Australia's Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne

Australia's Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne

It is hard to imagine a more welcoming, peaceful and civilised place than the Mornington Peninsula, one and a half hours drive south of the Australian city of Melbourne, in the state of Victoria.

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Yet in 1803, one Lieutenant Colonel Collins, leader of this state's first white settlement right here on the Peninsula, gave up and moved on after only a few months. Evidently they couldn't hack it and they went and found somewhere new.

A convict named William Buckley had escaped a short time before and got left behind. The kindly local indigenous inhabitants of the Wathaurong Tribe eventually adopted him. Thirty-two years later the 'wild white man' was again spotted by white people, having by then forgotten almost every word of English. His odds of survival in a terrain so difficult have been immortalized in the Aussie phrase 'Buckley's chance', which we still use today. For example "you think you're going to beat the traffic and get home in fifteen minutes? You've got buckley's chance" or, because we love to abbreviate "you've got buckley's".

One wonders if Lieutenant Colonel Collins and his crew weren't actually wimps. Only seventy odd years later, the southernmost part of the Peninsula, Sorrento and Portsea, became holiday playgrounds for Melbourne and rural Victoria's wealthy. They have been touched but lightly since then. The aesthetically pleasing symmetry of the man made attractions married to the enormous natural beauty of this area is simply stunning.

Sorrento is an exquisitely laid out town where most of the shops are built from the area's locally quarried limestone. The Continental Hotel serves delicious food at decent prices. Their cakes are a must. A few metres up the road is the equally imposing Sorrento Hotel where you can stay in four and five star accommodation.

Australia's Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne

There are bathing boxed beaches, snorkelling, fishing and swims with dolphins and seals in the blue, clean waters of Phillip Bay, Some say the diving is even better than the Great Barrier Reef, only problem being the prohibitively cold temperatures of the water -- all year round. For those who aren't prepared to brave the water the real pleasure of the area -- apart from visits to vineyards, golf, craft, antiques and a cute local cinema -- is the walks.

The highlight is the walk the locals don't want to tell you about. It runs along the foreshore of Phillip Bay (don't attempt it in high tide) and includes parts of the cliff. Although many of the houses own absolute waterfronts, a public footpath fronts the garden of each house. And what gardens, what houses! Many of them are built from local limestone, over a hundred years old, and few have subdivided their land.

Prepare for some neck swivelling while swapping your gaze from houses to bathing boxes and bay. The proliferation of little gates built between properties but on public land are obviously the land owners' attempts to gently confuse us hoi polloi, but don't be put off, they're not locked. Apparently the walk should run from Sorrento to Portsea but certain infamous developers have appropriated some of the public space, so the walk now starts at Lentell Avenue.

The quick way of walking between the two towns, along the road, is almost as atmospheric. A path runs along next to the houses, separated from the road by a dense forest of trees and bush. You can snoop into the other side of those houses, their park like surrounds, gravel drives and tennis courts. The carefully planned rows of cypress and pine trees were planted up to a century ago, reminiscent of a European forest.

Australia's Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne

In glorious contrast to the ordered, stately feel of the bay foreshore, the 'back beaches' surrounded by national park, run the length of the other side of the Peninsula; huge, windswept, ocean beaches where few surfers dare to venture. Point Nepean is the tip of the Peninsula. It's been used by the army for over a century and part of it has only been open as the Mornington Peninsula National Park for a decade.

There are designated walks dotted with concrete fortifications, all well labelled with their various histories. Obviously excitable, the soldiers of Point Nepean managed to fire the first Australian shot of both the First and the Second World War. Indeed at one point early last century, thanks to the Mornington Peninsula, Melbourne was named the best fortified city of the British Empire in the Southern Hemisphere.

One of the walks in the Park takes you to Cheviot Hill, overlooking Cheviot Beach where Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt snuck away from his entourage for a swim one summer's day in 1967, never to return. It was, and still is closed to the public. Mr Holt alone had been granted permission to swim there; a permission one guesses they wish they'd never granted, given the consequences. Apart from possible unexploded firearms lying around, the waves themselves at Cheviot look scarily forbidding. It was named after the ship the Cheviot, which crashed into nearby rocks; thirty-five people were drowned.

Fort Nepean was apparently a forlorn place, where army personnel dreaded to be stationed. Yet only a few kilometres away, through what was then sheer bushland, were some of the most charming towns in the whole country. The co-existence of accumulated miseries with such easy elegance adds to the unique feel of this special place. It's full of wonderful contradictions, where grand multi million dollar mansions must share their front garden with the entire public and where a Lieutenant Colonel can fail but a convict with Buckley's chance can make it.

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Emily Lawrence Gazal lives in Sydney, Australia and is a freelance writer. Although a mother of two (and a half) small children, she still insists on travelling as much as she possibly can, usually dragging the kids along too. "It's not easy but it's better than staying at home all the time," says Emily.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: October 16, 2016

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