Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula combines the best of European coastal living with traditional Aussie charm. It is one of those magical places that offers so much due to its unique geography: family beach fun, rugged vistas by the ocean, wine, food and romance in the rolling hills of its interior.
I’ve been going to the Mornington Peninsula ever since I was a child. At only an hour-and-a-half from Melbourne, it has long been connected with that city's weekenders, day-trippers and summer holiday spenders. Like Melbourne, the weather here is changeable, too. One day the air could be shimmering hot over the roads with orange sunsets and fishermen trying their luck in the quiet shallows for flounder; the next a southerly gale could be blowing rain clouds in to drench the squid jiggers on Portsea Pier, driving the kids inside to play boardgames like Monopoly or Holiday (now it’s Netflix and xbox, of course).
So, when Emma and I were asked to cover the Peninsula for an issue of Go Places magazine in late 2016 I thought I I was already the expert. But after a few days of research, travelling the area’s back roads and lanes in a supplied Rav4, we discovered there’s lots of things we didn’t know. New restaurants and bars are opening all the time. One of the newest is Jackolope a brand new luxury hotel that scooped the Gourmet Traveller Hotel Awards, winning Hotel of the Year, New Hotel of the Year and Regional Hotel of the Year in 2017. It looks amazing. So, please, if you know of any more places that have opened up in recent months (we love wine, food and clever ideas) let us know by emailing us.
In the meantime, we hope you enjoy this story, as it appeared in Go Places With Toyota, the summer edition of 2016/17, “Sea shores and cellar doors."
The Divinyls lyrics “it’s a fine line between pleasure and pain” come rushing back as I stumble, fluffy white bathrobe gripped gingerly about me, through a low, warm pool set with 10 types of river stones. It’s about 10am and I’m relaxing through gritted teeth at the award-winning Peninsula Hot Springs, just a 1.5-hour easy drive from Melbourne, on Victoria’s picturesque Mornington Peninsula. My soft city constitution is no match for this kind of tough-love rock therapy, which works by stimulating reflexology points on the soles of your feet as you walk its course. So I slink off to a less-demanding natural hot spring and slide into 42-degree water. It’s heaven. Discovered by brothers Charles and Richard Davidson in 1997 (and now a must-experience destination for locals and tourists), the Springs is the first stop on a two-day road trip through Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula: a 723-square-kilometre finger of land surrounded on three sides by Port Phillip Bay, Bass Strait and Western Port Bay.
The Peninsula is one of those magical places that offers so much due to its unique geography: family beach fun, water sports and fishing on its bays; surfing, long walks and rugged vistas by the ocean; and wine, food and romance in the rolling hills of its interior. Earlier in the day we drove the 20-kilometre coastline from Mornington and Mount Martha to Dromana, taking in beaches dotted with colourful bathing boxes and tea-trees.
From there we began ascending the peninsula’s highest point, Arthurs Seat (314 metres). From December, less-energetic types can opt to ride the new Arthur’s Seat Eagle gondola to the top. A need for coffee had us stopping at Heronswood Restaurant, a gorgeous hillside eatery and garden shop highly regarded by foodies for its championing of heirloom vegetable seeds. From here we continued inland past the Enchanted Adventure Garden, popular with kids for its ‘tree-surfing’ zip-line fun. Soon bushland gave way to farmland as we made our way down Browns Road to our relaxing rendezvous back at Peninsula Hot Springs. But the journey beckons, so we bid the warm waters farewell and jump back into our car, and head to Rye, a bayside magnet for campers and summer holidaymakers. Traffic can be an issue along Point Nepean Road in peak holiday season but travelling at a crawl at least gives you a chance to drink in views of the bay, visible through the branches of majestic moonah and coastal trees.
Heading west on the peninsula, past Blairgowrie, the villages of Sorrento and Portsea have a reputation for being playgrounds of the well-heeled, and certainly, the cliffs and byroads around here are dotted with expensive homes. In Sorrento we break for lunch at an excellent cafe, Cakes and Ale, before pressing on. There is no time to take in Point Nepean National Park (end of Point Nepean Road, Portsea;) this trip but the area’s military history is fascinating and littered with underground bunkers and fortifications used to defend the bay from invaders, dating right back to the late 1800s. Instead, we catch low tide at London Bridge (London Bridge Road, Portsea), a gorgeous spot for long walks and mucking about in rock pools, not far away from Cheviot Beach, the notorious spot where Prime Minister Harold Holt disappeared, presumed drowned, on December 17, 1967. From here we drive 30 kilometres back through tea-tree scrub and golf country down to the peninsula’s southern-most point, Cape Schanck. With its picturesque red-capped lighthouse and rugged volcanic cliffs, this is a top spot to connect with Mother Nature, who is almost always demonstrating her power with high winds.
From here we begin one of my favourite drives, travelling east along Boneo Road towards Flinders, 16 kilometres south-east. We cruise through rolling, green farmland dotted with grazing sheep and cattle, framed by the combined blue of a vast sky and a sweeping ocean. Eventually we check into the revamped Flinders Hotel. For dinner we choose Cook & Norman Trattoria and are impressed by the elegant but relaxed Italian fare (including an excellent gnocchi with braised lamb) and attentive service. Back at our hotel the mini bar is filled with fantastic local wines, beers and spirits — we hatch a plan to visit at least one of these producers the next day. It’s easy to get lost in the hills and dales around Main Ridge and Red Hill in the heart of the Mornington. Boasting about 50 cellar doors, the intertwining roads are surrounded by a wonderful mix of vines, bushland and pine trees. Our first mini-bar-inspired stop is Bass & Flinders Distillery, where Wayne Klintworth and his daughter Holly make artisan gins, vodka, grappa, limoncello and an aged brandy:
“It’s taken us five years to produce this product,” says Wayne of Ochre, a double-distilled, aged brandy made from local chardonnay grapes. “It’s a passion.”
But on we forge, dropping into Foxeys Hangout for a cellar door tasting and a lovely bottle of 2015 Pinot Noir. The winery’s co-owner, Michael Lee, says Mornington Peninsula wines are defined by the local weather. “We’re surrounded by water so we have quite a mild, cool, maritime climate: ideal conditions for slow-ripening of cool climate varieties, like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.”
But now lunch beckons, so we hop back in our car and make for Polperro Winery (150 Red Hill Road, Red Hill; (03) 5989 2471; polperrowines.com.au). It’s an excellent decision. The food – beautifully presented dishes such as goats curd and seasonal vegetable salads and delicious bouillabaisse made with local snapper, john dory and mussels – is a real standout. After the meal we sip on an excellent Chardonnay and gaze out over the vines. Mornington Peninsula has delivered on a wonderful, romantic road trip weekend. And right now we’re content, right down to the soles of our feet.
LIVING THE DREAM
Looking for a better work-life balance, chef Michael Cole moved from Melbourne to the Mornington Peninsula in early 2015. He now heads up Georgie Bass Cafe & Cookery, a cafe and cookery school offering two-hour classes for $125. Cole lives with his fiancee and their puppy Pepper in nearby Cape Schanck. “In my first week I recall driving to work and just seeing all the wild food growing everywhere — there were asparagus and mushrooms — and I fell in love with that. At the back of Cape Schanck there are all these farms growing strawberries, apples and potatoes and all different types of vegetables, but you go a little bit left or right of that and you’re at the coast and you’re talking about fishing. “I’ve seen whales and dolphins at the end of my road and I go spearfishing on my day off and see abalones, sea urchins and massive stingrays. Then you’ve got all the grapes as well, the pinot noir and the chardonnay grapes, which are all winning awards for their wines. The balance this area has is just phenomenal.”
While the Mornington Peninsula’s rolling hills make perfect plots for planting chardonnay and pinot noir, they also provide some of the best horseriding trails in the state. Alisha Griffiths and her family have combined the two at Horseback, an equine activity hub that offers two- or three-hour horseback tours of wineries and restaurants including T’Gallant, Max’s, Ten Minutes By Tractor, Green Olive at Red Hill and Horseback’s very own vineyard, Prince Hollow Estate. And best of all, no previous riding experience is necessary. “Horseriding gives you an up close and personal experience of the Mornington Peninsula,” says Griffiths. “You’re actually walking past people’s beautiful properties, you’re walking past the most beautiful restaurants — and how cool, to jump off a horse, tie it up at the front of Green Olive or T’Gallant at our purpose-built mounting yards, walk in, have a beautiful wine tasting, maybe buy some to take away, and have everything waiting when you get back.”
HUNGRY FOR MORE?
- Green Olive at Red Hill (1180 Mornington-Flinders Road, Main Ridge (03) 5989 2992). Great for families with an in-built trampoline and charcuterie classes.
- Montalto (33 Shoreham Road, Red Hill Sth; (03) 5989 8412). Look out for their “Books and Ideas” partnership with the Wheeler Centre.
- Boneo Maze & Mini Golf (695 Limestone Road, Fingal; (03) 5988 6385). Who doesn’t love mazes and mini golf?
- DOC Mornington (22 Main Street, Mornington; (03) 5977 0988). Great Italian food and provisions.
- The Royal Hotel Mornington (770 Esplanade, Mornington; (03) 5975 8555). Very popular with the locals.
- Lilo Café (1/725 Esplanade, Mornington; (03) 5975 0165). Cute green-themed interior, right on the water.
- The Rocks Mornington (1 Scnapper point Road, Mornington; (03) 5973 5599). Brunch with a view? Check.
- Independent Wine Store Rye (2117 Point Nepean Road Rye; (03) 5985 4346). Affordable, local and independent.
- Dee’s Kitchen (19 Pier Street, Dromana; (03) 5981 4666). Locals head here for dinner.
- Felix (167 Point Nepean Road, Dromana; (03) 5981 4624). Retro shopping and café life.
Did you know #1 ? Sullivan Bay near Sorrento was the first British settlement in Port Phillip (1803), predating Melbourne by more than 30 years. It was abandoned due to lack of fresh water.
Did you know #2 ? A gun at Fort Nepean on the tip of the Mornington Peninsula fired the first Allied shot of World War I. It served as a warning to a German trading ship trying to flee Port Phillip Bay.