by Jennifer Bryce


Why put pancetta with the gnocchi when it’s served with a perfectly good piece of grilled salmon? You get like that on your fourth night of dining in a hotel on your self-imposed writing retreat.

I had done it once before, so I knew that a creaky old hotel at Portsea, built in 1927, with a room looking across the bay to Queenscliff would be the place to go to make amends to my neglected novel. I’m sitting here now at my desk, looking across an early morning sea to the misty buildings on the other side. Every so often a container ship glides by on its passage through the heads, or the white shape of the Sorrento to Queenscliff ferry comes into view. But here I can put my head down and write – there is nothing else I have to do.

The room is a 1927 version of a ‘suite’. It could be two bedrooms. The one I write in has a double bed and a desk at the window. There would have once been an uninterrupted view out to sea but some time in the past twenty years a bar with upstairs deck has been added to the hotel, so my view is about half of what it might once have been. The other room has a single bed, a sofa, a fridge, kettle – all the usual things, a kind of dressing alcove and ensuite. There’s a little semi-enclosed verandah with a table and couple of chairs, which these days doesn’t have a view. In winter it’s too cold to sit out there. Oh – and of course there’s the 21st century addition of two plasma-screen TVs. You don’t feel cramped. Another important feature is the tin roof. On a couple of nights I could lie snuggly in bed and listen to rain, even hail. The whole lot cost me a bit over $500 for four nights, breakfast included. The trick is to come in winter – the off season – and I think the best season.

There aren’t many shops in Portsea – no distractions. I brought with me a bottle of wine, some good coffee and filter papers and some decent tea. What more does one need? Every evening I go down to the dining area, have a glass of Cape Shank pinot noir and a main course.

This time I came without a car. I caught the train to Frankston and then the 788 bus, which stops almost at the front of the hotel. The trip down seemed to take forever, but there were plenty of interesting people to observe. I was the only passenger who stayed on the bus for its entire journey. Every day I went for one good walk. Well – on the first day, it wasn’t very far. It was a cold blustery, raining day. I walked along the pier and the waves were washing over the top. I had planned to walk along the beach, but there isn’t much of it left, thanks to dredging the bay, and I was unsure of the tides – silly to be marooned, or worse, on my first day.

One day I wandered around Point Nepean National Park – an easy walk from the hotel, pruriently looking over the fences of posh beach houses, locked for the winter, wondering who owns them. Then the contrast of the coastal bush. I spent some time looking at the Quarantine Station – I hadn’t realised that right up to the 1950s passenger ships would call in with outbreaks of diseases such as smallpox. There weren’t many people around and on my way back a wallaby hopped out of the bush. Another day I walked to London Bridge. The tide was in, so the blow hole was completely immersed – you could just make out rocks under the seething green water. I returned by another coastal track – completely to myself – along the cliff tops to the back (surf) beach.

Will I ever be satisfied with my novel? Maybe not. At the end of the four days I’ve achieved what I set out to do. I don’t feel as though I’ve written a lot, but, by calculation I’ve written over 20,000 words (some of this cutting and pasting and editing). Now it’s time to go to breakfast.