Stuart Bell's Mornington Peninsula

Author: Kerryn Burgess
Photography: Julian Kingma

Working as a chef means a lot of non-stop hustle and bustle. What I love about the Mornington Peninsula is being able to head out of the restaurant and be in the middle of the countryside straight away, or down at the beach in just a few minutes.

I've always enjoyed the coast, and I'm a keen swimmer. Last summer I competed in the Point Leo Swim Classic, a 1200-metre open-water swim on Western Port Bay, and I train with a squad every week. But the coast is a great family experience, too. My daughters are 10, eight and three, and they love the beach at Rosebud. Even when it's too cold to swim they can spend hours looking at shells and driftwood on the beach.

Chefs' hobbies tend to be calming and relaxed. A lot of chefs like fishing. You're out on the water, you're quiet and you're patient. On the peninsula there are spots all around the coast for throwing in a line. Flinders jetty is good for fish and squid, and I like to take the tinny out for snapper and whiting. My two oldest daughters have their own fishing rods - it's a fun family outing.

When it comes to everyday eating, I like small places that are a bit undiscovered. This time of year I head to Picknics Café in Rye, which is cosy even when it's cold and windy outside. It's a classic beachside place, with starfish on the walls, very simple, but it's owned and run by a chef. The eggs are local and the bacon and sausages are excellent quality.

Peninsula Pantry, also in Rye, is another local gem. They make great coffee and all their own cakes and pastries (try the vanilla slice - it's not too sweet and it's made with proper pastry cream).

As for special-occasion restaurants, and wineries, markets, galleries and bushwalks, we're spoilt for choice in this part of Victoria. The places I've suggested here are all favourite spots I've enjoyed with the staff at work, or with my family.

Peninsula Hot Springs
My girls love the natural hot mineral springs. Autumn is the best time of year to visit, when the weather is cooler. There are lots of different-shaped pools, all nicely landscaped, with various depths, mostly outdoors. The temperature in each one is different, and they range from 17 to 42 degrees. A visit here isn't cheap, but it's good value. Very relaxing. 

Mornington Peninsula National Park
There are lots of walking tracks on the peninsula, but Fingal Beach, part of Mornington Peninsula National Park, is one of my family's favourite hikes. The 3km return walk starts off Cape Schanck Road and involves a lot of stairs, but it's well worth it. You could spend a whole day having a picnic here. My girls love looking for crabs in the seaweed, and the coastal scenery is amazing. Cape Schanck lighthouse and Gunnamatta Beach, also in the national park, are close by. 

Gordon Studio Glassblowers, Red Hill
Gordon Studio in Red Hill is unique on the peninsula. Visitors can watch the glass artists at work from up on the deck, and the gallery exhibits work from lots of different artists. I bought my wife a special birthday gift here. The studio runs occasional classes and workshops too. 

Heronswood, Dromana
I buy the seeds for the restaurant's vegetable patch and for my garden at home from Heronswood, which is the Diggers Club garden, shop and café in Dromana. At the restaurant we grow artichokes, purple congo potatoes, Chioggia beetroot and heirloom carrots, as well as tigerella and cherry tomatoes. Heronswood has seedlings, shrubs and fruit trees for sale, and hundreds of unusual seeds to choose from.

Main Street Market, Mornington
Mornington's Main Street Market, held every Wednesday morning, is aimed at the hospitality crowd rather than the tourists - I've found quite a few suppliers for the restaurant via the market. The vegetables are mainly heirloom varieties, or organic, or both, and there are also jams, chutneys, cakes, Peninsula honey and goat's cheeses. The other main market in the area, Red Hill, attracts producers who are more established, but Mornington is an outlet for smaller stallholders who sell at just this one market. And of course there are the ladies who sell their knitting. 

Dee's Kitchen, Dromana
Last time I was at Dee's Kitchen I had a salad of chickpeas, quinoa, yoghurt and spices. The menu features Moroccan, Tunisian and Persian flavours, and the restaurant feels cosy inside. Regional wines dominate the wine list. It's one of my favourite lunch spots, tucked away off the main street in Dromana. 

Queenscliff-Sorrento ferry
Catching the ferry from Sorrento to Queenscliff is a great day out, and you don't even need to take the car. It only takes 40 minutes, and my kids love going out on deck and exploring the boat. On the other side, 360Q is a modern Australian restaurant and wine store that's part of Queenscliff Harbour. It's owned by the people behind Yering Station, and the wine selection is excellent. 

Main Ridge Dairy
My dream is to have a hobby farm one day, but for now I enjoy the tour offered at Main Ridge Dairy. I visited it with a staff group from Ten Minutes by Tractor, and we saw the goats in their paddocks, and the milking process. The goats are amazing - they're quite clever and they've each got their own character. The dairy offers cheese tastings and platters, too. 

Red Hill Brewery
Red Hill Brewery is open to the public on long weekends with flights of beers to taste, and rustic food to match - slow-cooked braises and hearty fare. They even grow their own hops. Look out for the golden ale, the wheat beer and the Hop Harvest Ale. 

Montalto Vineyard & Olive Grove
Montalto is just around the corner from Ten Minutes by Tractor. There's a casual pizzeria outside and a more formal restaurant inside, where chef Barry Davis has a produce-driven French menu featuring local ingredients. The restaurant's own kitchen garden supplies a lot of the vegetables and herbs. They're very supportive of Australian artists and hold an annual sculpture exhibition in the grounds. The restaurant is my choice for special occasions such as anniversaries. 

An Australian Gourmet Traveller Promotion: proudly presented by Tourism Victoria.

Getting there

Be in the heart of the peninsula in just an hour. The most direct route from Melbourne is via the Eastlink tollway, connecting to Peninsula Link. Or take the Nepean Highway through Frankston and head onto Point Nepean Road to access Mornington, Rosebud, Sorrento, Portsea, Red Hill, and beyond.

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