The Bellarine Peninsula has stood in the shadow of its eastern cousin for too long. Travellers are starting to realise that the rugged coastal region has just as much to offer as the Mornington, and it's considerably less expensive. Whether you're looking for wineries, beaches, luxury accommodation or great food, the Bellarine is ready to assist.
Check out our travel guide to the Mornington Peninsula while you're at it.
People of Melbourne, start your engines. Igni might be a little hard to find – it’s at the arse-end of Geelong’s CBD on a one-way street, with no discernable signage – but it’s worth the swearing and hurling of iPhones. Not to get all gushy or anything, but it’s probably the most exciting restaurant to open in all of Victoria since Brae. Like Brae, it’s degustation-only (five or eight courses) and a bit of a culinary mystery tour, although they’ll ask your preferences – if you’re in the pro or anti-marron brigade, for example, or if you swing savoury or sweet.
Despite the high standard of food and service at Merne, it somehow manages to avoid feeling overly formal or pretentious. But when you’re surrounded by vineyards and olive groves it’s probably hard not to be friendly and hospitable. Merne sits on the same site as Loam, the Bellarine Peninsula’s acclaimed fine-dining restaurant, which closed in 2013. Rising from the ashes, Merne has carved out its own chunk in the region’s epicurean scene, focusing on a share-dining service perfect for sharing a bottle of local wine. Choose from either the two- or four-course sharing menus (both come in at under $100 per person).
Queenscliff brewhouse is a bit of a Swiss army knife of a venue. Yes, it’s a brewery, but it's also a pub, bistro, tasting room, whisky bar and soon to be hotel. Almost everything at the venue is locally sourced, from the ham on your eggs benny to the tomatoes in your pasta. Even if you don’t have time to check out the best producers on the Bellarine, you can still support them by checking out Queenscliff Brewhouse’s tasting room. It features walls and walls of local products: jams, olive oils, spice mixes, honey, chutney, sauces and plenty of wine.
With so many award-winning wineries on the Bellarine Peninsula, it’s a bit surprising that it took so long for a distillery to pop up. Thank goodness it did, though, because Drysdale is a different place since Bellarine Distillery and its cellar door, the Whiskery, opened. Having a drink at the Whiskery is an unpretentious affair: it feels a little like having a drink in a lush, fairytale beer garden. But the staff’s conviviality is genuine and is backed by the quality of their spirits and cocktail menu. Those who turn their noses up at G&Ts will be converted by the Whiskery’s version, which is smooth, fragrant and just a little bit citrusy.
It’s hard to imagine the Bellarine wine industry without Scotchmans Hill, as the vineyard is one of the biggest and oldest on the peninsula (it was established in 1982). What started as a single stainless-steel tank and five barrels has grown into an operation spanning 1000 barrels, 600 tonnes of fruit and an 8000-cubic-metre barrel hall. Its new cellar door, however, is a relatively recent addition to the vineyard, and one worth waiting for. You’ll have to drive up a hill, through the estate’s vineyards to reach the cellar door, a French provincial-style building with a large open courtyard and some not-too-shabby views.
If there were an award for the best view in the Bellarine Peninsula, the view from Jack Rabbit Vineyard would probably be the victor. Best of all, you can enjoy it with a glass of wine in hand and some excellent food to chase. Soak in the breathtaking views across the bay to Geelong, the You Yangs and Melbourne as you sip standouts such as sparkling blanc de blanc, riesling and a devilishly sweet frizzante at Jack Rabbit’s cellar door. The pinot grigio is the king at this winery; expect to be walking out the door with a bottle. After a tasting, there are two dining options: the House of Jack Rabbit café or the Jack Rabbit restaurant.
Any winery that greets you with two friendly dogs is a winery we can get around. Curlewis Winery is home to the oldest pinot noir vines on the peninsula, dating back to the early 1980s. The Curlewis Winery team is small, and their cellar door is only open on weekends. But what a cellar door it is. Named “Appellation”, the Curlewis Winery cellar door is far too easy to get comfortable in. Outside it looks like a barn; inside it looks like a hunter’s cabin got the Queer Eye treatment. Warm timber furnishings, fur rugs and a fireplace make for a very cosy wine-tasting experience.
Decades ago a professional cyclist called Basil Halsall decided to buy a stretch of land on the shores of Swan Bay, using the land to grow various crops. Basil has moved on, but his farm continues to thrive as a winery and paddock-to-plate café. On a sunny day, regardless of season, visitors can be found spilling out of the café and onto the sprawling, green hillside while enjoying lunch, coffee or just a glass of wine. The menu here draws – wherever possible – from the farm’s own vegetable garden, which you can walk through freely.
For centuries physicians would prescribe trips to the seaside as a cure-all for everything from consumption to hysteria. While we can't guarantee a visit to Lon Retreat will cure you of ye olde diseases, we can say that a stay at the luxury retreat is likely to leave you feeling relaxed and worry free. The design of the retreat brings the outdoors indoors, with lots of timber accents, floor-to-ceiling window panes and a colour palette that reflects the surrounding coastal farmland. Wherever possible the resort has used timber and sandstone from the region in construction.
The greater Geelong suburb of Leopold is probably the last place you’d expect to find an authentic-looking French chateau. But despite the dissimilar environs it’s exactly where you can go to spend a night or two pretending you’re 16,000 kilometres away in la belle France. Campbell Point House is a former private home that was repurposed into an events (read: wedding) venue. It’s time housing brides is on the out though, with the grandiose property officially rebranding as a hotel in October 2018. While there make use of the property's tennis court, infinity pool and private lake access.
You won’t find any Best Westerns on the Bellarine Peninsula. But what you will find are some incredible boutique stays that will make it more than hard to go back to the standard bed and bathroom shoebox. Enter the Nest. The Nest isn’t big. At the time of writing it consisted of just three self-contained pods, though plans are already underway to build more. But while there aren’t a lot of units, the units themselves are spacious, modern and extremely eco-friendly. The pods are made out of recycled materials, use filtered rainwater and are powered by solar during the day.
Big4 Beacon Resort offers everything from powered camping and caravan sites to three-bedroom villas. What’s more, the holiday park has its own day spa plus free yoga and Pilates six days a week. The resort is just a hop, skip and a jump away from the beach but we recommend hiring a bike from reception and cycling over – the path along the beach is every bit your sea-change dreams. The resort also boasts free children’s activities 364 days a year. There are also indoor and outdoor playgrounds, an indoor pool, tennis court, pedal-powered go-karts and yes, one of those amazing rainbow coloured jumping pillows.
Bored of the same old brunch? Why not have brunch on a boat? Searoad Ferries offers brunch every Sunday at 11am. Passengers can enjoy a generously piled two-tiered stand of brunch faves like pastries, ham and cheese croissants, smoked salmon and mini quiches. You’ll also receive plenty of fresh fruit, a glass of beer or wine, unlimited tea and coffee and scones with the traditional accompaniments.
The brunch is held away from the ferry’s main cabin, in a window-walled room with sweeping views of the sea. The brunch departs from both Sorrento and Queenscliff, and takes about two hours for a return trip.
Adventure Park is the place to go when you want some exhilarating waterslide fun. There are plenty of waterslides, kids rides or family activities like go-karting or mini-golf. Start off with the Wild West Canyon, where the waterslide takes you through a dark tunnel and you perform two 360-degree spins before moving onto the Aqua Racer, where you can speed down to the finish line at up to 40km per hour! For the thrill seekers there is the Tornado. The biggest and longest waterslide of its kind in the state, this beast will drop you down from the 24-metre tower through the snaking slides.
Jirrahlinga is a sanctuary for Australian native wildlife as well as a zoo, so there is a hospital section for treating injured animals. At Jirrahlinga you can see lots of Australian native fauna, including kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, birds, reptiles, dingoes, echidnas and more. Keepers are knowledgeable and friendly, and if you're lucky they'll let you pat a koala, hold a snake or have an up-close encounter with a lizard. Numerous birds have been donated to Jirrahlinga after their owners die, and there's a lot of enjoyment to be had talking to them, as many of them talk back. Look out for the bird near the office that does a perfect imitation of the office phone ringing, followed by, "Hello, Jirrahlinga?".
Fancy a dip? Ocean Grove is home to a two-kilometre beach popular with swimmers and surfers. The beach has lots of parking, a kiosk and wide, sandy stretches perfect for a round of beach cricket. Even on cooler days the beach is filled with locals and their dogs walking up and down the shore.
Swimming is moderately safe during summer conditions at Ocean Grove, with the beach patrolled by lifeguards and the Surf Life Saving Club. Stay between the flags if you’re swimming. Or sign up for a surf lesson to really make use of the waves.
The relatively flat terrain of the Bellarine makes it ideal for a little two-wheeled tourism. The main track cyclists will want to try out is the Bellarine Rail trail – a 35-kilometre track that follows the old railway line and winds past many of the region’s attractions. You’ll travel through lush farmland and past the seashore on your journey, with the trail easy to complete within a day for recreational cyclists.
Want something a little shorter? The path that hugs the coast between Point Lonsdale and Queenscliff is great if you are short on time but big on sea views.
Geelong is an easy one-hour drive from Melbourne’s CBD via the M1. From there hop on Portarlington Road which will take you down to the top of the peninsula.
Another option is taking Port Phillip Ferries towards Portarlington. The ferry travels daily between Melbourne and Portarlington on a schmick two-floor catamaran that’s fitted with toilets, plenty of seating, a bar and outside areas where you can admire picturesque views out over the bay. Plus, you can even organise tours and experiences across the Bellarine directly through Port Phillip Ferries – take a look at what’s on offer here.