The Mornington Peninsula has always been the most popular destination for Melbournians seeking a day trip or a weekend respite from the city. Popular bayside and rugged surf beaches, a burgeoning, tourist-friendly wine and food industry and plenty of agreeable countryside are all within little more than an hour or two’s drive from the CBD.
The peninsula forms the eastern side of Port Phillip Bay in a long slow curve along which are dotted seaside resorts like Rosebud and Dromana. Come summer, the foreshores of these towns are crammed with families in caravans, but keep driving down the Nepean Highway till you will reach Blairgowrie. From here on the Peninsula narrows dramatically so that the bay or front beach and the surf beaches on the other side facing Bass Strait (the back beaches as they are often called) are just a mile or so apart.
This is premium beach house country; if you don’t have a friend who happens to have a place here you can (presuming you’ve booked a year ahead) expect to pay top dollar to rent around the towns like Sorrento (Victoria’s oldest settlement) and especially Portsea, the last town on the Peninsula, where the Melbourne establishment clings to its real estate with a passion. Sorrento is a particularly handsome town strategically dotted with grand old sandstone hotels and many of the bay’s best restaurants.
A passenger and vehicular ferry can be caught from Sorrento on the hour to cross the Bay and deposit you at the once thriving holiday town of Queenscliff on the Bellarine Peninsula. Once there you may reasonably wonder why you bothered; the beach is crap and there’s little to do except trudge around with the rest of the tourists in fruitless search of the town’s raison d’?e. Head straight to The Queenscliff Hotel (16 Gellibrand St, Queenscliff), a superb Victorian hotel returned to full Victorian grandeur by famed Melbourne restaurateur Mietta O’Donnell. A couple of cocktails in the side bar may just help make the excursion seem worthwhile.
The surf beaches along the sole of the Peninsula, from Portsea at the toe to Cape Schanck where the heel should be, are uniformly good and vary from sandy beaches backed by sand dunes to the rugged rockscape and exposed mussel beds at the Sorrento back beach. There are some notorious rips along this stretch, one of which claimed the Australian prime minister Harold Holt in the 1960s -“ so heed the warnings of lifesaving clubs and swim/surf between their flags.
The east-facing coast of the Peninsula (i.e. facing Westernport Bay) is also dotted with holiday towns, most of which are considerably less commercialised than their counterparts on Port Phillip Bay. The ruggedly beautiful coastal bushlands around Somers are now dotted with some of the state’s most exciting domestic architecture; a DCM-designed bunker-style beach house has now become a status symbol to rival owning property in Portsea. Somers also features a gay-patronised nude beach.
For those wanting to take some of the great local produce home or put together an alfresco picnic, this area is also well serviced by gourmet food stores such as the Flinders General Store (48 Cook St, Flinders, phone 03 5989 0207) which includes a liquor store, a deli featuring locally cured meats and cheeses, Flinders Bakery bread and free-range roast chickens cooked on the premises.
The Peninsula’s best known produce is its wines. Dozens of wineries throughout the Peninsula offer tastings, cellar door sales and, in some cases, excellent on-site restaurants. Many varieties are grown here but the cool climate region is best known for its pinots -“ noir, grigio and gris -“ and chardonnays. If you don’t feel like playing vinicultural hit and miss, book a winery tour with Cheryl Wallace, the ma?e d’ at T’Gallant Winery’s rustic La Baracca restaurant (who tends to sniff out a friend of Dorothy in the time it takes to get your first drinks sorted). For around $110, Cheryl and her husband Ian take groups of three to 11, in minibus or people-mover, on tailor-made tours (including a winery lunch) but are perfectly happy to stay put at the first or second stop if you’ve become too comfortable (or legless) to move (Wallace’s Winery Tours: phone 03 9347 3039).
The Peninsula is also a horticulturist’s wet dream, dotted with specialist nurseries and open gardens. Two spots worth a visit are Heronswood (105 LaTrobe Parade, Dromana [see Melways map 159 C9]), a handsome old stone homestead surrounded by superbly planted cottage gardens and, for the topiary mad, Ashcombe Maze (Melways 256 E4).
To get the most from a day trip or weekend on the Peninsula, I recommend visiting the Victorian Tourist Bureau at the Melbourne Town Hall which keeps a number of the available guides to the region. The Age Good Food Guide has a chapter devoted to eateries on the Mornington Peninsula and is well worth the buying price.