The original access point to the Gippsland Lakes was a natural opening about 2 km east of the present entrance, opposite and below the Roadknight homestead on Merrangbaur Hill near Lake Bunga. Although the channel was quite deep, it was inconsistent, shifting back and forth along the sand barrier. By 1864, vessels were regularly using the inlet and a pilot boat “The Lady of the Lake” was employed to help schooners and steamers make their way through the inlet.
The completion of the Melbourne to Sale railway in 1879 boosted shipping activity in the area. Supplies, passengers and tourists were soon arriving from Sydney, Eden, Tasmania and Melbourne by steamer, covering the remaining distance from Sale and Bairnsdale by smaller boats. As a result of this growth, boatbuilding soon became an industry in the area and agitation began for the construction of a more stable and permanent, man-made entrance to the lakes.
Work began on this project in 1869 but was temporarily halted in 1872. It recommenced in 1881 and on a stormy night in 1889, the sea broke through, surging over 3000 sandbags and flooding several homes. The railway and steam engines used to construct the piers are still visible on both sides of the entrance. One unforeseen circumstance was an increase in salinity which has caused erosion on the banks and the decline of plant species which do not tolerate salty water.
Lakes Entrance, which lies almost at sea level, can be accessed from Melbourne via Bairnsdale and the town of Kalimna to the northwest by a stretch of the Princes Highway, which snakes down and around a point protruding into the Gippsland Lakes known as “Jemmy’s Point“.
Spectacular views of The Entrance and of the Lakes can be seen from various lookouts on Jemmy’s Point. According to Aboriginal legends, Nyols, small people reminiscent of the fairies of western folklore, lived here. The Princes Highway leaves the north east side of the town through hilly countryside towards Nowa Nowa and Orbost.
Lakes Entrance is predominantly a fishing and tourism-driven town; the main beach front is a safe harbour for many major commercial fishing and recreational watersport operations.
The main thoroughfare of the Esplanade runs along the shoreline of the Cunninghame Arm inlet, with marinas and attractive foreshore gardens on one side, and a good selection of shops, restaurants and accommodation options on the other side.
There is a Safeway, a Target Country store which opened in 2007, a McDonalds restaurant which opened in September 1997 and a KFC. The town’s main residential areas lie further inland.
Along the Esplanade, a local wood carver has taken the stumps of trees and carved them into images of Australia at war. It is a novel idea although the carver apparently copyrighted the work which means, at least in theory, that if you take a photograph you could possibly be sued. There are famous images from World War I, including Simpson and his donkey and a nursing sister caring for wounded soldiers.
A walk across the landmark footbridge, which crosses Cunninghame Arm, brings you to the sand dunes of the Ninety Mile Beach, popular with surfers and swimmers, and patrolled by lifeguards between November and March every summer.
The 2.3 km (or about 5 km return) Lakes Entrance Scenic Walk commences 100 metres to the right of the footbridge, along the narrow peninsula of land which separates the still waters of Cunninghame Arm from the choppy waters of Bass Strait, takes visitors along some scenic coastline and coastal bush to the Flagstaff Lookout which provides good views over the man-made entrance into the Gippsland Lakes.
A number of lookouts provide panoramic views over Lakes Entrance and the surrounding waterways, with most located on or near the Princes Highway, just west of the town in the neighbouring community of Kalimna.
However, for one of the best views of the area, a drive along the appropriately named Seaview Parade rewards visitors with unparalleled views over the town centre, marinas, Cunninghame Arm and down to the Ninety Mile Beach.
Lakes Entrance is the base of one of Australia’s largest fishing fleets. The Fisherman’s Co-Op is located on Bullock island and has a shop in town opposite Safeway that sells freshly-caught fish to the public. When we drove to Bullock Island, we found some industries and an unsealed road to a research facility of RMIT University. On the return journey, a detour to the North Arm Boat ramp rewarded us with the sight of several large pelicans with their highly-extensible beaks.
Popular activities in Lakes Entrance include swimming, surfing, fishing, crabbing and boat cruising on the Gippsland Lakes. Paddleboats, catamarans, aquabikes, paddle skis, canoes and body boards are for hire over the footbridge. Surf fishing is popular on Ninety Mile Beach while at Lakes Entrance, dangling a line off the jetties or rock walls can be rewarding. In Bass Strait, both Five Mile Reef and Seven Mile Reef, to the south-west of the entrance, are recommended fishing spots.