Before recorded history, the Bunurong people came regularly to gather shellfish from the rock platforms along the coast. To help in hunting game, they periodically lit fires to control the scrub and this gave the area a park like appearance with the drooping casuarina, moonah and wirily.
Acting Lieutenant Murray found the entrance to Port Phillip in 1802 and the first official white settlement was established under Lt Col. Collins at Sullivan Bay in 1803. Sorrento can be called the ‘Cradle of the State’, even though the settlement was abandoned in 1804.After Melbourne was established in 1835, the first pastoralists appeared on the Nepean Peninsula, but they soon found producing lime from the local limestone for the ever expanding Melbourne their most lucrative occupation. The indigenous trees, cut to fire the lime kilns, were soon replaced by the faster growing tea-tree.By the 1870s wealthy Melbournians were interested in the beauty and health-giving properties of the district. In 1863, Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, Member of Parliament and later Premier of Victoria, purchased land at Point King and built a holiday house. He named ‘Sorrento’ after the beautiful Italian coastal town and subdivided land for holiday houses. Sorrento Park (1870) was established using fast growing exotic trees supplied by Ferdinand von Mueller. A hotel, butcher’s shop, church and schools were built nearby.
It was the Hon. George Selth Coppin actor, entrepreneur, philanthropist and Member of Parliament, a man with enormous energy and teeming with ideas, who saw in Sorrento the potential for a resort for the general population. His companies purchased much of what became the newly located centre of Sorrento and built the Continental Hotel (1875), a guesthouse, houses and baths and introduced a seasonal ferry service from Melbourne. He built Ocean Beach Road to the Back Beach (Amphitheatre) and paths along the cliff-top. Land near the Continental Hotel was sold for shops and Ocean Beach Road (then called Ocean Amphitheatre Road) became the main street of Sorrento. Later, his companies operated a steam tram, with a line from the pier to a café at the Amphitheatre, from 1890 to 1920.
Sorrento’s heritage has been recognised by the community and the Shire through the Planning Scheme and, with the support of the Owners, numerous historical buildings have been preserved and can be enjoyed today with modern businesses.