CHAMPIONS OF T HE GRAMPIANS
The hills rise out of the seemingly endless flat landscape of Victoria’s west. But as dramatic as they are from a distance, it is only up close you realise how many individual peaks and winding valleys and gorges, cliffs and plateaus make up the Grampians, a range the traditional owners call Gariwerd.
The diverse topography is home to an abundance of natural wonders – including more than 800 indigenous plant species.
Quiet Dunkeld, at the southern tip of the range with the towering presence of Mt Sturgeon to the north, is the starting point for exploration. With a population of fewer than 500, it’s also the site of the renowned Royal Mail Hotel restaurant.
The Grampians has always attracted walkers and rock climbers. Now it is even more engaging with the chance to combine luxury with the great outdoors.
The Royal Mail Hotel has established a well-deserved reputation for its food and the word extensive does not do justice to the wines on offer, particularly the French wines (it has the country’s largest collection of bordeaux and burgundy), which are paired with executive chef Robin Wickens’ degustation menu.
With a kitchen garden that provides 400 varieties of vegetable, herb and fruit, the menu changes daily. The hotel breeds its own lamb and beef next door on its Mt Sturgeon property, and Wickens also sends out dishes such as Western District goat with beetroot, chard and Japanese pepper right through to petits fours in chocolate soil that ends the meal with a theatrical flourish.
The Royal Mail’s old public bar is now the Parker Street Project, offering a smaller a la carte menu but still with a huge choice of wines (many by the glass) and beers on tap.
A new-look Royal Mail is expected to open next month, when the main dining room closes and a new restaurant opens. The Parker Street Project will double in size.
Across the road from the Royal Mail, tucked just behind the main street shops, is the cellar housing 2300 imported and local wines from a larger collection of 26,000 assembled over many decades. A tour of the cellar and tastings with sommelier Matthew Lance provides ideas for the choices of wines for the night’s meal. Or you can just let the sommelier choose the perfect matches for you. Tours of the kitchen garden, just up the road from the hotel, can also be arranged, where heirloom vegetables, herbs, fruit, nuts and edible flowers are grown. It is organic and makes its own compost from kitchen scraps. Greenhouses extend the growing season.
There is wonderful accommodation and it’s a great starting point for exploring the Grampians from their southern entrance. The recently refurbished rooms have heated floors, walk-in showers and each has a private balcony overlooking the southern end of the mountain range, a view that will be shared by the new dining room. A la carte breakfasts are offered at the restaurant. Guests can also stay at the hotel’s Mt Sturgeon homestead and bluestone cottages (which are pet-friendly).
There is walking for all in the Grampians, from beginners to those eager for the Peaks Trail to be finished so they can tackle what promises to be one of Australia’s best long-distance walks.
Work is continuing to join existing tracks to provide a 144km trail that will link all the area’s impressive peaks. It will run northsouth between Dunkeld and Mt Zero, and have designated camp sites that will need to be booked before you set out.
Parks Victoria has worked closely with the traditional owners to ensure the trail is sensitive to their values. There has been a longstanding partnership as can be seen in Hall’s Gap at the Brambuk Cultural Centre.
While walking, you can feel the strong spiritual aura that combines with the closed-in gullies and soaring hilltops to make even the short walks memorable. Once on a trail, that distant, distinct presence seen from the car becomes more complex; an entirely tactile and varied series of rock, water courses and endless vegetation.
Walking guide Eda Williamson can take you through the area’s attractions, suiting walks to the visitors’ abilities and the area and sights they want to see. She also runs a bed and breakfast that welcomes pets.
Clockwise from top left, accommodation at the Royal Mail Hotel at Dunkeld boasts fabulous views over the Grampians; the hotel features a large number of French wines, including Australia’s largest collection of bordeaux and burgundy; the Grampians are perfect for people of all ages to go hiking ; and the dining room.