.
4. East Gippsland Rail Trail
Open to cyclists and hikers, this 96-kilometre trail begins close to Bairnsdale Railway Station and continues east to Orbost, on the way crossing the many rivers that flow into the Gippsland Lakes.
You’ll be on the trackbed of the former Orbost Railway Line, completed in 1916 for the timber and agricultural industries.
The line was decommissioned in 1987, and although most of its infrastructure is long gone, some lovely old trestle bridges and causeways survive.
Some have been integrated into the trail, like the spectacular bridge on the Nicholson River, and others stand preserved next to the sealed trail.
The route is broken up into four main stages, and there are distance signs and covered shelters along the route.
5. East Gippsland Art Gallery
The main stage for visual arts in the region is set at the fine Bairnsdale Shire Council Chambers dating to 1868. The gallery was established in 1993 and helps you tap into East Gippsland creative world through an exciting program of exhibitions as well as workshops, talks, openings and other events.
There are shows in a variety of media by regional and national artists, as well as landmark touring exhibitions.
In short, there’s always something interesting to see.
The work of local artists and crafters is on sale at the gallery shop for a unique souvenir or gift.
6. Krowathunkooloong Keeping Place
To get to know more about the Gunaikurnai, the traditional owners of Gippsland, head for the Keeping Place.
This museum/cultural centre opened in 1994 to tell the story of the Gunaikurnai and their various clans, and to foster a better understanding of wider Aboriginal culture and arts and crafts.
Presented here are traditional weapons for hunting and fighting, boomerangs, baskets and bark canoes as well as works of Gunaikurnai art.
Members of staff will be available to offer extra context, and you can take a guided tour of the centre for more insight.
There’s an exhibition of art by local Koorie artists available for purchase.
7. Howitt Park
One of a few grassy spaces for public recreation in Bairnsdale, Howitt Park has a pretty location just across the Mitchell River from the CBD.
The East Gippsland Rail Trail passes through, while the local bowls and rowing clubs are based in the park.
For families looking for somewhere to unwind for a few hours, Howitt Park has barbecues, a gazebo, a children’s playground, a fishing platform and a boat ramp.
On the fourth Sunday of the Month a farmers’ market sets up here, trading first-class local produce, along with delicious hot food and arts and crafts, all accompanied by live music.
8. Lightfoot & Sons Wines
Bairnsdale is in Gippsland’s most easterly winegrowing region, where vines cover low, rolling hills between the base of the Great Dividing Range and the Bass Strait.
The local, family-run Lightfoot & Sons winery goes back to 1995 and is now in its second generation.
All of the wines made at Lightfoot & Sons are estate grown and made using a combination of traditional and modern techniques.
The vines at the estate’s Myrtle Point Vineyard grow in a seam of rich Terra-Rossa soil atop the limestone cliffs edging the Mitchell River.
This is the perfect environment for Chardonnay, Shiraz and Pinot Noir, ready to be tasted with a local plate on a deck with vistas of the estate and Lindenow Valley.
9. East Gippsland All Abilities Playground
At the east end of Main Street, beneath a network of shade sails, is a big playground designed to be inclusive for all children.
This is completely fenced, fully accessible and organised into zones, with a skate park next door for teenagers.
Drawing from Gippsland’s landscape and history, the playground has the theme, “From the Mountains to the Sea”, and parents may notice nods to the Shipwreck Coast and the historic timber industry.
One of several pieces of equipment for children with special needs is a liberty swing, especially designed for wheelchair users.
There’s also an accessible toilet on site, as well as four barbecues and surrounding tables.
10. Gippsland Lakes
Bairnsdale is the largest settlement around a 400-square-kilometre chain of interconnected lakes, marshes and lagoons, all screened from the Bass Strait by the dunes of Ninety Mile Beach.
The lakes are fed by several rivers flowing through East Gippsland, including Bairnsdale’s Mitchell River and are inhabited by a large population of endangered Burrunan dolphins.
These can be viewed up close on an eco cruise, and there’s a ton of other activities to get up to, from boating to fishing, paddlesports, camping, hiking and visiting Raymond Island (more below). And don’t forget the endless golden sands of Ninety Mile Beach, the world’s fourth-longest beach, great for picnics, long walks, wildlife watching and surf fishing.
11. Raymond Island
A day trip not to be missed, Raymond Island is a comfortable drive down to Paynesville and then a brief crossing over the McMillan Strait on the ferry.
It’s best to park up in Paynesville as pedestrians and cyclists travel for free.
The Island has a population of just over 500 people, who share the land with rich wildlife.
A 1.2km signposted path starting by the ferry will lead you under gum trees where you can look up to see koalas, cosy and napping on the branches.
Later in the day you may see them lazily shuffling along the road to change trees.
The island also has plenty of kangaroos, echidnas and a wealth of birds, and you can scan the McMillan Strait for dolphins.
12. Adventure Fun Park
A couple of minutes out of city on the Princes Highway is one of those attractions mixing a whole range of outdoor activities in one place.
In fact there are more than 20 on offer at Adventure Fun Park, including laser tag, archery, virtual reality games, go karts and mini golf.
You can also practice your technique at batting cages and a golf driving range, while for smaller family members there’s a merry-go-round and a jumping castle.
The park also has an outdoor pool, a shop selling hot and cold snacks and an extensive barbecue area.
13. Bairnsdale Visitor Information Centre
If you’re new to East Gippsland and need some help plotting your next steps, the visitor information centre in Bairnsdale is a big help.
Not only does it offer a free accommodation booking service and free Wi-Fi, there’s a sales area with a selection of souvenirs and produce made in the region.
It’s also a handy resource for practicalities like purchasing a fishing licence, and you can get one-to-one advice on activities, attractions and events within a small radius of Bairnsdale.
14. Nicholson River Winery
The oldest vineyard between Melbourne and Sydney, dating back to 1978, is a short road trip from Bairnsdale.
Nicholson River Winery is next to a kink in the namesake river, with a backdrop of green rolling hills and the bulk of Mount Taylor.
The winery produces award-winning, European-style wines in small batches.
Among the varieties are an acclaimed Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as Sangiovese, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon blends.
You can drop by the cellar door to taste these wines paired with local cheese and antipasto and have a chat with the producers.
The picnic area has beautiful views of the Nicholson River, and there’s a sandpit for little ones to play in.
The Barrel Room restaurant meanwhile opens for lunches in the summer season.
15. Bairnsdale Speedway
November through April there’s high-speed action just north of the city at a purpose-built racetrack.
Stay up to date with the Bairnsdale Speedway Association’s calendar, as you can catch around seven race meetings here each season.
On the bill at these meets will be some combination of VSC Sprintcars, Super Sedans, Wingless Sprints, Divi 2 Hot Rods, V8 Dirt Mods, Standard Saloons and Limited Sportsman.
The Speedway has been updated over the years to offer the highest safety standards for spectators, as well as a canteen and toilet block.
The biggest date on the calendar is always Boxing Day, attracting a big crowd in a festive mood.