THE moment you arrive in Queenscliff you know you're somewhere special.
Flanked by water on three sides, the historic town on Victoria's Bellarine Peninsula looks much the same as it did in the 1880s when it was considered the healthiest place in the colony.
Back then, paddlesteamers brought thousands of holidaymakers from Melbourne to take in the sea air, enjoy a dip in the gentlemen's or ladies sea baths or stay at one of the the opulent hotels.
On the two-hour drive from Melbourne you pass through former farmlands now carved into housing estates.
The entrance to Queenscliff through its Avenue of Honour delivers you to a different time and place, where beautiful, classic buildings built by some of the state's pioneering families have stood the test of time.
The best way to get a feel for this lovely small town is to take one of the heritage walking tours offered through the Visitor Information Centre.
With our guide Geoff Hillis, who grew up here and was drawn to return 17 years ago, we walk Hesse Street and meander down side streets that are just as lovely.
Many of the heritage buildings are the legacy of the Gold Rush.
Today of all the old hotels, only the Vue Grand still offers accommodation. Others are in private hands.
The much-loved Athelstane House (1860) is the oldest operating guesthouse, and while the B&B has been updated, the two-storey building has retained its original period staircase, hardwood floors, high ceilings and wide verandahs.
Laurel Hill, who bought it in 2015, loves how Queenscliff has retained its coastal feel. She recommends staying at least two nights, as there's so much on offer.
Queenscliff's natural attributes draw visitors back time and time again.
Now restrictions have eased, the small bayside town is looking forward to spoiling new and return visitors in various ways. Here are just a few attractions you can enjoy:
From Queensland to Queenscliff: The Q train, Victoria's culinary experience on wheels, plies the formerly disused Bellarine Railway line between Drysdale and Queenscliff. The train's heritage carriages, rescued from Queensland's long retired Sunlander train, are kitted out in tables of two, four or six, while seven individual compartments are designed for cosy twosomes.
This is the epitome of a moving feast with water views. As we tuck into the six-course degustation menu, dedicated to showcasing regional produce, we pass open farmland and olive groves, pine plantations and black swans on Swan Bay. Each course rolls out until we finally raise our hands in defeat. The wait staff take the movement of the train in their stride, not missing a beat or spilling a drop of wine over the three-hour journey.
Prices range from $129 per person for the Q class dining car to $179 per person for the private dining experience.
Play golf: Lonsdale Links at Point Lonsdale has a completely redeveloped 18-hole course and brand new clubhouse. At its restaurant, Lago, executive chef Ivan Roianov uses locally sourced produce in his Italian-inspired menu.
Visit the Fort: Queenscliff Fort, guarding the entrance to Port Phillip Bay, is regarded as a superb example of the defences that existed around our coastline from colonial times through to the end of WWII. On a guided tour you can see the Black Lighthouse, the loop-holed fort wall, a section of a dry moat and a castellated keep, along with the guardroom, cells, and muzzle-loading cannons. Among the buildings are some which pre-date the army's occupation of the site - the original lighthouse keepers' quarters, sheriff's office, telegraph station and post office. Photo ID is essential for morning and afternoon weekend tours. Seniors' entry $14 - fortqueenscliff.com.au
Spoil yourself: At the Lon Retreat and Spa, Point Lonsdale, non-guests can book a beauty treatment, massage or hour-long soak in a tub filled with water from the farm's natural mineral springs - lonretreat.com.au
Taste: Drink in the views of the $38 million Queenscliff marina while enjoying a meal at 360Q on the harbour. Seafood features strongly on the menu matched by the region's finest wines and craft beers - 360Q.com.au
At Queenscliff Brewhouse, sample tastes of the Bellarine with one of 400 craft beers or a hand-bottled gin distilled from traditional botanicals - queenscliffbrewhouse.com.au
Shop: Salt Contemporary Art Gallery houses an outstanding collection of paintings, sculptures and ceramics selected by director Fiona Kelly - salt-art.com.au
IF YOU GO...
You can drive or put the car on the ferry from Sorrento (www.searoad.com.au).
Heritage walking tours operate Saturdays at 2pm and at other times by arrangement ($15 including afternoon tea). Book at the visitor centre in Hesse Street, (03) 5258-4843.
Athelstane House has 10 spacious guest rooms with ensuites. There are two ground-floor rooms with walk-in showers. The guest lounge is also on this floor. B&B bookings enjoy an a-la-carte breakfast and noon checkout (www.athelstane.com.au).
The Queenscliffe Literary Festival is held over three weekends each May. This year's theme is Shifting Sands, a reflection of our uncertain world. Speakers include Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who spent 804 days imprisoned in Iran.