Melbourne's Seaside Getaways
Published: September 2010
By Sally Webb
The historic coastal towns Portsea and Sorrento are known for fresh seafood, terrific wines, and a lively beach culture that’s as Aussie as it gets.
On Friday afternoons from December through February—the golden peak of Australian summer—you can almost trace a line of cars heading out of Melbourne: a happy exodus of weekenders bound for the Mornington Peninsula, 56 miles south of Australia’s sophisticated southern city. Chances are they’re headed for Portsea or Sorrento, the two beach towns at the peninsula’s far western tip. Comparing these celebrated communities to New York’s Hamptons is not inaccurate, but doesn’t convey their uniquely antipodean appeal. These are laid-back escapes, Aussie-style: surfing in the mornings, languid lunches, fish-and-chips on the beach at sunset.
Nor are the towns interchangeable. Sorrento first emerged as an upscale resort in the 1870’s and is now the area’s shopping and dining hub, with some top-notch restaurants and well-kept historic architecture. Portsea, a five-minute drive west, is decidedly quieter, a tony enclave of exclusive villas and expansive white-sand beaches. And of course there’s far more beyond the towns themselves: the peninsula gives over to bucolic parkland, hot springs, and—not least—a handful of excellent wineries.
Set high on the cliff above Sorrento’s small harbor on Port Phillip Bay, Great Value Hotel Sorrento (doubles from $198, including breakfast) has 41 elegant rooms, some with timber finishes and exposed stone walls. At Peppers Moonah Links Resort (doubles from $291), 20 minutes southeast of Sorrento, the 89 suites and studios are accented in earthy, sunburned tones and many have private balconies or patios overlooking the property’s two golf courses. Farther afield, the Port Phillip Estate vineyard (studios from $448, two night minimum) opened six high-design apartments last month; rooms have boldly colored silk Italian throws, Missoni bathrobes, and amenities by Aesop. Travelers planning an extended stay should consider renting a family-owned villa. Sorrento Portsea Getaways (beach houses from $1,790 per week) leases houses in both towns, many with striking interiors, pools, tennis courts, and water views.
Sorrento has a clutch of superb restaurants: Aquolina (dinner for two $117) dishes up hearty northern Italian food including house-made spaghetti with fresh clams, mussels, and bottarga (tuna roe). Book a romantic garden table at Loquat (dinner for two $112) and feast on sophisticated Mediterranean plates like a crisp-skinned duck breast and duck-leg confit—try it paired with a Pinot Noir from Paringa Estate, a nearby winery. The Baths (lunch for two $72), a 10-year-old Sorrento staple with informal wooden tables and chairs, serves up piping hot fish-and-chips and chopped salads topped with calamari. For the ultimate seaside picnic, head to the one-stop deli Stringers Stores (lunch for two $23) to pick up delicious ready-made meals (moussaka; pâtés; chicken-and-leek pies), freshly baked breads, and a variety of top-notch peninsula wines, including Stonier Reserve Chardonnay and Ten Minutes by Tractor Pinot Noir. Watch the sunset over Front Beach from the Portsea Hotel’s Beer Garden, where Aussie brews James Squire and Fat Yak are on tap.
Shopping here is limited; the best boutiques line Sorrento’s wide main street. The eclectic Gallery Sorrento has rotating exhibits by Australian artists such as Rick Matear, whose moody paintings often feature the Mornington Peninsula. For flirty summer dresses and linen skirts and tops, Debs Boutique showcases up-and-coming Australian designers like Thurley and Lisa Brown. Seed has exquisite children’s clothing, including colorful bathing suits (or cossies, as the Australians call them).
The tip of Mornington Peninsula is flanked by calm bay waters and surf-worthy ocean beaches known for their windswept natural beauty. Our favorite swimming spot: Shelley Beach, halfway between Portsea and Sorrento, for its clear shallow waters and powdery white sand. Keep an eye out for pods of bottlenose dolphins offshore. Save time to explore Point Nepean National Park, at the tip of the peninsula, where you can see black wallabies, blue-winged parrots, and long-nosed bandicoots. At Peninsula Hot Springs, 15 minutes southeast of Sorrento, natural mineral springs feed indoor and outdoor pools and baths.
The region’s 50-plus vineyards and cool maritime climate varieties have made wine tasting another peninsula highlight. A modest dirt road leads to Moorooduc Estate, where vintner Richard McIntyre’s earthy Shiraz and wood-fired pizzas (served only on weekends) have a cult following. Ten Minutes by Tractor Wine Co. has made a name for itself with its rich Chardonnays. And the most impressive winery is Port Phillip Estate. Try the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the tasting room, a striking space with ribbed wood ceilings and views of the 60-acre property.
Additional reporting by David Hay.
When to Go
Travelers flock to Portsea and Sorrento during Australia’s summer months, December through February. It’s still warm (and less crowded) in November and March.
Sorrento is about 56 miles from Melbourne. For the scenic, seaside route, take the Nepean Highway through St. Kilda, Brighton, Mordialloc, Frankston, Mount Martha, and Dromana. By public transportation, take a train to Frankston, then a connecting bus to Sorrento or Portsea.