Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village and Museum has everything you need to know about the shipwreck history along Victoria’s south west coast.
I love the southern coast of Australia. A coastline of treacherous limestone cliffs and dangerous currents, wild and untamed. It is so different to the sandy beaches of Sydney… for us, a visit to the wild Great Ocean Road coast proves to be the perfect sea change.
As you would expect, a coast that is as unpredictable as this has of course many stories to tell. Stories of early settlements established by rough-and-ready pioneers, of ships that fell victim to the cliffs and rocks along the coast, of dreamers and pioneers that learnt to live in a new environment and hoped to bring civilisation to one of the last unexplored corners of this world.
At Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village and Museum in Warrnambool, you can explore all of this and more.
It’s a family friendly open-air museum, a collection of historic and replica cottages, huts and houses that together form a village not unlike the ones that used to dot the south Australian coastline. A museum that invites you to explore and discover with every turn at a leisurely pace.
But there is more: Flagstaff Hill is also home to a light and laser show, Shipwrecked! A night time show which really adds to the experience of a daytime visit.
But first things first. Flagstaff Hill is a fictional place. It is not a historic village that has been converted into a living museum. Yet, as we stand on the deck at the entrance overlooking the site we cannot help but admire with how much detail these houses have been put together.
There are signs and curtains, lamp posts and boats, cobblestones and lead windows. There are flower pots and shop windows, chimneys and outhouses. There are sheep grazing on the hills, two lighthouses signalling to ships out at sea.
All of this perfectly arranged like a miniature village. As we find our way down to its centre we enjoy the picturesque sights. No matter where you look, the illusion is almost perfect, even the hidden corners and the spaces between the houses look authentic. A pretty place for a leisurely walk.
The kids are less interested in strolling down main street to take in the lovely details. Luckily, they have been equipped with a treasure hunt challenge at the entrance, the perfect way to let them forget about their tired feet. They need to tick off certain things you can see around Flagstaff Hill such as a pulley, an anchor, a well, a red post box. Like little explorers they check every corner, visit every single house. When they are done they feed the ducks in the pond with the feed provided.
There is also a little booklet perfect for school aged kids. This is the Sea Chest Challenge, filled with puzzles and riddles, and the kids need to walk around the village to find clues and treasure chests, a fabulous idea!
There’s the doctor’s cottage and the candlemaker, the church and the sailmaker, the library and the schoolhouse, the inn and the bank, vessels, ducks and even cannons… not to forget the museum gallery with authentic pieces from shipwrecks and locals’ homes. So much to see, so much to learn along the way! Volunteers in period dress bring life to the scenery, as they operate the machines, manufacture in front of our eyes, staff the shops.
Flagstaff Hill is a representative of all the settlements that you will find in the region and along the Great Ocean Road. It was a time before there was even a Great Ocean Road, the late 1800s. When people, cattle and freight had to be transported at sea to Melbourne and Great Britain, along the very same coast that we now admire because of its wild and untamed beauty. It was a rough life, isolated, challenging.
I love how you can just discover in your own time this difficult life in all its facets. Your learning process happens casually, as you read the posters on the walls of the inn, study the customs declarations in the Bond Store, leaf through the pages of historic books in the library.
But not all things are explained: there is a meat safe, for example, which will get unnoticed if it isn’t pointed out by someone who knows what they are looking at. The outhouse – the kids have no idea what this would be. Plenty of opportunity for parents to share their knowledge and wow the kids with interesting facts.
We take a break at the Tea Rooms – a pretty little café that sells pies and scones and everything in between. Don’t expect to find Coca Cola here – after all it’s unknown in the 1880s. But a refreshing lemonade is still part of the deal.
For fantastic views we head to the top of the hill – we just need to find our way to the flagstaff. There are two State Heritage Listed lighthouses at Flagstaff Hill, one of which invites you up the spiral staircase for some fabulous views of the village and, of course, the sea.
We had dinner booked at the onsite restaurant, Pippies by the Bay, just a couple of steps from the museum. It’s the perfect place to fuel up before attending the exciting light and laser show that takes place every night at Flagstaff Hill. Because, as it turns out, while a visit to the village during the day is an excellent way to learn about the maritime history of the area, your visit will only be complete once you have also attended this exciting show.
We meet with the rest of our group for the night-time experience at the visitor centre next door to the restaurant. There is the option to walk to the theatre yourself – a guided walk through the dark village with a lantern in hand. It’s a cold and rainy night – typical springtime at the Great Ocean Road, and while this at first takes a bit away from the experience, we soon appreciate that it actually adds to the story. After all, it is set in the darkness of a cold and stormy night.
‘Tales of the Shipwreck Coast’ is about the ill-fated sea voyage of the Loch Ard, a clipper bound for Melbourne, which gets shipwrecked just days before its final destination right off the coast in this very place. It’s the story about the people onboard, told in their very own words – their hopes, their dreams, their fears, their losses.
At the theatre we were seated like in a cinema, facing a huge canvas. The first part of the show was a movie projected onto the screen, but, after this introduction, the canvas and the wall behind it disappear, leaving us with a prime view of the village and the lake, now bathed in darkness. This is when the real show begins!
As the ship in the story neared its inevitable end, the village came to life. Voices appeared, lights behind the windows switched on and off. Fog crept up and laser portrayed pictures into the night sky; all while water sprayed formed the canvas for a multidimensional experience.
The story was as tragic as it can be. As viewers we rooted for the true stories of the victims, the budding romance between a female passenger and a crewman, the heroic tale of the rescue of a young girl. We were deeply impressed. We didn’t expect to find a show as spectacular as this in a place that happens to be not Sydney nor Melbourne.
The sunken peacock can be seen in the museum of Flagstaff Hill. It’s an earthenware statue, about one and a half meters in size, made in Staffordshire, England in 1873. Salvaged from the wreck of the Loch Ard it spent quite some time in stately homes around the area but was later acquired by the museum, where its voyage has now come full circle. Not having sold initially at auction for a price of just $4,500, it is now valued at more than $4m.
In the end we left Flagstaff Hill with a wealth of knowledge. It’s a fantastic place to learn more about the maritime history of the area, where there are constant connections between the past and the present, the living and the dead, the heritage and the future. No matter what age, everyone will take away some knowledge and impressions from this museum. I highly recommend it!
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Great Ocean Road Regional Tourism acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the Great Ocean Road region the Wadawuurung, Eastern Maar & Gunditjmara. We pay our respects to their Ancestors, past present and emerging. We recognise and respect their unique cultural heritage and the connection to their traditional lands. We commit to building genuine and lasting partnerships that recognise, embrace and support the spirit of reconciliation, working towards self-determination, equity of outcomes and an equal voice for Australia’s first people.