Tricia Welsh discovers pirate caves and dinosaur bones on a rugged stretch of beach.
Inverloch is 140 kilometres south-east of Melbourne on sheltered Anderson Inlet near Venus Bay, which is between Cape Paterson and Cape Liptrap along the South Gippsland coastline.
Originally the tiny township was the preserve of people from Leongatha - just 27 kilometres to the north-east - who sought the safe coastal beaches and secluded bays for their summer holidays. Today, holidaymakers can swim, surf, fish, paddle, sail, snorkel and dive to their hearts' content or simply relax with a good book, watch children play beach cricket or walk the dog along the foreshore paths.
Its permanent population of about 4000 swells fourfold each summer. ''From Christmas for three weeks, it's chaos,'' suggests one long-time local resident, who values its small-town pace and relative intimacy.
Few stretches of the Victorian coast have the rugged beauty of the Bass Coast along the scenic Bunurong Marine and Coastal Park, between Inverloch and Cape Paterson. A 14-kilometre-long drive with boardwalks and walking tracks invites visitors to stop and explore particular landmarks such as Eagles Nest, an impressive rock structure on the end of a rocky headland; three ''pirates' caves'' at the Caves; a lovely coastal walk called the Oaks; or indeed the remnants of old miners' shacks at Shack Bay.
Screw Creek Nature Walk, at the eastern end of The Esplanade, is a popular, easy stretch, with views from the Bluff and the chance to see small bush birds, gulls, egrets, honeyeaters, white-faced herons and the occasional raptor.
Anderson Inlet has safe boating, fishing and swimming and is recognised as one of Victoria's best kite-surfing locations. And there's awesome surfing on the main beach.
In February, you might see dozens of fossickers digging around in rock pools looking for fossilised bones as part of an annual dinosaur dig - a joint project between Monash University and Museum Victoria that's been carried out at Flat Rocks since 1994. Rocks at this site date from about 115 million years ago (the Cretaceous period), when dinosaurs roamed the region.
The town springs to life on the third Sunday of the month when the Inverloch Farmers' Market is held in ''the glade'' - a grassy amphitheatre along The Esplanade(next market is December 19). Farmers and small producers sell home-grown produce including organic vegetables, free-range poultry and game, farmed beef and venison, gourmet sausages - perhaps hoisin duck, smoked chicken and good English pork sausages, Rhyll Good Tucker smoked trout and pates, Chinese dumplings, dim sims, cheese, home-made jams, chutneys and great salad dressings. With more than 50 stalls, it's reputedly the largest country farmers' market in the state.
Food and Wine Festival (March 5, 2011): this lively festival celebrates the quality regional produce and wine.
Inverloch Jazz Festival (March 11-14, 2011): this popular celebration features high-profile local and interstate musicians.
If you're keen to surf but young children prevent you, the Swell Mamas could be a solution. This innovative mothers' group takes turns at child-minding and riding the waves at Inverloch's main surfing beach.
The founders of the group, keen surfing mums Geraldine Archibald and Lucy Cousens, say the service allows mums interested in surfing to pursue their passion. ''Our group swells to around 50 in summer,'' Archibald says. ''Men are welcome too. The group care system works so well, we'd love to see chapters of Swell Mamas popping up right around the Victorian, and perhaps even the Australian, coastline.''
The Swell Mamas meet at 9.30am Fridays at the Beach Box Cafe. Annual membership costs $10, email email@example.com.
Where to eat
Kick-start the day with classic cooked breakfasts on the verandah of the Red Elk Cafe overlooking the main street. Owner Cate Anderson learnt sharp coffee-making skills from her St Ali-trained barista son, Lachlan.
Red Elk Cafe, 27 A'Beckett Street, 5674 3264.Vela 9 opened in July but has already earned a reputation for its excellent contemporary fare. Chef Tony Richardson traded his position as sous chef at the Healesville Hotel in the Yarra Valley for the chance to run his own restaurant and wine bar with his partner, Felicity O'Dea. With more than 16 years' experience in kitchens from Sydney to Spain and Italy, and a childhood in the Barossa Valley, he makes his own breads, pastries, pasta, ice-creams and sorbets. He serves some of the best sirloin in Gippsland, tender organic local lamb and his signature two-toned squid-ink tagliatelle with squid and prawns.
Vela 9, 9 A'Beckett Street, 5674 1188.
A few doors up is Tomo, a modern Japanese diner, where owner-chef Tomo Ezaki, formerly of Ocha in Kew, keeps locals happy with his take on contemporary and traditional dishes. Dishes are designed to be shared: pot-sticking gyozo, melt-in-the-mouth tuna carpaccio, deep-fried prawn dumplings, crunchy calamari legs, sweet miso-grilled toothfish and tender teppanyaki beef.
Tomo, 23 A'Beckett Street, 5674 3444.
Where to stay
You can wake up in your comfortable king-size bed at Eugenie's and watch waves break in Bass Strait in the distance. Five years ago, Michael Malone opened this luxury accommodation - Inverloch's first - with four rooms, all with expansive glassed-in balconies and the best views in town, across Anderson Inlet and beyond.
There are tea- and coffee-making facilities as well as continental breakfast provisions in-room, while guests have full use of a pool, spa and sauna on the central main floor.
Phone 5674 6161, see eugenies.com.au.Along the Bunurong Coastal Reserve, the new RACV Inverloch Resort has modern accommodation with 26 rooms with ocean views and 20 two- or three-bedroom villas. Tennis courts, an indoor heated pool, gym and on-site bistro ensure you don't have to venture far.
Phone 5674 0000, see racv.com.au/inverloch.
Inverloch is about two hours by car from Melbourne along the Bass Highway via Grantville, Kilcunda and Wonthaggi, or a shade longer via the South Gippsland and Strzelecki highways via Korumburra and Leongatha. The region is also served by a regular V/Line bus service that departs Southern Cross station twice daily, depositing passengers in the centre of town.
See inspiredbygippsland.com.au; visitinverloch .com.