Melbourne in the southeastern state of Victoria, Australia is one of the most visited places in the country. It’s vibrant, modern and diverse, with a thriving food, art and culture scene. But while there’s plenty to see and do in the metropolis, there are less who would think to venture beyond, to the countryside of Victoria.
Those who do, however, will find that the region offers endless rewards for travelers looking to experience the authentic, local way of life, amid stunning scenery of rolling vineyards, farms and forests, as well as countrified stores filled with friendly locals and fresh produce.
We set off on our heartland adventure to the Strathbogie Ranges, a two-hour drive that took us past low mountains dotted with grazing cows and sheep. Arriving at the impressive Fowles Winery and Cellar Door, we sat down to enjoy a few sips of their award winning wines, including the quirkily named Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch range, paired with game meats like rabbit and veal.
As part of the Ultimate Winery Experience, guests can opt to take a short but scenic drive, accompanied by a wine expert, to the vineyards, or take a personal tour featuring tank and barrel room tastings before tucking into a scrumptious lunch.
Finding the quaint outback town of Ruffy was an adventure on its own; one that took us down well-maintained dirt roads, past segments of bush and fields littered with granite rocks and grazing cattle. The town’s main street was an avenue of shady trees, with a public hall and former primary school turned community centre. A driver of a passing truck waved at us and I was warmly reminded of the friendly communal spirit unique to small towns.
Further down the road was what we came for, the Ruffy Produce Store. There we found locals unwinding under the shade of giant oak trees, with pet dogs lounging at their feet. We followed suit, tucking unabashedly into hearty country food such as sausage rolls fresh from the oven, creamy tarts and pies, humongous beef burgers and baked quiche - all made from seasonal fresh produce and ingredients sourced from farms around the region.
Well fed and watered, we ventured to our next stop, the rural city of Benalla, some 200km northeast of Melbourne. Appearances can be deceiving in this seemingly sleepy town of 10,000 people, as we soon discovered during our visit.
We were in luck, as the annual Benalla Wall to Wall Art Festival was in full swing. Started in 2015 by a group of local art enthusiasts, the event sees dozens of local and international artists coming together over a weekend to brighten up the city with colourful, giant murals. Bus stops, brick walls, pavements and even the inside of churches are transformed into vivid canvases. We joined the throng of locals on the streets to watch the artists at work. The murals will remain on display until the next festival, and visitors can take part in walking tours to discover these Instagrammable gems all around town.
Accommodation that night was at Milawa, a tiny center dating back to the 1840s. Today, the town is home to interesting primary produce outlets such as the Brown Brothers and the Milawa Cheese Factory. Bread, wine and cheese are just some of the famous produce available in the area. We called it a day at Lindenwarrah, an eclectic yet luxurious countryhouse-cum-hotel overlooking acres of vineyards and the mountains beyond.
Departing early the next morning for the King Valley, we journeyed onto Prosecco Road for a slice of Italy, right in the heart of the Australian countryside. Popular among tourists as a food and wine trail, many of the wineries here are run by first, second and third generation Italian migrant families, who bring traditional Mediterranean-inspired wines, such as pinot grigio, verduzzo and prosecco, paired with hearty Italian food, to the table.
After a wine tasting at Christmont Cellar Door, Restaurant and Larder, we made our own lunch at A Tavola! Cooking School, located within Pizzini Wines. Guided by the warm and knowledgeable proprietor, Katrina Pizzini, we sliced, diced and rolled out pasta, gnocchi, apple pie and a delicious stew. Lunch was served on the verandah, next to old tobacco drying sheds overlooking a small creek and the surrounding vineyards. If you’re around the area in November, remember to drop by for the annual Gnocchi Carnavale, as Katrina prepares her signature gnocchi for hundreds of visiting guests, in a carnival-like atmosphere filled with entertainment, music and performances.
No visit to the King Valley would be complete without visiting Dal Zotto, the first winery to introduce prosecco to the region. Wine tastings are peppered with family anecdotes, and visitors can even have a game of bocce while sipping on a glass of their signature prosecco.
Our last stop for the day was King Valley Dairy, run by chef turned butter maker, Naomi Ingleton. Tired of importing French butter and unable to find a local alternative, Ingleton set out to make her own. Today, the dairy proudly ships its products to gourmet grocers and independent retailers all over Australia. Visitors can see how the butter is made at the production line, then try out a platter of their best sellers over at the airy café area.
It was time for us to head back to Melbourne – but not before paying a visit to the Mansfield Regional Produce Store in Mansfield, a tourist town near the Australian ski resort of Mount Buller. Fondly referred to simply as ‘the produce store’, it is the place for locals (and an increasing number of holidaygoers) to kick back, relax and enjoy great food and shopping in a rustic ambience. We came away with dried nuts, cookies, homemade pastes, spices and chocolates.
The town itself sports quaint architecture and a rich history, with buildings dating back to the early 19th century that give the place a decidedly ‘cowboy town’ look. It’s close proximity to two large lakes, namely Lake Eildon and Lake Nillahcootie, as well as nearby skiing resorts, make it a popular stopover with tourists.
We took the scenic route back to Melbourne via the Black Spur, a 30km stretch of road winding through the Great Dividing Range. Although just 50 minutes away from the city, it felt like a million miles away as we wound down the windows and took in the lush, damp smells of rainforest, thick with ferns. There are several spots for picnics in the area, where visitors can stop and enjoy a packed lunch by a creek, or under the shade of towering eucalyptus and ash trees.
As we finally entered Melbourne and its familiar sights of skyscrapers and neon lights, I found myself already missing the calm, quiet nights out in the country.