Only an hour’s drive from Melbourne Airport, Daylesford and the Macedon Ranges fly under the radar as a food and wine destinations, writes Winsor Dobbin.
Three decades ago, Daylesford was an unremarkable country town in regional Victoria, probably best known for producing high-quality potatoes. Fast forward to 2017, and Daylesford and the neighbouring Macedon Ranges wine region are fast emerging as favoured gourmet getaways for Melbourne’s movers and shakers.
Daylesford and next-door Hepburn Springs are alive with top-notch restaurants, vibrant country pubs, massage retreats, wine bars and up-market accommodation, while names like Passing Clouds, Cobaw Ridge, Curly Flat and Bindi are among the highest-rated cool-climate wine producers in the country.
Just a short trip from Tullamarine, you’ll discover a weekend destination to rival the better-known duo of the Yarra Valley and the Mornington Peninsula.
The broader area around the town is known for its natural spring mineral spas, and is home to over 80 per cent of Australia’s effervescent mineral water reserves. The area features 65 spas in all, including Mineral Spa at Peppers Springs Retreat and Salus Spa at The Lake House
Daylesford has a chilled out vibe; relaxed but blessed with good coffee and food options, and extremely popular with same sex couples.
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, gorse-infested land overlooking a lake on the fringes of then down-at-heel Daylesford, and saw immense potential despite it being strewn with rubbish and rusted car parts.
That overgrown land 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, championing local seasonal cuisine long before it became a mantra for the industry.
Today, The Lake House remains at the pinnacle of regional destination dining, with 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.
On-site guests can enjoy a spa treatment, perhaps a game of tennis followed by tea and refreshments in the tennis pavilion, a glass of wine by the fire in the Argyle Library Bar, or a multiple-course dinner overlooking the lake.
Today, however, the trailblazing and multiple-award-winning Lake House is far from being the only game in town. There are dozens of country cottages and B&Bs to choose from, but it pays to book in advance to secure the best rooms.
Take relative newcomer Clifftop at Hepburn, which was voted number one in Australia of over 40,000 holiday homes in the Stayz program and has been named as one of Australia’s most romantic getaways.
Think magnificent views, super-comfortable beds, luxe furnishings and a range of gourmet treats including local chocolates. Imagine having your own full-sized pinball machine, a two-person day bed that doubles as a swing, or an in-house Spotify system. Just across the road is the Old Hepburn Hotel (out of sound range), which often features live music.
Speaking of food and drink, the region is overly-blessed with great destinations. The Lake House is on every gourmet’s list, but also make sure to add quirky Frank and Connie’s Kitchen, where chef Caliopi Buck serves up some delicious small plates and share dishes from an ever-changing blackboard menu.
Lunch at Passing Clouds winery, just out of town at Musk, is a must-do. Sample some pinots and shirazes, and sit down for a rustic feast featuring local meats grilled over coals, with herbs and vegetables from the adjacent potager.
The Daylesford Hotel in town has a great selection of local wines and beers (even a local gin and tonic combo) and offers good-value pub grub. Other favourites with locals include the Surly Goat in Hepburn Springs, the Farmer’s Arms, the gourmet-fusion food at Kazuki’s, and The Argus Dining Room in the Peppers complex. Mercato and Sault also have solid followings.
For a pre-dinner drink, pop into Wine and Country, a local bottle shop and wine bar where the list pairs local boutique offerings like Eastern Peake and Latta Vino (both made by the owner Jenny Latta’s husband), along with an impressive selection of minimal-intervention wines and imports.
Breakfast choices include The Boathouse, overlooking Lake Daylesford, which serves up smashing scrambled eggs, and Cafe Koukla at Frangos, which offers a friendly welcome and excellent casual dining throughout the day along with an open fire on days when the mercury plummets.
There is a good day to be spent exploring the wineries of the Macedon Ranges, including Passing Clouds, pinot and chardonnay specialist Curly Flat, the minimalist but beguiling offerings from Cobaw Ridge, and stunning flinty rieslings from Knight’s Granite Hills.
Stop on the way in or out of Daylesford at atmospheric former mining settlements like Kyneton, Trentham and Woodend, which have artisan bakeries, small eateries and traditional country pubs to explore. Also check out Daylesford Cider, which uses organically-grown heritage apples, and pates and rillettes from newcomers Max and Delilah.
Pop into The Fromagerie, Cliffy’s Emporium or DOS Deli to pick up some savoury treats for the trip home, or perhaps some chocolates from Sweet Decadence at Locantro. Those lucky enough to be in Daylesford on a Sunday can visit the markets at the old railway station, or take a heritage train ride through the local countryside.
Qantas, Virgin Blue and Jetstar all fly from Sydney to Melbourne, and all major car hire companies are represented at Melbourne Airport.
For more details on the Daylesford-Macedon Ranges visit www.dmrtourism.com.au.
Words: Winsor Dobbin