A weekender’s guide to Queenscliff
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.”
Queenscliff has long been a port of call for seafaring and sunseeking Victorians alike. Now the tiny coastal town is drawing a new kind of seaside tourist.
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.”
Which is where the low-slung beachside building set between pier and fort comes in. The Port Phillip Sea Pilots station sends pilots zipping out in orange launches and scrambling up rope ladders on to ships day and night and in all weather to guide vessels through the notorious Rip.
With a few exceptions for Bass Strait ferries, naval ships and the like, the sea pilots board every vessel more than 120 feet long. The pilot assumes control of the ship and navigates it up the bay via the former course of the Yarra River.
There’s a model of this at the museum, along with a boat building shed, the gorgeously restored lifeboat Queenscliff and tales wild but true of shipwrecks, freak waves and heroic rescues.
Queenscliff is “still all about the sea”, says John, with a couple of commercial fishing boats plying their trade and recreational fishers chasing snapper, whiting and flathead. There’s pleasure boating too and scuba diving and, in July and August, you might see whales off the southern end of Hesse Street.
On land, history and heritage are drawcards, along with a quiet charm that, according to Bellarine Railway co-founder Andrew Bridger, sets Queenscliff apart from Sorrento and Portsea just across Port Phillip Bay.
It’s “still very much a little village perched on the end of the peninsula”, he says. “Apart from property prices going absolutely nuts over the last 30 years, not a lot’s changed … I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
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.
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.
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.
360Q’s smart-casual dining at the modern harbour redevelopment. Boats glide by its deck and epic views await at the lookout upstairs.
Patricia Maunder travelled with the assistance of Tourism Greater Geelong & The Bellarine.