Tracing the past
Small and spread out as it appears to be, Port Albert has a significant stock of historic buildings dating back to the 1850s and 60s when it was the major centre in this region of Victoria. Whilst many of the town's buildings have vanished and others are in a ruinous state, there are still many significant buildings and identifiable sites that tell the story of the town's heyday in the golden days. Many of the buildings have bronze plaques that tell of their original owners and use and there are several boards around the town that tell more of the story.
The layout of the town is simple and you can easily find your way around. A good plan is to start at the end of the jetties and work your way back through the town. Walking this way, on the right hand side of the road, you'll pass the 1856 Government Bond Store and Warehouse, the 1844 Port Albert Hotel (the oldest continually licenced hotel in Victoria) the old Port Albert Post Office (built in 1864, now a private house), the Derwent Hotel (1859), the General Store (1856 - now a cafe), the Old Bakery (1859) and the original draper's store, Gowrie House (1855). Across the street from the General Store, the houses once known as The Flannery (now Rodondo B&B and The Smiths)were built in 1871 on the site of the old timber yard and general store. Next door, the splendid Bank of Victoria was built in 1861 to replace an earlier building.
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Around the bay
Positioned between the the high hills of Wilson's Promontory and the unbroken stretch of the 90 Mile Beach, Port Albert lies tucked into a quiet maze of waterways lying behind a chain of low-lying sand barrier islands that offer protection from the wild seas and ceaseless surf of the Bass Strait. These waterways, mudflats, some 40 islands and the coast covering an area of more than 30,000 hectares are designated as the Noorumunga Marine and Coastal Park, an area of quiet beauty and environmental importance.
Following the Old Port Trail from Stockyard Point (the furthest point past the pub) will take you along the bayside towards the town's original site to the east. The variety of habitats in this small area is fascinating. If you thought mangroves were plantS for hot and steamy places, think again - the white magroves that grow here cope very well with the winds that howl in from the strait.
Bring your binoculars to make the most of the views across to Wilsons Promontory (known to all Victorians as "Wilson's Prom") and the saltmarshes and mudflats that attract vast numbers of migrating birds. If time is short you can turn back towards town at the Old Port Foreshore Road, otherwise, keep on walking - the whole trail is 6km long, but you'll need to walk back the same way or arrange for someone to meet you at Seabank at the end of the trail.
- National/State Park
Down to the sea
The sea has always figured largely in the life of Port Albert and Gippsland. Shipping, navigation and lighthouses, shipwrecks and rescues, fishing and sailing, immigrants arriving, sending out gold and produce from the hinterlands, all this and more have been the lifeblood of the town ever since it was founded.
The Gippsland Maritime Museum is housed in the handsome old Bank of Victoria building right in the middle of the town. Room after room displays artifacts, equipment, charts, photos, natural history specimens and more that and tell the stories of the various apects of maritime life that the town has experienced over the years. There are some great tales to be told of life on the land too. The bank's strongroom that once protected a king's ransom in gold is reserved for the story of Gippsland's gold whilst a diorama depicts a Chinese fish-curing enterprise that is the subject of current archaeological work in the area. Additional to the displays and the archives held inside the old bank and the bank manager's house here, the garden is laid out with well-kept and displayed boats, beacons, anchors - even the restored light of the Citadel Lighthouse. There are lots of interactive displays to add to the experience. You could easily spend several hours here.
The museum holds a good stock of leaflets and information sheets about different points of interest around the town, many of which are free.
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- Museum Visits
Before you leave Port Albert, turn right at South Street (at the roundabout with the MacMillan Memorial in the middle) as you drive out of town. South Street marked the boundary of Port Albert and Palmerston - the Government town that was built here as an adjunct to Port Albert itself. By the time the Gippsland gold rush made a major government investment in the town a necessity, most of the land within the township was in private hands. Two buildings from that time survive here - the Police Barracks and Gaol (1857) and the Immigration Depot(1858).
The Immigration Depot is of particular historic note. Built to house the influx of immigrants as they arrived at the port, it is the only such building dating from the earliest days of the colony and so has considerable importance as a comment on the social history of the state. Immigration directly to Port Albert had all but ceased by 1870 and the barracks became redundant. They were used as police stables for some years following this.
Both buildings are now in private hands
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Miles and miles ...
...and miles and miles of pristine white sands and long rolling surf - Australia went metric a long time ago but this will always be the 90 Mile Beach - the 144 Kilometre Beach just doesn't have the same ring to it.
The beach begins just a few kilometres from Port Albert and stretches all the way to Loch Sport in the east, a continuous strand seperating the Bass Strait from the Gippsland Lakes.
Essentially one long gentle dune without any rocky outcrops anywhere along its length, it just goes on and on, seemingly forever. You can walk for miles here, and on a late wintery afternoon we did just that, with hardly another footstep in the sand along the way, one lone fisherman to nod to as we went and a sooty tern that seemed to be following us as we went.
What else can we do?
A glimpse into the past isn't the only thing Port Albert has to offer visitors. As you would expect from a place with "Port" in its name, boats are an integral part of life here. Whether you hire a boat and take it out yourself into the inshore waterways or charter someone to take you offshore, time on the water is a great way to while way a few hours. Fishing, sightseeing and diving are all good options.
Snapper, flathead, bream. Australian salmon and gummy shark are the main catches here and all make excellent eating.
You'll need a boat to get out to Snake Island, the most significant Aboriginal site in the area. This was where newly-wed couples from the local clan of the Gunai/Kumai, the traditional custodians of the waters and islands here, came. Large middens mark the sites of their camps.
- Sailing and Boating
Just a few kilometres from Port Albert lies the tiny hamlet of Taraville. It's hard to imagine that there was once a thriving small town here with no less than five hotels and several wine shanties - pioneering was thirsty business and it was a long way to the goldfields. With over 30 businesses and the largest permanent town population in the region (219!), Tarraville looked set to develop but progress in the form of the new-fangled railway to Sale moved the focus of transport away from this corner of Gippsland and Tarraville sank into near oblivion.
One lovely reminder of the town's heyday remains in its church. Built in 1856 entirely of wood and without a single nail in the whole building, Christ Church was the first church in Gippsland and the town is justly proud of it. Modern realities means the church cannot be left open but a heavy security grill inside the door means you can look inside.
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Significant items dealing with Port Albert's maritime history are housed in the 1861 Bank of Victoria building and the adjacent former Commercial Banking Company bank office, now the John Irving Archives.
Port Albert was once the Port of Entry for the Gippsland Goldfields and the old bank vault houses a display on Gippsland Gold Discovery.
The growth and decline of the Port's fishing fleet is outlined in the Fishing Room and in the display on The Port Albert Sharkers.
The story of the lighthouses is told in "Mailmen of Bass Strait", there is a comprehensive Shell Collection, and the Chinaman's Point diorama and display boards outline the findings of a recent archeological dig on the 19th century Chinese fish curing industry at Port Albert.
The Clonmel was a wooden hulled, two masted schooner-rigged paddle steamer. She was wrecked on the shifting sands just offshore of what is now the Port Albert entrance. There are many historic artifacts recovered from the ship, on display. An excellent exhibition has been staged with the assistance of the Maritime Heritage Unit of Heritage Victoria. Artifacts from many other shipwrecks, donated by divers, are also on display. The Rocket Lifesaving Equipment, issued to Port Albert by the Victorian Government in 1871, is the most complete of its type in Victoria. The Breeches Buoy, designed to save mariners and passengers from shipwreck, together with a collection of lifeboat material and other lifesaving equipment, are another feature of the museum.
There are few buildings of note though, the hotel being the most outstanding.
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It hardly comes as a surprise then that the main tourist attraction (apart from fishing) in the town is the award winning PORT ALBERT MARITIME MUSEUM.
Port Albert was settled in 1841 following the wreck of the paddle steamer Clonmel, and the arrival of Angus McMillan, seeking a port for shipping cattle from the lush hinterland. The museum opened in 1976.
Adjacent to where this shot was taken is a great place to get your fresh fish and chips, probably even off this boat.
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