The seaside town of Victor Harbor is close to where two world-changing explorers, Matthew Flinders and Nicolas Baudin, bumped into each other in 1802. The UK and France were at war at the time, but Flinders and Baudin met up cordially and compared notes.
Encounter Bay, as Flinders called it, is a nursery for another important seafarer, the southern right whale, which can be sighted from autumn to spring.
Whales have a special place in Victor Harbor’s story, and where once they were hunted they are now a big tourist draw.
One of the best places to see them is on Granite Island, a rocky recreation park linked to land by a long causeway, and accessed by one of the world’s last horse-drawn trams.
1. Whale Watching
Southern right whales migrate from the Antarctic to Encounter Bay between May and October to calve or find a mate in these sheltered, warmer waters.
This species likes to hang out in shallower seas, within a few hundred metres of the shore.
So you could hardly pick a better place than Victor Harbor to spot these beautiful, 18-metre giants from land.
You could easily pass a whole afternoon looking out to sea with a pair of binoculars, catching breaches and thrilling glimpses of their playful behaviour.
There are lookouts all around Victor Harbor, but Granite Island and Rosetta Head (The Bluff) are two great options that we’ll talk about below.
2. Granite Island
The 25-hectare island off Victor Harbor is a recreation park joined to the mainland by a 700-metre causeway.
You can walk it or catch one of the world’s last remaining horse-drawn trams.
And despite being small, this former 19th-century whaling station has a lot going for it.
As you might guess, the island is strewn with curious rock formations, hewn and moulded by the wind and sea.
There’s also important public art, commissioned from 18 high-profile sculptors.
Granite Island protects a small but increasing colony of little penguins, which can be viewed on a special tour after dark.
On the east coast, next to the Island Cafe, is a late-19th century jetty, built to boost trade.
This is known as the Screw Pile Jetty, literally because its piles had to be screwed into the hard limestone on the seabed.
3. Kaiki Walk
Right where the causeway meets Granite Island you’ll find the trailhead for a light 2.9-kilometre path that loops around the coastline.
Going anti-clockwise this will lead you past the island’s impressive public art, as well as peculiar granite formations at Portrait Rock and Umbrella Rock.
On the east coast, near the Screw Pile Jetty there’s a small interpretive centre about the island’s growing little penguin colony, and you can come back at night for a guided penguin tour (more later). There are dramatic views back to the mainland, over Encounter Bay and Rosetta Head, and information signs will fill you in on the island’s human history, wildlife and geology.
4. Kangaroo Island Scenic Tour
Australia’s third-largest island is just across the narrow Backstairs Passage from the Fleurieu Peninsular, and demands a visit.
Most of Kangaroo Island’s terrain is taken up by nature reserves, protecting the remnant native vegetation and wildlife.
The best known of these is Flinders Chase National Park, famed for its amazing granite formations and abundance of species like echidnas goannas and koalas.
Now, if you only have a day to spare, try this seven-hour experience via GetYourGuide.com.
You’ll be met at the Sealink Terminal in the port of Penneshaw, and be whisked off around Kangaroo Island’s many highlights.
There’s seal-spotting, a raptor show at a bird sanctuary, a visit to a lavender farm and an up-close look at Remarkable Rocks, eroded by wind and sea spray over 500 million years.
5. Oceanic Victor
An unusual aquarium platform has been set up in the lee of Granite Island.
To get there you’ll board a high-end motorised island, and on arrival you’ll be fitted with wetsuits, booties, gloves and masks for a dive with southern bluefin tuna.
This species has been dubbed the “Ferrari of the Ocean”, and can reach speed of almost 80 kilometres an hour.
You’ll be able to feed pilchards to the tuna in the water, but if you’d prefer to stay dry there’s an underwater observatory for a crystal clear view of the aquarium’s inhabitants, while children can interact with local marine life at the touch tank.
6. Victor Harbor Horse Drawn Tram
Victor Harbor is one of the few places in the world where you can ride a double-decker tram drawn by a horse.
The animal responsible is a sizeable Clydesdale draught horse, pulling the tram across the causeway to Granite Island.
This route has been running since 1894 and is one of just two trams of its kind to maintain a daily service.
The line has six fine Clydesdales, working in shifts of up to three hours.
The trams themselves are replicas of the late-19th century originals, and their interiors are clad with interpretive displays about the history of the line, the causeway and Victor Harbor.
7. The Cockle Train
Setting off from Victor Harbor, you can take a trip along the south coast of the Fleurieu Peninsula on a broad gauge steam train.
The SteamRanger Heritage Railway, nicknamed the Cockle Train, follows a preserved stretch of the Victor Harbor Railway Line, going back to the 1880s.
This is Australia’s oldest steel-railed line, built to connect the mouth of the Murray River with ocean docks a Port Elliot and then Victor Harbor.
The heritage railway has a busy timetable and takes you as far as Goolwa, 18 kilometres away, passing dunes, massive sandy beaches and beautiful sweeps of the Southern Ocean.
“Cockle Train” comes from the large cockles that can be found at the beaches by the mouth of the Murray River.
The heritage railway has five steam locomotives in its fleet, the oldest manufactured in 1913
8. Urimbirra Wildlife Park
In picturesque wetlands five minutes from Victor Harbor’s CBD there’s an animal park home to more than 400 native Australian animals.
Much of the wildlife you’d associate with Australia is here, including kangaroos, wombats, wallabies, koalas, emus, salt and freshwater crocodiles, dingoes, echidnas and many more.
There are also Australian breeds of domestic animals, like sheep, alpacas, chickens and rabbits.
Where this attraction shines is in its interactivity, allowing you to pet and hand-feed kangaroos, koalas and emus, and even handle snakes.
You can pack a picnic or make the most of the park’s sheltered barbecue, while there’s a cafe at the gift shop.
9. South Australia Whale Centre
This marine-oriented interpretation centre is housed in a heritage-listed railway goods shed from the mid-19th century.
On the walls inside you can still see the soot left behind by decades of steam engines.
The SA Whale Centre set up shop in 1994 and has moved with the times over the last 25+ years, introducing lots of hands-on exhibits like touch tables and microscopes.
There’s lots of detail about southern right whales, an account of Victor Harbor’s whaling past, and you can check out the preserved spine of a humpback whale and a southern right whale skull.
Kids can also crawl through the belly of a giant squid, go fossil hunting and meet the centre’s live eastern long-neck turtle, named “Soup”. To go with all this there’s a theatrette, screening absorbing presentations about the marine world.
10. Penguin Tours
The smallest penguin species, the little penguin has gone into steep decline on the Fleurieu Peninsula in the last 30 years.
But very recently, this cute bird no more than 30 cm in height has made a comeback on Granite Island, increasing in number from 20 in 2012 to 44 in 2018. To protect its penguins the island closes to the public after dusk, and the only way to visit is on a guided tour.
Lasting up to 90 minutes this seasonal experience allows you to see little penguins in their natural habitat, but you’ll also other come across other species that only emerge at night.
11. Waitpinga Beach
Carry on west along the south coast of the Fleurieu Peninsula and there’s a series of beaches open to the full power of the Southern Ocean.
One magnificent example can be found at the Newland Head Conservation Park, no more than 15 minutes away.
Waitpinga Beach is three kilometres long and completely free of any kind of development.
This is the coast at its wildest, with strong breezes (“Waitpinga translates to home of the winds”) and powerful waves ridden only by experienced surfers.
Salmon and mullet are plentiful at Waitpinga and its smaller neighbour Parsons Beach, and fishers cast their lines from the shore.
These fish attract another occasional visitor, great white sharks.
12. Rosetta Head (The Bluff)
The western boundary of Encounter Bay is marked by an imposing headland, 87 metres high and with grass mingling with big granite boulders.
For several decades in the 19th century Rosetta Head was tied to the whaling industry, with a lookout point on its peak to spot whales, and a whaling station served by a wharf on the sheltered north side.
Today you can walk among the boulders to the summit for an all-encompassing view of Victor Harbor, and to catch sight of southern right whales between May and October.
Near where the wharf used to be there’s a good, calm beach for swimming, while surfers come to ride waves on the dicier south side of the headland.
13. Warland Reserve
By the causeway and totally surrounded by the shops and restaurants of the Ocean Street Precinct and Victor Harbor attractions like the Horse Drawn Tram, there’s a welcome spread of greenery where you can collect your thoughts for a minute or two.
Given its central location, it’s no surprise that Warland Reserve is a venue for outdoor events, from markets to live music to New Year fireworks.
But if you need some time out there’s a long shaded avenue, lots of space to stretch your legs, a barbecue area and age-specific children’s playgrounds.
Also here is one of Victor Harbor’s landmarks, a fountain with a breaching whale tail, produced in 1993 by sculptor Silvio Apponyi.
14. Victor Harbor Station Master’s Residence
A compelling document for Encounter Bay’s 19th-century history, this National Trust building by Warland Reserve is a former Customs House and Station Master’s Residence constructed in 1866. First off, the house is loaded with objects from the period, including furniture, decorative arts and black and white photos of Victor Harbor.
The interpretive centre has three galleries introducing you to several aspects of local history, among them the dreamtime stories of the Ramindjeri clan, the meeting between Flinders and Baudin in 1802, the whaling industry, the tribulations of early settlers and modern development.
15. Seal Island Cruise
About 2.5 kilometres off the south-east of Granite Island is an even smaller island, often known as Seal Rock.
This granite mass is around a hectare in size, and reaches a height of 12 metres.
What conjures people’s fascination is the wildlife, which you can encounter on a 45-minute cruise.
This trip, offered through GetYourGuide.com, first takes you around the coast of Granite Island, past the historic horse drawn tram and the Screw Pile Jetty, before striking out for the smaller neighbour.
As the name tells you, seals but also sea lions are often sighted here.
Other animals that occasionally make an appearance are common and bottlenose dolphins, and aquatic birds like cormorants, petrels and shearwaters.