Is this the best country getaway in Australia? Travel editor Winsor Dobbin goes exploring.
There is something special about Australian country towns. People have time to smile when you walk past them or to offer help if you look lost. There is fresh local produce, picked from a tree that morning, or plucked from the earth before being served for lunch.
You’ll probably be able to visit a cellar door where the person serving you also made the wine you’ll be tasting, and there will be all day parking, for free, on the main street in town. Daylesford, just an hour north of Melbourne Airport, is one such place with a country vibe, but being so close to Melbourne it also offers some of the best elements of the city, including broad-mindedness and an artistic vibe.
Think barista-made coffee served swiftly, a real butcher’s shop, delightful food cooked by serious chefs (no Maccas or KFC) and accommodation options that range from city slick to country comfort. It means shops that sell the latest fashionable wear – but also op shops with serious bargains (I’m still using my much-loved Vinnie’s scarf).
There are very few traffic jams in Daylesford and neighbouring Hepburn Springs; I don’t recall having seen a traffic light and if you hear a car horn it is probably just someone greeting a friend. Sure, in the country life moves a little bit slower. But there’s something about spending a few days in somewhere like Daylesford that just leaves your mind and body feeling good.
With just 2,548 people as of the 2016 census, Daylesford was first established in 1852 as a gold-mining town. Today, it pulls in the visitors as one of Australia’s few spa towns – another bonus for locals.
The Daylesford-Hepburn Springs region accounts for more than 80% of Australia’s known mineral water springs. Daylesford and Hepburn Springs have no fumes or stress; but the service levels are good. Many young people train in the city, but then return to their own slice of heaven.
You may be troubled deciding which of the many excellent eateries to patronise, which local Macedon Ranges wine to choose, and – for visitors – whether to choose to stay in homely pub accommodation, in luxury self-catering apartments, or in one of the several world-class gourmet and spa resorts.
It’s that level of choice that makes Daylesford-Hepburn Springs so special. That, and the beautiful surroundings. There can be few better ways to greet the day than with a brisk walk around the shores of the lake followed by a hearty country breakfast in front of a wood-fire in winter, or al fresco in summer. You’ll find great shops, art galleries, wine bars, regional charm, wellness treatments and other joys of city living without the hassles. Where in a city could you be close to 140 natural mineral springs rich in magnesium, calcium and silica and believed to cure afflictions from acne to arthritis?
Here are some of my local favourites.
Daylesford’s emergence on Australia’s gourmet radar is largely thanks to Alla Wolf-Tasker and her artist husband Allan. The couple stumbled upon a piece of unused, rubbish-strewn land overlooking an underutilised lake and saw immense potential. That overgrown tip soon emerged as The Lake House, one of Australia’s first country chic hotels. Wolf-Tasker quickly built a reputation as a formidable cook and promoter of rural produce. The Lake House earned two hats from the Good Food Guide 2019 but is just one of several superb dining destinations.
The Argus Dining Roomat Peppers Hepburn Springs, long-time gastro pub favourite the Farmers Arms and country chic Mercato are three long-time favourites, but it is also worth going on a voyage of discovery. More recent gourmet arrivals include Bistro Terroir, where talented young chef Matt Carnell is turning out French classics in a stylish setting, the adventurous food of chef Caliopi Buck at Frank and Connie’sat Hepburn Springs and the casual Japanese at Sakana.
STAYING IN STYLE
The Lake House boasts 33 beautiful rooms and suites in either a waterfront or garden lodge setting. Six acres of country gardens extend down to the waters of Lake Daylesford and provide guests with immediate access to the lake shore and the Wombat State Forest beyond. There’s an infinity pool and fabulous lake views. There are also dozens of country cottages and B&Bs to choose from, but it pays to book in advance to secure the best rooms as Daylesford can be very popular at weekends.
Clifftop at Hepburn is ideal for those looking for self-contained accommodation. It has magnificent views, super-comfortable beds, luxe furnishings and a range of gourmet treats, including local chocolates. Choose your room carefully. You may prefer having your own full-sized pinball machine, a two-person day bed that doubles as a swing, or an in-house Spotify system. Four new villas built in former shipping containers are known as Solitude and comprise Paris, Vienna, Venice and Rome, all dramatic but different.
If you’re after a unique experience, the award-winning Shizuka Ryokan Japanese Country Spa and Wellness Retreat in Hepburn Springs offers traditional accommodation, gourmet cuisine, spa treatments, as well as holistic wellness and health treatments.
For those looking for chic older-style comfort should consider Wentworth House, a local cottage beautifully restored by local designer Jessica Holmes, who along with her husband is working to create the Daylesford Brewing facility in town.
More traditional hotel accommodation can be found at Peppers at Hepburn Springs, which has an elegant vibe, while Hotel Frangos in the centre of Daylesford has rooms with a funky European bordello vibe. The Daylesford Hotel in town has upmarket country-style rooms, a selection of local wines and beers (even a local gin and tonic combo) and good-value pub grub. It is a terrific budget option for those who’d rather spend their money on wine and food.
OUT AND ABOUT
Daylesford and Hepburn Springs are alive with top-notch pubs and cafés, but there are lots of other options when it comes to having fun – including a trip out to the nearby village of Musk, where you can taste a range of artisan drinks made with English heritage cider applesat Daylesford Cider or enjoy a wine tasting at Passing Clouds, where the long lunches feasting on meats cooked over hot coals are legendary.
Visitors can sample wines from most of the local producers including boutique producers Latta Vino and North, at Wine and the Country, a chic little wine bar in the centre of Daylesford.
The Convent Gallery, housed in a historic 19th-century mansion, features three levels of local, national and international art as well as an arts and sculpture park.
Shoppers will enjoy browsing several stores with arty collectables and homewares, while The Amazing Mill Markets lease space to hundreds of small dealers and are an ideal spot to spend a couple of hours. Chances are you’ll come away with an antique LP or some interesting jewellery.
The spa and wellness options include the Mineral Spa at Peppers Springs Retreat and Salus Spa at the Lake House, while there is a good day to be spent exploring the neighbouring wineries of the Macedon Ranges, including Cobaw Ridge, Hanging Rock, Knight’s Granite Hills and Curly Flat.
Fabulous breakfast choices include The Boathouse, Cafe Koukla at Frangosand Pancho’s,with a roaring wood fire during winter.
Words: Winsor Dobbin