The Great Ocean Road may be one of Victoria's brightest stars but a road trip on the Great Alpine Road sparkles with cellar doors, top dining and classic country towns.
My first giddy experience of snow was on the Great Alpine Road. The excitement of seeing those early patches of glistening white appear on the ground made me forget the thigh-gripping terror as the family Holden tackled Mount Hotham’s hairpin bends. A year or two later, I caught my first fish at the road’s other end following a battle worthy of Captain Ahab and Moby-Dick; an experience no less thrilling for it being a toxic pufferfish that we tossed back in from the Lakes Entrance jetty. Even now, well into adulthood, the Great Alpine Road keeps me coming back year after year.
The Great Ocean Road may be more firmly entrenched in the world’s imagination but the 339-kilometre-long Alpine route is in every way its match. Scaling heights close to the NSW border, snaking through the rugged hills and valleys of East Gippsland and finishing at the great Gippsland Lakes, it covers an epic swathe of Victorian countryside.
Yesteryear Australia is palpable in the colonial bank buildings and inviting pubs, the towns with names like Wandiligong, Smoko and Doctors Flat and the lonely sun-bleached farmhouses. The area’s hiking and mountain-biking trails have long attracted the intrepid but the cultural imprint now extends to cellar doors and distilleries, top restaurants and artisan producers of all stripes.
There’s skiing, of course, but tackle the drive in the off-season to have your pick of accommodation and enjoy lengthy stretches without another vehicle in sight and no crowds to contend with. And whether you’re behind the wheel or riding shotgun, you’ll have your fill of arcadian scenery that shifts and changes like the clouds.
Day 1: Wangaratta to Bright
Pretty Wangaratta – “Wang” to its residents – is the touring route’s northern gateway and the starting point for my husband and I as we set off for the King Valley, about 35 minutes away, where superlatives don’t do justice to the beauty. The terrain and climate is similar to northern Italy and, since the 1920s, it has attracted Italian immigrants who helped transform the region. Corrugated-iron drying kilns along the road are a reminder of the valley’s tobacco farming past, while its present riches are seen in wineries that pioneered Australia’s love of prosecco and pinot grigio.
There are about 16 vineyards noted for their Italian grape varieties and we drop into Sam Miranda winery in Oxley, where the first vines were planted in 1939. The cellar door is dug into a grassy hill, with a tower spilling light onto the bar down below. We try local classics, including sangiovese and barbera, as well as lesser-known drops like verduzzo, durif and tannat. (Into the boot goes a bottle of the “prosato”, a prosecco and rosato blend.)
This is the heart of the Milawa Gourmet Region, which spans the towns of Oxley, Milawa, Tarrawingee, Markwood and Whorouly. To go hungry around here is a challenge thanks to the farmgates, tasting rooms and shopfronts selling everything from berries and preserves to honey and mustard. We beeline for the unofficial headquarters: the Milawa Cheese Company, housed in the town’s historic butter factory. The story of founders David and Anne Brown is worthy of an Aussie sitcom: a Melbournite couple escape the “cappuccino belt” in 1988 to make cheese – with no experience. “The locals laughed at first,” says a server who offers us an addictively creamy blue and the washed-rind King River Gold. “But I think they’ve come around.”
Just down the road we stop for lunch at the home of Brown Brothers, a leading light in King Valley for more than 130 years and the first Australian winery to have a restaurant on site. In the rustic dining room that looks out onto grand oak trees and where the menu changes by the season or the day, our two-hour dégustation by chef Bodee Price starts with a volley of snacks (smoked emu with fermented carrot is a highlight), followed by confit king salmon in a velouté made with the estate’s prosecco that leaves me swooning. While plenty of people dream of moving to Byron Bay, at Reed & Co Distillery in Bright, about an hour from Milawa, you’ll find a Byron native who reckons this part of Victoria is impossible to beat. “The whole north-east gets under your skin,” says co-owner Hamish Nugent. “I left a number of times to go travelling the world but I always kept being drawn back.” Nestled in the alpine foothills of the Ovens Valley, the gorgeous town of Bright is a popular jumping-off point for the ski fields. These parts are famous for the deciduous foliage that peaks around April, with extravagant displays of amber, red and yellow against the evergreen backdrop of the surrounding mountains.
But there’s another autumn pleasure hiding in the pine plantations just outside of town. The undergrowth here is the perfect incubator for pine mushrooms that bring fungi lovers each year in pursuit of the delicious morsels. I like to think of it as an Easter egg hunt crossed with the hip wholesomeness of foraging.
It’s easy to lose all sense of time in the forest but after an hour (or is it three?) we leave to check in at Art House Townhouses Bright, a newly opened luxe stay in the centre of town. Views of the mountains are among our suite’s many attractions – as is its location across the road from Nugent’s distillery, where the aperitivo hour proves irresistible. As the sky outside darkens, we sink happily into the evening with a gin tasting flight that includes Gin & Juice, made with grapes tainted by smoke from last year’s bushfires and that couldn’t be fermented.
Our night ends at Elm Dining, housed in a mid-1800s doctor’s surgery on the main drag, Gavan Street. Local history, warm hospitality and a menu worth travelling for make this the town’s special-occasion restaurant – as the beef tenderloin with black garlic jus and cavolo nero from the kitchen garden will attest.
Day 2: Bright to Paynesville
Excellent coffee from local roasters Sixpence and a well-named “big brekky” (including but not limited to bacon, eggs, spinach, mushrooms and a kranski) make Ginger Baker a good reason to get out of bed. The cute, ramshackle café overlooks the Ovens River and is a short drive from the network of trails that wind through the native bushcovered foothills around Harrietville.
We middleweights choose the eightkilometre round trip that takes in the end of the Bon Accord Track, the original horseback route to Mount Hotham before the Great Alpine Road was built. The trail is pleasantly perfumed by the eucalypt leaves crushed underfoot but after about four kilometres we take the sight of a steep climb as our signal to return to the car.
From here the Great Alpine Road really earns its name. Australia’s highest, yearround accessible sealed road winds dramatically over 30 kilometres from Harrietville up to its highest point of 1840 metres at Mount Hotham. Ghostly grey gum skeletons soar above new growth, while the last stretch feels like you’re driving on the roof of Victoria. Danny’s Lookout, just west of Hotham, is the best vantage point from which to take it all in.
Inevitably, what goes up must come down and we leave the Alpine National Park for the windswept, grassy hills of East Gippsland. “These hot, dry and hungry hills are so similar to Greece,” says Annie Paterson, the daughter of a mountain cattleman whose love of the classics took her to the Mediterranean. “It’s rugged country but beautiful.” She now nurtures 3500 olive trees on the foothills and river flats of Tongio, the golden harvest turned into Nullamunjie Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Paterson is also a baker par excellence and her cloud-like scones are a revelation as we sit on the vine-shaded deck at The Pressing Shed Café, with magpies warbling overhead.
The road calls us away and we drift on through the valley, following the course of the Tambo River as it burbles towards the Gippsland Lakes. On the west side of Lake King, Paynesville is a low-rise town with a network of canals and a bustling marina that make it Victoria’s unofficial boating capital. We drop our bags at waterfront Captains Cove Resort before walking to the ferry for the four-minute trip to Raymond Island, home to one of the state’s largest wild koala populations. The 1.3-kilometre koala trail doesn’t disappoint, with a satisfying number of the 250-strong colony perched high in the swaying branches of gum trees, doing what koalas generally do (sleeping).
And then it’s time for dinner at Sardine. The smart little spot with an elevated deck overlooking the water is rightly hailed as Gippsland’s finest restaurant thanks to Mark Briggs, formerly head chef at Melbourne’s Vue de Monde. From the menu of local seafood I order the confit sardines in herb oil with shallot purée and garlic flowers, with a glass of sparkling from East Gippsland’s Lightfoot & Sons – the only way to toast the end of the road.
Image credits: Rob Blackburn, Jessica Shapiro, Josie Withers, Phoebe Powell.