Tourism on the Bellarine kicked off in the 1870s, when people travelled from Melbourne to Queenscliff by paddlesteamer. These days, Queenscliff is known for its historic streetscapes and heritage-listed buildings, the paddlesteamers have long gone and the Bellarine is best explored by car. It's about a 90-minute drive from Melbourne, so it's an easy day trip, but its relaxed pace is better enjoyed on a weekend-long stay. It's also an easy add-on to a trip along the Great Ocean Road, which starts (or finishes, depending on which direction you're coming from) in Torquay.
Brunch and more in Barwon Heads
Just a stone's throw from Torquay, Barwon Heads is a blink-and-you'll miss-it kind of place. Here's some advice: don't. Instead, do as the locals do, browse the chic boutiques that line the single main street and when you see a free table at gourmet grocery store Annie's Provedore (anniesprovedore.com.au), grab it. For breakfast, the blueberry and ricotta hotcakes are a guilty pleasure that's best assuaged by a walk along the nearby beach.
During summer, Barwon is packed with holidaymakers who stay at the beachside caravan park (barwonheadscaravanpark.com.au); in winter, it's just locals and their dogs enjoying the wide, windswept views. Before sunset pop into Barwon Heads Wine Store (barwonheadswinestore.com.au) for a friendly chat about locally made wines.
Make sure you leave some time for a round of golf at Barwon Heads Golf Club (bhgc.com.au/welcome/index.mhtml) or watch the surfers at nearby 13th Beach, but only enter the water if you're a good swimmer – the currents here are strong. Afterwards, grab a casual lunch at The Shack (shackdiningco.com.au), a comfortable, cottage-like place that serves chunky burgers along with more delicate dishes such as a charred cauliflower salad dotted with jewel-like pomegranate seeds.
Go organic in Ocean Grove
Two bridges sit side-by-side across the Barwon River; reflective of the lifestyle here, one's for pedestrians and fishing, the other's for cars, and both connect Barwon Heads with Ocean Grove. As you enter the hilly town, glimpses of the horseshoe-shaped beach tell you why the laid-back 'O Grove', as the locals call it, is popular with families. There's a bit of a hippie vibe here, with a gift shop festooned in dream catchers, a yoga studio and the health-conscious Kyosk Cafe (kyosk.com.au) on one street corner alone.
Kitted out in funky, Asian-inspired furniture – including an Astro Boy-themed counter and even part of a tuk-tuk – Kyosk may seem whimsical, but it takes its food seriously, focusing on organic produce that tastes as good as it is for you. Around the corner, Napona (napona.com.au) offers a more refined setting; on sunny days, the tree-lined deck is the best spot to try its delectable seafood dishes or tapas-style tasting plates.
Wine and dine in Wallington
Oakdene vineyards (oakdene.com.au), with a cellar door and restaurant, is set in what appears to be an upside down house. The award-winning cellar door offers tastings of its crisp sauvignon blanc and elegant pinot noir, among other delicious drops. Naturally, the wines also feature at Oakdene's on-site restaurant; try them with the four-course tasting menu, which might include dishes like slow cooked, melt-in-the-mouth Black Angus beef and truffle-infused cheese from nearby Drysdale.
If wine's not your thing, head to nearby Flying Brick Cider Co (flyingbrickciderco.com.au). A tasting paddle of cider can be sipped on the vast lawn surrounding the wide, contemporary restaurant and cider house, or head inside to try locally sourced smoked lamb belly or cuttlefish with a dusting of fiery szechuan salt that'll make your tongue tingle (something we hear you can cure with more cider).
Hop over to the Bellarine
The peninsula's namesake area has sublime views over Port Phillip Bay, which arguably are best enjoyed with a glass of wine in hand at Jack Rabbit vineyard (jackrabbitvineyard.com.au). The contemporary restaurant – featuring warm wooden floorboards and furniture, massive windows and even bigger views – has a seasonally changing menu that makes the most of local produce. With innovative dishes (think granita-like, fluffy buttermilk 'snow' with locally foraged, salty samphire and a juicy Balmain bug) coupled with the winery's citrusy riesling or flavour-rich chardonnay, it's no wonder this restaurant has won multiple awards.
Speaking of awards, Terindah Estate (www.terindahestate.com) – just a moment from Jack Rabbit – is practically groaning under the weight of them, having been awarded numerous times for its wine and its venue. This beautiful vineyard – with views across bright green grapevines to the blue bay beyond – is the place to go for special occasions, such as the end of your Bellarine vacation. While feasting on succulent confit pork and crispy, golden potatoes roasted in duck fat, why not start planning another trip here – the true beauty of the Bellarine is that there's always more to discover.