Charles Davidson had sat in a steam dome in Yemen and plunged from a sauna into icy waters in Russia. But his entrepreneurial epiphany came in 1992 in Japan's thermal pools in Kusatsu, a hot springs centre three hours from Tokyo. "I lay in an incredibly relaxing open air hot mineral spring pool and thought 'aha Australians would love this - putting people in hot spring water that's what I will do.' It was a theory I had… that hot springs, no matter where they were in any country, would have a whole culture around it that had nothing to do with the money economy. It was just about the pure nature of thermal bathing that's a gift. It's accessible wellness." Today, Davidson oversees the 16 hectare Peninsula Hot Springs which he co-founded with brother Richard and opened in 2005.
It's just a 90-minute drive from Melbourne to Fingal on the Mornington Peninsula. If you don't fancy being behind the wheel, there's an express bus transfer between the city and the hot springs for daytime and twilight sessions. If you are travelling from the Great Ocean Road, the Bellarine Peninsula or Geelong, jump on the Queenscliff to Sorrento ferry. Fingal is another 20 minutes by car. New facility Metung Hot Springs in East Gippsland is set to open by the end of 2021.
With more than 50 mineral-rich pools replenished with a fresh body of water every four hours there's a dizzying amount of choice. The trick is to find your happy place, and temperature, so take a moment to get the lay of the land and pools that range from 34 to 42 degrees. Labyrinthine concrete paths among wetlands alive with native flora and fauna connected by Japanese style bridges lead to the Turkish hammam steam bath, barrel bath and the reflexology walk. Head to the over 16s Spa Dreaming Centre if you prefer a quieter experience. The many cultural styles of bathing centre around the environment, says Davidson. "The number one thing here is that you're coming to nature; these tea trees and this forest and this land so we honour that." Domes and bell tents dotted around the property are available for private hire.
Much like flying business class, a stay in one of the 10 new glamping tents should come with a warning; you will never want to return to the rear end of a plane, or in this case a campsite with a drop toilet. Firetail Finch has khaki canvas walls and an occasional zip as a nod to the great outdoors. But there's also geothermally heated concrete floors, overlaid with a plush rug resembling a topographic map, private deck, rain shower in rustic brass, walk-in wardrobe and camo' coloured split system. The slab of golden cypress from Red Hill that is the king bedhead is the same wood used around the property for lounge seats and screening. A round couch is ideal for an afternoon nap. Drift off to sleep to the sound of frogsong (earplugs are supplied if you need the sound of silence). The glamping area is exclusive to guests whose stay includes access to the popular midnight bathing session.
White bathrobes are the unofficial and welcome dress code at the Spa Dreaming Centre Cafe of booths and bentwood chairs. Among dappled light, guests enjoy healthful plates of house-made dahl, free-range chicken and hand rolled gnocchi, as well as a local wine list including Red Hill's Foxeys Hangout and Montalto.
After the Year of Covid I'm a mental weakling. What better way to try and snap out of it than with the Fire and Ice experience of hot and cold therapy? First, the pool of 20 degrees, sauna of 65-75 degrees, a rinse off in tepid water and then a plunge into an ice pool of four degrees (which if you're planning to stay in, does require focus to overcome the urge to jump the hell out). My guide and the lifeguard (thumbs up for the safety protocols) are the poolside coaches keeping me focussed on breathing and keeping still to preserve energy. Tingling feet and legs when I emerge give way to a sense of clarity that's long been missing.
Peninsula Hot Springs is a deservedly popular, sometimes busy destination. The designated glamping-guests-only area offers supreme comfort and privacy.
Peninsula Hot Springs. 140 Springs Lane, Fingal VIC 3939.Glamping tents cost from $650 a night a couple; glamping and dine from $770; glamping dine and spa from $1260 a night. Phone (03) 5950 8777; see www.peninsulahotsprings.com
An early morning yoga session in the amphitheatre overlooking wetlands and thermal pools.
For the directionally challenged, a plus-one who knows their way around a map is recommended.