A great wedge of land sprawling 500 kilometres from Melbourne’s eastern outskirts north to the NSW border, the coastline of Gippsland is a redoubt of rolling green pasture and jagged escarpments, of thick high-country bushland and seascapes so vast and untameable they could break your heart.

The fires have planted unsung towns of East Gippsland into the popular imagination. Swifts Creek, Bindi, Sarsfield and Dargo. The seaside holiday haven of Mallacoota. But this is mostly farming country, befitting its renown as the food bowl of Victoria.

Where to drink in Bruthen

And a food bowl it remains. Back in Melbourne, sommeliers are pushing the region’s top drops in support (it’s certainly no hardship to drink a Patrick Sullivan chardonnay and I’ll cheerfully support his pinot noir, too) but downing a cold Gippsland Draught on the veranda of Bruthen’s Bullant Brewery is a lesson in the pleasures of place. 

Owner Neil Triggs lost his home and four bed-and-breakfast cottages in the fire but the brewery is alive and kicking. “We’re still here and the support from the community has been amazing,” he says. “The East Gippsland food scene has been growing and growing over the past 10 years. This is just a blip.”

Where to eat in Lakes Entrance

Hit the Princes Highway and you’ll see that Gippsland is open for business. Start in the huddle of towns around the Gippsland Lakes – as varied as a pack of Arnott’s Family Assorted biscuits, they give lie to the myth of homogenous Australian country life. Lakes Entrance is its lively answer to England’s Brighton; a low-rise place of summertime beachfront fairs and 1960s-built esplanade motels, along with the family-friendly frivolity of minigolf and paddleboats.

My tribe makes a beeline for the floating Ferrymans Seafood Cafe whenever we’re in town. Perched on a pontoon among the local fishing fleet, it’s the go-to spot for oysters and fish and chips, mighty seafood platters and seemingly bottomless bowls of black mussels cooked in tequila with fresh lime and jalapeños and fistfuls of tortillas for sopping up the juices. Back on dry land, the organic range from The Riviera Ice Cream Company on the Esplanade takes care of sweets (all kids are chocoholics but make mine a blood orange sorbet, please).

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The Metung Hotel

Where to stay and eat in Metung

Metung is 24 kilometres away but a world apart: a quaint village clinging to serene Bancroft Bay, with a series of boardwalks that make ditching the car a no-brainer. I’ve watched my children grow up on the waterfront of The Metung Hotel’s green lawn, from wobbling toddlers to sashaying nearly-teenagers. Pelicans, the smiling totem of the traditional owners the Gunaikurnai people, float lazily in first gear before revving up to third in a quick dive for dinner. Our dinner is the pub’s steak sandwich and chips; breakfast the next morning finds us at nearby café Bancroft Bites, where thick slabs of Hope Farm sourdough lay the foundation for eggs Benedict.

Head 20 minutes north-east to the Nicholson River Winery cellar door, where minimal intervention Euro-style wines, local cheese platters and visiting echidnas are a memorable combination. Make a pit stop in Sale at The Hunting Ground (3/102 York Street, Sale; (03) 5144 4709) café for an excellent Coffee Supreme brew and a chicken Caesar baguette for the road. Swing off the highway at Thorpdale, home of proud potato farmers, and grab a boot-full of spuds along with other fruit and veg from Thorpdale Organics (1308 Mirboo North, Trafalgar Road, Thorpdale; 0417 535 470).

Where to eat in Paynesville

It’s worth the drive around to Paynesville, tacked on the end of a peninsula between Lake King and Lake Victoria and bisected by canals. Take the ferry (it’s free for pedestrians) to visit the wild koala colony on Raymond Island before retiring for a long, lazy lunch at acclaimed restaurant Sardine Eatery + Bar. The domain of former Vue de Monde executive chef Mark Briggs, it’s a celebration of local spoils from the sea: the namesake sardines, fished from Lakes Entrance, or whole flounder served as nature intended with capers and anchovy butter.

During those terrible days, orders to evacuate Paynesville came a number of times. Briggs and his wife, Victoria, the restaurant’s front-of-house maestro, had their jet skis ready to go (even their dog and cat were primed for the on-water escape). In the end they safely stayed put. 

“We’re all still in shock, I think,” says Briggs of his town’s close call. “We’re heading back to normal but it’s a new normal. We need people to come back. I really think winter is the most beautiful time to visit, when the lake is perfectly still and the mist rises off it in the morning. Gippsland is just beautiful anytime. It’s a special part of the world.”

This is an edited version of the print piece that appeared in the April 2020 issue of Qantas Magazine.

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