May 30, 2023
15 mins Read
Journey with our writers as they take you into Australia’s top 10 emerging towns from our 100 Emerging Destinations and Experiences series.
Travelling with: Celeste Mitchell
It’s a drizzly Friday afternoon when I step onto the deck of Mapleton Public House, the rouge-hued old dame of the tiny hinterland town. And she’s flush with company. The pub has been presiding over Flaxton Drive with views barrelling down the hill to the Sunshine Coast’s beaches since 1910. But it’s only in the past eight months that punters have been making a pilgrimage – many from Brisbane – for a chance to eat from a refined menu, with produce plucked from the farm run by the pub’s new owners, Jessica Huddart and Ben Johnston.
Mapleton has always played third fiddle to Maleny and Montville in Queensland’s Sunshine Coast hinterland but with a bounty of walking trails, waterfalls and now this culinary dance card, it’s firmly on the map for foodies looking for an indulgent escape.
Diners of many of Brisbane’s best restaurants – Gerard’s Bistro, Agnes, Essa Restaurant – may have heard of The Falls Farm, whose highly acclaimed regenerative produce is used in menus across the city. In sidestepping to pub ownership, Jessica and Ben have landed on a way to take their mission of regenerative farming to produce nutrient-dense food a step further than a home-delivery box.
“I want to spread the word about the style of farming that we’re doing and I think that by having a dining experience that’s in a location like this, which is the hub of a town and something that all kinds of people are already coming to, then maybe we can have a bigger impact,” says Jess.
It’s not a secret but also not shouted about that celebrated chef Cameron Matthews (ex-Spicers Retreats) is at the helm, working in a yet-to-be-renovated kitchen without a working oven. You wouldn’t know it. Recently, inspired by ginger and turmeric from the farm and locally caught spanner crab, he turned out a delicate chawanmushi (Japanese custard) in an unconventional way. “Normally you do it in a steamer and it’s one of those things that’s really finicky, and we just cook ours in the pie warmer,” he tells me with a chuckle.
Beyond the nourishing, beautiful dishes being plated up, the pub has had small cosmetic upgrades too, one of the most positive being the decommissioning of its pokie machines. An avid Facebook Marketplace hunter, Jess is slowly bringing in vintage pieces – a meat safe, the kitchen hutch – and re-painting some spaces.
As I sit on the deck, tucking into sustainably caught snapper – pan-fried and placed in a flavourful puddle of dill oil and potato cream, with an incredible potato salad made with Dutch creams from the farm – I feel any allegiance with the other ‘M’ towns of the Sunshine Coast hinterland drop away. A meal this good, in a setting so incredibly homely, with people so passionate and an underlying drive to make change? That’s more than worth a drive.
Later, I take the short but scenic drive to my bolthole for the night. Bitumen gives way to gravel and Mapleton National Park towers to my right, leading the way to Round Hill Retreat.
The architecturally designed cabin at Round Hill Retreat is set on a 14-hectare property surrounded by trees and seems to float above the lush green countryside.
The leaves of the olive trees dance in the breeze as I crunch across the courtyard where a pizza oven and concrete plunge pool await. Inside, warm biscuit tones and a sleek fireplace on a floating bench seat compete for attention with the view through floor-to-ceiling glass.
Through to the bedroom, I push back the sheer linen curtains and large glass doors to forest bathe from the vintage tin bath filled with rainwater from two large tanks adjoining the cabin.
Owners Chloe and Alex have provided a guide to secret local hikes but I find there’s not enough incentive to leave. With board games, books and even pizza dough and fresh sugo provided, I prioritise taking things slow. Maybe it’s best that Mapleton stays under the radar, I decide, for it is in these moments of solitude that true satiation is found.
Travelling with: Fleur Bainger
Whenever I drive through Witchcliffe, Western Australia, my car slows to a dawdle and I give in to the urge to pull in. The highway-straddling hamlet is only a 10-minute drive south of Margaret River, yet for years it seemed like there was an invisible boundary line that few cross over. Fair enough: the likes of Leeuwin and Voyager estates prove strong vinaceous lures and the turn-off is before the community’s perimeter, yet those who stay the course have long identified the magic in this incy-wincy town.
Its singular main street is lined with eclectic, characterful shops that are simultaneously quaint and authentic – a rare thing. I amble between the Flying Wardrobe antique shop, the old-school bakery and the historic general-store-turned-artist’s haven that gleefully hides a cellar door for lo-fi wines inside.
Plans are afoot to host Witchcliffe’s only evening dining option in the wooden building’s rear; a local craftsman has spent seven years creatively restoring it with upcycled touches. I stop at Yardbyrd, an open-air cafe hemmed by white pickets. Bustlingly busy, I suspect it is very much responsible for word slowly getting out about Witchy, as it’s fondly called by locals.
The other spot drawing attention is the zero-carbon-footprint, collaborative-style living eco village being constructed in town. Inspired by the world’s blue zones, Witchcliffe Ecovillage already has its first inhabitants and others, including filmmakers, nurses, geologists, architects and winemakers are relocating soon.
Groups of 19 to 26 solar-powered homes cluster around large community gardens containing veggie patches, orchards, chooks, a meeting house and playground, with streets named in the region’s Wadandi/Pibulmen language.
Once completed, there will be 350 houses in all – including 60 short-stay holiday cottages – and it’s forecasted that each one will produce a carbon offset of 100 tonnes beyond the carbon used to build it. The project aims to set the tone for future global eco villages and, by then, word will surely be out on Witchcliffe.
Travelling with: Sue Wallace
Victoria’s high country town Mount Beauty sits at the base of the ski resort village of Falls Creek and is well deserving of longer stays rather than just refuelling before heading up the mountain.
The pretty town named after its looks – there’s a stack of Insta-worthy vistas that stop you in your tracks – was purpose-built by Victoria’s State Electricity Commission in 1949 for the Kiewa Hydroelectric Scheme employees.
Located 30 minutes from Bright, lucky locals say it’s a dream place to live, with skiing and snowboarding on offer in winter and mountain biking and bushwalking in summer. A dip in the shady swimming holes of the meandering Kiewa River is popular as temperatures hike and you can cast a line in at Lake Guy and Mount Beauty Pondage, where brown trout, rainbow trout and redfin swim.
Bogong Horseback Adventures takes novice and experienced riders to discover the riches of the Alpine National Park’s pristine countryside and the state’s highest mountain, Mt Bogong, casts its shadow – check out the stunning views from Sullivans Lookout.
Fans of mountain biking can ride the trails extensively developed for national competition and there is also great cycling around the area. Walking tracks zigzag around, including the 21-kilometre Mt Bogong Loop, the 5.5-kilometre Kiewa River Trail and the four-kilometre Mount Beauty Gorge Walk.
At nearby Tawonga, owner-chef Emma Handley stars at Templar Lodge, once a Masonic hall, showcasing regional produce in innovative dishes. Food vans such as Kitchen 95 serve hearty snacks like roast beef rolls. Thirsty? Crank Handle Brewery crafts refreshing brews such as Dangerous Dave’s Lager and Grass Valley is the place to go for good coffee and local wine.
There’s a laid-back country feel to Mount Beauty with a dose of accelerated energy –refuel and linger.
Travelling with: Carla Grossetti
When the sun rises over the Kilsby Sinkhole in Mount Gambier on South Australia’s Limestone Coast, it honeys the ribs of the limestone cave and gilds the water as blue as steel. From above, it’s like an aquamarine jewel that deepens and darkens, depending on the sun glancing this way and that throughout the day. While this ancient geographical marvel has been used for recreational diving since the late 1960s, it’s now a core part of operations for the Kilsby family farm, which has been going strong for four generations.
Access to the site is by booking only, but you can take a tour of the ancient water-filled pool, snorkel or dive beneath its gleaming surface and sample, in situ, the Sinkhole Gin distilled from the aquifer that feeds this karst cavity.
Travelling with: Imogen Eveson
The small town of Nagambie is experiencing a boom as Melburnians clue on to its lakeside allure just a stone’s throw from the city and a suite of new offerings enticing them to stay awhile.
Head out of town for just over an hour to hit the wineries, fertile plains and sparkling waterways of this spot on the Goulburn River to check into boutique digs at Mitchelton, sip gin by the water at Nagambie Brewery and Distillery and pull up a seat at intimate restaurant and wine bar Eighteen Sixty.
Now, the Taungurung Land and Waters Council has just launched its new cultural experiences business wawa biik meaning ‘Hello Country’. It will see Taungurung Elders and youth leading immersive cultural experiences that celebrate and regenerate their living culture across various locations in Taungurung Country, Central Victoria, including the waterways of Tahbilk Wetlands in Nagambie.
Travelling with: Katie Carlin
I first found myself wandering the historic Mill precinct of Oatlands in 2017; I’d traded the coastal route from Hobart to Coles Bay for a heritage tour through Tasmania’s Midlands. I’d pulled off the highway to snap a photo of Australia’s third oldest windmill (also the former site of an illegal whisky distillery) before moving on to the next town. Fast-forward six years and the precinct has been lovingly restored with the addition of a state-of-the-art whisky distillery – and a legal one at that!
The opening of Callington Mill Distillery in 2022 transformed the precinct into an interactive experience: find on-site dining at its cellar door, a selection of immersive tastings and free heritage tours. Owner John Ibrahim has managed to expertly blend history with his world-class single-malt whisky to attract a new generation of travellers to the town.
And with the completion of a three-year renovation of The Kentish Tasmania pub (c1830) and plans to develop an $18 million boutique hotel adjacent to the picturesque Lake Dulverton, it’s safe to say Oatlands is on the map for more than a hastily snapped photo of its historic relics.
Travelling with: Fleur Bainger
For the converted – like me – Esperance’s porcelain-white beaches, accessible island archipelago and translucent aqua ocean never felt too far to reach. Visit once and a return is simply inevitable.
For an ever-increasing number of visitors, new temptations are banishing any thoughts about distance (it’s a 7.5-hour journey from Perth – 696 kilometres at its most direct – or a far-quicker flight). Cultural walks embracing the fragrance and flavours of Kepa Kurl, as Esperance is known to the region’s Aboriginal people, are now running daily (in season) with Dabungool Cultural Experiences.
There’s also beach driving and flying over Cape Le Grand with Fly Esperance (who also do an aerial pub crawl). Across the water, Woody Island has been upgrading its solar-powered tents, adding to the well-styled, couples-only ‘luxury retreat’ eco tents that landed in 2021.
Travelling with: Elizabeth Whitehead
In the subtropical coastal town of Yeppoon, everything feels tinged with gold – from the honeyed sunlight to the sand and the golden cane palms that flank the roads. Perched on Queensland’s Capricorn Coast, Yeppoon is a beach town with the gravitas to make you envision packing up and making tracks for a sea change.
You wouldn’t be the only one, though. The town has been heralded as the new Byron Bay thanks to its idyllic surroundings, hippie community spirit and gateway position to some of the Great Barrier Reef’s most beautiful islands.
Travelling with: Celeste Mitchell
It’s been called the ‘birthplace of Australia’ since it’s where Sir Henry Parkes called for Australia’s federation in 1889, but it always has been and always will be Ngarabal Country. Right now, it’s Country that feels infinite. Cocooned in a transparent bubble tent, the galaxy above beams down on me.
Beyond my toes, golden grasses and Mt Mackenzie’s frosted coat of green will greet me come morning. Outside, the embers of the fire pit are glowing their final hurrah. This is Mirumiru Bubbletent, a luxurious off-grid escape where two bubble tents – and a tiny bubble tent in a tree – call to those seeking a unique escape. It’s one of a raft of new experiences to take root here in the past 12 months.
Just south of the Queensland border in NSW’s New England High Country, Tenterfield is three-and-a-half hours’ drive from Brisbane and eight hours from Sydney, but that’s not stopping city folk from flocking on weekends.
From my rural repose, I’m only five minutes’ drive from the town’s heart where Stonefruit quietly opened last year. The Granite Belt and New England are celebrated on the plate – think Granite Belt black truffle through hot tagliatelle – and in the glass, alongside a refined edit of rare international drops. For more casual eats there’s Manners & Co – a buzzing collective of local food businesses – and the new Barn at Glenrock Gardens. All worthy entrees to the glamping main event.
Travelling with: Elizabeth Whitehead
On the surface, Jabiru’s croc hotel – a relic of ’80s architecture built in the shape of a giant crocodilian – may seem as quirky as they come. But this unique building represents the totem of the local Gagudju people, who retain ownership over the hotel. Indeed, this reflects the overall direction Jabiru is taking, a former mining town that was handed back to the Mirarr Traditional Owners in 2021.
Now, places such as Marrawuddi Arts & Culture act as community hubs, where you’ll find artists painting, weaving and carving throughout the day. The trendy cafe at the entrance seems like something more out of Collingwood than Kakadu, and you can grab a brew and a bite while surrounded by exquisite art from across the Northern Territory.
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