About an hour’s drive from Melbourne and wedged like the boot of Italy between Port Phillip and Westernport Bays, the Mornington Peninsula can make you wonder, at times, whether you are in Australia. Great swathes of blue water peak out between horse studs, alleys of pines and vistas of vines making it feel like a playground more Mediterranean than Melbourne. But then those rolling green hills dotted with sandy bunkers could easily be in Scotland. Yet one glance at koalas lazing in aromatic gum trees and sun-drenched beaches with brightly colored bathing boxes and you realize you are in in the middle of one of Australia’s most appealing holiday destinations. Up until now, it has been a well-kept secret amongst Melbourne’s savvy insiders, but the Mornington Peninsula has so many world-class wineries, restaurants, beaches and gardens that it’s time the rest of the world discovered what it has to offer. For most of the past century the action centered on the beach towns, their bay beaches lapped with aquamarine waters, wild surf lashing sandstone cliffs, and Hamptons-like mansions gracing the exclusive enclaves of Sorrento and Portsea. The sleepy inland, with its rich red soil, was Melbourne’s food basket. Delicious but not very sexy. But over the past 20 years the back lots have reinvented themselves. Vineyards and olive groves now carpet the hillsides, gardens grace cool glens, antique dealers inhabit the old cool rooms, and a gaggle of gorgeous golf courses caress the landscape.
“The Mornington Peninsula is so close to Melbourne and yet feels far away,” says Charles Davidson, owner of Peninsula Hot Springs. “The sheer number of things one can do and the continual discovery, even for a local, is amazing. I love walks along Rye Back Beach, Bushrangers Bay or to see the kangaroos in Greens Bush, dining at amazing wineries and restaurants, swimming, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding and sailing on the bay. At the heart of the region is a collection of passionate locals who work together to share what the region has to offer.” He adds, “There is a reason the Mornington Peninsula has been the No.1 destination of choice for people living in Melbourne for over 150 years. For a first time visitor I would say look beyond the main streets, take your time, relax and slow down.” We decide to do just that and spend a delightful few days meandering along country roads in bright spring sunshine.
Wine and gourmet food
“After living here for 38 years I still have to use a street directory because there are just so many winding lanes that invite exploration,” laughs Nat White owner of Main Ridge Estate, the Peninsula’s first commercial winery, its vines and cottage gardens tucked down a dirt road.
“This region is very pretty and, if you don’t mind getting lost, it is full of surprises.” We plan our visit for the first Saturday of the month to enjoy the colors, tastes, aromas and sounds of the Red Hill Community Market, which since 1975 has been a trailblazer for the make it, bake it, grow it, breed it philosophy. Stalls brim with fresh local produce and flowers, cheeses and cupcakes, jewellery, woodwork, handmade clothes, olive oils and jams. Each lunch time we visit a different winery for tastings and lunch. The Mornington Peninsula is one of Australia’s key cool-climate wine regions renowned for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Grigio. My favorite places include Main Ridge Estate, Paradigm Hill, Foxey’s Hangout, Ocean’s Eight, Willow Creek, Montalto, and the architectural landmark of Port Phillip Estate. Wine is not the only local produce on offer. If you are more into hops check out the Red Hill Brewery and cheese lovers must try the cows, sheep and goats milk cheeses at Red Hill Cheese, while Mornington Peninsula Chocolates offers delicacies for the sweet tooth. There are strawberries to pick at Sunnyridge, cherries at Ripe N Ready Cherry Farm, and olives to sample at Green Olive at Red Hill, while Tyabb Antiques has a massive range of antiques and collectables.
The Mornington Peninsula’s famous Cups regions, which looks like a bunch of upturned tea cups, is a fantastic golfing locale. “We have a perfect undulating sandy landscape which makes it easy to design links-style courses. There are plenty of natural rye grasses, the views along the coast are stunning and the micro climate is ideal,” says David Good, pro at The dunes Golf Links. What’s more you have a choice of 18 affordable, world-class courses within close proximity of each other.” Early each morning we explore a different golf course. Our adventures include the 27-hole Dunes Golf Links (widely acknowledged as one of Australia’s best public courses), the Robert Trent Jones-designed RACV Cape Schanck Resort course, the Tom Doak-designed St Andrews Beach Golf Course, and the superb Portsea Golf Club.
To keep the kids amused there are mazes galore: Ashcombe Maze and Lavender Gardens, the Boneo Maze and Wetlands and the Enchanted Maze Garden with Australia’s first tube slides. Green thumbs must also visit Heronswood, a remarkable edible garden of vegetables, flowers and fruit that showcases heirloom plants.
For an artsy outdoor experience, the McClelland Sculpture Gallery and Park is Australia’s largest sculpture park. “We offer a genuine adventure,” says director Robert Lindsay, “because you can wander around the sculptures develop new perspectives. Most of all we want you to have fun…kick the football around and perhaps find something amusing, startling or intriguing in the process.”
For adventures of an animal nature, the Moonlit Sanctuary has a Wallaby Walk where 80 wallabies and kangaroos live in a natural bush environment but are tame enough to hand feed. You can also see some of Australia’s less well-known marsupials here, such as the rare Eastern quoll, red-bellied pademelon and Southern bettong.
Mornington Peninsula’s villages are brimming with distinctive character, too. We drive through rolling farmland with vistas over Westernport Bay to the pretty village of Flinders.
Clothing designer Kathy Subic who makes her cashmere, Milky Merino and hemp clothing right on site at Zeega says Flinders offers charm without the crowds. “These days, there is a real buzz with cafes, shops and the refurbished Flinders Hotel. But we’ll always have the wide grassy median strip, lots of rosellas and magpies flying around and the big fat koala living in the gum tree outside my shop.” Historic sandstone buildings dot the upmarket beach town of Sorrento, some dating back to when it was Victoria’s earliest settlement.
We peek into the lifestyles of the rich and famous on the Millionaire’s Walk between Sorrento and Portsea as it weaves in front of mansions offering sensational views of tucked-away bay beaches with picturesque jetties and boat houses. There are, in fact, many walking trails on the Mornington Peninsula including the Two Bays Walking Track that links Port Phillip with Westernport Bay.
We enjoy the Peninsula Hot Springs to soak in steaming thermal pools tucked into a natural bush setting dotted with casuarina and coastal banksia trees. There are Japanese-inspired pools, reflexology walks and Turkish steam baths, plus enticing spa treatments.
And always at the end of each day, there is a delectable meal to enjoy. At the Long Table, chef Andrew Doughton transforms local heirloom produce into dishes that brim with flavour and finesse. “There is such a terrific synergy between local producers and restaurants, the landscape is so important to the dining experience here,” he says. Frenchman Philippe Marquet, owner of La Petanque restaurant, goes one step further. “The quality of Mornington Peninsula’s food and wine, its proximity to Melbourne and its balmy weather make it much more of a buzzy year-round destination than my home in Provence.” It all adds up to a destination that oozes the good life.
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