Indulge in incredible food and wine, spot native wildlife and admire the ancient landscapes when you take a few days to explore some of the scenic locations surrounding Melbourne.
By Anna Lavdaras
Melburnians love their city almost as much as they love escaping it – at least for a day or two. Whether you’re a history buff, foodie or nature-lover, the regions surrounding Melbourne are worth exploring. Spend a few days discovering the pretty wine district of the Mornington Peninsula, frolic in the snow-covered mountain peaks of the High Country or have a close encounter with the adorable wildlife population on Phillip Island. No matter what your interest, there’s a destination for you just a short drive from the city.
HOLIDAY DESTINATIONS NORTH OF MELBOURNE
Just a two-hour drive from Melbourne is the historic town of Bendigo. Its grand buildings, Chinese heritage and living museums are a visible legacy of the 1850s gold rush. More recently, Bendigo’s art and culture scene has flourished with one of the best regional galleries on the country, the Bendigo Art Gallery. Also check out the independent Post Office Gallery, Valentine’s Antique Gallery and the elegant The Capital theatre. Get your hands dirty at Bendigo Pottery, or continue to dig a little deeper into the town’s history at Central Deborah Gold Mine. Bendigo is also known for its shiraz, which you can taste at one of 60 cellar doors with Bendigo Winery Tours. The food scene has a strong farm-to-table ethos you can see at Bendigo Wholefoods. Or try one of the fancier eateries like Masons of Bendigo or The Woodhouse. Check into the Schaller Studio for the night, inspired by the working studio of Australian artist Mark Schaller.
Like its name suggests, this is alpine country, known for its snow-covered slopes come winter (June-August). If you’re not fond of the cold, there are equally as many drawcards to High Country in the warmer months. Adventure lovers can tackle all varieties of mountain biking or snowmobiling at Mount Buller. Take a drive up to Mount McKay for some of the region’s best mountain views, or cycle or horse ride across Mount Stirling. Explore the quaint town of Beechworth, one of the best-preserved gold rush-era towns. Stop for lunch at The Provenance where you can also bunker down in the converted stables out back. Just a half-hour away lies Rutherglen, famous for its fortified wines, and the award-winning eatery, Terrace Restaurant. If beer is more your style, follow the High Country Brewery Trail. End your adventure at By Circa in Corowa, a restored Art Deco bank with just three guestrooms, a day spa, and butler service.
HOLIDAY DESTINATIONS SOUTH OF MELBOURNE
Wildlife lovers can’t leave Melbourne without making the 90-minute drive south to Phillip Island. Known for its daily Penguin Parade, visitors get to watch resident penguins come ashore after a day of fishing out at sea. While you’re waiting for sunset, head to the treetops for another kind of furry encounter at the Koala Conservation Centre. Alternatively, jump on board with Wildlife Coast Cruises to see local seals, dolphins, whales and birdlife. If you’d rather stay on dry land, head for the cliff-top boardwalks at The Nobbies where you can view Seal Rocks, home to the country’s largest Australian fur seal colony. Follow the Southern Gippsland Wine Trail and experience Phillip Island’s excellent cool-climate wineries and fresh produce. Then take a seat at Harry’s on the Esplanade, a beachfront restaurant where almost everything on your plate is local. Settle in for the night at Clifftop, a cosy B&B with spectacular ocean views from most rooms.
About an hour drive south is Mornington Peninsula, home to great food, wine and thermal springs. Do a tasting at a local winery, blend your own bubbly at Foxeys Hangout or discover some of Australia’s premier craft breweries on the Beer, Cider and Spirits Trail. When you need something to soak it all up, head to Laura at Point Leo, an award-winning restaurant overlooking the vineyards. At Willow Creek Vineyard estate you’ll find the stellar Jackalope Hotel, with one of the most exciting restaurants in the area, Doot Doot Doot. And don’t forget to visit the local growers supplying them, like Green Olive at Red Hill, Main Ridge Dairy and Red Hill Truffles. After a full day of eating and drinking, relax at Peninsula Hot Springs, a natural thermal mineral spa house. If the weather is fine, enjoy some Vitamin D on the sandy shores of Port Phillip Bay. The colourful bathing boxes are an attraction in their own right.
HOLIDAY DESTINATIONS EAST OF MELBOURNE
The wilderness of Gippsland stretches from Melbourne to Victoria’s border with New South Wales, covering 542 kilometres (337 miles). It offers Victoria’s largest coastal wilderness area, Wilsons Promontory, which is threaded with walking tracks and wildlife. For more of the unique Gippsland landscape, head out to explore the Gippsland Lakes, a network of lakes, marshes and lagoons covering more than 600 square kilometres (230 square miles). Go on a guided tour to see the stalactites and stalagmites of Fairy Cave and the calcite-rimmed pools of Royal Cave or spot wildlife at the Buchan Caves Reserve where you can stay in safari-style wilderness retreats. Follow the Gippsland Food and Wine Trail for the freshest seafood along the coast, wines at Wild Dog and Tambo wineries, batch beers and gins at Loch Brewery & Distillery, Prom Country Cheese and a local meal at the Tinamba Hotel.
HOLIDAY DESTINATIONS WEST OF MELBOURNE
The Great Ocean Road
Forget the destination, the Great Ocean Road is all about the journey. If it’s the highlights tour you want, head for the world-famous waves at Bells Beach or laze on the sand at Anglesea. Visit the charming fishing village of Port Fairy and get among the buzzing arts community in Lorne. Take a selfie with the 12 Apostles, and then head inland to see the thundering waterfalls as you walk along the tops of ancient, mossy trees at the Otway Fly Treetop Walk. Thrill seekers can opt for the Otway Fly Zipline Tour which zips between “cloud stations” 30 metres (98 feet) above the forest floor. Cool-climate wineries stretch the length of the Great Ocean Road, so be sure to stop off at cellar doors like Basalt in the Henty region, or Bellbrae Estate near Bells Beach. Book well in advance for the upmarket restaurant Brae, and settle in for the night at Drift House in scenic Port Fairy.
Stepping into Sovereign Hill feels like going back in time, way back to 1851. The town is an open-air museum that re-creates Ballarat during the first 10 years after the discovery of gold. Set on an original mining site, and complete with costumed characters, you can walk into the shops, hotels, theatre, school, factories, gold diggings and underground mines as if they were still functioning today. Return from your foray into the past with a visit to the Ballarat Wildlife Park, then head to Tuki Trout Farm. Hook a rainbow trout from the farm’s pond, then have it cooked fresh in the on-site restaurant. Stay at the Tuki Retreat, or head into Ballarat. This town is full of hidden laneways and secret spots, and you can see many of them on a hidden-treasure – food and shopping tour. Indulge in a meal at Underbar, an exclusive dining experience serving tasting dishes inspired by the seasons and surrounds for 16 diners at a time, so book ahead.
A three-hour drive will get you to the Grampians National Park, an incredible mountain landscape dotted with quaint towns. Get a taste of local Aboriginal culture and see ancient rock art at the famous Bunjil’s Shelter. Take a guided tour from Halls Gap for a richer understanding. The area is also known for quality red and vibrant white wines with big names Seppelt, Montara and Best’s. You can jump aboard a Grampians winery tour, or hop on a Grampians Helicopters picnic tour and really take in the grand scale of the surrounds. After you’ve indulged, get out and explore the landscape. Trek the rugged cliffs and cascading waterfalls, go fishing or canoeing and get up close to the native wildlife. Travel to Mount Arapiles-Tooan State Park, where you can scale dramatic rock formations. Then wind down your day with a meal at the Royal Mail Hotel, regularly voted one of the best dining destinations in Australia.