Mornington Peninsula: One of Australia’s most magical up-and-coming destinations

CNN  — 

A serene patch of eucalypt forest and pinot vines around 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Melbourne is not the first place that springs to mind when you mention alchemy.

But over the last year or so, Mornington Peninsula has developed a reputation as being, quite simply, magical.

Jutting into Port Phillip Bay and home to around 150,000 people, the cape has traditionally been known for its slow-paced holiday vibe: It’s got surf beaches, great wines and weekender cottages, places where Melbournians get away from life in Australia’s second-largest city.

Then Jackalope arrived, and added a much-needed dose of whimsy to the countryside.

The 46-room hotel is young entrepreneur and filmmaker Louis Li’s foray into the hospitality industry, and it cuts a dramatic form across the Willow Creek vineyard it calls home.

Guests to Jackalope are welcomed by a seven-meter-tall rabbit sculpture.

The all-black building is fronted by the seven-meter-tall Jackalope, a sculpture of a horned rabbit by local artist Emily Floyd.

It’s just the beginning of the “alchemy” – the hotel’s self-described narrative – infused into everything from the white and gold Edra Leatherworks chairs in bar Flagerdoot to the 10,000-globe light installation by Jan Flook in fine-dining restaurant Doot Doot Doot.

There are also alchemical formulations and astrological constellations in neon on hallway ceilings, photography based around alchemy in guest rooms and a huge spa pavilion crafted to resemble a geode, set beside the ink-black 30-meter-long pool.

The hotel has been so successful since opening in 2017 that Li already has plans for a Melbourne sister, set to welcome guests in 2020.

Plenty of new openings

The increase in tourist numbers flocking to this part of Australia – Mornington recently became the most visited regional day-trip destination in the state of Victoria – has also inspired others in the hospitality industry to experiment with their regional offerings.

Which means that in addition to sexy hotels like Jackalope, the peninsula is now home to a host of forward-thinking restaurants, bars, cellar doors and artisan producers.

A host of new hotels and restaurants are springing up around the peninsula.

Even newer than Jackalope is Cape Schanck, a jaw-dropping union of glass, stone and timber, designed to resemble a starfish from the air. It’s at the heart of an 18-hole Robert Trent Jones Jr. golf course, hugging the coastline and hemmed by native forest.

If you can drag yourself away from the greens, inside you’ll find gold leaf on the lobby ceiling, Concordia granite floors, Tom Dixon melt lights in chrome and copper, and aluminum cladding on the walls, crafted to resemble dragon scales.

It’s also full of artwork, which you can learn about on an audio loop.

Less jarring on the landscape is the freshly refurbished Lindenderry, a handsome whitewashed hideaway with style to spare.

Rooms are extremely generous in size to accommodate open fireplaces (there are 22) and sink-in sofas, ideal for curling up on with a glass of local shiraz while gazing over apple orchards and fields dotted with pine mushrooms and roses.

Another newcomer is the Peninsula Hot Springs.

The new lakeside amphitheater at Peninsula Hot Springs lets visitors soak in hot baths while watching music performances.

A lavish network of more than 20 pools, waterfalls and hammams utilizing the region’s mineral-rich geothermal water – among the oldest of its kind in the world – the facility has just completed an AU $13 million (US $9.5 million) expansion project that saw the addition of a Fire and Ice experience (think, saunas and snow caves) and a lakeside amphitheater, where you can soak while watching musicians live on stage.

In the coming months, a series of terraced vegetable gardens will be completed to supply the spa’s on-site kitchens, alongside a cultural meeting place for fireside storytelling, yet more pools (some with underwater speakers), a new wellness center offering aerial yoga, and a reflexology walk; glamping and luxe eco-lodges with private hot springs will round out the offerings in 2020.

There’s also space for health and wellbeing workshops that might decode aromatherapy oils or teach you about the benefits of various muds for your skin.

Moonlit Sanctuary, at the top of the Mornington Peninsula, is home to more than 10,000 native Australian trees and plants as well as more than 30 animal enclosures.

A destination for art and wine lovers

A short drive away is Point Leo Estate, the newest of the 50 or so cellar doors across the peninsula, set in a building that its designer describes as “an abstract architectural gesture” that brings together wine, art and the sea, framed by a dramatic Australian rural property.

Over the last year the property has acquired an alfresco sculpture park, with an ever-evolving roster of art from the likes of Deborah Halpern, Tony Cragg and Inge King.

You can take most of them in from the comfort of just-opened Laura, a restaurant that recently took home the gong for New Restaurant of the Year in the Good Food Guide 2019 awards, thanks to the culinary magic of one of the country’s most talented chefs, Phil Wood.

It’s also close to the drop-off point for recently launched ferries to French Island, where new Naturaliste tours through national parkland give you a taste for the country’s native wildlife: This slip of land has the highest density of koalas in the state.

Nearby Montalto Vineyard & Olive Grove, which recently underwent a renovation and acquired Tuck’s Ridge vineyard next door, also has sculptures – more than 30, in fact – dotted over its grounds with additional pieces added to the collection yearly.

The estate happens to grow rare savagnin grapes, and is one of only two places on the peninsula to turn them into wine, alongside three acres of vegetables, promptly transformed into delicious dishes such as beetroot black pudding, or fermented cabbage with smoked eel, which you can enjoy in the sun-kissed dining room or as part of a picnic across the grounds.

Just an hour's drive away from Melbourne, Mornington Peninsula is a popular getaway for Melbournians.

You can pick up biodynamic cider to add to your alfresco spread at nearby Mock Red Hill, but it would be a shame not to linger in the estate’s freshly minted lounge, a lovingly curated collection of sofas and chairs set across the brewery’s original 1945 cool room.

The property makes virgin and alcoholic brews using 12 varieties of apples and pears, currently grown and tended to across 50 acres by three generations of family members (five have worked across the land over the decades).

It’s one of the places you’re encouraged to visit on the new Mornington Peninsula Beer, Cider & Spirits Trail, which now also lists the just-opened St Andrews Beach Brewery.

A stunning spot housed in old horse stables, the establishment serves five standard and two seasonal home brews, some named after the industry the land was intended for (the house lager is know as The Strapper).

Since welcoming hops fans, the owners have planted more than 8,000 pear and apple trees across the estate, with plans to branch out into cider once the fruit matures.

Thankfully, the region has already done just that.