#1: Rural town – Daylesford, Victoria We can’t stop waxing lyrical about the picture-perfect Victorian town of Daylesford, a tree-change capital for Melburnians and the place to visit to de-stress and detach from city life, if only for a weekend. A five-day wellness festival directed by singer Kate Ceberano and artist David Bromley, Live. Love. Life., will further cement this reputation when it debuts in November, joining a roster of year-round events including ChillOut Festival, Australia’s longest-running and biggest rural LGBTQI pride festival. Of a weekend, you might find us browsing the boutiques of Daylesford’s main street, having a tipple at its bars or lounging at the lovely Lake House hotel, restaurant and spa.
#1: Alternative capital – Bendigo, Victoria Offering blockbuster exhibitions, sophisticated dining scenes and unique experiences aplenty, Australia’s alternative capitals are destinations in themselves. The Bendigo Art Gallery sits at the heart of this Victorian city, regularly presenting such dynamic exhibitions as Marimekko: Design Icon 1951 – 2018, which runs until 11 June. We caught up with the gallery’s director, Karen Quinlan. How would you describe Bendigo’s creative scene today? : "Bendigo has developed and grown over the last few decades and is a thriving creative city, with a rich cafe, dining and fashion culture and a full calendar of events and festivals. All of this blends with the rich gold-rush heritage buildings to add much to the overall feel of the city." And what role does the Bendigo Art Gallery play in that? : "We are one of the largest regional galleries in Australia, and the support we have from the local community and the City of Greater Bendigo means we have been able to raise the bar by bringing in international exhibitions, many exclusive to the city. We have also been able to build on our extensive 19th-century European art and Australian holding with an important and growing contemporary Australian art collection, which we like to show alongside international exhibitions so what we offer audiences is rich and diverse and constantly changing. Over time we have become a destination, a reason to visit Bendigo, and the City recognises this and continues to support our programs. It’s an enviable model and one that continues to evolve and grow."
#2: Coastal haunt – Apollo Bay, Victoria Apollo Bay is a kaleidoscope of beauty, located at the foothills of the Otways, on the Great Ocean Road, where rolling green hills and long stretches of beach can be viewed in one frame. It’s a haven for surfers, divers, swimmers and local seal colonies alike; it’s the start of the spectacular Great Ocean Walk; and an easy drive to Great Otway National Park, an oasis of rainforests, waterfalls, and lush gullies. Indeed, in our humble opinion, this little beauty is worthy of more than a pit stop on that famous road trip.
#2: Neighbourhood – Carlton, Victoria The backstory of Carlton is writ large on its main, and most famous, thoroughfare of Lygon Street, where a profusion of cafes, eateries and delis trumpet its origins as a Melbourne neighbourhood settled by Italians and other migrants from post-war Europe in the middle of last century, who set up the kind of communal cafes they left behind. And hey presto, Australian cafe culture was born. But robust, flavoursome caffeine brews are not the only thing Carlton has going for it. For nature lovers, culture vultures and architecture wonks, the expansive Carlton Gardens are the ultimate drawcard, home to the compelling Melbourne Museum, the glorious World Heritage-listed Royal Exhibition Building, completed in 1880 to house the Melbourne International Exhibition, as well as 26-hectares of lush Victorian landscape gardens complete with fountains, lakes and, come spring, achingly beautiful swathes of blooms. Bellisimo!
#3: Neighbourhood – Prahran, Victoria Ground zero for all that is good about Melbourne, from a thriving social scene to card-melting shopping to charming inner-city parks, the best way to experience Prahran is to immerse yourself and live like a local. Step one: Even the most cursory glance at Airbnb presents a roster of accommodation for rent that defines the vibe of this part of the city (including neighbouring St Kilda), from pretty Art Deco apartments to sleek new high rises with sexy rooftoop swimming pools. Step two: Find a cafe that you like the look of and cultivate a ‘I come here all the time’ air of confidence: try Fourth Chapter for light and airy, Piccolo Espresso with its resident DJ, or Hobba for quality beans. Step three: Head to Prahran Markets to buy up big from the passionate traders plying their trade here, from wild mushroom specialist Damian Pike to the family-run Cleo’s Deli to cheesemaker Anthony Femia, and head ‘home’ to cook up a storm. Step four: Put your glad rags on and head out after dark to sample the night life: White Oaks Saloon, The Flying Duck Hotel and Pawn & Co. all rate with locals.
#4: Foodie favourite – Merricks, Victoria Hiding in plain sight on the ‘other side’ of the Mornington Peninsula is a collection of small towns where a clutch of new openings are redefining the food and drink offering in these parts. One such place is Merricks, just outside of which sits the startlingly modern black form of the Jackalope Hotel. Spreading out across a still-functioning vineyard, the hotel itself is a riot of sleek purpose and modern design, while the restaurants attached – the hatted Doot Doot Doot, with its arresting ceiling of metallic lightbulbs and seasonal five-course tasting menu, and the relaxed communal dining space of Rare Hare, serving up hearty roasts and expansive views of the surrounding countryside – are arguably the stars of the show. Come by car and you will have the means to scoot down the road to Pt. Leo Estate to try the beetroot pancakes conjured up by executive chef Phil Wood at Pt. Leo Restaurant, and take home a few bottles of the wine produced here.
#6: Alternative capital – Ballarat, Victoria Eat: Head to the Forge Pizzeria on Armstrong Street if you’re partial to great pizza and a side of exposed brickwork. The popular and buzzy CBD joint (with a second outpost further west in Alfredton) is named in honour of its founders’ grandfather, a blacksmith, and today a wood-fired oven is central to operations. The menu is creative and inventive. Drink: Spend a fine Ballarat evening in Mitchell Harris Wines, a cool industrial space that in its 140-year history has served as a produce store, tentmakers’ and motor workshop. Today, the bar acts as cellar door and showcase for local winemaker John Harris, as well as other wines of Central and Western Victoria. Stay: Spend a night or a few in a historic townhouse, Lascelles Terrace, that has been luxuriously renovated with utmost style and character. Hire the upstairs or downstairs apartment of one house, or the whole house next door.
#6: Camping spot – Boreang Campground, Grampians National Park, Victoria It’s Melbourne’s big weekend playground: 1672 square kilometres of stringybark forests, red gum woodland and heather-covered plateaus run through with vast ribbons of sandstone, with all the bizarre, camera-worthy rocky outcrops and mountain peaks that brings. One of these is known as the Fortress, an imposing buttress rising abruptly out of the surrounding bush. If you’re an experienced walker not afraid to get really remote, and want to do some real camping, you can take three days to hike here; a journey that affords sweeping views of the ranges. Take a path off the Harrop Track and on the first night pitch your tent, or just a swag, under a sweeping overhang on the way up to the massif, and light a fire like ancient peoples did for aeons. It’s walks like this, as well as the famous Wonderland Traverse or the Gulgurn Manja Aboriginal art site that make the Grampians (Gariwerd in the local Indigenous tongue) a must-camp spot to spend a weekend tackling the many trails that riddle the national park. Boreang Campground is a good place to base yourself with easy access to some of the best walks; stay in October when the plateaus are ablaze with colour during the annual display of wildflowers. And if the thought of a swag in a cave is a little much, then stretch the glamping ideal to its limit and stay in the gorgeous contemporary architect-designed cabins at DULC, with wood burners, polished concrete floor and floor-to-ceiling glass.
#7: Rural town – Port Fairy, Victoria This jewel of the Great Ocean Road was voted the most liveable town in the world in 2012. Its handsome seaside setting and heritage streetscape is complemented by a dining scene that’s growing in reputation (seek out Conlan’s Wine Store for hearty and sophisticated fare matched with regional wines, or Coffin Sally for pizza and cocktails), and its year-round calendar of festivals of every persuasion. The famous Port Fairy Folk Festival is held each March, while cooler months call for Winter Weekends, a celebration of the town’s food, art, nature, history, culture and community, which takes place every second weekend in June and July. Its can’t-miss event? The famous Dachshund Dash, of course.
#8: Coastal haunt – Mount Martha, Victoria Tucked away on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, the small village of Mount Martha is a pretty seaside enclave with a rocky headland, just a stone’s throw from wineries and the Peninsula Hot Springs. The town boasts scenic walking tracks, including a clifftop walk that leads to the town of Mornington, and a boardwalk in The Briars, a rural property with a historic homestead, wetlands and woodlands, while its quiet beaches are lined with the iconic candy-coloured bathing boxes found along this strip of coast. Coffee snob? You’re in luck – Mount Martha has a bunch of really cool cafes in town that take their roasts as seriously as those in coffee-obsessed Melbourne. Get your fix at Higher Ground, Mr Curtis, South Beach Project and Milkbar & Co.
#8: The burbs – Balaclava, Victoria Never heard of the south-east Melbourne suburb of Balaclava? Well, here are a few facts to enlighten you on the subject:
- It is considered by many to be St Kilda’s slightly cooler cousin given it is bordered by the eternally hip bay-side suburb, but remains largely undiscovered by the weekend hordes.
- There is a huge Jewish Orthodox community here, reflected in the presence of stores like Glick’s, a local institution, opened in 1969 by Mendel Glick, and still producing chewy bagels and all manner of breads and bakes.
- The local coffee scene is concentrated along Carlisle Street and nearby Inkerman and William Streets, while a cold beer on a hot day can be had at The Local Taphouse.
#8: Top secret spot – Wye River, Victoria Where? On Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. What? You’re not visiting for attractions, you are coming to Wye River for exactly the opposite. There’s a general store, a beach and a pub that serves craft beers and has one of the best views to be had. That’s it, and it’s glorious! Why? Because while the tourist hordes driving the Great Ocean Road gravitate towards hot spots like Lorne and Apollo Bay, Wye River remains largely overlooked, meaning it has a lovely off-the-beaten-track appeal, despite being on one of the most scenically pleasing tracks in the country.
#9: Rural town – Castlemaine, Victoria An old gold-rush town in Central Victoria, in recent years Castlemaine has seen a new wave of activity breathed into its heritage buildings. Here are three to check out: The Public Inn: Castlemaine’s former fire station is now a one-hatted bistro and bar (pictured), where wine is dispensed from wall-mounted barrels and dishes are European-inspired (i.e. whiskey doughnuts or minute steak with mushy peas). The Mill: What began life in 1875 as the Castlemaine Woollen Mill is now a hub for creative businesses: you’ll find everything here from small-batch ice-cream makers and a Viennese-style coffee shop to a vintage bike seller, Pilates classes and more. Theatre Royal: One of Australia’s oldest continually operating theatres, this seasoned cultural hub today serves as a cinema screening independent films, plus a live music venue, bistro, and a bar that deals in espresso by day and wine by night.
#10: Foodie favourite – Kyneton, Victoria Regional towns don’t come any cuter than Kyneton, a little foodie hub on the up and up in Victoria’s breathtaking Macedon Ranges. Piper Street, the beating heart of the town, is lined with the kind of historic shopfronts that you would undertake a road trip to see (it’s just over an hour’s drive from Melbourne along the Calder Freeway), many of them now housing cafes, restaurants (including the hatted Source Dining) and gourmet fare. To really soak up the atmosphere, grab a selection of goodies from Piper Street Food Company picnic shop and head for Kyneton Mineral Springs Reserve for a picnic (spots in the rotunda are much sought after); you can fill up with the health-giving natural mineral waters that proliferate in the area at the old pump for free.