Away from Melbourne: Mornington Peninsula

Go for its serenity – discover the art, food, and wine

BY T.J. OLWIG — Fall 2019

n a cool summer morning, two vignerons tend to a field of grapes alit by the early sun. Around them, rows of vines garnish the rolling countryside, rising and falling in a verdant wave. If it weren’t for the white cockatoos flying over the terrain, and the chorus of kookaburras echoing in the valley, by looks alone, I’d swear this was Tuscany. Silent and spellbound from the balcony of my Vineyard View suite, I suppose there are less enchanting places to be drinking coffee on my 33rd birthday.

Welcome to Mornington Peninsula, an outcrop of agrarian bliss an hour’s drive from the bustle of Melbourne. Long a weekend getaway for the city’s well-to-do residents, the Peninsula, as Melbournians call it, has more recently blossomed into a haven for artists, chefs, entrepreneurs, and vintners — some in search of opportunity; others, a lifestyle change. Who can blame them, what with 50 cellar doors, a couple of national parks, more than 20 golf courses, and 100-plus miles of sandy coastline. No longer a hidden gem, this destination’s upswing is bringing a wave of travelers and new businesses along with it.

Jackalope’s Flaggerdoot hotel bar

Exhibit A: Jackalope — the stylish boutique hotel I’ve barely checked into that has me instantly inquiring about its late checkout policy. Surrounded by eucalypti and sitting on an ethereal vineyard, the 46-room property looks more like an art installation at New York’s MoMA than Australia’s buzziest luxury escape — that is, an art installation composed of deep-soak Japanese bathtubs and a 98-foot black infinity pool that creates the illusion you’re wading in a pinot pasture.

Named for a mythical North American creature (a cross between a jackrabbit and an antelope), Jackalope (from $468) is the brainchild of 30-year-old Louis Li, a Chinese-born filmmaker who decided to merge his passion for design and storytelling with his family’s background in hotel development. Every detail was inspired by, and built according to, the seven stages of alchemy — the ancient practice of turning metals into gold and the pursuit of life’s elixir, represented throughout by the transformation of grapes into wine. Specific nods to alchemy include the 10,000-bulb chandelier adorning the ceiling of Doot Doot Doot — Jackalope’s award-winning restaurant — that’s meant to evoke the fermentation stage of Champagne; and Flaggerdoot, a remodeled 19th-century homestead turned superchic hotel bar that’s based on the distillation process and feels like the contemporary workshop of Albus Dumbledore.

Although I’m tempted to lay poolside until my 34th birthday, the thought of crisscrossing the Peninsula by car proves more enticing. At Pt. Leo Estate, one of the region’s most talked about wineries, I savor an entree of coconut-flavored snapper ceviche in the Pt. Leo Restaurant over a crisp glass of pinot gris. With sweeping views of Western Port Bay, Pt. Leo Estate is the $35 million vision of billionaire John Gandel, a Melbourne philanthropist and art aficionado whose private collection of 50-some-odd large-scale works ornament the grounds’ 19-acre sculpture park. The combination of food, art, nature, and wine at Pt. Leo Estate has taken the Peninsula, as one guest points out, “to a whole new level.”

Pt. Leo Estate’s sculpture park. PHOTO BY ANSON SMART.

On the Peninsula’s other side, I visit another fun stop and must-do for any visitor: the Arthurs Seat Eagle gondola lift, which soars over a lush state park from the area’s summit of 1,000 feet. On a clear day, my 30-minute round-trip ride provides a stunning aerial view of Port Phillip Bay and hues of ocean blue I didn’t know existed around here. Farther out, the distant Melbourne skyline makes the perfect panoramic postcard; the city is oh-so-close in proximity, but truly a world away.

Arthurs Seat Eagle gondola. PHOTO BY CRAIG SILLITOE.

The real magic in these parts, at least for me, is the endless pastoral charm that unfolds between the big dots on the map. After years of big-city living, my chauffeur, Kirsty Boston, returned to the Peninsula nine years ago to raise a family. “We wanted sea views and space, which we now have in spades,” she says.

During our 20-minute drive back to the hotel, past sprawling pastureland and groves of weeping willows, I see signs — many handmade — for everything from supersweet strawberries and the “best” goat cheese to pick-your-own cherries, Aussie garlic, a bed-and-breakfast, an art gallery, a craft brewery, and a gin distillery — and, oh yes, koala and kangaroo crossings. As for wineries, oenophiles need not worry: I stopped counting at seven.

ALSO IN MORNINGTON . . .

PLAY Three courses make up the National Golf Club at Cape Schanck, Australia’s largest private golf club, often called the Southern Hemisphere’s best golf complex. Nonmembers can generally play the Old Course, which offers the best ocean views, and Moonah, a Greg Norman gem spread out over native coastal dune land. But for now, only members can tee up at the Gunnamatta course, which reopened in April after a dramatic redesign by Tom Doak. NGC general manager Jon Gahan says that restriction may be lifted but not before next year at the earliest. For more details and tee times: info@nationalgolf.com.au.

STAY Despite a contemporary makeover to its 40 rooms, the Lindenderry at Red Hill by Lancemore remains a cozy country retreat with the spirit of a French château. Set on 30 acres of gardens and vines, the property is bolstered by a highly rated cellar door, featuring some of the region’s finest chardonnays and pinot noirs. From $205. lancemore.com.au/lindenderry

Overlooking the Bass Strait, amid dense scrubland, the recently renovated RACV Cape Schanck Resort offers 184 rooms and suites, plus a lavish day spa, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. golf course, and easy access to miles of wild coastal trails. From $215. racv.com.au/capeschanck

EAT The tasting menu at Laura, Pt. Leo Estate’s 45-seat fine-dining restaurant, is a culinary ode to the Peninsula’s seasons and flavors. Phil Wood, one of Australia’s most talented chefs, helms the kitchen. Since opening in 2018, Laura has won “New Restaurant of the Year” in the Good Food Guide Awards and just recently qualified as a Relais & Châteaux-certified restaurant. ptleoestate.com.au/laura

DO Ranging from 86 to 118 degrees Fahrenheit, the mineral-rich geothermic pools at the Peninsula Hot Springs retreat provide the ultimate Down Under R&R. A recent $10 million expansion includes a garden for its onsite café, updates to its spa and wellness center, and a lakeside amphitheater. Come 2020, it will offer glamping, with future plans for luxury lodging with private hot springs. peninsulahotsprings.com

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