Sea shores and cellar doors

Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula combines the best of European coastal living with traditional Aussie charm.

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 (Springs Lane, Fingal; (03) 5950 8777; peninsulahotsprings.com), 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 (aseagle.com.au) to the top. A need for coffee had us stopping at Heronswood Restaurant (105 Latrobe Parade, Dromana; (03) 5984 7318), 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 (55 Purves Road, Arthurs Seat; (03) 59818449; enchantedmaze.com.au), 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 RAV4, 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.

Did You Know?
Sullivan Bay near Sorrento was the first British settlement in Port Phillip (1803), predating Melbourne by more than 30 years.

In Sorrento we break for lunch at an excellent cafe, Cakes and Ale (102 Ocean Beach Road, Sorrento; (03) 5984 4995; cakes-and- ale.com.au), before pressing on.

There is no time to take in Point Nepean National Park (end of Point Nepean Road, Portsea; (03) 5984 6014) 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 (420 Cape Schanck Road, Cape Schanck; capeschancklightstation.com.au) 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 (corner Cook and Wood Streets, Flinders; (03) 5989 0201 flindershotel.com.au). For dinner we choose Cook & Norman Trattoria (Shop 1, 52 Cook Street, Flinders; (03) 5989 0119; cookandnorman.com.au) and are impressed by the elegant but relaxed Italian fare (including an excellent gnocchi with braised lamb) and attentive service.

Did You Know?

A gun at Fort Nepean on the tip of the Mornington Peninsula fired the first Allied shot of World War One on August 5, 1914.

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 (30 Cook Street, Flinders; (03) 5989 0201; georgiebass.com.au), 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.”

Thirsty for more?

Green Olive at Red Hill 

Great for families, with a trampoline and pasta-making classes. 1180 Mornington-Flinders Road, Main Ridge; (03) 5989 2992; greenolive.com.au.

Montalto

Look out for Montalto’s ‘Books and Ideas’ partnership with The Wheeler Centre. 33 Shoreham Road, Red Hill South; (03) 5989 8412; montalto.com.au.

Independent Wine Store Rye

Affordable, local and independent. 2117 Point Nepean Road Rye; (03) 5985 4346; winestorerye.com.au.

The Royal Hotel

Very popular with the locals. 770 Esplanade, Mornington; (03) 5975 8555; theroyal.com.au.


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 (232 Red Hill Road, Red Hill; 0419 548 430;  bassandflindersdistillery.com), 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.”

We forge on, dropping into Foxeys Hangout (795 White Hill Road, Red Hill; (03) 5989 2022; foxeys-hangout.com.au) 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 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 into 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 is beautifully presented, with dishes such as goat’s curd and seasonal vegetable salads. The bouillabaisse made with local snapper, 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 relaxing and rejuvenating road trip — right down to the soles of our feet.

Hungry for more?

Lilo Café 

Cute green-themed interior, right on the water. 

1/725 Esplanade, Mornington; (03) 5975 0165; lilocafe.com.au.

The Rocks Mornington

Brunch with a view? Check. 1 Schnapper Point Road, Mornington; 

(03) 5973 5599; therocksmornington.com.au.

Dee’s Kitchen 

Locals head here for dinner. 19 Pier Street, Dromana; 

(03) 5981 4666; deeskitchen.com.au.

Felix 

Retro shopping and cafe life. 167 Point Nepean Road, Dromana; 

(03) 5981 4624; felix.net.au.

DOC Mornington 

Great Italian food and provisions. 22 Main Street, Mornington; 

(03) 5977 0988; docgroup.net.


"The peninsula has all my favourite spots to wind down. I would recommend taking drives to the low-key surf beaches at Flinders and to Port Phillip Estate on Red Hill, known for its great service and sustainable wines."

Anthony Smith

Mornington Toyota