Skip the usual road-trip suspects from Brisbane and point your GPS west and south to the much-ignored Brisbane to Granite Belt (via Toowoomba) route. Ashton Rigg meanders through the glorious Southern Queensland country on a weekend escape to a region known for its full-bodied reds, laneways dressed in street-art best, and a springtime explosion of flowers.
Morning: Welcome to the west
When Brisbane grew out of its ‘big country town’ shoes, the hand-me-down title went to Toowoomba. But rather than get cosy in the Queensland capital’s shadow, Toowoomba has cultivated its own character, focusing on what sets it apart: a rich colonial heritage, lush green spaces, and a ute-ful of country charm.
It’s an easy hour-and-a-half drive from Brisbane to Toowoomba across the plains of the Lockyer Valley. Time your arrival for mid-morning and take the opportunity to wander down the main drag (Ruthven Street), detouring down backalleys to see the mural legacy of the First Coat street art festival (held mid May).
Lunch: Join the cafe crowd
There are plenty of places to refuel in Toowoomba and Firefly Cafe is high on the list. This hub of wholesome fare is tucked away next to Wray Organics, giving a new lease on life to an industrial warehouse. Think brisket burgers with slaw for lunch, Nordic-inspired trout gravlax and plenty of seasonal veg. There’s a nice selection of beer, wine and cold-pressed juice to wash it all down too.
For a coffee hit, wander down the rabbit hole to Ground Up Espresso. This specialty coffee nook looks like it’s been dropped in straight from Melbourne’s laneways, complete with a graffiti-clad exterior. It’s a great spot to rub shoulders with coffee-loving locals and lust over the Persian love cakes taking pride of place in the cabinet.
Afternoon: Check in, chill out
While serviced apartments and motels make an appearance here, Toowoomba is definitely bed and breakfast country. B and B Wanulla is a grand old dame of a Queenslander just moments from town. It has two guest rooms (book the queen if you love a good tub) meaning plentiful privacy, and a steady supply of treats coming out of the kitchen from owners Steve and Margaret.
Steve is the whiz behind the impossibly fluffy scones and traditional English fry-up, while Margaret’s specialty are the beetroot and goat’s cheese canapés and homemade bircher muesli. If you’re heading to the Summit Winery, Margaret might even slip $20 under your door and send you on a mission to track down her favourite pear and cardamom jam.
Evening: Hats off
Toowoomba is currently waving the fine-dining flag for regional Queensland. Now on a fourth consecutive hat (2012-2015) from the Australian Good Food Guide and in spacious new Ruthven Street digs, Veraison restaurant provides a little mid-week luxury with its Thursday night degustation.
The a la carte menu is a playful balance of classic and current (think salmon with beetroot bisque or eye fillet with kale chips), but it’s the wine matching from co-owner and sommelier Andrew that earns Veraison its lofty status. Dinner here is pretty impressive too.
Morning: On the road to the Granite Belt
The Granite Belt wine region is less than two hours from Toowoomba, named as such for its rugged terroir. If you have more than 48 hours up your sleeve, it’s worth taking a detour to Girraween National Park to see prehistoric granite boulders and their precarious balancing act.
There are around 40 wineries and gourmet producers by the barrelful along the Granite Belt, which comes to a halt on the Queensland-New South Wales border in Wallangarra. Mapping a direct route from Toowoomba to Ballandean and working backwards will allow you a little extra time to sip, swirl and savour. Travel via the tiny town of Allora in summer for an extra sensory feast: fields of golden sunflowers.
Lunch: By the barrel
Turn off the New England Highway down a dusty country road and follow those hunger pangs all the way to Ballandean Estate Winery – the oldest grape grower on the Granite Belt. It’s far from the only vineyard in the vicinity, neighboured by like likes of Tobin and Granite Ridge Wines, but what makes Ballandean Estate a must-visit is the Barrel Room restaurant.
Sit amongst the almost novelty-sized working wine barrels and enjoy a modern Italian lunch of house-made gnocchi or local organic lamb, but be sure to leave room for dessert later on (hint: warm apple pie). With full bellies, it’s time to sample some local drops.
Ballandean Estate has drawn much acclaim for its 2012 vintage reds, Tobin’s semillons are worth a swish, while cabernet lovers should make visiting Granite Ridge a priority. Several wineries along the Granite Belt are also part of the ‘Strange Bird’ collective – a local initiative that spotlights alternative grapes like tannat and mourvedre – and are clearly marked with a quirky crow.
Afternoon: Souvenirs to savour
As you wind your way back from Ballandean through the small hamlets and villages that make up the Granite Belt, schedule in a stop at Summit Estate Wines, which hits the trifecta with its vineyard, winery and cellar door.
Like much of the Granite Belt, it favours reds but is no stranger to both sweet and dry whites. Keep an eye out for the range of local jams, preserves and relishes on display too; there’s no going past a jar of country-style lemon butter.
The next stop to pin on the map is just across the highway adjacent to the Big Apple (you really can’t miss it). Sutton’s Farm is a no-frills factory, plucking apples straight from the orchard and turning them into cider, juice and, best of all, its signature warm apple pie served with spiced apple cider ice cream. You can even pick your own bushel of apples in season (February-June).
Evening: One last indulgence
All good things must come to an end. Set off no later than 3.30pm and soak in the pastoral beauty of Southern Queensland en route to Toowoomba. Of course, there are plenty of lodgings dotted across the Granite Belt if you’d rather glamp in Stanthorpe or enjoy an eco-retreat in Girraween.
After pulling up in Toowoomba, you’re probably going to want something easy after a day of indulgence. Cheap and cheerful doesn’t come much tastier than Phat Burgers – especially the crispy, bacon-topped Foghorn.
From fine dining to ‘phat’ burgers, Southern Queensland is a true palate-pleaser.
Ashton Rigg is a travel writer by day, freelance foodie by night and full-time cake enthusiast. When she isn’t at one with the keyboard you’ll likely find her saluting the sun in a yoga class or practising the timeless art of photographing her food. Her favourite escape to date has been a double Disney adventure in Orlando and Anaheim, and her bucket-list dream is to eat cannoli with her famiglia in Sicily. Find Ashton on Twitter and Instagram at @AshtonRigg.