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Mornington Peninsula, Melbourne heritage day tour
Mornington Peninsula, Melbourne heritage day tour

Mornington Peninsula, Melbourne heritage: day tour

The Mornington Peninsula is a firm favourite for locals with weekends awash with locals hanging out in sun washed vineyards, boutique shops, artisan stores, galleries and markets. Visitors could be forgiven for stopping a while in Sorrento or obtaining a great selfie against Rosebud’s iconic gaily painted beach huts. Yet there is a quiet place at the end of the road where Australia’s history is vivid against a network of quarantine buildings. The roar of the ocean is ever present in the bowels of a former military garrison. Portsea, Port Nepean National Park is a place where holiday memories are made. A treasure trove of Australian history writ large on the landscape.

Portsea military view of lighthouse

Your journey exploring the immigrant experience at Portsea will give you glimpses of beach culture and the town of Sorrento. Perhaps a photo moment against the quirky beach huts located along Port Phillip Bay coast.  You will return to Melbourne via ferry, travelling through the historic town of Queenscliff.

On your way to explore a place of heritage you will pass seaside communities and holiday villages dot the coast.  On your way to explore historic sites you will observe the multi-coloured rainbow bathing boxes dotted all along the coast of Port Phillip Bay. The boxes have no water or electricity and many boxes are part of a family history. They are a symbol of the beach, of summer picnics and a visitor attraction in their own right.  A perfect picture instagram moment against the pretty bathing boxes before the serious stuff of the history of the area.  Then you are off to Sorrento and the tip of the Peninsula.

Blairgowrie where beachhuts were
Beach huts, Australia
Beach huts
What to see and do
  • Sorrento, with its limestone cliffs and buildings is a heritage town that is now a favourite destination for Melbourne weekend getaways.  
  • Delve into Port Nepean National Park (Portsea) history and explore Nepean Historical Museum precinct, Pioneer Cottage and Collins Settlement historic site.
  • Observe the life of soldiers based at Fort Franklin on the Mornington Peninsula
  • Picnic in the wide open spaces of the Park.

Sorrento

Take the  opportunity to wander among Sorrento’s galleries and boutique shops.  Spend time taking a self-guided tour of the Sorrento-Portsea Artists Trail where the views that inspired the artists will be part of the experience.  The plaques and descriptions of the various local artists are prominently displayed. 

The Coppins Lookout near Sorrento Ocean Beach
Sorrento waterfront at dusk

Sorrento heritage homes

You can discover the varying fortunes of the peninsula’s earliest residents, with the 1844 shingle-roofed McCrae homestead ethnographic exhibits of the struggles of early nineteenth century Scottish migrants.  For grander Victorian mansions Coolart Homestead, Beleura House and Mulberry Hill, once the residence of artist Sir Daryl Lindsay and his wife Lady Joan, author of Picnic at Hanging Rock.  Sorrento has its own avid history supporters. For more information check out the local website.  The National Trust register is a useful resource when collecting information.

Maritime and military

Explore historic gems like Cape Schanck Lighthouse, built in the 1850s to halt the destruction of ships on the treacherous coastline.

Portsea where harbour meets the Pacific ocean
Portsea military base

Port Nepean National Park (Portsea) 

For heritage buffs an opportunity to visit the Point Nepean National Park with its precinct of heritage buildings will be a highlight.  Immigration and quarantine regulations led to individuals being housed at Portsea while their health was evaluated.  Personal stories are narrated through interactive, emotive exhibits.  The peninsula also  played an important role in shaping the early settlement and defence of Australia.  You will explore military forts and tunnels and learn about the life of soldiers who were stationed in the stark chill underground bunkers.

While the focus of the Park’s artefacts and buildings is about European settlement there is acknowledgment of the intriguing discoveries from earliest Aboriginal times to the evocative era of European adventurers, mariners and pastoralists.  The continuous story of the peninsula is covered.  This is apparent when you walk the perimeter of the Park and a narrative emerges with the who and why the place you are standing is of historic importance. 

Portsea military heads
Portsea military underground tunnels

Quarantine station at Portsea

Your quarantine / immigration narrative starts in the wide open spaces where the historic buildings are situated. The buildings are starkly illustrated by the wide sweeps of sea and the swaths of grass across the space.  Each building served a function as a cleansing station for new arrivals.  As a place to spend your day or as a hospital for those who needed care.  Families were separated by gender with womens and mens quarters.  Doctors and nurses had on site accommodation situated approximately 1km from the hospital.  Both health professionals and new immigrants were quarantined together.  A bleak landscape, especially in the winter months. 

Portsea quarantine station bleak isolated landscape
Portsea quarantine station museum

The exhibits are excellent at measuring the impact of contagious disease and the fear the government had of transmission.  The use of space between large transparent banners and floor messaging is a vivid replication of the physical distancing patients had to abide by.  You were isolated physically and mentally from the outside world.

And then there is the Indian ocean swelling, surging against the Phillip Bay mouth.  The endless competition between open ocean currents and the inner harbour is memorizing and it is no wonder a former prime minister of Australia, Harold Holt lost his life swimming in the turbid waters.  There are numerous very large notices about the dangers of even trying to get to the deceptively pretty inlets.

Portsea quarantine station banners
Portsea Quarantine station entrance for detained immigrants

Wildlife 

I spotted a koala, two echidnas foraying industrially and kangaroos grazing in the distance.  A bonus on your heritage tour is sharing space with the Mornington Peninsula National Park local inhabitants. Boardwalks extend over Westernport’s mangroves and the peninsula’s protected wetlands, the perfect spot to greet myriad bird species.

Bush walking & bike hire for a cycling exploration of the Park

There are plenty of bushwalking options. There are information centres where you can talk to the staff for ideas and maps as well as hire bikes for the day. From Gunners cottage the walk is through the bushes and onto the main road. It’s a walk where the Indian ocean views are sweeping around the corners as you plod up the hills to the headland.ery to walk through.

Blue Penguins
Portsea resident

Mornington Peninsula government website is a treasure trove of information about the local wildlife. Here is an excerpt to assist you identifying wildlife during your visit.

Our native wildlife species on the peninsula includes: 

  • 293 species of birds – including tiny Hooded Plovers that nest on the ocean beaches of Rye to the impressively large Powerful Owl that hunts through forested areas, our bird fauna is the most diverse group of animals on the peninsula.
  • 34 mammals – including the easily recognisable Echidnas, Koalas and Swamp Wallabies, lesser known ground dwelling mammals like the White-footed Dunnart, Southern Brown Bandicoot and Swamp Rat, and nine species of microbats.
  • 31 fish – including two endangered species – the Dwarf Galaxis, a tiny freshwater fish which is recognised by its striking iridescent stripes, and the Flatback Mangrovegoby, a locally abundant species associated with estuarine waters amongst saltmarsh and mangroves.
  • 25 reptiles – from the better known species like Blue-tongue Lizard and Eastern Brown Snake, to more cryptic animals like the Jacky Lizard and threatened Swamp Skink.
  • 11 frogs – including the nationally endangered Growling Grass Frog and more common and widespread species like the Spotted Marsh Frog and Southern Brown Tree Frog.

To learn more about the peninsula’s diverse wildlife, download our Fauna of the Mornington Peninsula(PDF, 1MB) guide which includes photos and descriptions of over 70 native animals that call the peninsula home.

Historic McCrae Homestead
Coastal vegetation

Microbats – nature’s exterminators

A natural way to control insects – including mosquitos – around your property is to encourage microbats to live in your garden. Microbats are the smallest flying mammals in the world and have an incredible appetite for mosquitos and other insects. Weighing as little as 3 grams, they can consume at least half their body weight in insects per night.

Fun facts about microbats

  • There are nine species of native microbats found on the Mornington Peninsula.
  • They can be found in all environment types, including urban areas.
  • Microbats can be seen flying around at dusk.
  • Microbats roost in old tree hollows and under bark.
  • They use eco location to navigate when flying and to detect their prey.
  • They hibernate in groups in the cooler months of the year.
  • Large old trees are an important resource, providing both food and roosting opportunities.

The Shire have been installing microbat boxes in our bushland reserves and working with La Trobe Uni on research into creating hollows in trees to provide more roosting opportunities for microbats.

Interested in providing a roosting space for microbats on you property? Boxes can be purchased from the Point Nepean Men’s Shed, visit the  Point Nepean Men’s Shed shop for more information. To learn more about microbats or to find resources on how to build your own box,  visit the Australasian Bat Society website.

Facts

Toilets at all sites in the National Park

Wheelchair and buggy friendly

The local visitor people mover loops approximately every 30 minutes, fees apply.  The shuttle is from Fort Nepean headlands, Gunners Cottage to and the lower public car park near the entrance. Tickets are purchased from the driver. 

There are no food outlets, bring your own picnic food and water

The park is very close to the picturesque village of Sorrento

Easy walking tracks throughout the Park.

The Park is free entry

Building entry an admission fee purchased at the Ranger Visitor Centre

Sturdy walking shoes are recommended due to the uneven ground.

Trip Profile

Self-guided road trip

Duration: one day

Depart from Melbourne Return Melbourne

Distance from Melbourne: 108km, 1 hour, 20 minutes

Portsea video message from the quarantine station.

The journey is worth it

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