Just an hour from Melbourne by car or a quick trip across Port Phillip Bay from Queenscliff by ferry (www.searoad.com.au), the Mornington Peninsula is a breath of fresh air and a sensational place to visit, especially in the summer. Whether you choose the ritzier Port Phillip Bay coast, with its resort towns of Portsea (Melbourne's version of the Hamptons), Sorrento and Rye, or the slightly more laid back Western Port Bay side with the quaint areas of Shoreham, Point Leo, Merricks and Flinders with views over to Phillip Island, this coastal area offers something for everyone.
Known affectionately as just "The Peninsula" (more often than not pronounced "Peninshula") , this is the gourmet capital of the state of Victoria, where you can pick fresh succulent strawberries (www.sunnyridge.com.au), juicy cherries, indulge in seafood straight off the boat and finish your meal with handcrafted cheeses prepared at local farms. More importantly, there are over 170 vineyards here, specializing in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (plus Pinot Gris and Shiraz) and offering visitors free tastings and the option to buy at discounted prices from "cellar door" outlets -- there are over 50 of them. All these wine and culinary delights are available against a backdrop of spectacular beaches with views across the Bays or Bass Strait. We stopped in at Montalto Vineyard (www.montalto.com.au), Red Hill Estate (www.redhillestate.com.au) and Tuck's Ridge (www.tucksridge.com.au). At Merricks General Store (www.merricksgeneralstore.com.au) we indulged in one or two glasses of some of the Peninsula's finest as well as some delicious homemade cakes (the giant lamington, which can be shared among several people, is nothing short of a cake masterpiece).
In the middle of what is known as the Peninsula's famous golfing sand belt -- The Cups (Rye) -- is Peninsula Hot Springs (tel. + 613/5988-6088; www.peninsulahotsprings.com.au), Australia's first combined bathing and spa center to use natural hot springs waters. It is an oasis of indulgence and pleasure, but very reasonably priced for this level of luxury. Soak in hot mineral pools, rejuvenate in private baths and be pampered in the indigenous spa center, all set amongst 42 acres of stunning indigenous gardens. Peninsula Hot Springs make the perfect romantic interlude for couples or even a fun place to congregate with friends.
Choose between the public bathing area, with its indoor and outdoor mineral water pools or the more secluded and exclusive private baths. We had the luxury of slipping into fluffy toweling robes, then dropping them as we immersed ourselves in the therapeutic waters of the Treetops bath, at the top of a small hill. After 20 minutes of relaxing and unwinding, we moved into an opulent draped Arabic tent for a dreamy Kodo massage -- a rhythmic body massage inspired by traditional Australian Aboriginal techniques which tone and re-align energy flow, enhancing mind, body balance and wellness. The massage was preceded by an Aboriginal smudging ceremony, a purification ceremony that acts as a healing ritual and cleanses the body, mind and soul. After the massage we chilled out in the relaxation room before enjoying a delicious and nutritional organic lunch prepared in the Hot Springs cafÂ¿. Later this year, Peninsula Hot Springs will be expanding to include individual villa accommodations, making it the ideal weekend (or weekday) getaway from Melbourne.
There are 20 golf courses scattered throughout the region offering the avid golfer and weekend hack the opportunity to play on some of the most scenic and stunning greens in Australia. For the golf fanatic, consider investing in the Mornington Peninsula Golf Pass, which offers discounts and free offers at leading golf courses, wineries and attractions if you visit at least three courses on the Peninsula. See the Golf Tourism Australia website (www.golftourismaustralia.com) for details.
Koala Golf Tours (tel. + 613/9598 2574; www.koalagolf.com) can arrange a variety of golfing packages including drive and golf, escorted golf, stay and play and the Golf Pass. With daily departures, choose from over 100 courses across Australia and several on the Mornington Peninsula.
Scenic walks abound in the area. My particular favorite is the 3.8-mile Bushrangers Bay Walk around Western Port where the cliffs offer some of the most beautiful views imaginable. Greens Bush Walk in Boneo takes you through bushland surrounded by farms and where you may be lucky enough to share a sunrise with the local kangaroo population. The walk to Arthur's Seat Summit, a prominent Peninsula landmark, offers panoramic views of Port Phillip Bay.
If walking on the beach isn't exhilarating enough for you, try it on horseback. Ace-Hi Beach Rides (tel. + 613/5988-6262; www.ace-hi.com.au) operate out of Cape Schanck and offer scenic trail rides over 200 acres including along the beach.
Bayplay Adventure Lodge and Tours (tel. + 613/5988-0188; www.bayplay.com.au) can arrange everything from scuba diving courses to sea kayaking, dolphin swims and budget accommodations. More Australian wildlife is on offer at the Moonlit Sanctuary Wildlife Park (tel. + 613/5978-7935; www.moonlit-sanctuary.com) in Pearcedale where you can experience all the beauty and mystery of Australia's mainly nocturnal animals.
I absolutely love the local markets on the Peninsula. In particular the Red Hill Community Market (www.craftmarkets.com.au) takes place on the first Saturday of each month between September and May. Almost everything here is home grown, home made and fresh -- from woodwork to creative gifts, fruit and vegetables to home made jams. It's also a social day for the locals and visitors alike.
Many Melburnians enjoy the comfort of having a beach house on the Peninsula, or like me, are invited to stay with friends. Visitors have the option of staying in luxury accommodations or perhaps something more humble. Guesthouses and various Bed and Breakfasts are dotted throughout the region, as are lower priced motels and even caravan parks.
For more information about visiting the Peninsula and accommodations in the area, contact the Peninsula Information Centre (tel. + 613/5987-3078; www.visitmorningtonpeninsula.org).