A Destination for Everyone

Chris Whitelaw — 9 July 2020
A holiday destination full of coastal towns, the Bellarine Peninsula is the ultimate getaway

The Bellarine Peninsula lies about 35km south-west of the Port of Melbourne, surrounded by Corio Bay, Port Phillip Bay and Bass Strait. Its western boundary is roughly along the Surf Coast Highway between Geelong and Torquay. Together with the Mornington Peninsula, the Bellarine guards the narrow entrance to Port Phillip Bay (‘The Rip’) between Point Lonsdale and Point Nepean.

Bellarine is graced with a picturesque rural landscape of rolling hills devoted to cropping and grazing, vineyards and horticulture, interspersed with significant wetlands, and a varied coastline of sweeping surf beaches, low cliffs and dunes with extensive native vegetation. Summers can be hot, winters cool, and conditions can change rapidly to produce four seasons in one day.

The peninsula’s population, some 55,500, reside in a dozen small townships shared between the City of Greater Geelong and the Borough of Queenscliffe. The main towns are dotted around the coast and offer holiday accommodation with easy access to the calm waters of Port Phillip Bay or the surf beaches facing Bass Strait for a wide range of aquatic recreation. Several locations provide boating facilities administered by Parks Victoria. 



The myriad cafes and restaurants support a growing tourism sector based on local seafood, wine and gourmet comestibles such as cheese, olives and smallgoods. Bellarine is also home to a growing aquaculture industry, mainly mussels, with opportunities for export to international markets through nearby Avalon Airport. 

THE TERRESTRIAL ENVIRONMENT

Bellarine’s topography undulates gently over a bedrock of 40-million-year-old basalt, rising to no more than 150m above sea level without mountains or other significant landforms. The peninsula’s most distinct feature is the Barwon River, which flows through a series of lakes and wetlands before emptying into Bass Strait at Barwon Heads. The estuary is one of the largest in Western Victoria and is protected by the Lake Connewarre State Game Reserve, a complex ecosystem of international significance under the Ramsar convention. More than 149 kinds of birds have been recorded here, including several endangered migratory species. 

The reserve also provides a superb environment for recreation. A number of fishing platforms and a boardwalk provide good access to the river for catching Bream, Yellowed Eyed Mullet, Redfin and Mulloway (recreational fishing licence required). Taits Point has a boat ramp suitable for launching personal watercraft and small fishing boats, and more than 26km of walking and cycling paths provide access to parks and bird sanctuaries.

The peninsula’s eastern end is indented by Lonsdale Bay and Swan Bay, which is partly enclosed by Edwards Point and Swan Island, whose extensive saltmarshes support more than 40,000 waterbirds and nursery areas for several fish species. 

THE MARINE ENVIRONMENT

The waters around Swan Bay and Point Lonsdale form part of the 3,580-hectare Port Phillip Heads Marine National Park, which also includes the Mud Islands, Point Nepean, Pope's Eye and Portsea Hole. The park protects seagrass meadows, kelp forests, rocky reefs and deep pelagic waters, all habitats for abundant marine life. As well as prolific numbers of waders, waterbirds and seabirds, the park is frequented by Australian fur seals and sea lions, endemic Burrunan dolphins and migratory whales. It also provides opportunities for scuba diving, snorkelling, sea kayaking and surfing. 

HUMAN HISTORY

The Wathaurong Aboriginal people occupied Bellarine Peninsula for more than 25,000 years before European settlement. Their presence is recorded at over 2,000 archaeological sites, including shell middens that evidence a lifestyle supported by the bountiful marine environment. 

In 1835, John Batman (representing the Port Phillip Association) landed at Indented Head, on the peninsula’s north-east tip, and set up a base camp while he returned to Tasmania for his family and more supplies. In later years pioneers migrated along the peninsula from Geelong, establishing settlements based on wheat and grain agriculture. By the 1850s the Bellarine was known as ‘the granary of the colony’, shipping its product out of Portarlington on the north coast.

As Melbourne grew, its population began visiting the peninsula by paddle steamers to enjoy fishing and swimming, spawning the development of coastal towns as holiday resorts. In 1879 one of the first branch railways was built in Victoria, from South Geelong to Drysdale and Queenscliff, encouraging the growth in agricultural production and leading to a decline in bay steamer traffic.

As the colony’s economy flourished, international trade drew ships from around the world to Melbourne and other ports around Port Phillip Bay. Approaching from Bass Strait and entering through The Rip was a hazardous exercise, and many ships wrecked in storms or on hidden reefs now lie in waters around the peninsula. The Heads were also seen as a potential route for invasion by foreign powers in the 19th century, and forts were constructed at Queenscliff and Point Nepean.

BARWON HEADS AND OCEAN GROVE

On Bellarine’s south coast, the twin towns of Ocean Grove and Barwon Heads face each other across the mouth of the Barwon River, first linked in 1927 by a bridge that replaced a rowboat service. From origins in agriculture and fishing, the towns have evolved into tourist resorts popular for surfing, boating, fishing, aquatic sports and bushwalking. The Barwon Bluff Marine Sanctuary protects reefs and intertidal zones that are excellent for snorkelling, diving, bird watching and rockpool rambles.

The Local Port of Barwon Heads encompasses the Barwon River downstream from Sheepwash Road to the river mouth and overlaps parts of the Lake Connewarre State Game Reserve and the Barwon Bluff Marine Sanctuary, both managed by Parks Victoria. The port is managed by the Barwon Coast Committee of Management.

Recreational vessels can access port waters at the Ocean Grove boat ramp (managed by the City of Greater Geelong) or Minah Street boat ramp and Pelican Court boat ramp in Barwon Heads (both managed by Parks Victoria). PWC may only be launched at Pelican Court boat ramp and Ocean Grove boat ramps.

The port contains two jetties — Barwon Heads main jetty and Ozone Road pedestrian jetty. Both are popular with recreational fishermen and the main jetty is used for berthing commercial and recreational vessels. There are also a number of swing moorings located in two zones. The main area is used by commercial vessels (fishermen and charter operators) and recreational boat owners who generally access Bass Strait. The other, larger area upstream is only for small recreational craft (less than 6m) as vessels are beached at low tides in this location.

QUEENSCLIFF AND POINT LONSDALE

At the eastern end of the peninsula are the historic towns of Queenscliff and Point Lonsdale, twin guardians of The Rip. 

Point Lonsdale began life as a signal station in 1854. A lighthouse was built in 1863 and replaced with the current one in 1902. The township now nestles behind foreshore reserves and beaches that flank the headland, while the Port Phillip Heads Marine National Park protects offshore rock platforms and adjacent waters popular for scuba diving. 

Originally a fishing village, Queenscliff soon became an important cargo port, servicing steamships trading in Port Philip. A lightstation and pilot service was established in 1841, and two lighthouses were constructed in 1862–63. Fort Queenscliff was built during the 1880s to protect Melbourne from a feared Russian invasion and operated as the command centre for other defences around Port Phillip. Queenscliff became a tourist destination in the late 19th century, with visitors arriving from Melbourne by paddle steamer to enjoy its unique seaside location and luxury hotels. 

It still serves regional tourism with many fine heritage buildings, coastal landscapes and museums that celebrate its rich maritime and military history. A pilot service operates out of Queenscliff Harbour, which is also a port for the Searoad car and passenger ferry that connects with Sorrento on the Mornington Peninsula.

Queenscliff Harbour is also host to a commercial marina with 280 berths for vessels ranging from 6–20m. Each berth is fitted with fender strip protection, power (3-phase on the largest berths) and water. Hourly berths are also available, as are fuel and pump out facilities on the centrally located fuel wharf. Berths are accessed via security gates and CCTV monitors the marina 24/7. The Harbour’s Dry Stack facility can accommodate vessels up to 10m in under cover storage, and trailer yachts in an outside storage area. Queenscliff Marine Services provides on-site boat repairs and servicing.

As part of a $47-million state-wide project, Better Boating Victoria is upgrading the Queenscliff boat ramp facility by widening the ramps, constructing additional ones and expanding the car park to accommodate more cars and boat trailers. Ramp fees have now been removed.

ST LEONARDS

Situated at the eastern end of the peninsula, 20km north of Queenscliff, the small township of St Leonards is sheltered from prevailing south-westerlies, so it enjoys consistently calm conditions in the Coles Channel and safe swimming from its beaches. Near the town centre, a jetty projects 200m from the beach, with a wooden arm over a low rock wall extending south from its head by 150m. There are landings on the north side of the jetty, in depths of 3m, and on the inside of the arm. Depths within the harbour are just over 2m but an internal sandbank restricts room. This is a popular location for pier fishing and small boat access to the bay.

INDENTED HEAD

Four kilometres further north, the small community of Indented Head reclines along a sandy coastal fringe overlooking Half Moon Bay. During the summer months, tourists and holidaymakers flock to this pleasant seaside location to enjoy camping, fishing and boating. A jetty extends less than 40m from the beach and is only suitable as a tie-up place for small craft using the adjacent launching ramp. There is about 1m depth at its head and a reef immediately to its south, marked by a red pile. 

PORTARLINGTON

The historic township of Portarlington sits at the north-east corner of the peninsula, 30km east of Geelong. The Portarlington Pier was constructed in 1859 and quickly became an important port of call for steamers plying Port Phillip Bay. The jetty was modified in the 1870s to reach deeper water, allowing vessels to dock at any tide. The town’s picturesque setting and fine sandy beaches attracted visitors from Geelong and Melbourne, and the regular steamer service secured the town's future as a popular seaside resort. 

The steamers have been replaced by a fast-cat ferry service operated by Port Phillip Ferries between Portarlington and Melbourne Docklands, reinforcing the town’s popularity as a holiday destination for safe swimming and excellent fishing. The local aquaculture industry has elevated Portarlington to the ‘Mussel Capital of Victoria’.

Today, the Portarlington Pier projects 220m into the bay, with a long stone wall along the north side that provides some protection. A second 75m finger extends from the main pier into the harbour where depths on its north side are about 3m and dredged to about 2m on the south side. The land provides protection from the prevailing SSW winds, although weather from the NE quarter can reduce comfort. Anchorage over sand is possible west of the harbour outside the row of yellow piles. 

CLIFTON SPRINGS

The historic town of Clifton Springs overlooks Corio Bay, 24km east of Geelong. It is primarily a residential community and the main commercial centre for the Bellarine’s northern area. A boat harbour protected by a breakwater is situated off the northern end of Jetty Road. On the western side of the harbour is a sandy beach near a dismantled pier, where the shallow water makes for safe swimming and interesting snorkelling. The boat harbour has been upgraded to provide a ‘District level’ boat launch facility to handle high activity during the peak boating season. 


MORE INFO

BELLARINE VISITOR INFORMATION CENTRE

1251 Bellarine Highway, Wallington

P: 1800 755 611 

W: visitmelbourne.com/regions/geelong-and-the-bellarine/travel-information/visitor-information-centres/bellarine-visitor-information-centre

QUEENSCLIFFE VISITOR INFORMATION CENTRE

55 Hesse Street, Queenscliff

P: (03) 5258 4843 or 1300 884 843 

W: queenscliffe.vic.gov.au/for-visitors/visitor-information-centre

QUEENSCLIFF HARBOUR PTY LTD

1 Harbour Street, Queenscliff

P: (03) 5258 5459

VHF Channel 16

E: info@queenscliffharbour.com.au

W: queenscliffharbour.com.au/contact-us/

QUEENSCLIFF MARINE SERVICES

P: (03) 5258 1305

FORT QUEENSCLIFF

Cnr Gellibrand & King Sts

P: (03) 5258 1488

W: fortqueenscliff.com.au

QUEENSCLIFF MARITIME MUSEUM

2 Wharf St, Queenscliff

P: (03) 5258 3440

W: maritimequeenscliffe.org.au

MARINE & FRESHWATER DISCOVERY CENTRE

2a Bellarine Hwy, Queenscliff

P: (03) 5258 3344

W: vfa.vic.gov.au/education/marine-and-freshwater-discovery-centre

QUEENSCLIFF HISTORICAL MUSEUM

49 Hesse St, Queenscliff

P: (03) 5258 2511

W: historyofqueenscliffe.com

PARKS VICTORIA INFORMATION CENTRE

P: 13 1963 

W: parkweb.vic.gov.au

LOCAL PORT OF BARWON HEADS

Local Port Officer, Warren Chapman

P: (03) 5254 1118 (office hours)

M: 0418 506 151

E: office@barwoncoast.com.au; warren@barwoncoast.com.au

Tags

Destination Bellerine Peninsula Victoria Coastal

Photographer

Chris Whitelaw