July 11, 2013
Daylesford & Hepburn Springs, a place where pampering and indulgence is not just recommended, it’s expected, writes Georgia Rickard. We can almost hear your collective – and weary – sigh. Treat yourself.
Church spires, smoking chimneys, gabled roofs, intricate flower beds… the region of Daylesford and Hepburn Springs is often referred to as a slice of Europe in rural Victoria, and it’s easy to see why. Swiss Italians migrated to the area back in the mid 1800s, and left a distinctly Roman-Catholic stamp on the area. But the area’s real claim to fame – its mineral springs – is what the tourism industry have taken and run with. ‘Australia’s spa country’ is full of bathhouses, spas and retreats, most of which incorporate the local mineral water into the treatments in some way.
The brochures aren’t lying – this is Australia’s spa country. There’s also a thriving local food culture and it’s these two factors, along with the area’s picturesque charm, that draws Victorians here in search of an escape from civilisation. A civilised escape, that is. The area also attracts tree-changers here by the Prius-load, so the landscape is dotted with slickly-executed, boutique experiences alongside your typical country town gems (the downmarket pub, an old-school milk bar, a couple of real-deal motels…).
If you’re an Isabel Lucas fan, you might also recognise Daylesford as the place in the ‘You’ll love every piece of Victoria’ ad, where she dips her head backwards into the water.
It’s not actually postcard-perfect in the symmetrically flawless way that photographs suggest. But the slightly higgledy-piggledy feel is precisely what makes this area so charming. Even a vacant lot of land, which seems to be a temporary home to several ratty old cars, is whimsically pretty: covered in fluffy dandelions and rambling bushes sprouting flowers in various enthusiastic shades. Expect neatly pruned rose bushes and crab apple trees (remember those?).
Daylesford and Hepburn Springs are actually two separate towns, but don’t let that confuse you – they’re so close to each other that you could pass them off as the one (don’t mention that to the locals, though). As with any rural area that has experienced an influx of wealth, there is a clear leftist/alternative way of thinking here – which is probably given away by the various painted purple houses or, at the very least, by the several advertising clairvoyants, tarot reading stores, health food cafés, and local organic wineries.
This area also has Australia’s highest concentration of mineral springs – and it’s said that the easier the mineral springs are to access, the worse they taste. They also say that the worse it tastes, the better it is for you, thanks to the high mineral content… but we reckon the local bottled stuff, which you’ll find just about everywhere, is the most pleasant way to sample it.
The Daylesford and Hepburn Springs region isn’t really the kind of place where you come to ‘do’; it’s more the sort of spot where you come to be. Stress-heads fear not; there is a surprising amount to keep you occupied here – just don’t say we didn’t warn you when, after a couple of days, you realise you’ve seen and done nothing that you meant to… and don’t care.
If you can drag yourself away from your pillow or picnic rug, the most obvious box to tick is the spa treatment. Top of mind is Hepburn Springs Bathhouse (Mineral Springs Reserve Road, Hepburn Springs; hepburnbathhouse.com). It’s situated almost on top of several mineral springs and has been operating since 1895 – not that you’d necessarily know it, being housed in a beautifully renovated triumph of sloping timber and huge glass panes. Skip the shared ‘bath’ (basically a hot, highly chlorinated public pool) and head straight for a private mineral bath (from $70 for 30 minutes). They’re for one or two people only and are run with 100% mineral water, said to be beneficial for all sorts of bodily ailments. While we can’t vouch for that, we can guarantee that the water is the real deal – a cupful out of the tap tastes like zingy San Pellegrino.
Alternatively, head to The Mineral Spa at Peppers Springs Mineral Retreat (124 Main Road, Hepburn Springs; peppers.com.au/springs/mineral-spa)– a multi-multi-award-winning retreat offering shared (but intimately so) mineral water baths overlooking beautiful gardens ($70 for 60 minutes). Or head straight to their treatment rooms – the highlight here is their soft pack flotation beds, the only ones of their kind in the Southern Hemisphere. These allow you to ‘float’ on toasty warm water, wrapped up in a water-filled blanket (without getting wet) – the bed is included with some treatment packages or can be added for an additional $15. And, of course, the other stand-out is fairly obvious: Salus Spa at The Lake House (4 King Street, Daylesford; lakehouse.com.au), a light, white, traditional spa set amongst various David Bromley paintings with stringybark treetops out the window. We had the Salus Bliss signature body treatment ($200 for 75 minutes), but we’d only recommend it if you’ve got time for a nap afterwards, as you’ll be blissfully wobbly.
Speaking of bliss, Lavandula Lavender Farm (350 Hepburn-Newstead Road, Shepherds Flat; $4 entry; lavandula.com.au) is one of the loveliest spots we know of for a wander and a bite for lunch. The farm, set on six or seven acres, is the kind of place just trawling with photo opportunities – rambling vines, manicured gardens, sweet little picnic spots and, of course, plenty of lavender. We recommend trying their lavender scones ($9.50). Explore the restored 1850s homestead, coo at the runabout emus and make your way to the little restaurant out back, where you can sit under light green leaves and watch as a gaggle of geese perform their synchronised routine following each other round the grass. They break formation only to chase after scraps. Or the occasional small child.
More pottering should be done at The Convent Gallery (7 Daly Street, Daylesford; conventgallery.com.au) – a convent-cum-gallery, would you believe it? It looks like a grand federation mansion from the outside, but is an airy Hamptons-style abode on the inside filled with a carefully-curated selection of art ranging from the traditional to the fabulous. You can stop for a bite at the café (‘Bad Habits’), but we prefer on-site lounge Altar, a Victorian-style retreat complete with ragtime jazz and heavy curtains falling from the sky-high ceilings.
If you can find the strength to take a walk longer than the distance from car to spa (and do try), follow the signs off the main road to Daylesford Lake. The walk only takes about 45 minutes and is beautifully picturesque. You’ll also walk past a boathouse café, but… well, keep walking.
Then walk yourself to the local Farmers’ Markets. These are held on the first Saturday morning of every month from around 9:00am till 1:00pm at Daylesford Primary School (Vincent Street, Daylesford; rfm.net.au). Enter for a gold coin donation and wander around with no greater purpose than to look, and you’re guaranteed to end up deep in conversation with a group of locals whose greatest agenda is to have a good time… and maybe sell a few of their wares while they’re at it. You may leave with a new rose bush, a couple of silky pet hens and a jumbo jar of local honey, but that’s neither here nor there.
Along the main road (Vincent Street) a few enterprising individuals have also set up shops filled with the kind of goods that really belong at a 1980s garage sale. Brick Lane Bazaar (34 Vincent Street, Daylesford; bricklanebazaar.com) is the best of them; full of Star Wars collectibles, Troll Dolls, Benson & Hedges ashtrays and other kinds of branded paraphernalia, including an old SHELL poster and a sign claiming Peters ice-cream to be ‘the health food of a nation’. And, of course, there are several gift shops to browse through; though you won’t find much here that you wouldn’t find in Melbourne – even the prices are identical.
It’s hard to have a bad meal here – even the less pretty (shall we say) eateries have beautiful offerings, thanks to a highly involved community and the local food initiative, Daylesford-Macedon Produce (DMP). DMP is a collaboration between all kinds of gourmands, with over 140 members including restaurateurs, publicans, vignerons, fromagères, chefs, provedores, suppliers and growers. Not bad.
If you’re planning to eat your way around town, the obvious place to start is The Lake House restaurant. This mainstay of Australian regional dining has earned every award in the fine food book, and deservedly so – founder Alla Wolf-Tasker (something of a patron saint for the area’s food culture) and her team have been serving up brag-worthy food here for three decades. The menu is seasonal, but if ‘mushi’ is on the menu, don’t miss it. This dish of classic Japanese custard with miso broth is served with herbs, shallots, edible flowers, tempura onion rings and shirataki mushrooms grown on eucalyptus logs in the Otway Ranges (of course) and makes for a show-stopping symphony of flavours. Skip the dinnertime masses and enjoy the lakeside views over (a long) lunch.
Giving The Lake House a run for its money at the other end of the area is hot newcomer The Argus (124 Main Rd, Hepburn Springs; theargusdiningroom.com.au). Here, candlelight, high, ornate ceilings and dark, wooden finishes would call for your finest string of pearls, if it weren’t for the down-to-earth food: artfully prepared dishes put together by a team who are quickly, if occasionally inconsistently, feeling their way towards their first hat.
If you’re after a more casual dining spot, head to Rubens @ Hepburn (70 Main Rd, Hepburn Springs; rubensrestaurant.com). This little down-to-earth Italian-style eatery is packed with locals and good, back-to-basics food – order a wine, have a banter with the friendly staff, and enjoy one of their huge pizzas (from $14, you won’t leave hungry). Wombat Hill House (21A Central Springs Road, Daylesford; wombathillhouse.com.au) is only open till 4:00pm, but is also a nice little spot to visit for a hit of breakfast or lunch. The menu, a study of quality local ingredients using simple country flavours, complements the heritage vine-covered location, which is set on top of a hill amongst 150-year-old gardens. Eat in, sit out the back amongst the café’s heirloom tomato vines, or grab some take-away and have yourself a picnic under a majestic old elm or oak.
Red Star Café (115 Main Road, Hepburn Springs; theredstar.com.au) is yet another vine-covered spot, where sky-high federation ceilings, fresh flowers, wooden floorboards and plenty of natural light nicely offset the organised clutter of chock-a-block bookshelves, worn leather couches and various memorabilia dotted ’round the creamy walls. If you’re feeling like a bit of fresh air, head to the little courtyard out back and order yourself something basic like Coco Pops ($5) or a bit fancier like natural muesli with Greek yoghurt and homemade fruit compote ($10), perhaps with a Bloody Mary ($10) or a bloody good coffee. Stay for lunch, a wine or even a single malt whisky – the Red Star has over 120 types on offer, which you can sample by the dram. “Just ask for the list,” the menu instructs cheerily, “which will not be up-to-date. Oh well, it is hard to keep up…”
There are plenty of other good eateries to be found along Daylesford’s busy Vincent Street and Hepburn Spring’s Main Street (the same road, with a name change between towns) but you’ll also find great experiences along the slightly less beaten track. Kazuki’s, a Japanese restaurant started in 2011 by Lake House’s previous head chef, Kazuki Tsuya, is a perfect example (1 Camp Street, Daylesford; kazukis.com.au). French-Japanese fusion food is executed with the same careful thought that has been put into the décor: small on frou frou, big on considerate touches. As you’ll no doubt be informed by your gracious waiter (it would seem this business of country-town-friendliness is more than a passing fancy), the Moreton Bay Bug dumplings with sake emulsion and ponzu jelly is a standout (two courses from $60 per person).
Similarly, housed in an 1864 timber building, Mercato is a quality restaurant offering modern Australian cuisine (32 Raglan Street, Daylesford; mercatorestaurant.com.au). Being just shy of a hat, the food is delicious, the wine list is fantastic and best of all, it’s good value.
Finally, The Old Hepburn Hotel is a refreshingly unpretentious country gem, opposite some very picturesque little cottages (236 Main Road, Hepburn Springs). There are no pokies here, just a good, honest menu, tap beers, and live music on Friday nights, Saturday nights and Sunday arvos. When we visited, members of the ‘Feral Car Club’ hooned up to the doors and wandered in for a VB and a laugh before collectively rattling off again on their day-long adventure around Victoria – the challenge of which, one of them explained, was ‘to not get lost’. They’d lost half the convoy by then but hey, what are adventures for?
Where you sleep can really influence the kind of holiday you have here, although happily there’s a real selection of options to choose from and because of the competition, standards are generally good. Even local motel Central Springs Inn (From $160 per night; Corner Howe & Camp Streets, Daylesford; centralspringsinn.com.au) is sweetly outfitted, complete with colourful flower beds, freshly painted exteriors and well-maintained rooms.
If you’re an Art Deco fan and inclined to stay in hotels no matter where you holiday, Peppers Mineral Springs Retreat (From $274 per night; 124 Main Road, Hepburn Springs; peppers.com.au/springs) is a great spot. This is no bland conference centre – it’s owned and run by a hands-on couple whose charismatic whimsies are all over the boutique property and its carefully detailed offerings: beautifully tended-to gardens, an on-site miniature fig orchard, the award-winning spa. Each day, they provide the hotel restaurant (the aforementioned Argus) with at least one type of produce from their own hobby farm: hazelnuts, lemons, medlers, quince, elderberries, pomegranates, cherries, kaffir limes, blood oranges, persimmons, feijoas, olives, figs, mulberries… If you’re keen to splash out, the original 1860s Tuscany-style Villa Parma (From $800 per night) next door has recently been added to the hotel as an on-site group stay. The villa comes complete with original paintwork, spa baths, Italian marble, heritage floors, a private sauna and courtyard, and luxury touches like Hungarian goose-down doonas.
Brand queens and cashed-up kings will feel most comfortable at The Lake House, a member of uber-expensive Luxury Lodges of Australia (From $550 per night; 4 King Street, Daylesford; lakehouse.com.au). Set on the lake amidst stringybark gums, it’s not trashy or flashy but rather an easy, laidback country-style bolthole, where everything has been thought of before you’ve lifted a finger. The in-suite styling is lovely – think art, bookshelves and comfy throw rugs.
Speaking of villas, there are plenty of private homes available for rent in the area and of all the options, this would be our recommendation. We stayed at one of the many Daylesford Getaways properties which was spacious, modern and above all, private (check website for available prices; dayget.com.au). Naturally, this option means you’ll have no staff to wait on you hand and foot, but on a holiday that’s all about getting away from it all, we reckon that’s a fair trade-off. Although you should probably test out both options… just to make sure.
Daylesford is about 110 kilometres north-west of Melbourne – approximately an 80-minute drive from the city or airport (unless you succumb to your urges to stop and take photos). The less-than-scenic Western Freeway (M8) from Melbourne takes some of the fun out of the journey, even though it does make for an incredibly easy trip. But if you’re coming from the airport, the Calder Freeway (M79) via the Tullamarine Freeway is gorgeously picturesque: think giant gum forests, vividly green paddocks, rustic little farmhouses.
Winter Masterclass, Lake House: 28 July: Over 25 hours of cooking demonstrations and tastings with some of Australia’s hottest chefs and Lake House owner and executive chef Alla Wolf Tasker. $195 per person includes recipes to take home, food and wine tastings, lunch and refreshments. lakehouse.com.au
La primavera: Lavandula Spring Festival: 3 November: Celebrate spring and honour the origins of this farm with good Swiss-Italian food and wine. Gates open from 10:00am-5:00pm. $6 entry per adult / $2 per child. lavandula.com.au
Daylesford Macedon Ranges Open Studio Project: Various locations 2-5 and 9-10 November: Thirty-five local artists open their studios to the public to form an art trail, including 2012 Archibald Prize finalist Rose Wilson. dmropenstudios.com.au
Twilight baths, Peppers Mineral Springs Retreat: Every Friday night: A soak in a steaming mineral spa bath under the cloak of a starry sky… Night bathing at Peppers runs every Friday from 7-9pm during the winter months. The cost is $70 per person for 90 minutes.
Where // VIC, Australia
This article appeared in Issue 51 of Australian Traveller.
The June/July 2013 The Short-Breaks Issue