By Kirra Grimes
WITH a deadly virus on the loose, island living starts to look like a pretty good option, and city dwellers have their eyes on Western Port for the ultimate escape.
French Island real estate agent Phil Bock has seen a significant increase in enquiries during COVID-19 lockdown, and the common theme attracting people is obvious, he says: “Our moat!”
A mix of national park and farming land, the island had a population of 119 at the last census.
Accessible via ferry, it’s got its own primary school (with four students currently enrolled); and a family owned general store/cafe that does its best to provide everything the locals need, from mail delivery to fresh produce to fuel.
Residents enjoy an off-grid lifestyle – with no council rates to pay, due to the island’s unique ‘unincorporated’ status.
Its popularity amongst foreign investors and young professionals has steadily increased over the past 10 years, Phil says, but the pandemic has really been its time to shine.
“We’re so close to Melbourne but we’re isolated by a stretch of water – it’s a pretty safe haven,” he said.
“Kylie Minogue used to have a property here, and she said in an interview that she loved that she could walk around without bumping into another soul – under these circumstances, that’s a bit of a plus!”
There are only a handful of properties listed for sale at the moment – from 10 acres up to 60.
The reasons for the shortage are twofold, Phil says: either people are holding off selling until restrictions ease and outsiders can come over for inspections, or they’re holding on to what they recognise as a valuable investment.
“It’s mainly farming properties, and they’re tightly held, because people know they’re on a pretty good thing here,” he said.
At least one seller has extended their ‘expressions of interest’ period – due to end this August – to January next year.
“It is showing signs of becoming a hidden popular destination, but obviously with COVID, everything’s locked down,” Phil said.
“But the population has increased because of that appeal of getting off the grid but still being close to Melbourne, and still being able to bring up a family. And now, with the opportunities to work remotely, it’s a good spot.
“The biggest change in 10 years has been the reliability of the ferry service – it used to be a bit touch and go, now it’s multiple times daily. And it’s only a 12-minute journey before you’re back on the mainland.”
Doing their bit
Neil and Clare Le Serve at the general store said even though locals appreciated the extra protection of living on an island during a pandemic, they’d been taking COVID-19 precautions seriously.
With the ferry continuing to operate as public transport, they can’t take any chances in coming into close contact with anyone from the mainland, so facemasks, social distancing and takeaway-only service have become the norm.
To minimise locals having to travel off the island for necessities, Neil and Clare, who live in Corinella, have widened their product range at the general store, including introducing a ‘market day’ offering fresh fruit and vegetables for sale.
Anything they haven’t had in stock, they’ve endeavoured to bring over from the mainland themselves, even doing Bunnings trips for people on request.
But it hasn’t been easy, with limits on many commodities due to the ‘panic buying’ phenomenon. “You’ve got to really hunt things out,” Clare said.
Neil’s gotten to know the locals well over 25 years of delivering their mail.
He says there’s “no doubt people are a bit scared and nervous” about the virus, especially after the recent surge in Victorian cases, but recognise the fortunate position they’re in compared to the rest of the state.
“You’re classed as ‘hermits,’ by living away, but I couldn’t think of a better lifestyle,” he said.
“If anywhere should be safe, it’s here. But we haven’t gone through this before. A lot the older people have been here forever, and it’d be terrible if anything happened to them.”
Clare agreed about the advantages of living in a “very small, very self sufficient” community at time like this, but said they were looking forward to welcoming tourists back when it was safe to do so.
“When we all get free from this pandemic, we hope tourism will come back to French Island; it’s such a unique place to live and work,” she said.