The Grampians are just a few hours’ drive from Melbourne and for years has attracted weekend warriors eager to explore the dense expanse of Grampians National Park. But the region has become just as famed for its impressive food and wine offering – this is how to combine the best of both worlds over a long weekend.
The emu in the middle of the road seems confused, darting left and right as our car approaches. “Make up your mind, buddy,” says my guide, Justine Neofitou, laughing as she slows her vehicle.
We’re driving through Gariwerd, the Grampians National Park, a vast nature reserve three hours north-west of Melbourne. On either side are sandstone mountains – so steep and close I’m sure if I roll down my window and reach out just a little I could touch them. And in front lies a narrow road that dips and rises, with Mount Abrupt – a towering peak that’s 815 metres high – in the distance. That and the emu. With all this natural beauty around me, even I don’t know which way to go.
“This isn’t unusual,” says Neofitou, co-owner of Grampians Wine Tours, as she nods towards the bird. “Driving through the Grampians is like wandering in a zoo. There are wild surprises at every turn. In fact, if you see a kangaroo crossing the road, make sure you slow down even after it’s disappeared into the bush – they tend to travel in mobs and there’s a good chance there are more behind. Yesterday, I counted 16 as they took their sweet time crossing the road.”
The wildlife may be the most instantly apparent of the region’s charms – or maybe it’s those mammoth mountains and the views they hold as reward for the intrepid. But there are under-the-radar surprises here, too, such as quiet towns with hatted restaurants and a relaxed wine trail free of tourist buses.
You can spend a morning hiking through the rugged terrain, lose an afternoon exploring some of Australia’s oldest vines then kick back in the evening in an exclusive dining room. What’s left? Sleep. Repeat.
Where to stay
Set against the backdrop of Mount Sturgeon in the sleepy town of Dunkeld, the Royal Mail Hotel is the region’s most chic address. There are 40 spacious, sleek rooms and apartments in the main property, along with a pool, relaxed eatery (Park Street Project) and finediner (Wickens at Royal Mail – see right). For the best outlook (and maximum indulgence), book a Deluxe Mountain View Room with private balcony and spacious ensuite with rain shower. Or, if you want to dial up the Zen factor, stay in one of the eight Mount Sturgeon Bluestone Cottages, part of the hotel but located about three kilometres away. There’s no wi-fi or TV in the cottages – just mountain views and a sense of calm you’ll instantly tune into.
The best restaurants and cafés
There are only three items on the breakfast menu at Koopmans Dunkeld (95 Parker Street; 0459 250 960), a café housed in a 110-year-old garage in the centre of town. It would be hard to find a more tightly curated offering but what the eatery lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality – along with excellent St Ali coffee from the state’s capital. “We wanted to bring Melbourne-style coffee to the country,” says owner Eve Duckmanton. Enjoy your caffeine kick with smashed avo, fetta and pepitas on sourdough or eggs your way – and grab one of the homemade scones or muffins on your way out.
When it’s time for lunch, head an hour north to Pomonal Estate in the heart of the Grampians wine region, where beer is also brewed on site. You can try a flight of pale ale, pilsner and stout but, says owner Adam Atchison, “If you could only have one of my beers, I would go for the pale ale. The water I use is filtered straight off Mount William [in the Grampians National Park], which makes it unique.” Afterwards, claim a seat in the dining room overlooking the vineyard and tuck into lamb sausage rolls or pork and chicken dumplings.
For gourmands, dinner at Wickens at Royal Mail back in Dunkeld is a must. Many eateries claim a paddock-to-plate ethos but Wickens, one of Australia’s most celebrated regional restaurants, lives up to the promise, with a garden that grows about 50 types of tomatoes and supplies up to 80 per cent of its fresh produce. Chef Robin Wickens transforms seasonal ingredients, from golden globe beetroot to lemon verbena, into an ever-changing tasting menu of five innovative courses – it might include yuzu-spiked lamb one day or Great Ocean duck with sour green rhubarb another. Enjoy the feast with matching wines in the pared-back dining room that has mountain views via floor-to-ceiling windows.
Top wineries to visit
The Grampians wine trail is not long – there are only 11 wineries on the official map – but it boastssome of Victoria’s finest coolclimate shiraz and is home to parcels of the country’s oldest vines. Start at Best’s Great Western, where Henry Best planted his patch in the 1860s and established a brick-lined subterranean cellar, which you can now explore. Follow it up with a sampling of the estate’s peppery shiraz and crisp rieslings in the tasting room.
For a modern take on the local wine scene, head to Mount Langi Ghiran, where the architectural cellar door – with a striking pitched roof and vast windows – reveals panoramic vistas of the vines. Drink in the view along with a sangiovese rosé.
Exploreing the mountains
You may see more kangaroos than residents in the scenic village of Halls Gap, where the marsupials are known to doze on footpaths. “When I drop my child off at school, we literally have to step over them,” says Justine Neofitou. But roos aren’t the only attraction: this town is also the gateway to some of the Grampians’ best hikes and natural wonders. Depending on your fitness level, you can walk to the Pinnacle lookout in less than 90 minutes; MacKenzie Falls – the national park’s most famous waterfall – is a 40-minute drive west; while the Mount Stapylton walk (about 45 minutes north) is a real test of endurance. But for the ultimate views, drive 30 minutes south to Mount William, which at 1167 metres is the tallest peak in the region. If you’re a little dusty from the previous night’s indulgences, good news: you don’t have to hike all the way to the top. Instead, drive to the car park then walk up a steep sealed road to enjoy a 360-degree outlook of the range.
The tour to take
The Grampians National Park is spread over more than 1600 square kilometres, with the wine region lying to its east. The best way to tackle it? Sign up with an operator such as Grampians Wine Tours, which runs small-group trips around the area. Itineraries can be customised depending on what you want to see (mountains, wineries or both) and how much time you have.
Other beautiful short breaks to try around Australia
About 4.5 hours drive from Perth There isn’t a television at rural sanctuary Majuba Country Lodge, 20 minutes north of Albany. But who needs one when you can watch primetime nature: sunsets across the surrounding farmlands and the occasional grazing kangaroo. Tear yourself away for cocktails and bao buns at Liberté in Albany proper, a gin and whisky tasting at Great Southern Distilling Co or for a hearty lunch at the property’s sister venue, Majuba Bistro (132 York Street, Albany; 08 9841 1852).
Eden hinterland, NSW
One-hour flight to Merimbula from Sydney No detail has been forgotten in the two luxury safari tents at Currajong Retreat at Burragate on the Sapphire Coast, from the private outdoor bath that overlooks the tumbling Towamba River to the boutique wines ready for your arrival and the platters of local produce that appear at your door. When you’re not patting the baby goats that wander the farm or toasting marshmallows around the firepit, drive to the nearby hamlet of Eden to beachcomb along secluded stretches of coast.
King Island, TAS
Just over an hour’s flight from Hobart The untamed wilderness of King Island is home to the sheer cliffs of Seal Rocks, abundant wildlife – wallabies, pademelons, platypus and penguins – and the eerily beautiful Calcified Forest, gnarled limestone columns that are all that remain of ancient trees. At the heart of it is a sanctuary: Kittawa Lodge consists of two off-grid, one-bedroom properties on 39 hectares of grassy dunes, deep forest and untouched coast. King Island oysters, rock lobster, sparkling wine and views to forever? It doesn’t get more luxurious than that.
Images credits: Julian Kingma, David Hannah, Emma Leonard, Emily Weaving, Robert Blackburn.