Strike gold away from Australia’s tourist trail
Heads Down Under to discover an unsung land of fine wine and beauty
MEGHAN and Harry – the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – are about to head Down Under. One stop on their hectic tour of the South Pacific will be cosmopolitan Melbourne.
It’s a place where they will surely wish they could linger, soaking up the pavement cafes and boutiques featuring the more independent designers Meghan loves.
If they were to find a glimmer of free time they could perhaps whizz down to Victoria’s East Gippsland region. Sadly, it’s left off coastal itineraries – and what a mistake that is. It is home to a handful of people and features some of the prettiest wild bushland, rolling hill vistas covered in vines and a network of pristine lakes and waterways.
On arrival at the tiny town of Walhalla, which holds major significance in the history of the Gold Rush, the creamy, golden light casts a cinematic hue over rugged and pretty Stringers Creek.
It instantly transports you back to the 1862 Gold Rush.
Along a winding dirt road are a handful of miners’ cottages with pretty gardens, inhabited by some of the 19 full-time residents of the town which housed 3,500 during the Rush.
The handful of reconstructed shops are in keeping with the heritage, with the post office showing old photos of families waiting for the mail being transported by bullock.
Old equipment such as Bakelite wall phones and even a piano in the postman’s quarters are original.
These hills weren’t always as lush during the Gold Rush as they were stripped bare for use in mine construction.
Get a taste of how it was for miners, though in considerably more comfort, at Walhalla’s Star Hotel.
Run by the affable Michael Leaney and partner Russell, their enthusiasm for this unique property is quite remarkable.
Michael rebuilt the hotel from scratch in 1998, replicating the original Gold Rush era design complete with wrought-iron balconies. The 12 large, neat rooms are named after old mines (Kitty Darling, Fear Not) and have modern bathrooms and cosy beds – but no TVs.
A snug lounge beckons with a roaring wood-burning fire and leather sofas. You can try to imagine the tough life of a miner first-hand during a walking tour of the old Long Tunnel Extended Gold Mine. Low ceilings, no light and claustrophobic conditions must have been excruciating.
After emerging you follow the Tramline Walkway, weaving its way around the hills, with photographs showing just how basic the town once was.
The charming old Walhalla Goldfields Railway – staffed entirely by volunteers in original uniform – offers a close-up of the unforgiving terrain the workers had to contend with, as it chugs over wooden trestle bridges, all entirely cut by hand, which criss-cross the narrow gorge.
Next on the whistle-stop tour are the lakes of East Gippsland. Stretching over 600km, most head to the sophisticated little town of Metung, which reminds me of Cornwall’s Rock, with its well-heeled clientele.
Like most Australian coastal towns the hub of Metung is the pub, where wooden steps lead to a lawn which commands the hottest view in town. Here you can watch the traffic in and out of the busy marina.
If the Royals did have time for an overnight stay, they could check into secluded modern apartments The Moorings at Metung.
Entirely self-sufficient, there are pools, washing machines and wide verandahs to sip gin and tonics while watching the comings and goings.
Come dusk, yachties pile in for provisions from the store and a beer and a spot of great grub at the pub. By morning the bakery in the main street has a queue out of the door.
Meghan, I’m sure, would love the stylish shops, particularly Rapt & Tied, where she can pick up a floaty kaftan.
They also rent little drive-yourself boats and I pootled around the tiny bays, sneaking up on larger cruisers and navigating the waterways, watching pelicans sitting on the moorings.
Harry and Meghan couldn’t miss koala-spotting during their trip and Paynesville is home to Raymond Island.
It is Koala-safari territory, with dozens of these dozy marsupials lounging on the eucalyptus trees which line the walking trails.
East Gippsland produces some superb food and wine, too. Ken Eckersley has been making French-style wines since 1978 at the Nicholson River Winery, which overlooks the Nicholson River valley.
You can easily spend all day drinking in the view and sampling some of Ken’s superb creations, from Chardonnays to Syrahs.
Another notable drop can be found at the modern, boutique Tambo Winery, where Bill Williams has tables that overlook the vines he has been cultivating for 22 years. Go for the Sauvingnon Blancs and unwooded Chardonnays.
And on the way back to Metung you can always stop for a final taste of this special region with a beer at Bruthen’s Bullant Brewery.
You won’t want to try to say that after more than one.
WELL-HEELED: Metung is great for watching yachties while enjoying a G&T