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