A weekender’s guide to Queenscliff

Queenscliff Pier in the evening

Clare Barry and Patricia Maunder

Posted October 07, 2019

Fishing, ferries and seafarers abound in the tiny, almost-island town of Queenscliff.

It’s close to dusk on a murky Sunday and a trio of fisherfolk are chatting their way home down the Queenscliff Pier. They came seeking “calamari” but got crabs instead, five of them scrabbling entree-sized in a bucket.

Through the old waiting shed for the Queenscliff-Sorrento ferry more fishers huddle over rods. A European gent in fluoro fleece has four lines in. He’s looking for squid too and is ready to sit it out another two hours. “It’s relaxing,” he says. “A month ago I had heart attack. I need the fresh air.”

Queenscliffe Pier. Photo: Anne Morley
Queenscliff Harbour. Photo: Anne Morley
QMM Historic Lifeboat. Photo: Anne Morley

There’s no shortage of that around here. Set at the end of an isthmus, Queenscliff is as close as it gets to an island without actually being one. And it’s still as much about the sea that all but surrounds it as it was in its 19th-century heyday.

An early kind of Airbnb played out here from the late 19th century as residents of shoreside Fisherman’s Flat vacated their cottages for backyard tents, renting out their homes to townie tourists. The extra cash was a handy supplement to the precariously seasonal barracouta catch in the days when sunseeking Melburnians rolled off the pier from bay steamers in their thousands.

Up on higher ground, grand hotels and guesthouses catered to the smart set. Today, looking south from the pier and through the Norfolk pines of Princess Park, which hosted seaside carnivals and foot races back in the day, you can make out the turrets and towers of Gellibrand Street’s posher digs. Further along, you’ll spot the outline of Queenscliff Fort and its rare black lighthouse. It’s not your usual seaside skyline.

The black tower or High Light, explains Queenscliffe Maritime Museum’s John Sisley, lines up with its white sister lighthouse (the Low Light) along the bluff to guide ships into Port Phillip Bay.

“It’s one of the most dangerous entrances to a port anywhere in the world,” says John. “It’s about three kilometres across but there’s only nine hundred or so metres of navigable channel because of the reefs off Point Lonsdale and Point Nepean.”

Hume Tower. Photo: Anne Morley

Hume Tower. Photo: Anne Morley

That said, Andrew is behind one of Queenscliff’s newer attractions, having launched mobile restaurant Q Train on the Bellarine Railway’s Queenscliff to Drysdale route in 2017. Passengers enjoy a locally flavoured degustation menu in converted ’50s-built Queensland Rail carriages as the train chugs through the centre of the Bellarine.

The railway itself is a multi-tasker, running heritage train rides and specials (including a Day Out with Thomas The Tank Engine and Santa Trains). It also hosts the Blues Train from August til May, and will fill its carriages with musicians for the Queenscliff Music Festival in late November.

(RACV members can get a return fare between Queenscliff and Drysdale for the price of a one-way on The Bellarine Railway. They can also save five per cent on Blues Train tickets.)

Heralding the summer season, the festival brings some 20,000 music lovers to town. There’s also a cool-weather counterpart, Low Light Queenscliff, which runs over consecutive weekends in May and June, boosting tourism in the low season with a fringe-style format incorporating literary and film festivals and a winter concert series.

This year’s Low Light offerings included music from Mojo Juju and Dan Sultan, a winter market, ice-skating, whisky masterclasses, Melbourne artist Tinky’s miniature street installations, a twilight ‘captain’s table’ on the Sorrento ferry, writer visits from Kerry O’Brien, Helen Garner and William McInnes, a Bordeaux v Bellarine dinner and the burning of three artist-made sculptures on the winter solstice.

So not all about the sea then.

Buildings on the street in Queenscliff

Hesse Street. Photo: Anne Morley

The facts

Where is it?

30 kilometres south-east of Geelong, 100 kilometres south-west of Melbourne, or 40 minutes by ferry from Sorrento.


Queenscliff, Point Lonsdale and Swan Island form the Borough of Queenscliffe. Less than 11 square kilometres, it’s Victoria’s smallest local government area.

Best time to visit

Queenscliff Music Festival returns on 22 to 24 November with Tim Finn, Missy Higgins and Troy Cassar-Daley in the line-up.

Take home

You can brew your own craft beer at Queenscliff Brewhouse’s microbrewery, or try their Queenscliff Distillery citrus, dry and navy gins made on site, and buy a bottle of your favourite.

Don’t miss

360Q’s smart-casual dining at the modern harbour redevelopment. Boats glide by its deck and epic views await at the lookout upstairs.


Three things

Vine time

Enjoy the fruits of the Bellarine Peninsula's maritime labour with a visit to Scotchman's Hill. This award-winning winery's cellar door, which is housed in a beautiful old Hansel and Gretel-style house, is perched atop a hill overlooking the estate's sprawling, 30-year-old vines. Here, lingering is encouraged – even in chilly weather, when premium red wine and a fire pit keep spirits warm. It’s at its best on sunny afternoons, where guests can pull up a seat on a sun-drenched deck and relax over a glass of premium pinot noir or chardonnay. Show your RACV membership card for a free wine tasting at the cellar door.

Under the sea

The Rip’s treacherous reputation has a silver lining for dive enthusiasts – there are shipwrecks galore in the vicinity, and the ship’s graveyard just outside the heads holds dozens of vessels including ‘J’ class submarines and the steamer Coogee, scuttled in the 1920s. Find out about some of the more spectacular local shipwrecks at the maritime museum.

Fresh fish

Got a taste for fresh seafood? For just that, literally fresh off the boat, head to MiShells Seafood which operates from a boat in Queenscliff Harbour and had scallops, mussels, flathead, snapper and kingfish the day we visited. Opening times depend on the season.