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What a difference a Bay makes

Two peninsulas cradle Port Phillip Bay – two very different stories

sunny 27 °C

The first recorded shot of World War I, the 'Gibraltar of the South', dozens of shipwrecks and entrance to the richest port in the world. All part of European history? Far from it! The other side of the world in fact. Down under, down south and down at the entrance to Port Phillip Bay.

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The entrance is a mere three kilometres of deceptive, treacherous water with a navigable channel of only one kilometre…better known locally as “The Rip”. Peninsulas each side of the Rip lay sentinels to Melbourne’s ocean gateway and offer two of Victoria’s most popular and interesting coastal destinations – Queenscliff on the Bellarine Peninsula and Sorrento on the Mornington Peninisula.

With thundering surf on the ocean side and safe, calm water on the Bay side, they could be mirrored reflections of each other. But, the differences are deep and reach far back. As far back in fact, to the origin of the state of Victoria.

In 1803, Sullivan Bay, one kilometre east of Sorrento, was Victoria’s first, and unfortunately very short, European settlement. Under control of Lieutenant Colonel David Collins, the penal settlement was abandoned in less than a year due to the scarcity of fresh water, unsuitable soil, fear of Aborigines, lack of discipline and the escape of many convicts. The settlement was moved to Risdon Cove in Van Diemen’s Land, later to be known as Tasmania. One escaped convict was William Buckley who lived with aborigines for more than thirty years on the opposite peninsula.

Frederick William Woodhouse, The first settlers discover Buckley, 1861, State Library of Victoria

From Van Diemen’s Land, a young settler by the name of John Batman led an expedition back to the Port Phillip Bay area, and laid the founding stone of Melbourne in 1835. This meant Sorrento was again settled by Europeans. The grab for land claims and family holdings, of which many still remain, are the reason Sorrento is like it is today.

On the other side of the Bay, in 1853, Lieut. Governor La Trobe named the fishing village, Queenscliff . As the town prospered it was proclaimed as the Borough of Queenscliffe – the added’ e’ is now only used in reference to the Borough.


It soon became clear by the growing number of ships being wrecked, the Rip – named after the combination of tidal turbulence and dramatic variations of depth – was, and still is, one of the most hazardous channels in the world.

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Marine disaster bell, Queenscliff and the wrecked SS Cheviot breaking up at Point Nepean in1887.
Thirty-five lives were lost making it the worst shipwreck in Victoria's history.

To protect the vital shipping for this growing colony, each ship needed directing through these dangerous waters. In 1838, four men risked their lives by venturing out in an open whaleboat to steer ships through the Rip. This was the start of the pilot service that continues to this day. No longer in open whaleboats, but in fast, sleek, bright orange boats equipped with the latest technology. Despite the heroic efforts of the earlier pilots, more than 100 shipwrecks lay beneath the waves in this area of coastline.

An artists impression of the Sea Pilot's worst disaster when the pilot schooner Rip capsized in 1873 killing the pilot and three crewmen.

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A modern pilot boat heading out to the Heads and their berth at Queenscliff Harbour.

While the marine importance of Queenscliff was to set its character, a more important role would establish its style.

"Gold!" The word cried out around the burgeoning state. Gold seemed to be everywhere creating vast riches. At the height of the Gold Rush, Melbourne was the richest port in the world which meant a greater need for defence. A list was established of potential external enemies with plunder on their minds and an easy escape through the lightly defended Heads of Port Phillip.

An Australian Gold Diggings, Edwin Stockqueler, 1855, National Gallery of Australia

It was recommended in 1877, that fortification on both sides of the entrance to Port Phillip was of utmost importance. Queenscliff had, at that stage, a small contingent of army personnel to protect the growing pilot and customs activities as well as the vital lighthouse. The main fort was built on Shortland Bluff overlooking Queenscliff, which, to this day, is Australia’s largest preserved fort. Another fortification was established at Swan Island, situated just inside the bay, and others at Portsea and Point Nepean on the other side of the Rip.

Fort Queenscliff.
The Black Lighthouse in the background is built of black stone and one of only three black lighthouses in the world.

By 1886 the initial defence of Port Phillip was complete and regarded as the most heavily fortified port of the British Empire in the Southern Hemisphere – The Gibraltar of the South.

The establishment of Fort Queenscliff brought new growth and wealth to this seaside village. The military personnel had to be catered for and the added protection enticed new businesses that led to Queenscliff becoming a holiday resort.

At Portsea and Sorrento, the story was similar. The added protection of the Landed Gentry, made Sorrento the favoured, fashionable escape for the ‘rich and famous’.

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Affluence lines the foreshore from Portsea to Sorrento.

The wealth from gold and business successes allowed more time for excursions and relaxation. This created new enterprises. Paddle steamers joined the trading schooners that linked Melbourne to Queenscliff and Sorrento, the forerunners of the little steamers of Port Phillip Bay.

Ozone passing Pile Light, Port Phillip (Unknown c.1910).

Passengers on steamer ferry, circa 1920, Museum Victoria

Grand hotels were erected to cater for the visiting ‘well-heeled’ pleasure seekers. Music and gaiety, mixed with the invigorating sea air, established the southern-most part of Port Phillip Bay as the Queen of Watering Places. The hotels are still there, and most certainly, the reputation has survived.

Continental Hotel, Sorrento

Vue Grand Hotel, Queenscliff

Queenscliff Hotel, Queenscliff

A trip ‘down the Bay’ from Melbourne was a great delight. The wealthy purchased land and encouraged their professional friends to follow suit. Sorrento, in particular, made the most of this wealthy occupation, and continues to do so. Queenscliff also attracted the wealthy, but remained a fishing village offering safe anchorage for visiting yachts.

Boat shed and Queenscliff Pier

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Queenscliff Harbour

In 1914, these peaceful, romantic destinations were to enter the annals of war.

At midnight GMT on the night of August 4, declaration of war was made in Europe. As news of war reached Australia twelve hours later, a German steamer, the Pfalz, was rushing to reach the Heads and open sea. Not being fully coaled up, the Pfalz was approaching Sorrento when the order was given to halt the German steamer. The captain of the Pfalz ignored signals from Fort Nepean to stop until a shot was fired across the vessel’s bow – the first recorded shot of WWI.

SS Pfalz

History has a habit of repeating itself, and so it was to happen again, though less dramatic, at the beginning of the World War II.

On September 4, 1939, a small Bass Strait freighter, the Woniora, attempted to enter Port Phillip Bay without responding with a code word of a friendly ship. A warning shot was fired – the first official Australian shot of WWII. The Woniora quickly identified itself and was allowed to proceed through the Heads.

Peace returned and Queenscliff went into a state of dormancy as the popularity of the motor car opened up new holiday destinations further and further from Melbourne. This resulted in preserving the 19th century atmosphere of the unique fishing and maritime hamlet – its greatest asset.
Rather than slumbering, Sorrento took a short nap during this car invasion. Being populated mostly by wealthy land owners, the car took on a new role. The relatively short drive from Melbourne meant Sorrento was to become the ‘weekender’ haven.

The pleasure still remains in capturing the unique relationship between these two guardians of Melbourne’s ocean gateway. Both an easy ninety-minute drive from Melbourne, or alternatively, train to Frankston then bus to Sorrento or Train to Geelong and bus to Queenscliff. A car ferry operates every hour during daylight hours between Queenscliff and Sorrento. The forty-five minute drip is comfortable, scenic and quite often accompanied by playful dolphins.

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The Searoad car ferry on the water and at Sorrento

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Queenscliff Station was once on a branch line from Geelong.
It is now run by volunteers operating a tourist train to Drysdale and the popular Blues Train.

Both Queenscliff and Sorrento have a range of accommodation to suit any budget. Some of the old hotels are restored to their original grandeur and offer excellent weekend deals.

Dining is one activity that blends the locals with visitors. This is more evident in Sorrento. Here, meeting your neighbour for coffee or having an alfresco lunch on the sunny sidewalk with weekend guests is the norm.

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Queenscliff dining is more indoors. The wide streets are more for traffic than eating. A reflection of the fact that this is still a working village. But dining here is no less an experience. In fact, the elegant grand hotel dining rooms offer an ambience that absorbs you into the regions historical significance.

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Hesse Street, Queenscliff and The Queenscliff Inn

People on both sides of the Bay are at peace with their minds and their stomachs.



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Queenscliff Maritime Museum


According to the 2011 Census, the Mornington Peninsula had grown to 144,608 residents made up of 39,201 families and 83,526 private dwellings. The Bellarine Peninsula (including the Surf Coast) falls well short with 60,584 residents, 16,524 families and 38,065 private dwellings.

Posted by DenOS.08 21:12 Archived in Australia Tagged churches boats trains melbourne victoria restaurant cruises museum dining transportation seaside sorrento peninsula car_ferry queenscliff alfresco port_phillip_bay pilot_boats Comments (2)

The canals of Amsterdam

A view from the bottom up

View Clogs, beanie and boardshorts on DenOS.08's travel map.

Taking a one-hour canal cruise in Amsterdam is worth every one of the 11 euros. Starting from the Central Station landings, these cruises are so popular they’re every half-hour to cater for the crowds. So, I suggest you get there at a time when you are one of the first on for if you prefer to face in the direction you’re going as the seating is arranged facing each and late comers tend to be looking where you have been, or just looking at you!


The boat first heads out into the harbour and sitting low in the water you instantly get a different perspective of this water-based city.


The commentary is in three languages, Dutch, English and I’m not sure what the third is as my interest immediately focussed on the English directive. The information is clear and gives a warning of what is ahead to see and if it’s on the left or right. Initially it seems you have chosen the wrong side as all the points of interest are on the other side, but after a while things seem to even out. Not that you can’t see anything on your ‘other side’, it’s just that it’s through wavering heads vying for the best angle.


The first piece of surprising news is that the water in the harbour is not salty but fresh due to the locks, meaning there is no tidal rise or fall, adding great benefit to shipping. The other startling fact is that of all the canals and waterways, there is only one natural watercourse, the Amstel River, which in the eleventh century was dammed giving rise to the name Amsterdam. All the canals are man-made with digging commencing in 1380. The houses are anchored on pylons sunk 20-30 metres through marsh and into the stable sand basin making viewing the city from the water line a must. Most are wooden, with concrete introduced in recent times, and if kept free from contamination and air, will keep on holding up the tall building for many years to come.

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But taking photos from this low vantage point can be a bit of a problem when most points of interest are up there, the houses that line the canals. The roofs of the cruise boats are probably Perspex as they are quite scoured and hinder a clear photograph. The side windows are clearer but you do get reflections from within the boat and depending on the time of day, sun glare.


But apart from this, the views are an insight into the city below the streets, the structure of the waterways and the beauty the city owes to its canals.

Posted by DenOS.08 01:21 Archived in Netherlands Tagged cruises Comments (1)

Smooth sailing to Holland

A change from air pressure and airline food

After the long haul from Melbourne, the tiring wanderings around stations, the struggle with luggage on trains and the eye-drooping wait for my ferry to come in, I was so ready for a bed and sleep, so finally the call to board was like a tonic that woke the senses.

The terminal to ship walkway at Harwich is still under construction so the meagre handful of waiting passengers are loaded onto a bus for delivery to the ferry. This is the first time I get a glimpse of the size of this thing, huge. I sailed to England in the 60’s on the Fairstar and I’d say it was just as big. Now, being a ferry that means it takes cars and trucks, so or bus followed the road up the ramp and into the bowels of this yawning whale. Out of bus and into a lift to take us to the eighth deck, out of ten, I think it was.


The small reception seemed inadequate for the size of the ship, but we were shown the way to our cabins and I rushed to rid myself of my luggage and unwind in my own space. We are handed a menu for dinner being served in the restaurant and for 12 euro there is a three-course on offer.

Not to miss out on what else this vessel has to offer, I quickly dumped the bags, a quick wash to freshen up the eyes and headed south to the next deck down. Here is the pumping heart of the floating village. There, spread over most of the deck is a restaurant, large duty-free shop, a bar, another food hall and for those with foreign money to get rid of, slot machines and gambling tables. If you are not in any hurry to kip there is also a full-sized cinema.


Checking out the restaurant, I opted for a cheaper range of food from food hall situated among the bar and gambling tables. Not a lot to choose from but ample. They took Pound and Euro, so I got rid of some English money. The number of passengers seemed larger as I realised that for every truck and car there is also a driver, but not being in holiday season, it was relatively empty. A Heineken at the bar went down so well I decided I like beer again, but this moment of relaxation reminded me that sleep was needed so I gave up the foreign film and headed back to my cabin.


The cabin has two bunks. I opted for the lower one just in case we come across rough weather and it allowed a better view out the window, yes, more a window than a porthole. It was dark of course at midnight as the ferry set sail. Unless you heard the revving of the engine you would not have guessed. But yes I can see the lights of the harbour passing by, so after a quick brush of the teeth, I turned the lights out and watched till the ship was out of the harbour and on the high sea, as smooth as can be.

The next thing I new was being woken by a loud voice over the cabin phone reminding everyone to get up, breakfast is served in the food hall and to get off the boat by 7.45. Obeying orders, I quickly showered, ate and left the ship behind.

I was now on Dutch soil.

Posted by DenOS.08 00:27 Archived in Netherlands Tagged cruises Comments (0)

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