A treasured beach destination for Melburnians for generations, the Bellarine Peninsula has established itself as a wine-growing region and offers other epicurean delights.
The Bellarine Peninsula has been attracting tourists ever since the 19th century, when well-heeled Melburnians would arrive on luxury paddle steamers to take their annual holidays. It’s a tad easier to get here these days (though much less glamorous), and remains a sought-out beach destination where people come to spend days lazing on the sand in between swims, long walks, exploring rock pools and scoffing fish and chips.
But well before you could order minimum chips (at least 20,000 years, to be precise) the indigenous Wathaurong people roamed these coastal plains, hunting and cooking charcoal meats, fish, oysters and foraged vegetables. And today it remains a fertile ground for food and drink, with a heap of delicious local produce to be enjoyed along the Bellarine Taste Trail. The route leads you away from the beach to explore the region’s inland treasures of wineries, gin producers, breweries, restaurants and rustic cafes, along with stops for cheese, olives and smoked fish.
While wine is still a relatively new industry, with vineyards only planted in the latter half of last century, the cool-climate ‘maritime’ wines – namely pinot noir and chardonnay – have fast gained a reputation as being quality drops. There are some 15 cellar doors here to visit and taste local wines that span the full spectrum from sparkling to shiraz. Most wineries have on-site restaurants or cafes offering lovely views and platters of Bellarine produce to enjoy with a glass of vino or two.
The Bellarine’s small coastal towns also have their charms, offering a relaxed seafaring atmosphere to enjoy fresh local food to a backdrop of heritage architecture, lighthouses and tales of shipwrecks.
Must-visit restaurants, bars and distilleries
If you’re looking to pair a glass of wine with a fine view, Jack Rabbit is up there with the Bellarine’s best. This highly rated winery-restaurant looks out to the translucent waters of Port Phillip Bay, framed by mountain views of the You Yangs and the distant skyline of Melbourne. When the weather’s nice the outdoor patio is the place to be for a glass of chardonnay or pinot noir, accompanied by cheese platters, bowls of Portarlington mussels and locally caught, cider-battered gummy shark. There is also a fine dining restaurant doing a menu of creative cuisine. Cider lovers will want to sample their Flying Brick range, produced at the slick cider house, a 15-minute drive away.
Leave the beach behind to head inland and visit the Bellarine’s oldest winery where you trade coastal views for pastoral outlooks. Its cellar door restaurant is within an atmospheric converted barn and offers tastings of their well-regarded cool-climate shiraz (a rarity out this way) to go with its signature estate-grown pinots and chardonnay. Grab a table outdoors to graze on produce platters or mains such as smoked fish and bowls of soup.
At a place called The Whiskery, who would’ve thought gin would be the star of the show?! But as their single malt sits maturing in the barrels (with 2021 the estimated release date), the Teddy & the Fox gin has stolen the limelight, winning all kinds of awards since its launch in 2018. The Whiskery is set on a rural property inside a stylish, rustic tin shed fitted with couches, a fireplace and a bar opening out to a deck, where you can stop in for a tasting flight of gins or a G&T – pair it with a woodfired pizza for lunch. Their full range of bottled gins is for purchase, too.
Merne at Lighthouse
While many of the wineries in this region have their own restaurants, Merne is one of the few Bellarine standalone gastronomic dining options to focus squarely on produce sourced from the area. It offers casual fine dining in a relaxed setting overlooking olive groves and is all about set menus designed to share, with an option of two- or four-course dishes, showcasing seasonal, creative, contemporary modern Australian cuisine. Expect the likes of slow-cooked kangaroo tail, sea vegetables and local snapper, along with its estate-grown olives. Settle in for a long lunch and treat yourself with the paired Bellarine wine option.
Noon-2pm Thu-Mon, 6-8pm Fri & Sat
A winning combination of fruit and flower gardens, coastal views, quality wines and food, Basils draws in regulars and tourists for brekkie, brunch and bottles of bubbles. As well as its shiraz, pinot and chardonnay, Basil’s point of differnece is its sparkling wine enjoyed on the lawn or cottage with a cafe menu showcasing local produce. Resident llamas and farm animals keep the kids entertained.
10am-5pm Mon, Thu & Fru, 10am-5pm Sat & Sun
After a day of wine tasting, a crisp cold ale may be in order to cleanse the palate. In which case drop into the historical town of Queenscliff to check out this microbrewery set in a double-storey terrace hotel (c 1850s), where the team from the Prickly Moses brewery have moved in to open a brewhouse showcasing its Otways beers, along with locally brewed ales. There are a dozen or so beers on tap, and recently they have fired up a distillery in the basement to launch a small batch gin, along with an eagerly anticipated single malt. Food’s also a feature, with a menu of gourmet pub classics and platters of local produce. Dig in outdoors in the beer garden or indoors by the fire. The upstairs whisky bar with terrace balcony is also a good place to relax with a stiff drink.
11am-11pm Sun-Thu, to midnight Fri & Sat
At the Heads
Where the river meets the sea you’ll find the laidback coastal hamlet of Barwon Heads, a Bellarine treasure and home to one of the region’s most scenic restaurants. Built onto the edge of the pier overlooking the water and the town’s iconic bridge, At the Heads’ glassed-in space and outdoor deck is just the place to enjoy a sunset cocktail, local wine or craft beer, along with delicious burgers and seafood mains. It’s also a popular brekky and brunch spot with well made coffees, breakfast bowls and hearty cookups.
9am-10pm Tue-Sun, to 4pm Mon
Where to stay in the Bellarine Peninsula
A game changer for the region is this luxurious getaway in Point Lonsdale that recently underwent a dramatic conversion from family farm to boutique spa resort. In the family for seven generations, here they’ve capitalised on the natural geothermal waters deep beneath the ground to develop a boutique day spa, and tastefully furnished rooms done out in its casual brand of high luxury.
Things to do in the Bellarine Peninsula
One of the best places to soak up the town’s rich heritage is Queenscliff’s historical fort (constructed in 1860). Guided tours take you through the fort’s fascinating history, built by the military initially to protect from a feared Russian invasion in the 19th century before serving an important role in the ensuing two world wars.
Riding the rails in Queenscliff isn’t just for train buffs – trips offer scenic stream train rides and dining on the Q Train and live music on the Blues Train.
How to get to the Bellarine Peninsula
The Bellarine Peninsula is just under a 1.5-hour drive from Melbourne via Geelong along the M1. Frequent trains depart from Melbourne’s Southern Cross to Geelong station from where connecting buses await to reach the towns along the Bellarine Peninsula. Otherwise take a ferry from Queenscliff to get to Sorrento across the bay on the Mornington Peninsula. Avalon Airport is a 25-minute drive from Geelong, which offers domestic flights to many cities.
This is an excerpt from the new book ‘Gourmet Trails Australia and New Zealand’ by Lonely Planet Food (RRP $39.99). If you’re looking for the perfect foodie getaway post lockdown, Lonely Planet ‘s Gourmet Trails celebrates 29 perfect culinary trails and weekends away. Meet the producers and celebrate the ingenuity and passion of some of Australia’s best food and wine regions. Grab your copy at lonelyplanet.com