A confetti of green and pink speckle a yellow moon, framed by a white canvas. In the center lies an island of marbled coral-pink, festooned with petals and leaves.
It’s as pretty as a painting, yet this work of art isn’t hanging on the wall; it’s sitting on the table in front of me. The pink and green confetti is a medley of native finger lime pearls, house-smoked roe and tiny chive trimmings; the island of coral-pink, a hunk of Petuna ocean trout; and the yellow moon a sunny pool of beurre blanc.
“That looks… something, doesn’t it,” says my dining neighbor quietly to her friend, eyes widening, admiring the plate.
The eight-course degustation at Daylesford’s Lake House is quite something. From warm, golden orbs of brioche topped with delicate white spanner crab meat, on a bed of leaves; to plump king prawns garnished with Lilliputian strands of sea grapes and sprigs of native succulents, each dish conveys the sense of a garden in miniature.
It’s easy to confuse food and art here. Both are in abundant supply, and attention-to-detail is as evident on the plate as it is on the colorful landscapes that line the walls – the work of co-owner Allan Wolf-Tasker. A restaurant-cum-hotel-cum-spa with a fresh, cozy air that feels Hamptonsesque, the Lake House has become something of an Australian icon; it’s also often credited with kick-starting gourmet regional tourism. But it’s far from a regional anomaly.
This pocket of hinterland – comprising Daylesford and the neighboring towns of the Macedon Ranges, a 1.5-hour drive from Melbourne – has long attracted creative entrepreneurial types seeking respite from the city and looking to transform their passions into their paycheck.
In fact, the Macedon Ranges has more professional artists working in the arts per capita than any other region in its home state of Victoria. A bohemian yet thoroughly upmarket enclave, it’s brimful of dressmakers, healers, chefs, distillers, winemakers, painters, sculptors, silversmiths and stonemasons.
Part of Victoria’s Goldfields region, Daylesford and its surrounding towns have gone from boom to bust and back again over the years: from the heady days of the local gold rush in the 1850s and 1860s, which saw the area uncover great wealth and bestowed it with many of the grand buildings that still stand today, to the stagnation that followed.
“Once the gold dried up it was sort of abandoned,” explains Larissa Wolf-Tasker, the woman responsible for the dreamy interiors of the Lake House, and the daughter of its owners, Alla and Allan Wolf-Tasker. “The region was populated with Europeans – Poles, Russians, Swiss-Italians,” she notes. “They settled here because it reminded them a bit of Europe, but also because of the price of the land.”
When Larissa’s parents purchased the then-barren parcel of land that now houses the Lake House in 1979, starting up a business in Daylesford was unimaginable, she says. But the richly fertile volcanic soils on which the region was built turned out to be a gold mine for produce, and today the region has come full circle.
While prospecting for gold is no longer a drawcard, there are plenty of modern-day riches to unearth here rest and rejuvenation chief among them.
Known as Australia’s spa capital, the region is host to the largest concentration of mineral springs in the country, boasting a glut of spas and bathhouses set amid leafy, bucolic surrounds. At the Lake House spa, nature fuses with nurture.
Private timber treetop cabins with plantation shutters and mineral spas are enveloped by lush greenery, a waterfall-fed stream burbles softly below, and sweet birdsong punctuates the near-silence.
Inside the four walls of the whitewashed spa, natural light pours in and a soothing palette of blues and greens color the soft furnishings.
It’s here that I indulge in a Detox Wrap, which promises to restore my skin to its natural glowing best. Like a carefully choreographed dance, each element of the treatment segues seamlessly into the next. First, a therapist skates over my limbs with a body brush, to encourage circulation. Next, she massages in warm essentials oils with sweeping motions that feel like waves of the ocean rippling across my back. I’m then swaddled like a baby in a cool, thick sage body mask and a sea of towels, head cradled and scalp massaged. By the time I need to get up and wash off the Hulk-colored mask I’ve been lulled into a stupor, arms and legs quite sleepy.
The union of outdoors and indoors found at Lake House is embodied too at Hepburn Bathhouse & Spa. A historic spa and wellness center where old intersects with new, the original building was constructed in 1895, though today the complex has a distinctly modern edge. Soft, tree-diffused light streams in through tall, floor-to-ceiling windows, and the stark contours of timber and stone lend a zen, minimalist feel.
Drawn straight from the source, the bathhouse’s healing waters are rich in magnesium, calcium and silica, relieving muscle aches and pains.
Soak in them while taking a private mineral bath surrounded by candles, tracing the mineral deposits they’ve left on the stone tub with your fingertips; wallow in the warm social baths and try to spy rock wallabies, which bound through the bush outside at dusk and dawn; float in the circular magnesium salt pool and gaze up into blue skies through the mammoth oculus in the roof; and, when your toes are at their pruney peak, bask on one of the sun deck’s loungers in your robe while enjoying afternoon tea.
Given the region’s eclectic and bohemian personality, there’s a number of practices on the alternative spectrum here, too. At Daylesford Healing Massage you’ll be greeted by crystals, candles and the fragrant waft of incense and aromatherapy oils. Astrology readings, ear candling and reiki are all part of the offering, but – even if you don’t buy into the spiritual side – there are more conventional treatments available as well; just infused with a mystical edge.
“We do a lot of energetic work,” explains co-owner Benny Pettersson. “Because of the experience of our therapists, the energetic work will always come through. We work internally rather than externally; that’s a quality all our healers have.” I opt for a signature Archangel Aromatherapy Healing Ritual and it’s one of the most reinvigorating massages I’ve ever tried. From the initial dabble in foot reflexology, to the elements of lomi lomi massage and the tapping into pressure points that sends me into an almost trance-like state, the treatment is all about release and flow of energy, whatever bespoke combination of techniques that requires.
At the quaint and storied nearby town of Kyneton, a small Ayurvedic practice taps into the holistic side of wellness, too. An Aladdin’s cave of lanterns, crystals, wall hangings, patterned textiles and brightly painted walls, Maiaveda is housed within a beautiful flour mill that dates back to the 1860s and oozes character. Just as memorable as the historic building is Marye, Maiaveda’s founder, who radiates warmth and openness, and channels positive energy.
“We create a space for our clients,” she says, gesturing to the locked front door and noting that the practice phone is switched off. We take a brief meditation and a foot bath prior to my massage, which focuses on the ‘marma points’, or energy centers, somewhat akin to acupressure.
While the region’s many spas and springs afford a compelling antidote to the stresses of the daily grind, it’s when coupled with the local slow food movement, the ubiquitous art and the idyllic landscapes that the region begins to outshine its rivals. From the pure, country Victorian air to the deliciously languid pace of life, a strong sense of serenity pervades these foothills of the Great Dividing Range.
Even the single-lane highway between Daylesford and Kyneton feels wholesome and peaceful: small roadside stands purvey pots of pure local honey, hand-painted wooden signs fixed to tree trunks advertise free-range eggs, narrow country lanes lead to wineries, lavender farms and cherry orchards. The winding road itself is postcard-worthy; ghost gums and stringybark trees arch over it to create a sun-dappled corridor. And just like each dish at the Lake House, the flashes of golden paddocks dotted with hay bales and black cows next to the road here could easily pass for a watercolor painting.
A perennially popular country pub with a most convivial feel, The Farmers Arms in Daylesford offers hearty food and lashings of atmosphere. Just across the road, the pub has small, motel-style art suites featuring an eclectic line-up of paintings paired with minimalist New York loft-style bathrooms.
A tastefully restored three-bedroom residence, Kyneton Old Rectory features large manicured gardens right in the heart of Kyneton. Expect a supply of beautiful local provisions for breakfast and an array of eye-catching art on the walls.
Stock up on perfect picnic food from Piper Street Food Co in Kyneton, where everything is made from scratch and charcuterie is the star of the show. Owners of this artisanal delicatessen, Bryanna and Damian – a passionate, third generation chef – also run a cookery school out of the store.
An old roadhouse reimagined as an upmarket Southeast Asian eatery, Fook Shing is helmed by prestigious ex-Melbourne chef Danielle Rensonnet and features plenty of warm country hospitality, plus some flamboyant interiors to boot. Animus Distillery in Kyneton is a handcrafted, small-batch gin distillery with a sleek cellar-door-cum-cocktail lounge that offers gin flights as well as cocktails and classic G&Ts.