Meet the neighbours
Drive a loop around Melbourne for beaches, bushwalks, and food and wine
Judging from the unflinching stares of three kangaroos munching the dry grass in front of my Yarra Valley cottage at dusk, it was me who was doing the trespassing. As they decimated green shoots that had miraculously sprouted since that morning’s drought-breaking rain, I was wrapping my head around the chortling of magpies and kookaburras laughing from gum trees exuding a eucalyptus aroma into the blue Aussie sky, and the fact that I was just 50 minutes from urban Melbourne’s concrete jungle.
While it might sound rude to say that you love a city because it’s quick and easy to get out of, I see it as a measure of a great metropolis. Melbourne has long been my favourite Australian city because it’s rich in culture, serious about cuisine and café culture, was smart enough to keep its streetcars and is indifferent to Sydney’s jibes about wet weather and stodginess. So how can speedy access to Melbourne’s playgrounds — lush rainforests for bushwalking, outback wine country, kilometres of sandbox beaches and pretty Victorian towns — be a bad thing?
Australia’s financial hub and second biggest city is perched atop its harbour, Port Phillip Bay, and my plan was to drive a crooked clockwise circle around “The Bay” hopping a ferry across “The Rip”, the narrow opening in the south. While the 220-kilometre circuit could be explored in a weekend, I planned on dallying for a week.
A short freeway run through Melbourne’s eastern outskirts dropped me onto narrow, steep switchback roads deep in the exotic temperate forests of the Dandenong Ranges dotted with Sleepy Hollow hamlets like Sassafras and Olinda. Folks have been vacationing here since Edwardian times, chugging along on the Puffing Billy Steam Train (puffingbilly.com.au; adults from $28 return, kids aged 4 to 16 $14), taking in the preened gardens, prowling antique and handicraft shops, and indulging in classic Devonshire — “Dev” — teas at one of the Hobbit or Tudor-style teahouses like Miss Marple’s (382 Mount Dandenong Tourist Road, Sassafras; missmarples.com.au). These days, many of the traditional Aussie fast food “tuck shops” have morphed into bistros serving creative organic and local cuisine, and there are regional foodie, ale and cider trails to follow.
At that moment though, what I was after was walking trails, and I tackled several that meandered past waterfalls and over bridges and boardwalks as red rosella parrots and sulphur-crested cockatoos flitted between towering tree ferns and soaring eucalypts.
On the three-kilometre Ferntree Gully Circuit in Dandenong Ranges National Park (parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/dandenong-ranges-national-park) I heard, but could not see elusive lyrebirds that can mimic everything from car alarms to barking dogs. Koalas and nocturnal platypus were even rarer, best sighted at the nearby Healesville Sanctuary (Badger Creek Road, Healesville; zoo.org.au/healesville; adults $31, kids 4 to 15 $14 weekdays, free holidays and weekends) for all critters Aussie.
A short drive to the northeast and the Dandenongs flattened into the wide valley of the Yarra, the river that flows through Melbourne. Arid and sunny with rolling hills, it was a glimpse of outback wide-openness, and I passed horse and cattle farms, taking note of signposts warning of waddling wombats. The valley was diverse, Healesville being the main country town with a leafy main street lined with classic colonial buildings. Just down the road, sprawling amid the rural countryside, was the über-modern TarraWarra Museum of Art (311 Healesville-Yarra Glen Road, Healesville; twma.com.au; adults $8), a private collection of contemporary Australian works established by the Besen family of the adjacent TarraWarra Estate (tarrawarra.com.au). Travelling a little further, I ran into the Yarra Valley Dairy (70-80 McMeikans Road, Yering; yvd.com.au)in a corrugated iron barn where I settled into a tasting plate of fine cow and goat cheesesin their bakery/café.
The dusty country roads were vine-lined as this is prime wine country that’s been scooping up awards since Yering Station (38 Melba Highway, Yarra Glen; yering.com) won the Grand Prix at the 1898 Paris Exhibition. The winery still exists, a stunning glass structure with a restaurant, wine bar and a historic barn that hosts a popular farmer’s market. The valley’s 85 wineries are mostly small and range from simple family cottage affairs to spa retreats like Balgownie Estate (1309 Melba Highway, Yarra Glen; balgownieestate.com.au).
Yarra wines tend to be delicate and restrained, quite unlike stereotypical robust-bodied Australian wines. The region produces some of the country’s best Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and sparkling wines.
“Many people are surprised to learn we’re a cool climate growing region,” said Jon Baxter of Punt Road (10 St. Huberts Road, Coldstream; puntroadwines.com.au), a boutique winery whose vintages rarely leave the country. “But that’s changing,” he said holding up a February 2013 New York Times applauding the new wave of subtle Down Under reds trickling into American wine shops.
Also at the winery was a group having fun on what was likely the world’s only interactive comedy-wine tour. “We’re one-third wise guys, one-third wine experts and one-third comedians,” I was told by guide “Jake aka The Snake.”
A resurgence in cider making is also taking place in Australia and Punt Road produces Napoleone and Co. cider crafted like wine from four apple varieties into something akin to apple champagne.
I followed up next at a real French bubbly-maker, Domaine Chandon (727 Maroondah Highway, Coldstream; chandon.com.au) then tasted my way down Maddens Lane to Coldstream Hills (31 Maddens Lane, Coldstream; coldstreamhills.com.au), wine writer James Halliday’s mecca of stellar chardonnay. I finished up the afternoon with a pilgrimage to De Bortoli (58 Pinnacle Lane, Dixons Creek; debortoli.com.au) for a wee bottle of Noble One, my number one “sticky” as they’re called in these parts: luscious botrytis dessert wine.
Go on tour
Thanks to the new EastLink toll freeway it was only an hour’s drive south to the Mornington Peninsula (visitmorningtonpeninsula.org). A string of 26 bayside beaches and holiday towns, it has been Melbourne’s getaway for so long that its 1300 jelly-bean coloured “beach boxes” — strand-side huts for beach toys — are historic icons, some dating back to the mid-19th century.
The towns had a carnival atmosphere with classic Aussie pubs, fine seafood restaurants, and grassy beach parks where the air was filled with the smell of barbecues and fish and chips. Dromana and Rosebud beaches were lively with families and Rye’s long jetty was ideal for strolling or dropping a fishing line during long slow sunsets when Melbourne’s distant skyline floated like an island of skyscrapers 75 kilometres away.
Towards the west was Sorrento with its historic Victorian village and at the peninsula’s western tip Portsea was a charming enclave that is the state’s wealthiest postal code. In 2010 a record $455,000 was paid for a 22-square-metre Portsea beach hut.
Taking a break from beach culture, I wound my way up Arthur’s Seat, a 300-metre-tall granite hill behind Dromana for views and forest hikes. Poking along country roads throughout the peninsula I came across more cool climate wineries like Ten Minutes by Tractor (1333 Mornington Flinders Road, Main Ridge; tenminutesbytractor.com.au), which benefited from the maritime breezes, then sampled a trio of winemakers’ vintages in a restaurant/tasting bar occupying the old Merricks General Store (3460 Frankston-Flinders Road, Merricks; mgwinestore.com.au)
At the 1871 Heronswood Estate, a vast formal and edible garden supplies Fork to Fork (105 Latrobe Parade, Dromana; diggers.com.au/gardens-cafes/cafes/heronswood.aspx), Australia’s only thatched-roof café onsite. For lunch one day I surrendered to Red Hill Gourmet Meats’ “Blokes Banger,” a masterpiece of smoked cheese, bacon and beef that beat out 2636 other sausages as “Australia’s Best Snag” in 2011. On another, I opted for a gourmet lunch of seared rare kangaroo with a killer Pinot Noir at Max’s (53 Shoreham Road, Red Hill South; maxsatredhillestate.com.au) overlooking the distant Southern Ocean past Red Hill Winery’s net covered vines draped like wedding veils to keep away grape-nibbling birds.
As the surf pounded the ocean-side beaches, I hiked cliff-top routes around Point Nepean National Park (parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/point-nepean-national-park), at the peninsula’s western end, through a labyrinth of tunnels and fortifications from an old military fort to an 1852 quarantine station.
From Sorrento it was a 40-minute car ferry ride (searoad.com.au; $115 per car round, including driver; additional passengers extra) across “the Rip” to Queenscliff on the bay’s western headland, a link started only in 1987. The town’s beautifully restored Victorian hotels date from the days when wealthy Melbournites arrived on paddle steamers. These days the entire Bellarine Peninsula is a popular weekend getaway for its classic accommodations and cuisine from gourmet delis like Salt Bush Fine Foods to Golden Plate award-winning fine dining at the historic Vue Grand Hotel and Queenscliff Inn.
Rounding the western shore of The Bay on the home route, I couldn’t believe the difference $150 million made in transforming Melbourne’s once unsightly port town of Geelong into a dazzling waterfront of landscaped gardens, walking and cycling paths, and eateries; even more reasons to linger longer as you make a ring around Melbourne.
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