Well before you clap eyes on King Island, it’s clear that a few days on this Bass Strait outpost will not be your average weekend. Taxiing along the runway in a Rex Airlines 30-seater, even the familiar scenery of Melbourne's Tullamarine (flights from Sydney go via Melbourne) starts to take on a more rural hue. As it shudders into the air, the tiny plane feels skatey and nimble, especially compared to the hulking beasts we normally take to the skies in. Looking over the city from such a small aircraft, you’re more aware than ever that you’re actually going somewhere.
Despite the ease of access, fascinating backstory and frankly outstanding produce, when it comes to tourism, King Island is still explorer country. But with friendly locals, jaw-dropping coastline, great accommodation options and, let’s not beat around the bush here, all that cheese to be eaten, it can’t stay that way for long.
There are three townships on the island; Currie, Grassy and Naracoopa. Currie, the largest, is halfway up the west coast and just a few kilometres from the airport. It’s home to the butcher, the baker, the pub and the supermarket so makes a good base, but given the island is around 60 kilometres long and 30 kilometres wide, if you decide to stay out of town, you won’t be too far away.
King Island Holiday Village
Accomodation on the island ranges from standard motel rooms to homestays and fully kitted-out villas. Based in Grassy, King Island Holiday Village offers the largest range of accommodation and touring options with one, two and three- bedroom, self-contained villas, and the King Island Motel. Run by the lovely Lucinda Dengerink and Ian Johnson, tours here are conducted from a 13-seater OKA all-terrain vehicle that can take you anywhere. Ian has been on the island 30 years and is a great storyteller, with a vast well of local knowledge. To say he’s handy with a pair of barbecue tongs would be an understatement – he and Lucinda take great pride in creating meals made from the bounty of their immediate surrounds.
1 Bluegum Drive, Grassy
(03) 6461 1177
The island produces everything from quince paste to prosciutto and pheasant, but the undoubted heroes are the seafood, the beef and of course, the cheese.
King Island Dairy
All King Island Dairy products found in mainland supermarkets are produced on the island in a dairy that is surprisingly small given the reputation and availability of its produce.
Depending on the time of year, around 80 people will be making cheese with milk supplied by 13 farmers from across the island. The dairy is staffed 24 hours a day and every batch of cheese is tasted, with some matured on the island, and others on the mainland.
Overseeing the operation is head cheesemaker Ueli Berger. From Bern in Switzerland, Berger’s grandfather was a cheesemaker and his father was a dairy farmer. Berger studied cheesemaking in Switzerland (although with his background, he probably could have written the textbook) and moved to the island in 1998, taking King Island Dairy to the World Championship Cheese Contest and, more importantly, our grateful mouths. Put simply, what Berger doesn’t know about the making cheese isn’t worth knowing.
While the dairy itself isn’t open to the public, the fromagerie certainly is, with a range of fresh cheeses on sale for “local” prices. Given you’re here, it’d be a shame to get back on the plane without a few wheels tucked under your arm.
869 N Road, Loorana
(03) 6462 1348
King Island Seafoods
Lobster, abalone, oysters, eel, king crab, shark and crayfish so big they seem like they’re from another planet, King Island Seafood is not short on options. The island has 18 fishing boats, which share the waters with boats from SA, Victoria and mainland Tasmania.
All of King Island Seafoods’ catch is sold before it even gets to shore, so while it’s worth a visit to the dock to check out the gigantic crabs, you won’t be able to buy one, unless you’re looking to make a larger order.
For orders over 10 kilograms, Donna Whitehouse-Summers can arrange cooking, packing and freight to Moorabbin Airport, but if you’re looking to grab something for dinner, head to the Foodworks in Currie. There they will take your crayfish order and organise it fresh off the boat.
If you’re not on the island, you can find King Island seafood at Southern Unite in Richmond.
(03) 6462 1774
For more than 15 years Duncan McFie has been bottling the rainwater that falls through the cleanest air in the world. Once he figured out how to catch and bottle the water without the taste being affected, it wasn’t long before he was taking calls from some of the world’s best restaurants, including Ferran Adria’s el Bulli, which serves Cloud Juice at its tables.
It’s a rare week on King Island that it doesn’t rain so supply isn’t a problem, but despite that, Cloud Juice is hard to find on the mainland. If you develop a fondness for it, make sure you stock up before heading home.
(03) 6462 1761
King Island Bakehouse
If you’re a baker, what do you do with an abundance of cheese and crayfish? You put it in a pie. Like all good bakeries, the one on King Island will do you a salad roll, but we can’t imagine you’d be asking for one once you spot the menu board. Its crayfish pies have been justly showered in praise, but the camembert and chicken is also a winner, as are its apple pies, towering with local cream.
5 Main St, Currie
(03) 6462 1337
King Island Honey
“I try to keep a low profile, but people keep finding me,” laughs Sean Freeman, when we ask where to find his locally made honey. It’s not that Freeman doesn’t want the extra business, it’s that he can’t keep up with demand. Unlike mainland honey producers who can transport their bees to areas with more nectar and pollen, the amount of flowering plants on King Island dictates the bee population, and the honey it can produce from the bees’ natural foraging. While you’ll need a bit of luck to find it back home, King Island Honey is in all three supermarkets on the island (IGA, Foodworks and Marie’s Corner Store in Grassy). Freeman also does tours and talks for larger groups, and will happily sell you some honey direct.
1 Racecourse Road
(03) 6462 1873
With the excitement centred on King Island’s produce, you can forget to mention how beautiful the island is. Then you get there. “Rugged” and “windswept” don’t even being to cover it. King Island is covered in excellent trails, the walking of which will, of course, give you an excuse to load your backpack with provisions.
“It’s amazing King Island doesn’t fly the shipwreck flag higher,” says tour guide Ian Johnson. Listening to stories of the more than 70 wrecks which litter the island, you soon start to agree with him. Many of King Island’s wrecks were of national significance, including the Cataraqui, which sunk in 1845 and took 400 lives with it, Australia’s worst maritime disaster outside of wartime. Needless to say, many of King Island’s settlers ended up there by accident, blown off course by the Roaring Forties or surviving after their ships came a cropper while trying to thread the Eye of the Needle, the 90 kilometre gap between Cape Otway and the island.
Many of the wrecks aren’t visible from shore, but you can still find cabin glass and bits of convict pottery while walking the beach.
King Island Museum
Lighthouse Street, Currie
(03) 6462 1512
If you don’t fancy buying dinner, you could do worse than try your luck with a rod or reel. Australian salmon, gummy shark, school shark and mullet can all be caught off the beaches. Barracuda and squid are often pulled from the jetty and there’s brown trout in three of the island’s lakes. If you really know what you’re doing, you could try floundering under a full moon on a low tide. It might take a bit of local knowledge but Johnson says, “If you have a stick with a nail on it and a torch, you too will never go hungry on King Island.”
With so few people and so much varied coastline, King Island provides perfect habitat for nesting sites, to the point that Johnson describes it as a bit of a Noah’s Ark for bird salvation.
If you’re not much of a twitcher, it’s still worth checking out Grassy Harbour at dusk, as it’s home to a fairy penguin colony who return to their burrows every night. If your only experience of penguins is under the bright lights with the crowds on Phillip Island, you’ll be in for a pleasant shock. As you can imagine, on an island with a population of 1600, it’s a somewhat more intimate experience down here.
King Island Birdwatching
Broadsheet’s trip to King Island was made possible by King Island Dairy.