The Portarlington Grand Hotel has long been the distinguishing landmark of this town on the northern part of Victoria's Bellarine Peninsula, perched above Port Phillip Bay. Built in 1887 by Samuel and Mary Davis, the hotel was always intended to be grand, with its wrought-iron balustrades and tower in place from the beginning. In that era it played host to Melburnians taking a break from the city via steamer services across the bay. Now a major refurbishment by new owner Paul Little (also owner of Port Phillip Ferries, the latter-day version of those long-gone steamers) has brought back the gleam of that past glory.
With just 18 rooms, the hotel still functions as a local pub, with a refreshed restaurant and bars drawing locals as well as visitors. The hotel sits on Portarlington's main shopping strip, Newcombe Street, with a view over the historic WG Little Reserve and the pier and waters beyond. The ferry (portphillipferries.com.au) takes 70 minutes to convey passengers to Melbourne's Docklands district, and 40 minutes to Geelong's Cunningham Pier. Local buses also connect to Geelong Station, from where trains take an hour to Melbourne. E-bike rental is available (bellaebikehire.com.au), and the hotel can advise on tours and other ways to get around the district.
The renovation has leaned heavily into its heritage, with an emphasis on historic colours and patterns. The ambient Front Bar is distinguished by dark green timber panelling on the lower part of the walls, and an elegantly curving bar. The upper walls throughout the hotel have an intriguing paint job aimed at conveying the appearance of distressed plaster, with hints of other colours amid the predominantly grey tone. Adjacent to the building is The Atrium, occupying the space that was once a drab beer garden. It's a pleasant covered space with lots of natural light and a central bar arrayed with striped awnings.
Rooms are sorted into four categories, ascending in price: Mural rooms (facing the marine mural on an adjacent building), Atrium rooms (facing The Atrium), Bay rooms (facing the bay, with balcony access), and Grand Bay rooms (similar to Bay rooms, but bigger).
My Grand Bay room is a large space with dark green carpet, a king bed, and a table with two chairs. The wardrobe, and a cabinet containing a fridge and kettle, are beautiful items with a curvy hint of art deco to their shapes. The bed has a similarly curving bedhead, and there's a mirror above a fireplace. Another heritage touch is the decorative plaster moulding above the central light fitting. A door leads to chairs on the balcony, from where there's a view of the bay. The bathroom is large, with geometrically patterned tiles, twin marble basins, and a shower behind a glass screen. Toiletries are by Naturals Remedies and Eloura.
FOOD + DRINK
The Bistro within the hotel is a friendly space filled with locals as well as guests, enjoying good quality pub food. Food is also served in The Atrium, which has its own wood-fired pizza oven and something of a party vibe. I enjoy a tasty chicken parmigiana for dinner while many of my fellow diners order the famous Portarlington mussels. The dessert menu is short but the standout item is the Grand Coupe, a huge serve of ice cream and toppings in a large wineglass-shaped bowl - definitely something to be shared. Expect to pay about $55 for three courses, plus drinks.
OUT + ABOUT
There are some excellent wineries within a short drive, including Jack Rabbit with expansive bay views; Terindah Estate with its quirky bar within a classic old Melbourne tram; and Scotchmans Hill with an atmospheric cellar door. Also nearby is The Whiskery, a distillery creating excellent gins containing native botanicals. Local operators Wine Wheels (winewheels.com.au) and Franscene (franscenebellarine.com.au) run tasting tours, which should be booked ahead. Portarlington itself has a good selection of shops and cafes.
The reborn Portarlington Grand Hotel is a triumph of thoughtful restoration and design; with its ferry connection to Melbourne, it's the perfect base for a Bellarine getaway.
Rooms start from $250 a night. Portarlington Grand Hotel, 76 Newcombe Street, Portarlington, Victoria. See: portarlingtongrandhotel.com.au
THE SCORE (out of five)
If staying in a Bay room or Grand Bay room, there's nothing more delightful than sitting on the balcony at sunset.
Atrium rooms have better views than Mural rooms, but they're noisier at weekends.
Tim Richards was a guest of Portarlington Grand Hotel and Tourism Greater Geelong & the Bellarine (www.tourismgreatergeelongbellarine.com.au)