Great drives: Victoria's High Country

Author: Frances Hibbard
Photography: Courtesy The House at Smoko

It might be worth the drive because Victoria's High Country is just far enough from Melbourne as to be spared the day-trippers. Or it could be the countryside itself, full of alpine accents, misty valleys, and stop-worthy cellar doors along the famous Murray to Mountains Rail (cycle) Trail, which goes from Wangaratta to Bright with detours to Beechworth, Milawa and Oxley. Whatever it is, it's well worth a trip, and some time.

Beechworth is one of Australia's most beautifully kept gold rush-era towns. The wide streets, gracious sandstone buildings and impressive food and wine options lend it a substantial dose of charm.

Chef Michael Ryan and partner Jeanette Henderson's Provenance, perhaps Beechworth's best known restaurant, resides in the former Bank of Australasia at 86 Ford Street. The experience is grand yet contemporary: the building's soaring ceilings and Georgian lines meet Ryan's delicate mix of deft Asian notes and locally sourced produce. You can spend the night in the comfortable, contemporary rooms in what used to be the rear stables of the property. A bottle of local prosecco awaits - a nice acknowledgement of the region's strong Italian influences.

But Beechworth is no one-trick pony. Former Provenance restaurant manager Aaron Taylor has recently opened the Cellar Door Wine Store a block along at 62 Ford St. Taylor plans to eventually open for tapas of an evening, but right now the wine store is great for coffee during the day, and for grabbing a bottle of something special from the mostly smaller winemakers stocked on the shelves.

Another option is to grab a six-pack of handcrafted beers from Bridge Road Brewers (the house-made pretzels are also worth a taste) and head home to 1860 Luxury Accommodation, a self-contained retreat on the edge of town. The slab hut is largely reclaimed timber, collected by its owners from assorted buildings across the state. The result is romantic, storied and genuinely charming.

A more contemporary choice are the new self-contained retreats at Stone Tryst spa villas. The secluded new villas overlook Beechworth Gorge and it's an easy walk from there into town for a pie and peas at Beechworth Bakery.

Milawa and the King Valley
Milawa is far smaller than its neighbours of Beechworth, Wangaratta and Rutherglen, but it's a tiny hamlet with a big heart and a lot of history. At that heart is Brown Brothers winery, a family-run operation established here in 1869. Brown Brothers was a pioneer in the growing of Italian grape varieties in Australia, with its founders taking their cues from the Italian migrants who worked the tobacco farms of the area.
These days, in addition to the busy Brown Brothers cellar door, the winery's Epicurean Centre draws a crowd for the handiwork of chef Douglas Elder, formerly of the Lake House in Daylesford and more recently from Wardens Food & Wine in Beechworth. The restaurant is open daily for lunch, but Elder and the team have also just opened the Epicurean Wine Bar for tapas-style food with your wine tastings.
Also calling the King Valley home is the Milawa Cheese Factory and Bakery in the town's former butter factory. Check in at Lindenwarrah country house retreat, just across the road from Brown Brothers, and walk along Factory Road to the Cheese Factory for breakfast or lunch. The traffic is non-existent, the vistas are endless and the sounds of the valley quintessentially Australian.

Bright, Porepunkah and surrounds
From Milawa, the countryside changes, with alpine qualities becoming more obvious once you head through Myrtleford and onto Porepunkah, with its views of Mount Buffalo, and Bright, gateway to the Victorian ski fields.

At Porepunkah you'll find Boynton's Feathertop Apartment, a self-contained apartment within Boynton's Winery - its views are extraordinary and the comfortable retreat is ideal for couples or families.

Close by is The Kilns, two contemporary structures built from the kilns that once dotted the tobacco farms of the area. New to the line-up is The Sorting Shed sitting in its own paddock looking back to Mount Feathertop. This sleek new retreat's top-floor living area is quite the show-stopper: picture windows, two expansive decks and a professional kitchen set up for hosting cooking classes by Bright's Patrizia Simone. You'd be hard pressed to find a more picturesque kitchen.

Simone, who presides over Bright's Simone's restaurant, is also setting up her own cooking school. The highly respected Italian chef will offer classes and demonstrations at the new school (slated to open in late 2012), and perhaps even take students into the forests on the edge of town to forage for mushrooms, as per her own regular routine.

The small town is also blessed with an abundance of good-food offerings: Bright Brewery makes a great pit stop, as does Coral Lee, a '50s-style cafe.

Ginger Baker Wine Bar and Cafe is the newest kid on the block and serves breakfast, plus a tapas-style menu for lunch and dinner from its home on the banks of the Ovens River. Pork and fennel meatballs, calamari and chorizo with lemon, salty fried potatoes with aïoli, or skirt steak with garlicky herb butter. For dessert, it's hummingbird cake versus frangipane tart. Everything's made in house and the only problem is deciding.

Take some with you if you're checking in to The House at Smoko, a short drive out of Bright. The self-contained retreat, built in the style of the cattleman's huts of the area, is earthy and welcoming. Just the base for a weekend in the High Country.

This online exclusive was published in August 2012.

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