Victoria’s first permanent European settlement is in the very south-west of the state and can trace its origins back to the pioneer Edward Henty.
Fitting for its age, Portland has a lot of solemn bluestone architecture, and you can get around town on an old-timey cable tram.
Portland’s coastline is at the heart of the city’s appeal, with some of Victoria‘s highest coastal cliffs, wild beaches and waters harbouring stunning marine wildlife.
Blue whales and southern right whales visit the ocean Portland’s shore, and mainland Australia’s only gannet colony is just a few minutes from the city.
1. Portland Cable Trams
Many of the spots on this list are linked by a cable tram network that is not quite as old as it looks.
The 3.7-kilometre line, running from Henty Park to the World War II Memorial Lookout, is a tourism initiative but also caters to the rail heritage enthusiasts who run the line as volunteers.
The network was begun in 1996 and opened in 2002, using restored or replica tram cars that are powered by diesel engines.
You can use the service to hope from one attraction to the next, and admire the ocean views as the trams trundle along Portland’s high foreshore.
2. Portland Powerhouse Motor and Car Museum
This transport museum is housed in Portland’s 1930s powerhouse, with its own stop on the tram route.
With numerous rarities, the Powerhouse Motor and Car Museum stands out for its array of veteran, vintage and classic cars by marques like Dodge, Riley, Austin, Pontiac, Ford and Studebaker.
Some of the models that you may not have seen before include a dinky 1960 Messerschmitt KR200, a 1919 Overland Roadster Model 4 and a 1927 Essex.
The collection also runs to tractors, a penny farthing, a cable tram from the 1920s and stationary engines, while motor memorabilia, from vintage signs to petrol pumps, adorns every inch of the building.
3. Portland Botanical Gardens
Portland boasts of the oldest botanical gardens in Australia, and the second-oldest in Victoria.
On a plot bounded by Salt Creek, the garden was designed in the 1850s by William Allitt and has held onto its original layout.
As was the case 170 years ago, the garden shows off the impressive diversity of species that can be grown in south-west Victoria’s temperate climate.
You can admire wonderful specimens of cabbage palm, Rhus Viminalis and Caracus wigandia, as well 180 varieties of dahlias (blooming from February to late-April) , over 300 rose varieties and a colourful display of annuals.
In this refined environment it’s no shock to find a croquet lawn and lawn tennis courts, to go with facilities like public toilets, BBQs and picnic tables.
4. Cape Nelson Lighthouse
Standing ten metres tall, the lighthouse among the heathland atop rugged Cape Nelson was completed in 1884. At that time a project of this size was a big undertaking, and the material for the project had to be carted via Portland from a quarry 11 kilometres away.
The lantern has been powered by electricity since the 1930s and the last lighthouse keeper moved out in the 1990s.
Today the keeper’s quarters are rented out as holiday accommodation, and the entire compound is protected by a rubble wall, 1.75 metres high, to keep the fierce winds at bay.
Enquire at the Portland Visitor Information Centre about the twice-daily tours, while there’s a little cafe on site open for breakfast and lunch.
5. Cape Nelson State Park
Allow a while to wander the 243-hectare state park encompassing the craggy coastline and a large parcel of the cape’s interior.
The main habitats at the state park are heath, wet heath and soap mallee, home to animals like echidnas and red-necked wallabies.
Apart from Cape Nelson Lighthouse the park’s highlight is a three-kilometre walk along the cliff-tops for enthralling ocean views.
As we’ll see, southern right whales and blue whales are often spotted in winter and summer from the cliffs.
6. Portland Maritime Discovery Centre
As the site of Victoria’s first commercial port and a former hub for the whaling industry, Portland has a special connection to the sea.
To celebrate this heritage, the city’s visitor information centre was merged with a maritime museum in 1998. So after calling in for leaflets, local products and travel advice you can browse the displays.
Look out for the 14-metre skeleton of a sperm whale, artefacts from Portland’s whaling and sealing days and a compelling exhibit about the sinking of the SS Admella in 1859, remembered as one of the country’s worst maritime disasters.
The museum’s showpiece is a lifeboat from 1858, among the oldest wooden vessels in Australia and integral to the rescue of survivors of the Admella wreck.
7. Great South West Walk
The Portland Maritime Discovery Centre is at the beginning and end of a 250-kilometre walking trail presenting the spellbinding beauty of Victoria’s south-west coast.
The route covers several of the spots on this list, as well as immense cliffs, vast sandy bays, ancient lakes, protected coastal forest and the majestic limestone gorge of the Glenelg River.
On its looping course the Great West Walk passes through three national parks, as well as the Discovery Bay Coastal Park and the Cape Nelson State Park.
If you’d prefer to walk one of the 15 sections (each furnished with a campsite), you’ll never have to drive far to reach a trackhead.
On your hike you may see koalas, kangaroos, a variety of seabirds, as well as whales, depending on the season.
8. Whale Watching
If the whale flag is at full mast outside the Maritime Discovery Centre it means there are whales in the city’s waters.
The southern right whale migrates north from Antarctica to this latitude each year between May and October to mate and calve.
This species is identified by the white bumps on the top and sides of its head.
Then in summer, one of Australia’s great natural wonders occurs, when the Bonney Upwelling brings a profusion of krill to the coast off Portland.
This in turn attracts the largest animal to have ever existed, the blue whale, to within a short distance of the coast.
Some 100 blue whales make the trip every year, from November to May, and can be sighted from a host of vantage points, but especially the elevated Cape Nelson and Cape Bridgewater.
9. Walk Portland’s Pride
At Victoria’s oldest European settlement it should come as no shock that there’s a lot of heritage buildings in Portland.
Check out the Glenelg Shire website or head to the Visitor Information Centre and you can get hold of a leaflet for a walking tour to see the main landmarks.
The route leads you past numerous bluestone buildings going deep into the 19th century.
You’ll see the Court House (1845), still fulfilling its original role, Mac’s Hotel (1856), the Old Post Office (1883), the Town Hall (1863), containing a small social history display, and the Steam Packet Inn, built in 1842 from Tasmanian timber.
10. Nuns Beach
Bordered by the harbour’s Lee Breakwater is a 300-metre sandy beach, facing east and shelving gently into Portland Bay.
With low surf, Nuns Beach is a good place to test the waters for a paddle or swim.
Behind the beach are high cliffs, giving you a satisfying vantage point for the harbour and its giant bulk carriers.
The city has set up a walking trail from the Lee Breakwater, taking you along the beach and up the winding steps to come back along the cliff top.
Up here take a look at Whalers Point to see the lighthouse, built in 1859 and moved stone-by-stone to this point in 1889.
11. Point Danger Gannet Colony
The only gannet colony on Australia’s mainland inhabits this headland, no more than six kilometres south of Portland.
These Australasian gannets have been here since the mid-90s, and efforts have been made to keep the colony intact, by limiting human access and by keeping Maremma sheepdogs to ward off predators like foxes and feral cats.
There’s a designated viewing platform accompanied by interpretive information, and you can get in touch with an expert volunteer via the Portland Visitor Information Centre.
This colony of around 300 pairs is an overflow for the larger colony of some 6,000 pairs just offshore on Lawrence Rocks.
With any luck you’ll get to see these seabirds dive-bombing for pilchards, reaching speeds of 100km/h, while they nest and raise their young from July to April.
12. World War II Memorial Lookout
Up from Nuns Beach is a former water tower repurposed as a lookout in the 1990s.
The 25-metre structure dates back to the 1930s and was raised to provide an abundant supply of safe water for a growing town.
The tower was obsolete by the 1980s and had become an eyesore until it was revitalised in the mid-1990s in honour of Portland residents who served in World War II.
There’s a well-researched museum on the first floor, full of info, photographs and memorabilia.
Carry on up to the observation platform and you can see Cape Nelson and Cape Bridgewater to the south, and the peaks of Mount Napier, Mount Richmond and more inland.
13. Cable Tram Museum and Depot
A fine way to begin or end your tram journey around Portland is the depot in Henty Park.
This attraction is a real miscellany, but loosely concentrating on transport.
For instance there’s a display of meticulously designed model railways, and a horse drawn carriage dating back to 1880, belonging to the pioneer Edward Henty.
Also on show is a line-up of classic cars, all polished to a shine, as well as what is billed as the largest private collection of gemstones in the Southern Hemisphere.
You can pause for a hot drink and peruse the gift shop for something special to take home.
14. Cape Bridgewater
Keep going past Cape Nelson and opening up before you will be at the magnificent and windswept Bridgewater Bay.
This four kilometre beach is hemmed by steep slopes, and has picnic areas, a beachside cafe and the surf lifesaving club patrolling on weekends and holidays from December to Easter.
Seals and dolphins are regular visitors to the beach, and southern right whales show up close to the shore in winter.
Cape Bridgewater, once part of the rim of a volcano, rises to 130 metres at the far end and has the tallest cliffs on the Victoria coast.
Waiting a little further north is the Petrified Forest, trunk-like formations which are actually limestone “solution pipes” hollowed out by millions of years of rainfall.
15. Portland Strawberries
This family farm has been in the strawberry business for more than 20 years, and specialises in mouth-watering strawberries bursting with flavour.
Portland Strawberries grows fruit all year round, whether open-air during Daylight Savings Time, or in the hothouse during the off season.
No aspect of growing or harvesting is left to chance, from soil preparation to the use of natural fertiliser.
Something special about this business is that almost all of its sales happen at the Farm Gate Shop, which gives you an idea of its high reputation.
The shop has fresh strawberries all year, as well as farm-made strawberry jam, lollies, strawberry ice cream, strawberry chocolates and a strawberry liqueur.