‘When it’s wine o’clock, the menu at Shantell, in Dixons Creek makes free with the cellar door stock.’
This is Melbourne’s back yard, at only an hour’s drive away, and oh what a fertile patch of ground it is. The Yarra Valley is the birthplace of the Victorian wine industry and has more than 90 wineries, best known for wonderful pinot noirs and sparklings.
You’ll come across a huge variety of cellar-door operations; from bustling grand temples to the grape, to rustic tin sheds where it’s just you and the winemaker.Pinot noirs and sparklings are the stars, but there’s plenty of other wines to try too.
Healesville, set in a lovely virgin bush-backed valley, makes a good base, with a down-to-earth vibe, great food and proximity to a number of (non-wine related) attractions. It’s a very doable day trip, but with a growing number of great accommodation options and plenty of things to fill a few days, not to mention just relaxing among the pretty countryside, an easy weekend here makes a lot of sense.
Via Lilydale, east on the Maroondah Highway, it should take around an hour. You can catch a suburban train to Lilydale, then a local (and slow) bus on to Healesville.
When you get there
The Healesville Hotel is the city slicker’s dream version of a country pub: lots of laid-back rustic ambience but no League of Gentlemen style stares or cling-wrapped cheese and chutney sandwiches. Instead, it’s beef and ale pie with mash and peas, local beers and vinyl on the turntable.
International tourists flock to the Healesville Sanctuary, and we challenge you to act the jaded Australian when you come face to face with the kangaroos, koalas, dingos and native owls and eagles who live here. The Platypus House is a real treat, both architecturally and because how often do you get to see such happily splashing platypuses in your day job?
If you’re more into culture than nature, the Tarrawarra Museum of Art (TWMA) has an important, unique collection of Australian modernist work from the 1950s. The gallery’s architecture is also notable, a bold contemporary statement but one that sits beautifully in the Yarra Valley landscape. You can stay for lunch (there’s an express two-course lunch with a glass of wine for $50) at the nearby TarraWarra Estate.
Vinotherapy sounds like fun (and no need to count alcohol units). The Natskin Day Spa, part of the Balgownie Estate Resort, harnesses the anti-ageing properties of grape seed in a two-hour signature treatment package that includes exfoliation, a pinot noir body mask and the rather kinky-sounding geisha bath as well as an ooh-ah scalp massage.
If you don’t mind a drive to dinner, De Bortoli’s in nearby Dixon’s Creek has a wonderfully back-to-basics, contemporary Italian menu. If you prefer to stay local, take in the views from 3777 at Mt Rael or grab a city-style buffala-topped pizza to go from Giant Steps.
A cellar door for breakfast? Well, this is the Yarra Valley. As much as the Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander wines appeal, it’s the bakery that pulls them in at this hour. Their artisan sourdough is good enough to gobble on its own, but even better toasted with jam and French butter. Equally fabulous are the caneles (hello, the new friand), a little cake originally from Bordeaux with a toffee crisp skin enclosing a puddingy, vanilla-flavoured centre. Perfect with the house-roasted coffee.
If it’s the third Sunday of the month, head off to the Yarra Valley Regional Farmers’ Market no crack of dawn waking required, it kicks off at a civilised 9am) at the old barn at Yering Station (9am to 2pm; 38 Melba Highway, Yarra Glen; phone (03) 9730 0114).
When it’s wine o’clock, the menu at Shantell in Dixons Creek makes free with the cellar door stock, featuring lovely wine reduction sauces and simple mod Oz cooking. For something more casual (and a cheese splurge), the Yarra Valley Dairy is a long-time local favourite.
The biggest problem about wine touring here is one of too much choice. If you’re on the lookout for boutique drops, construct a DIY itinerary of your own: the Wine Yarra Valley website has a comprehensive coverage of wineries, and handily details the grapes grown and wines produced. Otherwise the big players offer enough to make up for the Sunday tour bus circus, be it architectural interest Domaine Chandon), a brimming local produce store (Yering Station), or a rustic, surprisingly simple cellar door experience Coldstream Hills and De Bortoli’s). And, it goes without saying, the wines are fabulous.
What to bring home
A case of Domaine Chandon’s sparkling.
Where to stay
Healesville Hotel has big high-ceilinged pub rooms, which have been nicely gussied up without losing their charm. Yes, it’s authentic — bathrooms down the hall, boys.
If the bright, individually styled suites at Mt Rael Retreat can feel a bit too pleased with their own design credentials, the magnificent 270-degree valley views, spacious bathrooms and comfort factor will win you over.
Tara Rise is a genteel, historical property that doesn’t skimp on contemporary style (think Aesop products in the ensuites and beds cosied with mohair throws). Plus it’s set in stunning gardens (there’s even a lake), inspired by the work of Royal Botanical Garden’s director Ferdinand Von Mueller.
Balgownie Estate Resort & Spa is a winery-based option with all the resort facilities — steam room, tennis, gym, spa — and simply furnished rooms and suites.
Chateau Yering Historic House Hotel is the full top-dollar heritage disaster, and some say past its prime, but the suites here are huge and have lovely valley views.
What to splurge on
Taking in the valley vista from a hot-air balloon.