I start by falling off my horse. We’re riding through the vineyards, tasting crisp chardonnays and heady pinot noirs at every cellar door we pass. I wish I could blame it on the wine. However, I have to admit, I make my unglamorous descent right at the beginning, tasting mud before we even start tasting wine. Fortunately, Toby, my horse, is a perfect gentleman. He waits patiently, standing still and sighing gently, as I’m fished out from between his hooves.
Barring my Humpty-Dumpty moment, it’s a perfect day. The Mornington Peninsula’s rolling vineyards, olive groves and pastures are lit with gentle sunshine, the flowers are ferociously bright, the ground is still plum-pudding fragrant from last night’s rain. This is one of Australia’s favourite picture-postcard escapes — just an hour from Melbourne. It’s difficult to believe it used to be shrub and bush land before the European settlement. Now, the Peninsula is home to roughly 1,35,000 people. A number that swells to 2,50,000 in summer, when the vineyards and their restaurants welcome visitors from all over the world.
We drive through caravan parks, golf courses and small art galleries on our way to the Horseback Winery Tours. The winding mud roads are fringed with wild flowers and hand-made signs advertising just-harvested apples, cherries and ‘punnets of raspberries’. At the stable, we pat the horses’ warm velvety necks, admiring their long eyelashes before saddling up. Or in my case, down. I clamber back on, and we trot through the meadows in a single file. As we wind through forest trails, ducking trees while our horses daintily pick their way through slush the colour of chocolate, the only sounds are birds chirruping, occasional metal jangles from the harness and soft harrumphs.
Our first stop is Ten Minutes By Tractor, where we do a tasting, studiously swirling our way from white to red to sparkling. I wish I could tell you more — but my tasting notes fell off the horse. And Toby and I decided they weren’t worth diving after. What I do remember is, the name comes from the fact that all three vineyards are 10 minutes from each other. Yes, by tractor. The sommelier here also introduced us to WIT, or wine in a tube. A single glass, sealed in a glass test tube so you don’t have to open an entire bottle. Watch out for this — it’ll revolutionise solo drinking. Our next stop’s the pretty Green Olive farm shop, offering fragrant espressos made from beans roasted on site, crusty bread with bush-infused olive oil and a cold cellar lined with homemade sausages.
We also drop by the Sunny Ridge Strawberry Farm, Australia’s largest strawberry producer. Sunny Ridge sets five hills aside for tourists to pick from, between November and April. Guests pay to go out in the fields and pick their own strawberries. Tom Sawyer whitewashes the fence, I snort, grouchily pulling plastic bags over my shoes before walking into the slush with a plastic container. Yet, it’s unexpectedly relaxing. Walking between the rows, lifting dew-drenched leaves, searching for perfectly sun-ripened strawberries. Especially because I eat as I pick. Fresh, juicy and sweet, strawberries never tasted so good.
Lunch is at the Montalto Vineyard and Olive Grove. We dine among 50 acres of fruit-laden vines, olive trees and dramatic installations by local artists. The restaurant, with its timber structure and glass walls, gives the impression that you’re dining in the garden, though there’s nothing rustic about the meal. Stinging nettle risotto with Main Ridge goats’ curd, followed by cardamom and honey glazed duck breast: a clever combination of local produce and global flair.
After all this hard work, the Peninsula Hot Springs seems like the ideal place to end the day. Victoria’s first natural hot springs and day spa centre, it’s a sprawling property with unexpected nooks and crannies hiding small springs, baths and plunge pools of mineral rich thermal water. We’re scheduled for a spa treatment, a kodo massage inspired by traditional aboriginal techniques. It’s done in a wind-buffeted tent set to aboriginal music, conjuring up images of drum circles, fierce forests and red wet earth.
In the evening, in my room at the Pepper Moonah Links Resort, I study the silent golf course that encircles my mostly-glass room suspiciously. There’s a helpful notice by the bedside, with pictures of the three varieties of venomous snakes found on the property. Fortunately, I’m quickly distracted. Dinner. We eat at The Baths, in laidback Sorrento, right by the beach. Freshly shucked oysters, with a squeeze of lime. We watch the sun sink in a spectacular show of might and colour, as we drink ‘Stickys’, a glass of late picked semillon.
Driving back to Melbourne, I watch fat cows contentedly scratching their heads against knobbly trees. Horses in sturdy, weathered blankets grazing in daisy-strewn meadows. Paths fringed with purple flowers. And every once in a while, a ‘house for rent’ sign. We stop briefly at the famous bathing boxes, as bright as candy, and dip our toes in the icy waves.
We pass small towns with big signs advertising Friday night barefoot bowling, salsa classes, psychic dinners. Perhaps I should investigate the houses for rent. For Toby’s sake.