BEYOND THE BAY
JACKALOPE, A DESIGN HOTEL AS ECCENTRIC AS IT IS CHIC, IS JUST ONE REASON WHY THE MORNINGTON PENINSULA IS ATTRACTING NOT JUST VICTORIANS BUT INTERNATIONAL VISITORS IN SEARCH OF FOOD, WINE, ART AND NATURE.
The Mornington Peninsula was once the secret playground of Melburnians, who would head to their beach houses in Portsea, hit the campsites in Rosebud or go wine-tasting at the vineyards in Merricks and Red Hill. This is not the case any longer – the world is now watching, thanks to some extraordinary architecture, art, food and wine. The first of the game-changers is Jackalope. The brainchild of 30-year-old film student turned hotelier Louis Li, the hotel, vineyard and dining destination has just celebrated its first birthday. In its short life it has taken out a slew of hotel and design awards, here and overseas, has been included on the 2018 best new hotels list by prestigious New York-based Travel + Leisure magazine, and has been rated among the world’s best wine resorts by Condé Nast Traveller.
And then there’s the visitor numbers. Rare Hare, Jackalope’s more casual eatery that overlooks the Willow Creek vineyard, was attracting at least 1000 people a weekend over summer. In February, when the WISH team visited, Jackalope was running at almost 90 per cent occupancy (its highest month so far). Its more formal restaurant, Doot Doot Doot, which offers a degustation menu, is also winning rave reviews and being frequented by locals, foodies and hotel guests.
“It has gone crazy,” says Jackalope general manager, Tracy Atherton, of the first 12 months. “The summer was far busier than we expected, especially in terms of food and beverage offerings. A massive drawcard is Rare Hare. None of us knew that Rare Hare would be so successful in terms of the people that come through the doors. On a Saturday and Sunday we would get at least 500 people a day. And those people look at Jackalope and wish they could come and stay here.”
Add the opening of Pt Leo Estate, with its outdoor sculpture gallery, winery, cellar door and two restaurants (fine-dining option Laura has received 4.5 stars from The Australian’s John Lethlean), and the renovation of nearby hotel Lindenderry at Red Hill (see page 42), and the Mornington Peninsula cat is truly out of the bag. “The prominence of Jackalope and Pt Leo have catapulted us on to the international stage,” says Gary Crittenden, one of the first to plant vines in the region way back in 1982, when he started Crittenden Estate in Dromana. “There would not be a day that goes by that we don’t have an international tourist [at the winery].”
The latest statistics from Tourism Victoria reflect the growing national and international appeal of the region, with the number of international overnight visitors increasing 10 per cent in the year to December. In terms of national visitors, the Mornington Peninsula experienced double-digit growth in expenditure (up 15.5 per cent), in visitors (18.2 per cent) and visitor nights stayed (13 per cent) over 12 months. Even Melburnians are forking out more, with domestic day-trip spending
“There would not be a day that goes by that we don’t have an international tourist at the winery.”
growing by 24.4 per cent in the year to December.
“In the 10 years since I have been on the Peninsula, it has changed significantly,” Pt Leo Estate general manager Roger Lancia tells WISH as we stand in the new sculpture park overlooking Western Port Bay and Phillip Island. “I remembered when Port Phillip Estate opened in Red Hill [in 2009] and I felt like that was uncharted waters. Then we have Jackalope opening and other amazing places plus all these wineries of note. It is just brilliant the way the whole area has grown.”
The first vines were planted in the Mornington Peninsula in the 1880s. Surrounded on water by three sides (from the relatively calm waters of Port Phillip Bay and Western Port Bay to the freezing surf of the Bass Strait), it is a cool-climate growing region and has become known for its pinot noir. The first vines were abandoned in the 1920s and another attempt was made by a member of the Seppelt family in the 1950s but was destroyed in bushfires in the 1960s. It was Baillieu Myer and his wife Sarah (of the famous Melbourne retailing family) who planted the first commercial vineyard in 1972, establishing Elgee Park Wines. The family also operate the Merricks General Wine Store as their cellar door with daughter Samantha and son-in-law Charlie Baillieu (from another famous Melbourne family), who own Baillieu Vineyards. Next along was Main Ridge Estate in 1975, the first commercial winery. Now there are 200 vineyards and 50 wineries across the peninsula.
“Baillieu Myer is 92 and he still hasn’t missed a vintage,” says Kerry Watson, who has worked at the Merricks General Wine Store for both families for almost a decade. “He is an incredible man.” The store has become locally known for not only its wine but also its food and its gallery. It has been a major drawcard in the area since the families bought it in 2008, but even Watson has noticed the increase in visitors as more people have discovered the region. “Five years ago during the week it was so quiet,” she tells WISH. “Now there are some days that you can barely get a table.”
The Baillieus and Myers are not the only famous families to live in the area. Pt Leo Estate is owned by reclusive couple John and Pauline Gandel, who made their fortune from retail and property development. Estimated by Forbes to be worth $US4 billion, the couple have decided to make public their extensive outdoor sculpture collection on their property in Merricks, which they bought 28 years ago. “It is the largest privately owned sculpture park in Australia with 50 pieces,” Lancia says. “And over time it will increase significantly.” Pt Leo opened in December and has been busy ever since. “I have not seen that level of patronage through the sculpture park and the restaurant in all my time on the peninsula. It has been absolutely tremendous.”
Geraldine McFaul, head winemaker at Jackalope’s Willow Creek Vineyard, has been on the peninsula since getting a job at Stonier Wines in 1997. She has watched the region grow and focus on the production of pinot noir. “It is a variety that is hard to grow here and impossible to grow in many regions,” she tells WISH in her office overlooking the fermentation tanks at Willow Creek. “But we have got a climate that can ripen pinot noir and then can make very aromatic pinots in quite
“I have not seen that level of patronage in all my time on the peninsula. It has been absolutely tremendous.”
differing styles because of the terrain. We have all these hidden valleys and suntraps and different soils. We get a lot of variety in the styles of wine that are produced.”
Willow Creek Vineyard was planted in 1989 by three brothers, their business partner and his brother-in-law. They got a permit to build a hotel in 2008 but it wasn’t until Li and his family came out to the Mornington Peninsula looking for investment opportunities that it was all realised. “It has been great for us because it was the second business for the previous owners whereas it is really key to what Louis has envisioned for the site,” McFaul says. “He has a real idea of where he wants to take it.” McFaul and her team are now focused on producing pinot noir and chardonnay as their flagship wines. They are a “tiny” winery with 11 hectares and all the grapes are hand-picked.
Next to the vineyard at Jackalope is now a sizeable market garden, the realm of executive chef Guy Stanaway, who is in charge of Rare Hare and Doot Doot Doot. He was hired by Atherton after they worked together at Aman’s Amankila Resort in Bali. The brief from Li was to create two very different dining experiences at Jackalope. “Rare Hare is much more casual, communal tables, fostering social engagement, the whole pared-back almost Scandi-chic,” he says. “It’s a really relaxed and simple offering. We have a beautiful wood-fire oven and it is all about share plates.”
In contrast, Doot Doot Doot is a formal dining room that looks like it was transported directly from Flinders Lane. “Louis wanted Doot Doot Doot to be taken seriously and stand on its own two feet as a restaurant, not just be a hotel restaurant,” Stanaway says. “He wanted that fine dining that had all the accolades.” And Li has got his wish – Doot Doot Doot has made all the best restaurant lists. “We are working on clean and fresh flavours,” Stanaway says of the eight-course degustation menu. “We didn’t want to overcomplicate things with the food because everything is busy and in your face in the dining space. And we use key ingredients that are sourced as locally as possible.”
Below the vineyards is yet another element of Jackalope, thankfully something that is unseen by guests: the sewage treatment plant. This unglamorous detail serves as a reminder that the hotel is entirely selfsufficient and Li and his team had to build everything from scratch. This made for some interesting challenges that go beyond the teething problems a standard hotel might face in its opening year.
“It has been unbelievable,” says Atherton, laughing. “We could honestly write a book. There are no water mains so we trap the water on the roof or truck it in. We have a massive water filtration and water storage system in the basement. We bring in our own gas. We have our own sewage plant. We even had to work with Telstra, prior to the opening, so we have the internet.”
So any plans for a quiet first year may have evaporated, but Atherton wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s such an incredible part of the world, especially in terms of vineyards. We also have the bay, the ocean, the golf courses. It has been a bit of a secret playground but now that is broadening across Australia. Rare Hare, Doot Doot Doot and Pt Leo, they have all put us on the map.”
“It’s a really relaxed and simple offering. We have a beautiful wood-fire oven and it is all about share plates.”
Jackalope and the Willow Creek vineyards
Clockwise: Jackalope general manager Tracy Atherton; restaurant Doot Doot Doot and bar Flaggerdoot; executive chef Guy Stanaway; Pt Leo Estate tasting room; a guestroom; Rare Hare