I'm a Victorian freelance writer & photographer living in the Macedon Ranges north of Melbourne.
Published July 27th 2019
History, Heritage and Seaside Fun
If you're looking for a family-friendly holiday or short stay destination look no further than the historic port town of Queenscliff on Victoria's magnificent Bellarine Peninsula.
Fort Queenscliff is a meticulously maintained historic site and just part of the towns rich maritime and military history. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Beautiful Queenscliff is immersed in early colonial, maritime and military history, boasts a great variety of bars, restaurants, cafés and accommodation including grand Victorian-era hotels and guest houses, sheltered and ocean beaches and a long list of attractions to suit all age groups.
Queenscliff's rich history includes early settlement as a pastoral run as well as being home to bay fishermen and the colonies first sea pilots. In the mid-1800's the development of Fort Queenscliff helped earn for Port Phillip the title of the most heavily fortified port facility in the southern hemisphere - "the Gibraltar of the south". And when the colony enjoyed a period of unprecedented wealth thanks to the gold rush, Queenscliff was a favoured destination for the well-to-do. Victorians flocked to Mornington, Sorrento and Portsea but their favourite, the jewel in the crown of Port Phillip seaside resorts, was Queenscliff.
Apart from its history Queenscliff offers all the modern amenities and facilities necessary to ensure you and the family enjoy your stay. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Located on the south-eastern extremity of the Bellarine Peninsula and strategically located overlooking 'The Rip', the entrance to Port Phillip Bay, Queenscliff was popular with mariners because it offered safe anchorage for vessels tucked up beneath Shortlands Bluff.
Another reason for its popularity were persistent rumours citing nearby Swan Bay as the site chosen in 1798 by the pirate Benito Benita to bury his haul of Spanish treasure.
Legend has it that as Benito secreted his cache in a cave dug into the cliffs he was engaged by an English man-o-war. Outnumbered he used explosives to seal the entrance before being captured and hanged. No treasure was ever recovered but rumours persist to this day and several expeditions have been mounted to search for it over the years.
Shortland Bluff and the 'Black Lighthouse' overlook beaches and nearby parkland. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
The first recorded sighting of the area was probably made by Lieutenant John Murray RN who, in 1802 commanding the LADY NELSON, entered the then uncharted Port Phillip Bay, named it Port King and claimed it for Britain.
But there was no permanent settlement at Queenscliff until 1836 when squatters arrived to take up a selection on what was then known as Whale Head, later renamed Shortlands Bluff. By then moves to establish a major permanent settlement in the Port Phillip district were well advanced and, as the number of ships supplying settlers increased, so too did Queenscliffs importance.
Hesse Street, Queenscliff's main street, is home to a variety of businesses, restaurants, cafes and hotels. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Early on in that development, the danger to ships negotiating The Rip was quickly identified. In 1839 George Tobin introduced the first Pilot service guiding ships through the treacherous waterway. Tobin, and others who followed in his footsteps, initially operated from the beach on the north side of Shortlands Bluff and were rowed too and from ships in whaleboats. By 1856 there were fifty-five sea-pilots operating from Queenscliff.
The sites strategic importance was realised at the height of the Victorian gold rush. Then storehouses full of gold fuelled fears that the colony might become a target for privateers, and later for Russian expansionism in the Pacific, resulting in a small force of volunteers being raised to form an artillery unit.
In 1859, the fortification of Port Phillip Heads was recommended but another 23 years would pass before a fort proper was completed.
Once finished, Fort Queenscliff consisted of a loop-holed brick fortress with a castellated 'Keep' on the northern wall. Surrounded by a dry moat with draw-bridge access to the main gate the forts heavy artillery commanded a devastating field of fire across The Rip and the shipping channels within the Bay.
Those guns were never fired in anger but the command for the first Allied shot of World War One came from here, ordering gunners at Point Nepean, on the opposite side of The Rip, to fire on the German freighter PFALZ as she attempted to leave port.
Fort Queenscliff's massive 'disappearing guns' were never fired in anger. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Today Fort Queenscliff is a meticulously maintained historic site where the time taken to complete a guided tour is time very well spent.
The mid-1800s saw the introduction of steamers on Port Phillip Bay carrying holidaymakers and day-trippers from Melbourne to Queenscliff as well as Sorrento, Dromana and Mornington on the opposite side of the Bay.
Luxurious vessels such as the OZONE, HYGEIA and WEEROONA boasting grand promenade decks, lounges and stately dining rooms transported hundreds of passengers on the two-hour journey from Melbourne to Queenscliff's palatial guest-houses and Coffee Palaces.
The old steamer pier and lifeboat station are iconic Queenscliff historical features. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Throughout the late 1800s, the Australian Independent Order of Rechabites was at the forefront of a temperance movement that swept the nation and was most prominent in Victoria. The Coffee Palaces were imposing, ornate alcohol-free hotels. Of thirty or so such establishments which flourished throughout the State four were in Queenscliff.
Names such as the Palace Hotel (1879), the Baillieu (1881) and the Vue Grande (1883) are all synonymous with the Victorian elegance and charm for which the township is renowned.
Former 19th Century Coffee Palaces provide great accommodation options in present-day Queenscliff. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
In 2019 Queenscliff remains a magical mix of elegant hotels and guest houses, military history and an indelible, often tragic, association with the sea.
As you look north along Hesse and Gellibrand Streets, down the slope towards Swan Bay, the contrast that is Queenscliff, the rustic charm of the modest working-class cottages overshadowed by the imposing turrets and ornate ironwork of the former Coffee Palaces, is laid out before you.
Queenscliff has been home to sea pilot services since 1839. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
It remains a favourite with holidaymakers drawn by its character & history, great accommodation, fine food and excellent local wines.
Dining options in Queenscliff are plentiful and varied but for mine, it's hard to imagine a more relaxed and inviting location for a meal than the balcony of the Queenscliff Brewhouse, formerly the Esplanade Hotel, circa 1878.
Situated at the bottom end of Gellibrand Street the buildings olde-world charm and expansive views to the Bay and beyond combine to create a seaside holiday atmosphere ideally complemented by its menu and beverage list.
Ozone House is a prominent Queenscliff landmark. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Or, for a taste of Queenscliff's timeless elegance, try the Grand Dining Room at the Vue Grand.
The atmosphere created by high ceilings, chandeliers and antique furnishings combines with an amazing menu of mainly local produce and fine wines to create a unique gastronomic experience.
Perhaps the best way to get a real sense of what Queenscliff was and is today is to visit the local Historical Museum and nearby Maritime Museum.
Chief among the many compelling aspects of the town's history are the stories of its couta-boat fisherman.
Couta-boats commenced operations around 1870. At their peak a fleet of about fifty boats operated from Queenscliff, usually heading out through The Rip before dawn and racing back to port with a full load of Barracouta, the first boat back securing the best price for the day. They continued to operate commercially, but in much smaller numbers, until the mid-1950s.
Today Couta boats are highly sought after as restoration projects and there's strong competition among racing Couta boats at the bottom end of the Bay.
Port Phillip Sea Pilots modern headquarters is almost on the spot where George Tobin commenced the first pilot service in 1839. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Queenscliff is a family favourite holiday destination and really does offer something for everyone regardless of age or length of stay. Make sure you add it to your 'must-see' list of great Victorian getaways.
Getting There .....
Queenscliff is 104 Kilometres south of Melbourne, about a 90-minute drive via the M1 Freeway and Geelong.
The Queenscliff-Sorrento vehicular ferry operates hourly services across the Bay from 7 AM to 6 PM (7 PM during Daylight Saving Time) daily.