Anyone planning to travel Victoria’s south coast, from the Great Ocean Road to Bass Coast and beyond, will appreciate the SeaRoad Ferries' Sorrento-Queenscliff service. This hassle-free addition to any travel plans eliminates the need for a long, invariably slow slog through Melbourne, a city with an urban sprawl of around 100km east to west.
Rather than crowded, tolled Melbourne freeways, from Bass Coast we follow pleasant country roads and the Mornington Peninsula Freeway to the historic town of Sorrento, originally settled in 1803, to board the ferry to Queenscliff and the beautiful Bellarine Peninsula.
The ferry has been designed for vehicles of all types, and has easy drive on-and-off access for caravans, with no turning or backing required.
On the relaxing 40-minute journey across Port Phillip Bay, the ferry passes a parade of seaside mansions at Portsea, often referred to as 'millionaire’s row', and the 50 buildings of the Point Nepean Quarantine Station, established in 1852.
We see some seals and dolphins splashing in the sapphire waters: companies offering seal and dolphin swims operate from both Sorrento and Queenscliff.
Food fit for a queen
The township of Queenscliff is the grand dame of the Bellarine Peninsula, which covers around 370sqkm. This attractive seaside spot features some fine architecture including Fort Queenscliff, built from 1860 to protect Port Phillip Bay, and several majestic old hotels, as well as an eclectic array of shops and dining establishments. It is a good starting point for any visit to the region.
There are few places where doing very little except wining and dining are as appealing as the Bellarine Peninsula, home to 19 wineries, several craft breweries, provedores, farm gates and a multitude of dining opportunities.
The ferry pulls into Queenscliff Harbour, where a string of more contemporary retail stores face boat-filled waters. Restaurant 360Q, right on the harbour, serves internationally-inspired cuisine and its menu includes local scallops, mussels and fish; the fare at Charlie Noble Cafe includes a signature dish of local mussels and clams in a coconut curry sauce, and Queenscliff Harbour Fish and Chips is popular for miles around, as is Scully’s Oyster Bar.
In town, the Queenscliff Brewhouse, housed in a handsome old pub dating from 1879, is ideal for a cooling ale, with more than 400 craft beers to choose from, as well as local craft gin, whisky and cider, and regional wines. On-site are the Brewhouse’s tasting room and bistro, with menus featuring the finest local and seasonal produce.
A nice little sea change
Autumn is a great time to visit the Bellarine, when a sleepy pace of life re-emerges following busy summer months, and is ideal for tranquil beach walks, cycling along quiet hinterland roads or the 27km-long Bellarine Peninsula Rail Trail. Take a drive along country roads, pausing to savour regional bounty along the way.
Add to that, pristine bay and surf beaches — the peninsula’s collection of towns front the sandy beaches of Port Phillip Bay and the wild ocean waters of Bass Strait — and an array of camping options from the upmarket, much-awarded Beacon Resort near Point Lonsdale, to council-run sites right on the water.
The Peninsula’s fertile soils and maritime climate have spawned a major wine industry, with boutique vineyards producing quality cool climate wines, from pinot noir and chardonnay to shiraz and zinfandel.
Growing numbers of vineyards also offer the full cellar door and restaurant experience, including Jack Rabbit, Baie Wines, Bellarine Estate, Basil’s Farm, Oakdene Vineyards, Terindah Estate and Scotchman’s Hill.
Rich volcanic soils and pristine surrounding waters means the Bellarine also offers an array of produce fresh from land and sea, and the Bellarine Taste Trail, featuring more than 50 food and wine destinations, is the best way to find them.
With a Taste Trail map in hand, we drive from Queenscliff 16km west to Barwon Heads, a popular seaside town made famous in the ABC TV series SeaChange.
Situated between the mouth of the Barwon River and the surf of Thirteenth Beach, picturesque Barwon Heads is a peaceful place off-season. Local gourmet fare ideal for a picnic can be found at Annie’s Provedore and Produce Store; the iconic At The Heads restaurant at Barwon Heads Jetty features local seafood, and Barwon Heads Winestore has a good collection of local vintages.
Nearby Ocean Grove also features a tasty selection of Taste Trail champions including Rolling Pins Pies and Cakes (also at Queenscliff and Leopold), whose more than 250 awards to date include Australia’s Best Gourmet Pie Maker 2016, and Driftwood Cafe, popular for its eclectic menu featuring fresh local free-range and organic produce, and house-made pasta.
From here we drive 12km east to Point Lonsdale, a charming seaside town that is generally not too crowded off-season.
The town’s single thoroughfare of shops has several nice cafes including Noble Rot, a wine retailer with a casual dining menu focused on coastal produce, a supermarket with local goodies, and a fish and chippery. Its coastal village atmosphere takes me back to my childhood.
Point Lonsdale’s extraordinary geography of rock pools and dive sites, protected beach at the foreshore reserve where kids can paddle and swim, and sweeping ocean beach, makes this small town at the mouth of Port Phillip Bay a pleasant place for a seaside sojourn any time of the year.
Whet your appetite
At low tide the sea water in the rock pools near Point Lonsdale Lighthouse are so transparent it’s like looking into a bathtub. Picking your way across rocks you see colourful marine fauna swaying at the bottom of exposed pools and, to the delight of young explorers, sometimes little seahorses and sea-stars.
Port Phillip Heads Marine National Park encompasses the waters off Point Lonsdale, and divers and snorkellers take to the waters here to view rock faces splashed with clusters of bright jewel anemones, yellow zoanthids and sponges, and see iridescent blue devil fish resting under rock edges.
Point Lonsdale’s lighthouse keeps vigil over the entrance to Port Phillip Bay, known as the Rip, a treacherous 3km stretch of water between Point Lonsdale and Point Nepean.
The nearby jetty is a popular spot to try your luck fishing for snapper, whiting and Australian salmon, and there’s always a chance you’ll see seals frolicking around the old pylons.
Later we ramble around the rocks to Buckley’s Cave, situated beneath the lighthouse, and said to have once been home to William Buckley, a convict who escaped from Victoria’s first settlement, established at Sorrento in 1803. Buckley lived with local Wathaurong Aboriginals for some 30 years before meeting fellow Britons at John Batman’s camp at nearby Indented Heads in 1835. From here we set off for a walk along the sweeping sands of Point Lonsdale’s Back Beach, bewitched by squawking sea birds, a brisk ocean breeze and wave-pounded shores.
A fresh food safari
From Point Lonsdale it’s 22km north across a landscape dotted with vineyards, olive groves and pasturelands to another seaside gem, Portarlington, situated in the north-eastern corner of the peninsula.
Delicious culinary detours along the way include the Lonsdale Tomato Farm, Tuckerberry Hill Berry Farm, Flying Brick Cider House, the farm-gate shop at Drysdale Goats Cheese, Bellarine Smoked Fish Co., Lighthouse Olive Oil, Manzanillo Olive Grove, and Bellarine Distillery’s rustic cellar door, The Whiskery.
Seafood is never in short supply on the Bellarine, thanks to the fishing fleets that operate from some of the villages dotted around the coastline, and Portarlington and surrounds is home to some of the finest.
Each year in January the region celebrates its love affair with seafood at the Portarlington Mussel Festival. Visitors don’t need to wait until January though, with fresh mussels available year-round.
Sea Bounty Mussels at Portarlington has been supplying succulent mussels for more than 30 years from the pristine waters of Port Phillip Bay, and Portarlington is also home to Advance Mussels, who supply mussels (and native Port Philip Bay — Angasi — oysters) direct from the farm gate.
Jenkins and Son in Portarlington sell fresh seafood — from scallops and oysters to flathead and flounder — direct from local fishermen, as does White Fisheries in Drysdale, where gleaming displays feature all manner of seafood delights from crayfish to just-caught bay trout.
Local mussels cooked in white wine and garlic ($25) are among the signature dishes on the menu at Portarlington’s Grand Hotel, an imposing Victorian building that dominates Portarlington’s main street.
This gracious three-storey building, which dates from 1888, is one of the town’s iconic landmarks, as is the Portarlington Pier and Harbour, home to the town’s fishing fleet.
The pier is popular with land-based anglers, who hook the likes of flathead, trevally, salmon and squid. A local tells me that off-peak periods are not only quieter, but more productive on the fishing front.
If you don’t catch anything at the pier, a quaint mussel van at Portarlington jetty, where you can see the skyscrapers of Melbourne’s city skyline across the bay, sells the local molluscs for $6 a kilogram.
If you’re staying on the Bellarine and feel like a day in the big smoke, Port Phillip Ferries operate daily passenger services from Portarlington to Docklands in Melbourne, where you can sit back and relax on the 80-minute journey, enjoying the sights of Port Phillip Bay along the way ($32 return per adult, concession $28).
From Portarlington it’s a 20km drive back Queenscliff, where we pull into the town’s historic railway station. The Bellarine Railway originally opened in 1879 to service Fort Queenscliff.
Passenger trains ceased operation here in 1976, but these days the old railway is kept alive with the volunteer-operated Bellarine Railway, which operates a collection of vintage steam locomotives and carriages on the old railway line to Drysdale, 16km away.
The Blues Train, a steam train hosting a progressive party where passengers dine, drink and dance as they travel between Queenscliff and Drysdale, has been a legendary Bellarine attraction since 1994. The newest addition to the Bellarine Railway is the Q Train, which celebrates the region’s fine food and wine in a journey that is a gastronomic highlight of any visit to the Bellarine. After boarding the refurbished Sunlander carriages of this travelling restaurant, we settle back and watch picturesque landscapes roll by on the relaxing journey to Drysdale (and back) while dining on a six-course degustation feast that includes Port Phillip Bay snapper ceviche, Lonsdale tomato and Drysdale Goat Cheese starter, and Great Ocean Ducks free range duck salad, accompanied by the Bellarine’s exceptional wines.
SeaRoad Ferries, which operates the Sorrento-Queenscliff Ferry, has a half-price caravan special from Monday to Thursday on 7 am and 8 am departures, see www.searoad.com.au.
BIG4 Beacon Resort
One of Australia’s most awarded resorts, BIG4 Beacon Resort has powered sites from $55 per night. Set among manicured native gardens opposite the beach, this upmarket, very family-friendly resort has extensive facilities open all year-round.
- Onsite is a heated indoor pool, day spa, kids club, indoor playground, and other facilities kids love including a jumping pillow.
- Barbecue facilities, camp kitchen, spotless amenities.
Valet service to help guide guests to caravan site. More info: www.beaconresort.com.au.
Queenscliffe Tourist Park
If sea breezes are your thing, Queenscliff Recreation Reserve, part of Queenscliffe Tourist Parks, is from $37 per double per night for a powered site.
Brilliantly located with beach frontage, great views across Port Philip Bay to Point Lonsdale.
Easy stroll into town and historic Fort Queenscliff.
- Kids playground and camp kitchen.
- Queenscliff Bowling Club next door serves hearty, reasonably-priced meals.
More info: www.queenscliffe.vic.gov.au/touristparks.
Barwon Heads Caravan Park
Barwon Heads Caravan Park is situated on the banks of the Barwon River, where the river meets the sea. Powered sites from $38 per night.
- Right on the water – every site is within easy walking distance to the water’s edge.
- Facilities include camp kitchen, seven amenities blocks, playgrounds, tennis courts and a football oval.
- Stroll into town, fish from the nearby jetty, ramble in rock pools, and swim in the river estuary.
More info: www.barwonheadscaravanpark.com.au.
Point Lonsdale Royal Park Caravan Park
Point Lonsdale’s Royal Park Caravan Park is operated by Queenscliffe Tourist Parks. Powered sites from $44 per night.
- Great location close to the beach and shopping strip.
- This seasonal park is open from the last weekend in November to April 30.
- Facilities include electric barbecues, two shower blocks, laundry, easy beach access.
More info: www.queenscliffe.vic.gov.au.
Portarlington Holiday Park
Portarlington Holiday Park, with more than 400 sites, is open year-round. Powered sites from $33 per night.
- Choose from beachfront, non-beachfront or ensuite sites at this extensive foreshore park.
- Practically on the beach, the park stretches along the shores of a safe swimming beach.
- Features several playgrounds, camp kitchens, electric barbecue areas, family and disabled-access bathrooms, recreation room.
More about this and more beachfront parks at nearby Indented Head and St Leonards: www.bellarinebayside.com.au.
For more information on visiting the Bellarine Peninsula, and the Bellarine Taste Trail, visit www.visitgeelongbellarine.com.au.