DOWN­THE TRACK

It’s easy to head out of Melbourne and ease into rural plea­sures, writes Susan Kuro­sawa

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Australia Travel -

IT is a tale of two cosy places, a twin-set, if you like, con­sid­er­ing the win­ter el­e­ments. A newish tourism al­liance, Melbourne & Sur­rounds Mar­ket­ing, formed on the back of the 2006 Com­mon­wealth Games, is in­tent on prov­ing the Vic­to­rian cap­i­tal is an ideal spring­board to its near neigh­bours. The or­gan­i­sa­tion’s stone’s-throw ra­dius cov­ers eight pos­si­bil­i­ties, from the Yarra Val­ley to the Morn­ing­ton Penin­sula. We de­cide to take up the chal­lenge.

In our case, the down-the-road des­ti­na­tions are the towns of Dayles­ford and Hep­burn Springs in the Mace­don Ranges wine-and-spa re­gion, coun­try cousins, if you like, to that most duchess-like of our cap­i­tal cities.

We start with a night at the Royce Ho­tel in St Kilda, be­cause the scale and feel are right. Housed in a for­mer Rolls-Royce show­room on St Kilda Road, this her­itage cor­ner prop­erty has been ex­tended with a mod­ern an­nexe, but it is still pe­tite, with 100 rooms. Those in the newly re­fur­bished cat­e­gory of­fer plasma tele­vi­sions, CD play­ers and shiny white bath­rooms; in all rooms, thought­ful touches are ev­i­dent, from fresh milk and cook­ies to bed­side and over­head read­ing lights and an iron and board.

Ours is all retro avo­cado and gold, with funky ot­tomans, swish­ing cur­tains, a long, leaf-green lounge and pale wood and padded leather trim­mings. It is supremely com­fort­able, with a gen­er­ous ter­race and views to­wards the city sky­line.

The Royce’s ex­cel­lent open-kitchen din­ing room, Dish — so named for the gallery-like dis­plays of dishes and plates hand-painted by lo­cal artists — over­looks St Kilda Road. As we take break­fast, po­lice of­fi­cers pass by on shiny horses with groomed tails flick­ing like metronomes. Trams trun­dle past — al­ways a thrill for non-Mel­bur­ni­ans, un­til you find you are driv­ing be­side them, which I find a ter­ri­fy­ing prospect — and the Royal Botanic Gar­dens are next door, pro­vid­ing ideal strolling ter­ri­tory, with a pause at the Shrine of Re­mem­brance. Nearby is Al­bert Park Golf Course and trendy Chapel Street. Be­yond, to our right, is Melbourne proper, lit gold and gleam­ing in win­ter sun­shine.

There is no need to set out early for the 80-minute jour­ney to Dayles­ford but the weather is per­fect and so we head north­west from the city af­ter break­fast un­der cool blue skies, skim­ming past the red-roofed sub­urbs edg­ing the Calder High­way.

The Melbourne & Sur­rounds Mar­ket­ing mob is right: there is no pain in ex­it­ing the city; al­most im­per­cep­ti­bly, the air be­comes crisper and clearer. It re­minds of driv­ing west from Syd­ney and into the foothills of the Blue Moun­tains or, al­though a much quicker run, up to leafy Ade­laide Hills towns such as Stir­ling and Aldgate. There is no sense of border be­tween city and coun­try, just an eas­ing of outer sub­ur­bia into fields, a high­way that trick­les into curv­ing roads. We know we have suc­cess­fully headed for the hills when the signs ap­pear for Wom­bat State For­est be­tween Wood­end and Dayles­ford.

Our lunch choice is Hep­burn Springs, Dayles­ford’s twin town, where there’s hearty nosh on of­fer at the colon­naded Pep­pers Springs Re­treat. The 1930s din­ing room is a flash­back of deco style with ul­tra-high ceil­ings, tall win­dows fram­ing win­ter-bare trees, starched white napery and mel­low light­ing; at any mo­ment, Gatsby and Daisy could stroll in from West Egg, re­splen­dent in cream linen, and cause not a rip­ple. I feel like a teenager here, re­call­ing Sun­day drives with my par­ents to take the brac­ing air in the Blue Moun­tains; we’d al­ways lunch at a clas­sic ho­tel, with a roast of the day and serv­ing ladies in frilly pinafores. At Hep­burn Springs, I fight an urge to or­der scones.

But rather than devon­shire tea, it’s off to the 21st-cen­tury equiv­a­lent of in­dul­gence: the spa. In an an­nexe be­hind the two-storey pas­tel yel­low and white Pep­pers build­ing, the Min­eral Spa Well­ness Re­treat is a sim­ply stun­ning fa­cil­ity, and the de­served win­ner of the best des­ti­na­tion spa cat­e­gory at last year’s The Aus­tralian ’ s Travel & Tourism Awards.

There are many ac­com­mo­da­tion and spa pack­ages here but if, like us, you are not stay­ing, there’s a deal for a two-course lunch and treat­ments. Be warned, though: the Min­eral Spa Well­ness Re­treat is very busy at week­ends and we wait more than half an hour for our treat­ments in a crowded ‘‘ re­lax­ation room’’. Man­age­ment needs to re­think the size of the cot­ton robes, too, given the amount of gap­ing flesh on view.

In the old days of spa ther­apy — when one took the wa­ters, rather than be soaked un­der a Vichy shower or pum­melled by hy­dro jets — there were no med­i­ta­tion sa­lons and aro­mather­apy oils, let alone gowns and tow­elling slip­pers, but maybe it was less self-con­scious, too. In the Vic­to­rian era, the min­eral wa­ter of this re­gion was claimed by med­i­cal prac­ti­tion­ers to be ‘‘ ben­e­fi­cial in dis­eases pe­cu­liar to young girls with gen­eral de­bil­ity and for gen­tle­men who have lived rather too freely’’.

In the 1930s, at least one Hep­burn Springs bath-house pro­vided hot and cold elec­tric baths ‘‘ with a charge to stim­u­late bathers’’. No such shocks here: the Min­eral Spa’s menu is based on botan­i­cal prod­ucts from Pevonia and Aus­tralia’s Li’Tya, with or­ganic in­gre­di­ents such as lil­lyp­illy and wild rosella. There are open-air min­eral baths heated to 37C, a cool plunge pool, sauna, steam room, dual hy­drother­apy baths, flota­tion beds and spa­cious treat­ment rooms for cou­ples.

It must have seemed like the very heart of the coun­try here when early Ital­ian set­tlers, such as Pi­etro and Gi­a­como Lucini, ar­rived in the gold-rush era of the 1850s and grew olives and grapes and planted mar­ket gar­dens. Lucini’s mac­a­roni fac­tory, es­tab­lished in 1859 at Hep­burn Springs (then known as Spring Creek), was Aus­tralia’s first pro­ducer of pasta, and there are in­for­ma­tive week­end tours, a mu­seum and cafe. The build­ing was used as the 1950s Il Cafe Latino in the 2003 film Love’sBrother , which is well worth a look on DVD be­fore set­ting out here.

It’s a 3km me­an­der — along Main Street, past the Palais, where Ross Wil­son is due tonight for a shot of Daddy Cool — to Dayles­ford. The Lake House, two-time win­ner of TheAus­tralian ’ s Travel & Tourism Awards for best food and wine tourism, is sim­ply the place to stay here; like Pep­pers Springs Re­treat, which has just 26 rooms, The Lake House is sat­is­fy­ingly small.

It’s com­posed of 33 rooms and suites, dressed in au­tum­nal colours and filled with lifestyle mag­a­zines and lux­ury touches; some rooms are in the guest­house proper, oth­ers are set snug in pitch-roofed pav­il­ions on an idyllic set­ting of 7ha of es­tab­lished gar­dens — laven­der and fox­gloves, weep­ing birches and Ja­panese maples, or­na­men­tal grasses and hy­drangeas — over­look­ing Lake Dayles­ford.

Ex­ec­u­tive chef and chate­laine Alla WolfTasker isn’t Ital­ian — her her­itage is Rus­sian — but there’s a gusto and arms-out hos­pi­tal­ity sug­ges­tive of the mamma tra­di­tion of, say, Tus­cany. She doesn’t thwack din­ers about the head if they fail to fin­ish her food, but clearly she is dis­ap­pointed to en­counter those who don’t con­sider eat­ing to be a se­ri­ous busi­ness.

Alla in­cludes all her pro­duc­ers at the back of the sea­sonal menus: two pages of spe­cial­ist provi­dores, sup­ply­ing any­thing from mush­rooms to morello cher­ries. Of­ten lo­cals just ar­rive with wind­fall pro­duce to top up the Lake House’s pantries.

This is very much a fam­ily con­cern, with hus­band Al­lan cre­at­ing the clever culi­nary and wine-based art­work for the guest rooms and pub­lic spa­ces — his Rousseau’sSleep­ingChef , a homage to that artist’s Sleep­ing Gypsy, adorns menu cov­ers — and daugh­ter Larissa smartly in charge of mar­ket­ing. Twenty-seven years ago, when the Wolf-Taskers first saw the site that was to be­come Lake House, Alla says it was a black­berry-in­fested slope lead­ing down to a murky swamp. ‘‘ It had been for sale for 10 years with­out an of­fer.’’

Alla, re­cent re­cip­i­ent of an Or­der of Aus­tralia gong, is in­deed a dame, but with none of the hau­teur such a ti­tle could im­ply. Her touch is ev­i­dent ev­ery­where, but no more so than in the kitchen, where she is mother hen to a brood of clever cooks, from head chef Matthew Macart­ney to Jasper Avent, a re­cent re­cip­i­ent of the in­au­gu­ral Thierry Marx Ca­reer De­vel­op­ment Award, which sees him off to France to work for a month with Marx at his two Miche­lin-starred Chateau Cordeil­lan-Bages in Bordeaux.

Aside from a pas­sion for lo­cal pro­duce, the Lake House is se­ri­ous about its min­eral wa­ters con­text, too. Alla tells me the Dayles­ford and Hep­burn Springs parish boasts Aus­tralia’s high­est con­cen­tra­tion of min­eral wa­ters. To this should be added a more con­tem­po­rary statis­tic: the coun­try’s big­gest den­sity of day spas.

Nat­u­rally, the Lake House has its own spa, Salus, of­fer­ing a full range of body, face and feet ther­a­pies, but it comes with a spe­cial twist. Be­sides th­ese ter­rific treat­ments of­fered in a two-storey, pur­pose-built villa, there are two lit­tle cedar-lined cab­ins over­look­ing tree­tops and the lake be­yond, each equipped with a deep tub and shut­ters that can be opened to the views.

The tubs are filled with pure min­eral wa­ter, from Deep Creek Min­eral Springs, at Eganstown, 7km west of Dayles­ford, and heated to 40C. One soaks for 30 min­utes at a time and Alla says it’s an in­stant detox: the wa­ter is full of mag­ne­sium, sodium, sil­ica and iron. Be­low, be­side the duck-pa­trolled lake, its shores lined with poplars and sil­ver birches, is the newly tapped Wom­bat Flat Spring, with a lever to pump the min­eral-rich wa­ter into one’s hand for a free slurp or to fill a plas­tic bot­tle; it tastes healthy, in the way of medicine. I de­cide to stop at one gulp: th­ese few days in Melbourne and sur­rounds have been tonic enough. Susan Kuro­sawa was a guest of Melbourne & Sur­rounds Mar­ket­ing.

Check­list

Lake House is run­ning a Win­ter Mas­ter­class from 9.30am on Sun­day, Au­gust 5, fea­tur­ing star chefs such as Justin North from Syd­ney’s Be­casse and Philippa Si­b­ley from Melbourne’s Circa. $195 a per­son for a full day of classes and baguette lunch. More: (03) 5348 3329. www.mel­bour­nes­ur­rounds.com.au www.vis­itvic­to­ria.com www.mace­donranges.com www.royce­ho­tels.com.au www.pep­pers.com.au www.lake­house.com.au www.al­lan­wolf­tasker.com

Trav­ellers’ tonic: Clock­wise from left, Pep­pers Springs Re­treat, Hep­burn Springs; Pep­pers Springs Min­eral Spa Well­ness Re­treat; the Royce Ho­tel, Melbourne; and Lake House, Dayles­ford

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