Victoria’s spa country is home to 141 mineral springs but only three resorts offer the chance to bathe in their health-giving waters. Kendall Hill wades in.
Unlike the Ancient Greeks, who believed mineral springs were godly abodes with supernatural powers, Australians have always treated the mineral-rich waters of Central Victoria more like a free chemist. “Nature’s free dispensary of health and vitality” is how early ads promoted the healing waters of Daylesford and Hepburn Springs.
Doctors recommended them for maladies as diverse as scrofula and Saint Vitus dance. Renowned Melbourne surgeon Henry O’Hara praised “the Hepburn water” for anyone suffering torpidity of the liver, dyspepsia, irregular heart action and other afflictions of the “meat-eating and alcohol-consuming community”.
That was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but his advice rings true for me in the 21st. My body is a toxic wreck from a series of parties and my brain is starting to fumble even the most basic tasks. It’s time to take the waters.
The very sight of Daylesford, about 115 kilometres north-west of Melbourne, is enough to lower stress levels. It looks like a European village with its storybook lake, grand old homes, lavish gardens and exotic trees, including an avenue of chestnuts at the town’s northern entrance.
Victoria’s Central Highlands has the highest concentration of mineral springs in Australia – 141, according to government figures – and most are found in or near the twin spa towns of Daylesford and Hepburn. But only three establishments offer the chance to bathe in the famous health-giving waters and I plan to try them all, Goldilocks style, in one self-indulgent day.
First stop is the 1880s-built Hepburn Bathhouse & Spa, an Edwardian-era sanatorium where, in the 1940s, nurses began administering treatments. Today it’s a consultant spruiking the properties of the springs that bubble up through the bedrock of the Great Dividing Range. I ask her what I should expect from the experience and she wows with talk of transepidermal absorption and cardiokinetic something-or-other. Bath time never sounded so exciting.
My private stone tub is filled with water piped directly from the ground and heated to 37°C, which, coincidentally, is also the temperature outside today. I was hoping for a brisk dip but instead my body has a hot flush. Cooling glasses of spring water from the bath tap are a blessing (though not encouraged). The water is cloudy, sweetish and lightly carbonated but with a faint taste of something ancient and fishy – coelacanth, perhaps.
After 30 minutes of overheating, I visit the Sanctuary section (open to those 16 years and over) and plunge into the salt pool, where I brine alone beneath a skylight framing the hot blue sky. I’m told the salt will help release toxins from my body.
Hepburn’s waters are flush with potassium, which was historically prescribed for depression and hysteria. That sounds exactly like what I need right now. So, too, the silica, to cleanse the liver; the chloride for healthy skin, hair and glands; and the stress-relieving, immune-boosting magnesium.
Up the hill from the Bathhouse, The Mineral Spa at the Peppers Mineral Springs Hotel offers baths in a tiled pool area attached to its 10-room spa. Acting manager Sally Willett is refreshingly pragmatic about how I should feel afterwards. “Sleepy, pretty much,” she smiles.
The three raised pools overlook pencil pines, a topiary garden and the kitchen’s vegie patch. I take a seat in a turquoise-tiled pool full of Central Victoria’s finest (with chlorine added, by the smell of it). While the water is 37°C, a warm breeze provides evaporative cooling and bubbles burst on the skin like refreshing micro-drops. It’s rather pleasant.
The cool plunge pool in the middle is a shock but the third pool is just right. I’m now feeling so sleepy (Willett was right) that I retire to a lounge on the terrace and cannot keep my eyes open. I desperately want an afternoon nap here but can’t stay. It’s time for my next bath.
The much-awarded Lake House is a beautiful, small waterfront hotel renowned Australia-wide for its restaurant but less known for its decade-old spa. This is despite Salus Spa having the only two tree-house mineral water baths in the country (and possibly the world).
I thought the baths might have been hewn from hardwoods by a local lumberjack, for that authentically rustic look, but these are commercial spa baths set in timber cabins in the trees.
Staff have thoughtfully drawn me a cool one on this scorching day and it’s heaven to sit there with the jets off, soaking in water extracted from Deep Creek spring in nearby Eganstown. Louvred windows open to leafy views over Lake Daylesford and a chorus of birds. I feel more relaxed than I have in weeks, with absolutely no signs of hysteria.
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