Clare Barry heads to a seaside town where real-life is better than fiction.
The "smell of salty air" drew SeaChange heroine Laura Gibson from her corporate towers to tiny, character-filled Pearl Bay. And the town's real-life alter ego, Barwon Heads, has lured visitors for decades with its laid-back vibe, defined by the water that swirls around it, where the Barwon River meets the sea.
The very great pleasure of a Barwon Heads break is that, while there's plenty to do, that salty tang and the blue sparkle of river and ocean are a holiday in themselves.
So, by all means, take in a round of golf, pursue a fish or catch an ocean wave but remember there are wide-open views for your contemplation and pure sea air for the breathing.
Small screen allure
From the late 1990s, the ABC's SeaChange series, filmed largely in Barwon Heads, brought a fresh influx of visitors seeking the show's charm. And while the final episode screened in late 2000, there's still plenty of Pearl Bay in Barwon Heads.
The wooden bridge connecting it to Ocean Grove remains - for now - and the sparkling Barwon River isn't going anywhere despite the recent ructions over what straddles it (the 81-year-old bridge is declared unsafe by VicRoads). Part of Diver Dan's boat shed sits at the back of At The Heads restaurant and Laura's Cottage, on the river's edge at the Barwon Heads Caravan Park, is open to guests.
Fans of the show can pick up a "SeaChange walk" guide from the caravan park office and Wave DVD, on Hitchcock Avenue, has copies of the series on video for hire (phone 5254 3220).
Things to do
Barwon Heads enjoys the best of both beach worlds, with safe swimming for families along the shallow and sandy river foreshore and more challenging water for swimming and surfing over the Bluff at Thirteenth Beach, which is patrolled daily in the summer peak and on weekends until Easter. Walkers have the run of kilometres of sandy beaches any time of year.
Fishermen will find plenty for the catching here, with the Barwon boasting whiting, trevally, mullet and bream. Fish from jetty, bridge, beach or boat - Barwon Estuary Boat Hire (0407 422 298, barwonestuaryboathire.com.au) hires out 3.8-metre aluminium "mozzies" for fishing, cruising and sightseeing and also offers cruises in the river and bay. Barwon Heads Fishing Charters (0417 553 299) takes groups of up to eight oceanwards for full- and half-day trips chasing snapper, shark and other reef fish. Upriver from town is Lake Connewarre and its wetlands, ideal for fishing and bird-watching. You can pick up a fishing licence at the general store (5254 2751) on Hitchcock Avenue.
For time away from the beach, visit the delightfully non-corporate Jirrahlinga Koala and Wildlife Sanctuary (5254 2484) on Taits Road. This is a sanctuary and hospital for animals but permanent residents include koalas, kangaroos, dingoes, snakes, lizards, emus, possums and wombats, as well as aviaries filled with native birds. There are talks at 10.30am, 12.30pm and 2.30pm.
Golfers are blessed with two consistently well-rated golf courses within a few minutes of town. Barwon Heads Golf Club (5255 6255, bhgc.com.au), on Golf Links Road, has a Scottish air with its seaside setting, undulating links course and gracious wooden clubhouse dating from 1924. It has a pro shop, lounges, bars, dining rooms and accommodation. It accepts green-fee players (non-members) mid-week but has strict dress requirements. Thirteenth Beach Golf Links (5254 2922, 13thbeach.net), which opened in 2001, offers 36 holes over two courses: the links-inspired beach course and the parkland-style creek course, designed by Nick Faldo. It also has a pro shop, accommodation and a restaurant on site. Green-fee players are allowed but one of the two courses is set aside for members each day. It also has dress requirements.
If you're in the market for a little pampering, Lotus Spa (5254 2044, lotusspabarwonheads.com.au) on Hitchcock Street offers an array of facials, massages and treatments, including a "back scratcher massage" and "china doll healing envelopment".
Barwon Heads is within an easy drive of the main surfing towns and the Bellarine Peninsula has much to offer the day-tripper. Head west to Torquay and Lorne on the Great Ocean Road or drive on to the Twelve Apostles. Turn inland for scenic drives and bushwalks in the Otway Ranges. Alternatively, you can cross the Ocean Grove bridge to take in a Bellarine winery or stretch your legs in elegantly historic Queenscliff. The Sorrento car and passenger ferry puts the Mornington Peninsula on your doorstep, too.
Hitchcock Avenue offers at least an afternoon's worth of retail therapy.
Rasta Surf Co. (5254 3255) has surfboards, skateboards, surf paraphernalia and clothes for infants to adults. Tonik (5254 1470) has all the surf gear and an entire wall dedicated to thongs. The beautifully laid out Frith Aesthetics and Functional Wares (5254 1811) has great-looking homewares, women's clothing and a generous kids' corner with clothes, toys and games.
Barwon Heads' community market runs on the last Saturday of each month and weekly in December and January in the community hall on Hitchcock Avenue.
Perhaps it's the SeaChange effect but Barwon Heads is spoilt for casual eateries and good coffee. From Pod at the top end to Star Fish at the other, Hitchcock Avenue is a coffee crawl.
Annie's Provedore (5254 3233) has light meals, cakes and decent coffee, plus cheeses, small goods and shelves of local and imported deli goods, interesting boutique beers and wine. The deli offerings aren't cheap but Annie's is worth a visit for items you won't find elsewhere in town.
Barwon Orange (5254 1090) has an airy, beachy feel with outdoor seating and good coffee. It has gluten-free pizza bases and bread.
The bustling Starfish Bakery (5254 2772) turns out quirky and hearty breakfast and lunch dishes, plus baked goods and takeaway meals. Try the squishy Brie-L-T or crunchy-topped muffins. The coffee's good too.
Try Peppercorn Foods (5254 2602) for excellent pies and takeaway meals. Bakery Bar and Lounge (5254 3275) will keep the kids happy with cheese and Vegemite scrolls, iced jam rolls and boston buns.
From the bridge, you can't miss the blue-and-white-painted timbers of At The Heads (5254 1277), set over the water on the Barwon River's southern side. Bifold doors open towards the water and decking set right over the lapping river makes for absolute waterfront dining. The food's good, too, and caters for all-comers, with breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks and in-betweens. Kids are made to feel welcome and eat free on Friday nights.
A seaside holiday means fish and chips. Try Barwon Heads Fish and Chips (5254 2214) on Hitchcock Avenue, the newly opened Gilligan's (5254 2468) at the corner of Hitchcock Avenue and Bridge Road or River Mouth Fish and Chips (5254 1188), right by the bridge, which does a fresh flake cone with chips that begs to be savoured during a wander along the beach. That other beach staple - ice-cream - is served from a kiosk behind At the Heads during the summer holidays and on weekends in warmer weather.
If you prefer to cook your own seafood, take a little drive to JLI Australia Seafoods (5254 1461) at Barwon Heads Airport, 1405 Barwon Heads Road. This unlikely location hosts a tempting array of local fish, plus crayfish, prawns, mussels, scallops and complementary delicacies including King Island cream and cheese.
Barwon Heads Caravan Park (5254 1115, barwoncoast.com.au/barwon-heads-caravan-park), on Ewing Blyth Drive, right on the river's edge, has accommodation ranging from camping and caravan sites to cabins and beach houses. One of those two-bedroom beach houses is Laura's cottage from SeaChange, which costs from $175 a night. Caravan and camping sites cost from $22.
Old Blue Beach House (5254 3263, bgholidayrentals.com.au) is a renovated and extended three-bedroom beach house that sleeps eight to 10 people. It has air-conditioning, two living areas and is just down the road from the shops. Tariffs are from $580 for a weekend.
Hawthorn Suites (5254 1777, hawthornsuites.com.au) at Thirteenth Beach Golf Course are classy one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments with full kitchens and use of the complex's spa, swimming pool and tennis courts. Suites cost from $165 a night, and "stay and play" packages (based on four people in a suite) include accommodation, breakfast, a round of golf and cart hire from $130 a night.
The Barwon Heads Festival of the Sea is held from March 10-15 and has an environmental and coastal theme.
Barwon Heads is 95 kilometres from Melbourne via the M1 to Geelong, then head along Barwon Heads Road (C121).
Contact the Queenscliff Visitor Information Centre (5258 4843) or see visitbellarine.org.
BEFORE they were married, Maureen and Neale Frisch used to argue about whose patch of peninsula paradise - Point Lonsdale or Barwon Heads - was best.
"He saw the light," claims Maureen, and Barwon Heads is now home for both Geelong natives.
"We've got the river and the ocean and it's just the best of both worlds - and that little bit closer to Geelong. It's also a very friendly and community-minded kind of place."
Maureen arrived 26 years ago to share a house with friends, "and because I thought it'd be great living at the beach". She takes advantage of the seaside setting whenever possible, walking the Barwon Heads beaches and across to Ocean Grove. And in summer Neale surfs at Thirteenth Beach.
He's an occupational hygienist at Alcoa in Moolap and Maureen volunteers at Geelong Otway Tourism. They take an overseas holiday once a year or so but Maureen's heart remains on the Bellarine.
"Barwon Heads is just heaven on earth to me," she says. "I always feel lucky when I come back here if we've been away. It has a really nice, peaceful feel to it."