Beautiful Bellarine

A huge thanks to journalist Margaret Barca from UK-based Australia & New Zealand magazine which has published an incredible travel feature story on the Bellarine Peninsula and rated 360Q as the place to go for an indulgent meal! We love all the attention our amazing neighbours got as well, including Queenscliff Harbour, Big4 Bellarine Holiday Park, Maritime Museum, Seaview Gallery, Athelstane House, Basil’s Farm and Jack Rabbit Winery. Read the full story here!

 

Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula moves to its own gentle rhythm, with its blend of family beaches, country-fresh air, friendly cafés and cellar doors and marine adventures.

WORDS: Margaret Barca

 

Clambering into a jaunty, two-toned cream and maroon seven-seater plane for a bird’s-eye view of the Bellarine Peninsula fills me with a little trepidation. Seven seats? Is that even big enough to be called a plane?

There’s no time to think, however, because within a minute we are swooping over the sundrenched, surf-washed coast of Thirteenth Beach, past the toy-like Point Lonsdale Lighthouse and over The Heads, the entrance to Port Phillip Bay.

The Heads, or ‘The Rip’ as it’s often known, is a famously treacherous stretch of water across the narrow entrance to the Bay, which goes some way to explaining the three lighthouses on this part of the coast, including Queenscliff’s rare ‘black’ lighthouse (actually it’s bluestone).

As we come in closer to Queenscliff we can see its broad streets and the turrets and towers of its grand 19th century seaside hotels. Anatole, our pilot, points out the car ferry that links the Mornington Peninsula and the Bellarine, and if you look closely, you can see the dolphins swimming in the ship’s wake. We cruise over Queenscliff’s marina with its sleek white yachts and across Swan Bay.

Flying over, one of the surprises is the amount of low-lying water. “Ramsar wetlands,” says Anatole, our pilot. “We get lots of shorebirds and migratory birds – ibis, pelicans, terns. We even get the orange-bellied parrot, one of the world’s most endangered species. It flies from Tasmania to feed on one particular plant.”

From the air the peninsula is a tapestry of, rolling green fields, golden-hued and ploughed paddocks, olive groves and vineyards bordered by dark green pines and she oaks, with neatly gridded townships, meandering Barwon River, all fringed by coast.

We’re soon back on terra firma at Barwon Heads Airport, where we have a chat to Jeff Brooks, the owner of Great Ocean Air, and a keen pilot himself. As we watch some people floating down beneath bright parachutes, he tells us that skydives are a big hit with younger visitors. I don’t think I’ll be dropping out of a plane anytime soon or – heaven forbid – doing loop-the-loop. Flying over the Peninsula, however, is definitely a wonderful way to get the lie of the land before exploring.

BARWON HEADS

Barwon Heads is well known for its family friendly beach and calm waters, which make it just right for a little stand-up paddle boarding or SUP. It’s spring and still a bit cool but sure enough there are enthusiasts out enjoying the latest water craze.

A top place to watch people on (and off!) their paddleboards and also take in the bay views is at At The Heads, a breezy Hamptons-style, café-cum-restaurant on a timber jetty, jutting out over the sand.

Barwon Heads may be small but it’s right on trend with its shops and cafes. Kiitos is a cool conversion (old service station to hip boutique), stocked with summery linens, fashionable Marimekko gear and fun gifts. Around the corner in Hitchcock Street, Annie’s is chock-a-block with Italian cheeses, pasta, biscotti, as well as salads, fresh cakes and house-made chutneys and jams. You can have a coffee inside or out and it’s perfect if you are putting together a picnic.

After Barwon Heads, we take a short detour past Ocean Grove, perhaps the busiest place on The Bellarine, en route to Queenscliff.

QUEEN OF THE BELLARINE

Queenscliff has magically retained an old world charm. In the 1800s, sailboats and steamships brought holidaymakers from Melbourne to this township, which was known for its health-giving ‘ozone’. Neat-as-a-pin cottages and impressive seaside guesthouses and hotels sprang up and you can still see some of them today. In fact, you can still stay in some of them. In Hesse Street there’s the stately 1880s Vue Grand. Originally three-storeys, the hotel was ravaged by fire in 1927 and now sports a 1930s second storey. Photos of the building in the late 1800s and early 1900s show elegantly attired crowds, bands and carriages. Step inside to see the original tessellated tiling floors and ruby glass windows, and the posh Grand Dining Room. Book for the Turret if you like to wake to a fab view. Over summer, take in the town vista from the rooftop bar, with a local wine in hand.

You can easily while away some time browsing in Hesse Street. There are homewares stores such as Citrine and Abode, galleries (Seaview Gallery has contemporary glassware), antique and curio shops. Try Alchemy Woodfire Bakehouse for sensational bread and crispy croissants. Further along, stock up on holiday reading at The Bookshop.

Across from the Bakehouse, a two-storey, verandahed weatherboard house (it is privately owned) looks like something from Louisiana, with a behemoth of a Moreton Bay fig in the front garden.

Further along, at 33 Hesse Street, Salt Contemporary Art shows sculpture, paintings and ceramics. If you happen to go late in the day – as we did – you may discover the cocktail bar upstairs, Salt Lounge. It’s a quirky assemblage of leather sofas, assorted chairs, retro vinyl studded-bar and potted palms, all very comfy. The cocktails are excellent, and best of all, there’s a shady balcony to watch the sunset.

OFF TO ATHELSTANE HOUSE

We’re staying at Athelstane House, “a small hotel by the sea”. It’s been added to over the years and the narrow upstairs halls and slightly wonky stairs hint at its 1860s origins. It’s a real gem though, capturing the Bellarine’s low-key charm.

Our upstairs room is airy, light and spacious, with an open fireplace. French doors open onto the a balcony with white Adirondack seats and glossy red café table and chairs. We can even glimpse the Bay across the treetops.

After a quick glance at the front sitting room (books, magazines, board games and fresh flowers) we’re off to the hotel’s restaurant for dinner. It’s not quite warm enough to sit on the deck but it would be lovely on a summer’s evening.

We’ve already noticed a focus on regional seasonal produce and it’s the same here – locally caught seafood, Portarlington mussels, Drysdale goat’s cheese, local olive oil, Lonsdale tomatoes, fresh herbs, Peninsula wines. Berries are just coming into season and almost every table orders the house-made raspberry cassata.

THE NEXT DAY

After breakfast we walk to Queenscliff Harbour, on the way admiring the splendid Victorian-era Queenscliff Hotel, lavishly trimmed with iron lacework, on Gellibrand Street. If it’s open, definitely go in. We cross the park with its Italian umbrella pines (a long-time favourite with picnicking families) pass Harry’s (a white brick café/kiosk) and follow the boardwalk to the wharf.

This is where the ferry pulls in and there’s a marina (which we spied from the sky) fishing gear, fish and chippery, cafes – including the stylish 360Q – with both all-day café and upmarket dining. Take the stairs (or the lift – as we lazily did) up the Observation Tower for a panoramic view.

You can see the original covered pier, which is where ferries docked for more than a century, people fishing, ships coming through The Rip, seabirds swooping. There’s a ‘Taste Trail’ too (pick up a map at the Visitor Information), but we’re just taking a small bite of the Bellarine.

We turn off the road to Portarlington to visit Basil’s Farm, on the edge of Swan Bay. “Farm” doesn’t really do Basil’s justice. There are vineyards, cellar door, flower garden (with gorgeous old-fashioned Iris), casual restaurant, a picking garden flourishing with broad beans, beetroot, garlic and chard. There are even beehives. You can sit inside by the fire in winter, or outside soaking up sun in summer and another knockout view.

Manager Ben Shaw explains, “Basil’s is all about freshness and sustainability. Our wines are handcrafted allowing wild fermentation. The chefs are using some of the local indigenous foods too – saltbush and native spinach – and as much fresh from the garden as possible.”

Another casual but clever diversion is an old roadhouse that’s now PikNik, a café-restaurant with serious local cred. It may be on a back road, but the chefs have worked at top restaurants, and friendly owners, David and Denise.

The menu is about fresh, local, seasonal. As David explains, “we buy from local farmers – whatever’s best, just-picked peas, local tomatoes, locally caught lobster and crays. There’s an orchard out back. When fruit is in season we fire up the burners and make preserves and chutneys.”

Our lunch – a house-smoked chicken bagel, and Drysdale goat’s cheese tart with beetroot and sunflower seed salad, is top notch. Great coffee, too. Oh, and we do have pudding. Lemon syrup cake with double cream (we rated it 10 out of 10).

DRINKING IT IN

An easy drive, via the coast then Portarlington, another small coastal town, renowned for its mussels, leads to Jack Rabbit Winery.

On a rise, we find this winery with a chic cellar door and café (House of Jack Rabbit) and a restaurant, with the most sublime views across vineyards to the deep blue outline of the You Yangs and Melbourne’s city skyline. The sun is shining. It’s spectacular… and just the place to enjoy a Pinot Noir to end our day.

The Bellarine Peninsula lies just a fraction off the grid. Many visitors scoot past, rushing to get to the Great Ocean Road while missing one of the state’s loveliest and laidback seaside pockets. We say – turn off and enjoy.

What kind of traveller are you?

Globetrotter

STAY: Pitch a tent or take your campervan to Portarlington Holiday Park (Boat Road, Portarlington; 0061 3 5254 4000; www. bellarinebayside.com.au) for views to the You Yangs and Melbourne city skyline. A beachfront site starts from A$37 (£21).

EAT: Head to PikNik café and store for generous servings and friendly service (1195 Queenscliff Road, Swan Bay; 0061 35258 5155; www.piknik.com.au).

DO: Snorkel and swim with wild dolphins and other marine life on a tour leaving from Queenscliff Harbour (www.dolphinswims.com.au). A half-day tour (including wetsuits) starts from A$145 (£84). Or try skydiving (Barwon Heads Airport, Barwon Heads Road; www.skydive.com.au). A tandem skydive starts from A$239 (£139).

 

Family

STAY: Big 4 Bellarine Holiday Park (1801 Bellarine Highway, Marcus Hill; 0061 3 5251 5744; www.big4.com.au) is junior heaven with trampolines, indoor pool, flying fox and more. There are new cabins, caravans and campsites. A two-bedroom family unit starts from A$195 (£113) per night.

EAT: Flying Brick Cider House has cider on tap, an inventive menu of ‘share plates’ starting from A$18 (£10) and a big expanse of grass for the kids to play (1251 Bellarine Highway, Wallington; 0061 3 5250 6577; www.flyingbrickciderco.com.au).

DO: With a ferris wheel and water slides – the kids will love Adventure Park in Geelong (1249 Bellarine Highway, Wallington; 0061 3 52 507 200; www.adventurepark.com.au). A day ticket starts from A$42 (£24).

 

Indulgence

STAY: Athelstane House (4 Hobson Street; 0061 3 528 1024; www.athelstane.com.au) boasts an ideal location for exploring Queenscliff. A stay in a king room with a front balcony, including breakfast, starts from A$250 (£145).

EAT: 360Q (2 Wharf Street, Queenscliff Wharf; 0061 3 5257 4200; www.360q. com.au) is a sparkling dining venue on the water’s edge with an Asian-style menu. Upstairs, you feel as though you could be on a boat. Mains start from A$28 (£16).

DO: Book a flight for a birds-eye view of the peninsula and coast with Great Ocean Air (Barwon Heads Airport, 1405 Barwon Heads Road; 0061 418 643 401; www.greatoceanair.com.au). The seven-seater Airvan is about A$700 (£408) per hour.

 

4 top things to do in Queenscliff

1. Queenscliffe Historical Museum: Find friendly staff and great historic photos. www.queenscliffe-history.org

2. Queenscliffe Maritime Museum: Discover a trove of local maritime history. www.maritimequeenscliffe.org.au

3. Fort Queenscliff: Gun placements were introduced in the 1860s when Victorians feared invasion by the Russians. The current fortress dates from the 1870s and 1880s. Tours (fees apply) operate on weekends and are daily in summer. www.fortqueenscliff.com.au

4. Bellarine Railway: The Bellarine’s heritage steam and diesel train service runs on weekends and holidays from

Queenscliff Station. www.bellarinerailway.com.au

 

5 top water activities

There are plenty of ways to make a splash on the Bellarine Peninsula…

1. Snorkel with dolphins and seals in the Pope’s Eye Marine Park. Sea All Dolphin Swims, based in Queenscliff, run regular tours. www.dolphinswims.com.au

2. Hit the surf – low to moderate waves and a pristine stretch of beach make Thirteenth Beach a top destination for surfers wanting to perfect their skills. Or sign up for surf school at Ocean Grove. www.gorideawave.com.au

3. Join an eco tour to see marine wildlife up close and still stay dry. Join one of South Bay Adventures tours of the bay or out to the ocean. www.southbayecoadventures.com

4. Try your hand at stand-up paddleboarding. The relatively calm waters of Barwon Heads and Ocean Grove are ideal as you master balancing. www.wsup.com.au

5. Take a dive – scuba divers experience some amazing shore dives, reefs, wreck sites, kelp forests and marine life here. www.divevictoria.com.au