By Cathy Anderson
This quaint historic town on the tip of the Bellarine Peninsula is garnering a reputation for fine cuisine, boutique accommodation and a newly-launched vibrant winter arts festival.
Queenscliff is a delightful melting pot of Indigenous and colonial history, maritime and military might and seaside resort relaxation.
Just under an hour’s journey from Avalon Airport, it’s a small town that’s quite removed from its neighbours on the Bellarine Peninsula. Queenscliff offers many modern conveniences, yet its heritage buildings, restored railway and 19th century charm mean it does so with such a nostalgic atmosphere that you will feel as though you have stepped back in time.
TOWN OF MANY COLOURS
Originally inhabited by the Wathaurong Indigenous tribe, colonial settlers first sighted the spot in 1802 but it wasn’t until the mid 1800s that town plans were drawn up and construction began. Established as a military and police base on the cliffs known as Shortlands Bluff, and as a fishing village, Queenscliff soon became a very fashionable seaside holiday destination.
Paddle steamers navigated Port Phillip Bay to bring tourists from Melbourne to stay at grand guest houses such as Vue Grand, Seaview House and Athelstane House, dine at fashionable restaurants and undertake healthy walks along the coastline. Not too much has changed in this regard, except visitors now arrive by car or by a Searoads Ferry service from the town of Sorrento on the other side of the Bay.
Fun fact: The borough of Queenscliffe (the only one left in Victoria) is spelled with an ‘e’ on the end, while the town is referred to as Queenscliff.
The Queenscliffe Visitors Centre offers daily heritage tours every Tuesday for $7 and on Saturday for $15 which includes afternoon tea (www.queenscliffe.vic.gov.au). Fort Queenscliff began with a battery in 1860 to defend Port Phillip Heads and you can join daily daily guided tours (www.fortqueenscliff.com.au).
Adding to the historical atmosphere is the Bellarine Railway (http://bellarinerailway.com.au). The Queenscliff-Drysdale section of the former Victorian Railway’s South Geelong-Queenscliff branch line, the oldest in the state still in operation, is run by volunteers with regular events such as Thomas the Tank days for kids and the Blues Train with live blues gigs and a buffet dinner (www.thebluestrain.com.au).
There’s also a thriving arts scene in Queenscliff with many art galleries including Salt Contemporary Art and Seaview Art Gallery. The most impressive is the Queenscliff Gallery & Workshop, established only a few years ago in an 1868 Wesleyan church and dedicated to the art of printmaking (www.qgw.com.au).
COAST WITH THE MOST
In 1838 the first ‘pilot’ boat service was started to guide ships in through The Rip, the notoriously dangerous stretch of water between Queenscliff and Sorrento. These boats, albeit more modern forms still operate today, and you can see them by taking a short stroll to the magnificent $37 million Queenscliff Harbour and take a wander along the boardwalk adorned with cafes and boutique shops (www.queenscliffharbour.com.au).
The Maritime Museum is next to the Harbour and offers a fascinating glimpse into the shipwrecks that line the entrance to The Rip, restored Queenscliff lifeboat and lifesaving equipment, historic scuba diver displays and much more (www.queenscliffemaritimemuseum.com.au)
To see Port Phillip Bay and its marine residents up close and personal, book a seal or dolphin swim tour with See All Dolphin Swims to several spots within the Port Phillip Heads Marine National Park (www.dolphinswims.com.au).
For land-based coastal cruising, wander along the beach and Queenscliff Pier, hire a bike from Beacon Bike Hire at the BIG4 Beacon Resort and cruise the Bellarine Rail Trail northeast toward Geelong, or perhaps amble along the 11km return walk from Queenscliff railway station to Point Lonsdale Lighthouse, one of the last manned lighthouses in Australia.
Queenscliff is enveloped by lush farmland and bountiful vineyards which is now formally known as the Bellarine Taste Trail (www.thebellarinetastetrail.com.au). Famed growers and producers among the nearly 50 foodie destinations include the Lonsdale Tomato Farm, The Little Mussel Cafe in Portarlington and Drysdale Cheeses, with tipples from Baie Wines, Jack Rabbit Vineyard, Flying Brick Cider Co and Bellarine Distillery to name a few.
Most restaurants in Queenscliff shop locally for ingredients and their cellars. If you’re looking for a waterfront experience, 360Q at Queenscliff Harbour offers a global menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner, local craft beers and wines and a killer view over the marina (www.360q.com.au). There are also ticketed dinner and music events in the upstairs function space and the tower next door offers free entry and magnificent 360-degree views.
The Q Train offers a unique rail dining experience with a meal on board an historic train as you cruise the Bellarine Railway line between Queenscliff and Drysdale (www.theqtrain.com.au).
Sample dishes brimming with Bellarine produce at Piknik, a cafe and pantry for home-made jams and relishes in a converted Golden Fleece roadhouse (www.piknik.com.au) or try a Devonshire tea at the rather imposing Vue Grand hotel, built in 1881, in town (https://vuegrand.com.au). Fancy a snack? European visitors say the pastries at Alchemy Woodfire Bakehouse are better than what you’ll find in France…
PUT YOUR FEET UP
From grand heritage hotels to yachts and smart, modern caravan parks, Queenscliff has a surprising bounty of accommodation options for such a small town.
The Beacon BIG4 caravan park offers caravan and camping options as well as one, two and three bedroom apartments — an onsite day spa (www.beaconresort.com.au). For a more historic experience try heritage listed guest house Circa 1902 which also offers a lovely restaurant (www.circa1902.com.au) or beautiful Athelstane House which dates back to 1960
Circa 1902 (https://athelstane.com.au/). If you want the water to rock you to sleep, check out Amour de la Mer — a deluxe catamaran docked at the Harbour and available on Airbnb.
There are plenty of large homes to house big groups of friends or family to be found online via Queenscliff and Coastal Holiday Bookings (www.queenscliffandcoastalholidays.com.au), including period homes with stunning 19th Century furniture (but modern kitchens and plumbing) such as Clydesville.
Photos: Visit Victoria, Jo Ruffin and Nguyen Dang
This article originally appeared Avalon Inbound I Outbound magazine.