If ever a region were ideally suited to a motoring holiday it’s the Mornington Peninsula. Whether you’re seeking a family break, an outdoors adventure or a weekend of indulgence, its diverse attractions are best discovered by car.
You'll find luxe accommodation, award-winning hot springs, gourmet restaurants, world-class wineries and pristine beaches and walking trails. It's only an hour from Melbourne, but it definitely feels like a world away.
Your guide to the Mornington Peninsula
At Peninsula Hot Springs, you can spend hours enjoying the naturally healing waters of the property’s thermal pools and indulging in a day spa treatment. If you’re there with a partner, then book in for a Kodo massage, a treatment inspired by traditional Aboriginal techniques and complemented by a range of native aromatic oils to leave you totally relaxed. The pools range from hot to extremely hot, and there is also an ice cave for a bit of cryotherapy. You can also sweat it out in the sauna and steam room to banish those toxins. The café upstairs is good for a light, healthy meal.
Once you've reached a state of bliss, take a walk on the wild side at Moonlit Sanctuary. You can feed kangaroos and wallabies, pat koalas and get up close and personal with birds, reptiles, dingoes and other animals during the day at this sanctuary. But as the name suggests, Moonlit Sanctuary really comes alive at night, when you can go on a guided lantern tour through the sanctuary to meet numerous nocturnal animals, including feather-tail gliders, a nightjar, quolls, Tasmanian devils, owls, possums, squirrel gliders, bettongs and potoroos.
Golfing fanatics will make a beeline for Moonah Links, a 36-hole complex and resort with spa and restaurant.
If the weather is good, going to the beach is a fantastic thing to do. Port Phillip’s beaches are flat and safe, ideal for families with small children or windsurfing; Dromana Bay, Rosebud, Rye and Mornington are among the best.
At 314 metres, Arthurs Seat is the highest point on the peninsula and the views are panoramic, reaching all the way to Melbourne’s skyline. Arthurs Seat State Park has a range of walks of varying levels of difficulty, and you can also take the Eagle chairlift up and down the mountain for some pretty epic views.
Flora fans will be impressed with Ashcombe Maze and Lavender Gardens, with its 25 acres of woodland and sculpted gardens. Three mazes – Cypress Hedge Maze, Circular Rose Maze and Lavender Labyrinth – will test your sense of direction.
On the way back to Melbourne, pick up a punnet of fresh fruit at the Sunny Ridge Strawberry Farm, where you can pick your own when the red devils are in season.
The American south is known for many things, chief among them barbecue, good ol' southern hospitality and banana pudding. You'll also find excellent examples of all three at Red Gum BBQ, inside a former machinery shed on Arthurs Seat Road on the Mornington Peninsula. The cavernous space is bright and cheerful, thanks to skylights in the high ceilings. Seating is communal, picnic-style tables, and the menu is designed to be shared. There's pulled pork, fall-apart beef brisket with a gorgeous smoke ring, pork ribs, half or quarter chickens and homemade jalapeño cheddar sausage, which was rich and savoury, with enough spice to warm the belly.
After something a little more luxe? Laura is the fine diner of the Mornington Peninsula, the restaurant at Pt Leo Estate. Fine dining is too much of an old-fashioned term to describe this very new-fashioned restaurant, where the warm brioche rolls are made with a variety of red wheat grown close by, chased with peppery Cape Schanck olive oil, and the menu doesn’t go the long-winded degustation route but a tighter four, five or six courses dotted with site-specific origin stories, like the lion’s mane mushrooms from a nearby Mornington farm.
Or hit up Merricks General Wine Store, where you'll find top country bistro-style fare. Order the bay mussels and the chicken and leek pie, and a glass of Elgee Park Family Reserve Riesling. At the Epicurean Red Hill, more than 100 local wines are showcased alongside Italian dishes. Order the Porcolino or the Picantosa pizza. On the mains, the kalamata olive-crusted rack of lamb is the winner. The top cup of coffee in the district is found at Pier Provedore in Flinders, where the ham and gruyère croissant is also a must.
A produce-led, fantastic restaurant, a fascinating sculpture garden and delightful wines crafted with care – Mornington Peninsula wineries don't get much better than Montalto. The kitchen has done away with gas cooking entirely, replacing the traditional stove with an open fire. The method gives everything a delightful fire-kissed flavour, with vegetables and meats seared quickly for a perfect char or cooked slowly in smouldering coals for a smoky undertone. Montalto is also famous for its yearly sculpture prize. New sculptures are installed in the winery's sculpture gardens every year, and visitors can wander through the art and enjoy each piece. Make sure you stop at the cellar door to taste Montalto's range of cool-climate wines.
Montalto's laid-back sister winery, Tuck's Ridge, is next door, and they share sweeping views down the hill to a bird sanctuary. The winery does simple food, made from premium ingredients. Make sure you do a 'taste the rainbow' tasting at Tuck's Ridge, too. It's a blind tasting, so you can get an honest sense of what you can taste before being prejudiced by talk of passionfruit, chocolate or woodsmoke. You can write your tasting notes on the table – which is a giant whiteboard – and you'll get to try both the Now range (no points for guessing when you're meant to drink it) and the higher-priced Tuck's Ridge range, which will do well with a little cellaring.
Located in a statement building, Port Phillip Estate has several ranges available for tastings, and the drops that stand out are Port Phillip Estate chardonnay, Kooyong’s Single Vineyard Faultline chardonnay, and Port Phillip Estate pinot noir.
Paringa Estate is hidden gem on the Peninsula, with the cellar door and restaurant located among the vines – a stunning setting. The wines are top-shelf, particularly the current chardonnays and pinot noir.
Or head to Foxeys Hangout, a chilled-out winery with absolutely delicious produce. It specialises in pinot noir and chardonnay, as well as a positively fluorescent (and completely moreish) rosé. Sparkling wine is also a big focus here – and you don't need to wait for someone else to do it. Foxeys Hangout runs a make-your-own sparkling class, where the winemaker will teach you about how sparkling wine is made and show you traditional methods of riddling and disgorgement. You can design your own sparkling with your own preferred dosage (sugar) level, and you get to take home your very own labelled bottle.
It is not an exaggeration to say Jackalope has changed the Mornington Peninsula. The cutting-edge, ultra-luxe hotel is what you might expect to find in New York's uber-hip Meatpacking District, not set among rolling hills and gently swaying vines. The theme of the hotel is alchemy, the process of turning ordinary things into rare and precious things. The most famous examples are lead into gold and the creation of the elixir of life, but Jacklope turns an ordinary hotel experience into something special and extraordinary. The hotel opened in April 2017 and quickly racked up the accolades, being named Hotel of the Year by Gourmet Traveller magazine in its very first year. It's boutique, with only 45 rooms, which is small enough to make every guest feel special and appreciated. The staff are very attentive, showing you to your room and familiarising you with all the whiz-bang accoutrements and luxurious touches therein.
Don't want to shell out $650 for your Mornington Peninsula accommodation? Check out Lindenderry at Red Hill, which sits on almost 14 hectares of vineyards and gardens. Inside the hotel it feels like one big, glam country house: there’s all of the space and elegance with none of the kitsch. Dotted throughout the hotel’s winding corridors are semi-secluded nooks stuffed with plush lounges and often an open fire – perfect for some reading, no? You’ll find more of those crackling open fireplaces inside the rooms, which are appropriately luxe. Book yourself a balcony suite, where you can stretch out on the ample bed, in an armchair by the fire or with a glass of the estate’s wine on your balcony while pretending you’re lord or lady of the manor.