Driving along Shands Road, sunlight flickering through eucalypts and a cloud of dust kicking up in the rear-vision mirror, it's easy to forget that Melbourne is only a little over an hour away. This quiet unmade road winding through bucolic bushland near the centre of Victoria's Mornington Peninsula makes it just as easy to ignore this region's long-held reputation among Melburnians as a summer playground which, during the warmer months, sees around 100,000 people "head down the Peninsula" for the season. But even at its busiest, there are always corners of the area that make the crowds and the city seem far away, almost as if they are part of another world.
Surrounded by Port Phillip Bay in the west, Western Port Bay in the east and Bass Strait to the south, the Mornington Peninsula packs an impressive variety of scenery and experiences into its relatively compact dimensions. Through the cool, elevated areas of Red Hill, Merricks North and Main Ridge you'll find yourself among deep green pine forests, olive, cherry, quince and avocado orchards or sweeping hills lined with grapevines and dotted with cows. Further south, around St Andrews and Gunnamatta, tangled ti-tree scrub surrounds pounding surf beaches. In towns such as Sorrento and Portsea and from the Peninsula's highest point, Arthurs Seat, there are spectacular cliff-top views of sandy bays, many of them sporting huddles of bathing huts. On the other side of the Peninsula, Flinders and Somers manage to keep their sleepy, fishing village charms even as the hordes descend. There are mazes, sculpture galleries, sunken ships, nature walks and glassblowers. And everywhere you turn there seems to be somewhere to eat and drink, whether it's a roadside stall selling eggs or tomatoes, an architect-designed winery or a small business hidden among the trees crafting cheese or chocolate or beer.
The Mornington Peninsula has always been a great provider. In Point Nepean National Park, on the area's very tip, great middens of shells remain, proof of the Bunurong people's love of seafood. After Matthew Flinders landed near Mornington in 1802, Europeans were soon felling trees, fishing the waters and planting crops in the fertile soil to help house and feed the rapidly expanding gold rush. It remained a quiet fishing and farming region for many years, but in the 1970s vineyards began to appear, pioneered by the Myer family at Elgee Park and by Nat and Rosalie White at Main Ridge.
In the past couple of decades, as improved roads from Melbourne have slashed travelling times and attracted ever-increasing numbers of city slickers, the production of cool and maritime climate wine - particularly pinot noir and chardonnay - has become one of the region's main calling cards. An abundance of award-winning names - Paringa Estate, Ten Minutes by Tractor, Port Phillip Estate, Crittenden Estate, Yabby Lake - makes such a reputation understandable, but now that the Mornington Peninsula is home to more than 60 wineries and vineyards with an ever-increasing number of winery restaurants, cafés and cellar doors, the grape has ceded ground to the region's food for centre-stage position.
Lindsay McCall, the winemaker/owner of Paringa Estate in Red Hill South, has been living on the Peninsula since he first bought land and planted vines in 1985. In recent years he has seen a marked change in the way people are "using" the Peninsula. "It used to be all about the cellar doors," he says. "People would visit six of them in a day, but now people come and visit one or two because they are coming down here to eat in the restaurants as much as they are to taste wine. Part of the reason we built our restaurant was to take advantage of the fact that the Peninsula had become as much a food destination as a wine one. The food scene has blossomed fantastically and the quality of the cafés and restaurants, we think, is equal to Melbourne."
Foxeys Hangout is a small winery in Red Hill that neatly encapsulates what's happening on the Peninsula now. Named after a nearby eucalyptus tree where fox trappers once hung the carcasses of their catch, Foxeys winery and attached cellar door is, despite its macabre name, a place of subtle design and quiet, understated beauty. The timber and glass structure overlooking the vineyard - a style that's become something of a Peninsula signature - has a sunny terrace and, inside, a casual eating area/tasting room where winemaker brothers Michael and Tony Lee pour and discuss their wines while cooking a series of small, simple dishes (mushrooms wrapped in vine leaves collected from the vineyard, onion and silverbeet fritters served with goat's cheese and capers) on a grill in the open kitchen. "We're not a restaurant or a bar," says Tony. "We're a cellar door with good food. It helps us talk about the wine because good food always makes good wine look better."
There's a similar, though somewhat more elaborate, good food and wine story happening around the corner at places such as Montalto Vineyard and Olive Grove and Red Hill Estate in Red Hill, Ten Minutes by Tractor in Main Ridge and Willow Creek Vineyard in Merricks North, all wine businesses that, for Melburnians at least, are as well known for their regionally focused food and elegantly casual dining rooms as they are for their wine.
The most recent and dramatic addition to the Peninsula's winery community is at Port Phillip Estate in Red Hill South where a statement-making new building by architects Wood Marsh has risen in great rammed-earth sweeps from the red volcanic soil, seriously upping the ante for winery architecture in the region.
Owners Giorgio and Dianne Gjergja bought the Port Phillip Estate vineyard in 1999 and then purchased nearby Kooyong Estate five years later. The idea of a landmark winery building had been brewing for some time. "With over 20 estate and single-vineyard wines, it made sense to bring the two vineyards together at one cellar door," says Giorgio. "And we wanted to share this spectacular vineyard vista.
"I've always been one for big ideas, so my brief to Wood Marsh was, 'Build me a truly outstanding and uncompromising architectural landmark, the most exciting new winery in Victoria'. And they did." It is a building, according to architect Roger Wood, that "unites the art and craft of winemaking with the land". While it shows a rather severe side to the road, it opens spectacularly once you walk through the front door and are confronted by a huge sweep of windows drinking in a gobsmacking view across vineyards and farmland to the waters of Western Port Bay. The building is home to an 85-seat dining room, a tasting room and bar, and some impressive cellar tasting and wine storage rooms reached by a spectacular sweeping staircase.
The food at Port Phillip is being overseen by chef Simon West, formerly of Montalto and Paringa Estate, who was recently lured back to the Mornington Peninsula from a five-year stint at Tasmania's Meadowbank Estate. West says his food "reflects a love of both Mediterranean flavours and cool-climate ingredients". His menus incorporate a sizeable whack of local produce and might include fillet of snapper served with local mussels and saffron butter or rolled saddle of rabbit with black pudding stuffing and carrot purée.
The "grow your own" mantra is taken very seriously on the Mornington Peninsula. Just up the road from Port Phillip Estate, at Vines of Red Hill, owner/chef James Redfern borders on the evangelical when talking about his philosophy of using local and seasonal ingredients. "It's all about fresh food, time-honoured, labour-intensive techniques and purity of flavour," he says. "I have an organic vegetable grower on French Island who grows heirloom vegetables for me and I source as much fish as I can from the bay. It's all about highlighting this region's uniqueness so that people can come and experience something that truly reflects where they are."
One of the features of Vines, a relaxed and tranquil place, set down off the road and surrounded by bush and vineyard, is the daily "Peninsula plate" featuring exclusively regional ingredients that might include Mt Martha rock flathead roasted with thyme and rosemary, or spring greens teamed with tortellini filled with tarragon and soft curd cheese from nearby cheesemakers Red Hill Cheese.
Red Hill Cheese is a small family-run business nestled in bushland just off Arthurs Seat Road. Trevor and Jan Brandon started making cheese commercially in 2000 and have since been joined by their son Burke, who has a sheep farm in nearby Tyabb where he raises East Friesian sheep for milking. The rich, sweet sheep's milk is used for making their Red Hill pecorino, the recipe for which Burke procured from a visiting Italian cheesemaker in return for the recipe for their award-winning washed-rind Bushranger Gold goat's cheese.
Though the Brandons have tried to limit the number of cheeses they make because of their limited size, the desire to experiment constantly gets the better of them, and the repertoire now extends to more than 20 different varieties, mostly made with cow's and goat's milk and running the gamut from blue and soft white mould to semi-hard and feta styles. A tasting plate of eight cheeses is available at the cellar door for $5. Working your way through these on the veranda overlooking the bush is an unbeatable way to go cheese shopping.
For their goat's cheeses, the Brandons use milk from the nearby Main Ridge Dairy, a beautiful property a short drive away that recently opened its own smart timber and glass tasting room. There's something immensely satisfying about sampling Damien and Bess Noxon's excellent cheeses (the semi-hard Caprinella is a subtle, smooth winner) while watching their herd of ridiculously cute white Saanen and brown Toggenburg goats leaping and meandering about in a nearby paddock.
Red Hill is something of an epicentre for artisan food activity on the Peninsula. It's host to one of the longest running community markets in the state, a bustling, colourful and slightly chaotic hive of activity that's been flying the "make it, bake it, grow it or breed it" flag on the first Saturday of the month for more than 30 years. It's also the location of The Long Table, an excellent, buzzing restaurant incongruously tucked into a strip of unattractive shops. Spend a Friday night here feasting on dishes such as house-smoked tuna teamed with watermelon, olives and Flinders Farm cherry tomatoes and you're bound to see a small parade of local winemakers and other producers who seem to have made it a de facto clubhouse.
Another Red Hill favourite (and something of a closely held secret among locals) is the Red Hill Kitchen. Down yet another blink-and-you'll-miss-it lane off Arthurs Seat Road, the tiny shopfront and kitchen are set among an abundant vegetable patch where owner/chef Bernie Furness sources much of the produce that goes into the pies, curries, pasta sauces, jams, vinegars and pickles that line the glass-fronted fridge and the shelves of the shop. He also cures his own bacon (with beetroot grown in the veggie patch) and grows roses to sell as cut flowers. "Part of having a home business is that if we sell it, we have to make it," says Furness. "We eat out of the garden ourselves and any surplus we cook with. Everything else we try and source as close to home as possible."
There's a similar attitude at work just down the road at the Red Hill Brewery, David and Karen Golding's microbrewery specialising in European-style ales that have garnered rave reviews and a cult following among those who like to match their food with beer rather than wine. Set back from the road, the Red Hill Brewery has its own organic hop yard, and a rustic timber café with a sunny deck and a menu of beer-friendly food that includes local mussels, pickled cherries and cheese.
The three brews that are available year-round and on tap at the Brewery - a malty Scotch ale, a crisp golden ale and the lightly hopped, aromatic wheat beer - are also found in the bar fridges at Big Blue Backyard in St Andrews Beach.
One of the Mornington Peninsula's less-frequented spots, St Andrews delivers a wonderful sense of peace and isolation even at the height of the season. Gunnamatta Beach, with its notorious surf and famous horse riding, is close by, as are some of the area's unique attractions including the recently opened historic Quarantine Station at Point Nepean National Park and the private bathing at the Peninsula Hot Springs.
Run by Lisa and Paul Dempsey, Big Blue Backyard provides wonderfully secluded accommodation set among the ti-tree forest that surrounds the beach. The two timber-floored retreats, one beach themed, the other African, have enormous comfortable beds, outside spa baths set into a timber deck, indoor and outdoor showers, and connections to the main house via boardwalks that wind in and out of the trees. Mornings see the ever-smiling Lisa using these paths to deliver an incredibly generous breakfast to the outside dining area with its backdrop of birdsong and distant crashing waves.
Big Blue Backyard is a great example of how the Mornington Peninsula has changed over the past few years. Traditionally, Melburnians would either day-trip here or stay in beach houses, caravan parks, camping grounds or a small handful of B & Bs. Now there is an increasing number of accommodation options, several making a serious tilt at the luxury end of the market. The most recent, and undoubtedly most unusual, of these is Glynt Manor in Mt Martha.
Anyone familiar with the recently screened SBS reality series Demetri's Castle would recognise Demetri and Lila Sideropoulos, renowned hair and makeup artists who turned a crumbling old 1910 pile with sensational views across the bay to Melbourne into an ultra luxurious (and expensive) guesthouse comprising six individually themed suites, manicured gardens and lavishly furnished common rooms.
With its 37 chandeliers, lashings of Venetian glass, highly patterned curtains and upholstery and ornate French and Italian antiques, the place is an opulent hoot. It could easily have gone horribly wrong, but the pared-back lime-washed timber floors, white walls and features such as a glass roof over the bed in the Tower Suite so you sleep under the stars and an outdoor spa in the building's ivy-covered turret show that Demetri and Lila know exactly when to turn it up and when to turn it down.
In nearby Dromana is Heronswood, a place that encapsulates many of the Peninsula's best attributes. There's history with the beautiful 19th-century home, unbeatable views of the beaches and Port Phillip Bay and wonderful food from a remarkable manicured garden that is almost as edible as it is good-looking. Heronswood is home to the Digger's Club, a group that promotes and protects heirloom vegetables, and a thatched roof café where everything is sourced locally, either from the garden or from nearby producers.
Chef Luke Palmer works closely with the gardeners and, as he says, likes to "let the vegetables speak for themselves with just a nudge here and there". The flavours and the philosophy at Heronswood are all about the region. It seems, like the Mornington Peninsula itself, to inhabit its own very special little world.