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Vineyards, boutique distilleries and breweries, fine dining and great beaches: the Bellarine Peninsula has the lot. All that, and it’s just an 80-minute drive or bracing ferry ride from Melbourne.
The Bellarine is surrounded by Port Phillip, Corio Bay and Bass Strait. It’s home to around 55,000 people and is a growing tourism region. Most of the peninsula is part of the City of Greater Geelong.
Australian TV series SeaChange was filmed at various locations on the peninsula, particularly at Barwon Heads, and the region is a popular weekend destination for Melburnians, many of whom catch the ferry to the picturesque small town of Portarlington, where you can still buy mussels from the fishermen on the wharf.
With uninterrupted bay views across to the You Yangs, Portarlington is a great base for those looking to escape the city hustle and bustle – and there are plenty of dining options including cafes and a classic old country hotel.
The booming seaside towns of Ocean Grove, Barwon Heads and Point Lonsdale are all popular in summer.
The Bellarine is also home to one of Australia’s great walks: the Bellarine Rail Trail, and to some of the top 100 public access golf courses in the country.
Best hotels: Bellarine
Most visitors to the Bellarine tend to stay in campsites, rental cottages or motels.
The most luxurious option is Lon Retreat & Spa at Point Lonsdale, which opened last October. Previously known as Lonsdale Views, it sits perched on a hill on the edge of Point Lonsdale with 360-degree views of The Heads (the entry to Port Phillip Bay), the lighthouse and Ocean Grove. Set on 200 acres of rural and conservation land, Lon features seven luxurious suites and a mineral spa.
A short drive out of Portarlington, the Bungalino is a quaint cottage on Airbnb, perfect for a couple on a budget. It is also dog-friendly should you want to bring a furry friend.
Best restaurants: Bellarine
Merne at Lighthouse, in the former Loam premises at Drysdale, is a popular venue serving share plates, while BeachHouse Barwon Heads is an eatery with a local focus in what was previously the old fire station.
Several of the local wineries provide vineyard lunches. Terindah Estate features excellent seasonal and regional food, local wines and top-notch service with sweeping views from the terrace.
Oakdene Vineyards at Wallington offers tastings, two dining experiences (Marty and Mr Grubb) and on-site accommodation, while Jack Rabbit Vineyard also has fine dining and casual lunch experiences, and can be packed to the rafters at peak times thanks to its amazing views.
Leura Park Estate at Curlewis features pizzas and platters as well as wine tastings, while beer lovers can head to the Queenscliff Brewhouse in one of the region’s cutest seaside villages.
A favourite with locals and visitors alike is to take a stroll along the Portarlington pier and seawall and take in the spectacular bay views. Buy some fresh mussels from local fishermen if the boats are in port.
Head for the township of St Leonards to pick up some delicious freshly cooked fish and chips from The Golden Flake, and enjoy them while overlooking the bay.
The Bungalow Restaurant in Drysdale is a casual eatery serving hearty meals, which is popular with both locals and visitors.
Alternatively, take a trip into the “big smoke” of Victoria’s second-largest city Geelong for a pre-dinner drink at the Geelong Cellar Door Wine Bar & Store and the possibility of trying some local boutique wines before you buy. For gourmets, some inventive food at Igni is a must.
If you fancy a picnic, pop into the Bellarine Smoked Fish Co for a tasty range of smoked seafood and pâtés.
Best bars and cafés: Bellarine
The Bellarine Taste Trail is helping reinforce the region’s reputation as a top destination for foodies and wine lovers, providing almost 50 locations at which to discover various epicurean delights. Download the Bellarine Taste Trail map at www.thebellarinetastetrail.com.au.
Enjoy a picnic or pizza along with an alfresco gin tasting at The Whiskery, a new distillery complex just down the road from historic Scotchmans Hill winery. Try the outstanding Teddy & the Fox artisan gin.
Other wineries well set up for visitors include Leura Park Estate, Bellarine Estate – home to French restaurant Bouchon – and Curlewis Winery.
Several other smaller wineries request appointments for visits, but cider lovers are well catered for at the Flying Brick Cider Co, which is open seven days a week.
Serious coffee lovers might want to head for Geelong, where the passion for caffeine approaches that of Melbourne. Alternatively, seek out The Driftwood Café in Ocean Grove.