There are many ways for families to explore Victoria’s beautiful Mornington Peninsula, Melbournian’s sunny seaside playground, a little over an hour’s drive from the CBD. So get on your bike, behind the wheel, walk, ride or take to the water.
It’s a moody, melancholy morning as we cycle the fortified area and quarantine station of Port Nepean. On our right is Port Phillip Bay; its surface like a mirror beneath a brooding grey sky, misleading given the treacherous currents that swirl beneath. Cargo ships enter the narrow heads, tracing a journey that many vessels before them made from the other side of the world. Many didn’t make it. The arrival of the sailing ship ‘Ticonderoga’ in 1852 after a tragic voyage from Liverpool during which 100 people died necessitated the opening of Port Nepean’s Quarantine Station. Soon impressive accommodation and hospital buildings were built, and for the next century the site became an important part of Victoria’s early settlement.
The area has had a varied history – being used to defend the colony, for military training, and even housing the Kosovo refugees - until three years ago, when Parks Victoria opened up the Quarantine Station and Fort Nepean to the public. Today you can explore the site on foot, by car or, like us, by bike using a self guided brochure or audio tour – happily meandering along dirt tracks, along deserted beaches and through eucalypt trees filled with birdsong. You can hire adult bikes with tag along’s or child carriers plus helmets from the Point Nepean Information Centre, or BYO. Enroute you can see the remnants of the former quarantine cattle jetty at Observatory Point, Gunners Cottage and the historic Point Nepean Cemetery before continuing along Coles Track to the impressive fort.
Before you reach the fort, you traverse the peninsula’s narrowest point, where on one side lies the tranquil-looking bay and the tumultuous, wild and foreboding surf where Prime Minister Harold Holt came to grief at Cheviot Beach, on the other. Once at the fort kids can explore the fascinating series of military fortifications dating back to the 1880s. Amazingly, Park Victoria’s Sally Hutchinson tells us that the very first allied shots of both World War I and World War II were fired from Fort Nepean.
There’s hour’s worth of exploring and fun to be had, and when you’re finished head to Rosebud and treat yourself to lunch at the colourful, eclectic Blue Mini Café, with a super friendly kids menu, home made biscuits, cakes and good coffee, opposite the foreshore.
There are numerous scenic drives on the peninsula, but the winding route that takes you to Cape Schanck Lighthouse is particularly fetching. Start your drive at Sunny Ridge Strawberry Farm, a third-generation family owned property, at Main Ridge, which lies at the heart of the peninsula’s fertile and picturesque hinterland.
There’s something truly decadent about strolling through a sea of strawberry fields on a lazy afternoon, the warmth of the autumn sun on your back, and kids will love eating the spoils. Visitors have been flocking here for decades to experience the romance of ‘picking your own’ (November-April) from dedicated fields of lush strawberries ready to be eaten with a dusting of icing sugar and dollop of fresh cream, or dunked in a decadent chocolate fondue.
But it is not until you step inside the Sunny Ridge Strawberry Centre, located in the peninsula’s rolling green hinterland, that you can truly appreciate the extent the Wallace family have gone to exploit this glorious summer fruit. Tables groaning with punnets of fat, sweet strawberries greet visitors, shelves are lined with wickedly delicious strawberry wine and cream liqueurs, kids happily lick cones filled with Sunny Ridge homemade ice cream and families tuck into luscious strawberry sundaes and Devonshire tea served with scones, strawberry jam and cute teapots dressed in strawberry tea cosies.
From Sunny Ridge, head via Flinders Road through vineyards, orchards and bushland before joining Rosebud-Flinders Rd, which in turn becomes Borneo Rd with Western Port Bay peeping invitingly through rolling hills dotted with grazing cows and horses. This side of the peninsula is less populated and commercial than the Sorrento-Portsea side with sleepy seaside villages like Somers, where stretches of isolated coastline beg to be strolled and coffee and brunch at the Somers General Store (turn left) is a must.
Owner Leisa Wharington has transformed this historic building, which was a fish and chippo and a real estate agency in a previous life into a fun, bustling beachside café serving up a fabulous menu featuring Mornington Peninsula produce and Di Bella coffee. It’s also a providore selling produce, giftware, books and glassware created by local artists, including works by Leisa who is a glassblower by trade. Leisa undertook extensive and painstaking research to restore the building in a style that is in keeping with its original structure and appearance, and the 1927-year-old store is a peninsula icon. The parents of 65-year-old Sue Burn, who now works for Lisa, owned it when she was a 15 year old and loves what Leisa has done with the historic store.
“Coffees our thing,” says Lisa with a friendly smile as she shows me around the fantastic fenced garden behind the café where Ella plays with a couple of other young girls down for the weekend from Melbourne. In the garden is a restored gelato van, which serves customers in the warmer months, while groups of tables are scattered under olive trees heavy with fruit. Out front meanwhile is a deck, which takes in views over Somers Beach.
On the menu is Blue Bay Cheese from Mornington, Moorooduc grown tomatoes, Flinders’ avocados; balsamic vinegar, olives and garlic come from Merricks. Herbs, lettuce, fruit and vegetables are sourced daily from the locale. “Bring your children, your sandy feet and most of all your appetite,” is Leisa’s catchcry, and it’s an apt one, given how family-friendly the store is. Be sure and bring a bucket and spade and build sandcastles on the beach afterwards.
On the final leg to Cape Schanck (in the other direction from Somers), the road descends through bushland, opening up to expansive sea views with the proud red and white lighthouse guarding one of Australia’s most hazardous stretches of coastline and the peninsula’s most southerly tip. Be sure to do a tour of what is one of the few operating lighthouses in Australia that still have all the original workings in place. As you walk up the original spiral stairs your personal guide will talk you through the lighthouse’s rich and fascinating history. Afterwards, soak up the spectacular views down to the beach and across the heads of Port Phillip Bay from the recently opened Radio Signal Look Out.
The peninsula offers many beautiful walks of varying difficulty. Two relatively easy, yet rewarding walks are offered from Arthurs Seat. On a clear day you can not only see the bay and Port Phillip Heads, but the city skyline, the You Yangs and Mount Macedon from the summit (314m). Nearby, you can stroll the one-kilometre circuit to Kings Falls, which flows throughout the year or meander through Seawinds Gardens with its spectacular views and trails, which get you amongst the beautiful State Park where you just might spot an echidna or koala. The beautiful 34-hectare property features indigenous and exotic formal gardens, and sculptures by William Ricketts.
From there, it’s a short drive to the wonderful Enchanted Maze Garden, with its wonderful children’s maze specially designed for kids, tube slides, tree surfing, obstacles courses and much, much more. You could easily spend a day here and not experience everything this award winning attraction has to offer.
From there head to the bottom of Arthurs Seat for lunch and a well-earned vino or two at the award-winning Stillwater at Crittenden. Zac and Jacqui Poulier have created a modern, relaxed winery restaurant that showcases the best of seasonal and regional produce, a smart wine list of estate grown wines and a beautiful setting to boot. The thing about this winery is that it throws out the welcome mat for families: with special children’s menus, accommodation villas that come with toys, and relaxed fine dining in a restaurant with a breezy beach house feel. After lunch, kids can feed the ducks and burn off energy running around the grounds.
Take a gallop through the shallows on a deserted beach, spotting keen surfers and the occasional migrating whale, or saddle up and experience the novelty of riding between cellar doors for an afternoon of wine tasting with a twist. The peninsula’s long stretches of windswept back beaches and bushy interior, makes it ideal for touring by horseback.
Gunnamatta Trail Rides offers a signature St Andrews Beach and Bush ride, for all riding abilities, taking in the crashing waves of this stunning beach - part of a 35 km continuous stretch of coastline that runs from Cape Schanck to Portsea - facing the rugged Bass Strait.
Neighbouring the RACV Cape Schanck Resort, Ace-Hi Ranch is a western-style theme park offering everything from scenic trails, forest rides past local market gardens and through Greens Bush National Park, as well as fun pony rides for the kids. Ace-Hi’s Bush 'n' Beach ride offers a comparable experience to Gunnamatta, taking riders of varying skills across hills and open stretches before entering Mornington Peninsula National Park in anticipation of a fun canter along the waters edge.
Horseback Winery Tours at Main Ridge meanwhile offer three-hour to full day cellar door tours with a difference, meandering through the vines in the fresh country air, stopping for tastings at renowned neighboring wineries and restaurants such as Montalto Vineyard and Olive Grove, Tucks Ridge, Red Hill Estate, Mantons Creek, T'Gallant, Ten Minutes by Tractor, and the Red Hill Brewery, among others.
Take to the water
On the outer reaches of Port Philip Bay’s arms lie Blairgowrie, Sorrento and Portsea, the playgrounds of Melbourne’s rich and famous, and for good reason. While the front beaches face the placid waters of the bay, the back beaches catch the ocean rollers from Bass Strait. Bay side, the sand is clean and the water clear and calm; making it a great place to snorkel, scuba dive, swim with dolphins or seals and launch a kayak. One of the area’s main operators, Bay Play Adventure Tours, offers a three-hour sea-kayaking trip to Port Phillip Bay’s ‘Dolphin Sanctuary’ (home to around 80 Bottlenose dolphins), which has participants exploring the nooks and crannies along the peninsula’s curvaceous coastline. Being eco-friendly and quiet means the kayaks are the ideal vessel for encounters with dolphins (often seen frolicking in both Port Phillip and Western Port Bays), seals and penguins as you paddle in the fresh salty air, wind in your hair.
Bay Play also offers other experiences designed for kids including “Snorkel with Seadragons” where children are taken on a guided tour to learn about the marine environment. Bay Play’s Amanda Crestani says this tour is an absolute winner with kids. “It’s like taking a walk through a museum but doing it in real life. Our aim is to educate and inspire people about the bay and what we have to offer, and teach them to snorkel as a means to learning about the marine life.” Amanda says the same goes for their scuba diving program, which they also offer to children eight and over.
In addition Bay Play hire stand up paddle boards, and a school holiday program which incorporates aquatic and land based activities including sea kayaking, snorkeling with sea dragons, stand up paddle boarding, beach games and treasure hunts.
If this sounds all too energetic, a dip in the hot springs and pizza, may be more your family’s style. The incredible Peninsula Hot Springs is Victoria’s only naturally heated mineral waters. You can slip into relaxing indoor, outdoor, public or private pools, relax at the Spa Dreaming Centre and dine in the café at this tranquil coastal retreat. There are various pools of varying temperatures, a bubbling spa couch, a tranquility bath in the tea trees and a cold plunge pool filled with a continual flow of clean water, so pack your swimmers!
Meet the natives
Take a nocturnal tour and meet endangered Australian native animals in a natural bushland setting on a magical evening walk at the Moonlight Sanctuary Wildlife Conservation Park. Children have the opportunity to get up close to endangered animals like the eastern quoll, and red-bellied pademelon as well as meet the resident kangaroos and koalas that are active at night. Ella got the chance to feed sugar gliders and the cute and curious southern bettongs, while we also saw the Tassie Devil and dingoes. Passionate chief ranger and conservationist Michael Johnson, who owns the sanctuary, provides a knowledgeable, entertaining and interesting commentary.
Where to Stay
Ocean Blue Coastal Retreats offer a selection of hand picked, self-contained beach houses, ideal for families and pets across the peninsula. Sixteenth Beach Retreat, where we stayed, sits within the native bush of Pt Nepean National Park, within walking distance to the beach. The architecturally designed beach house sleeps seven and features contemporary, light filled, open living spaces, original artwork, stylish kitchen, outdoor shower, BBQ and more.
You can follow Sheriden and Ella's adventures and pick up family travel tips on the Frequent Small Flyer Facebook page.
Disclosure: The writer and her family travelled courtesy of Mornington Peninsula Tourism.