52 Weekends Away: The High Country

The High Country has all the ingredients for a perfect weekend: stress-busting alpine air, unspoilt physical beauty, well-preserved colonial architecture and a swag of outdoor activities. Beechworth has retained its great gold rush-era bones while morphing into a surprisingly chic little town — restaurants here serve food that would put many inner-city suburbs to shame. It may be a three-hour drive from Melbourne, but it’s worth it.

Getting there

Head straight up the Hume to Wangaratta then detour east on the Great Alpine Road to Beechworth. It’s doable on public transport, if you’re happy to limit your exploration to Beechworth or bring/hire a bike; a V/Line train connects with a bus at Wangaratta and takes around four hours. Or fly to Albury and hire a car for the 45-minute drive south.

When you get there

You’ll be sorely in need of a hearty dinner after a very long, very monotonous drive. Beechworth is blessed with a couple of Victoria’s best regional restaurants. Provenance has a mod Oz menu that’s simple and elegant despite its diverse influences, and uses locally sourced ingredients.

Hearty produce-led cooking often means little joy for vegetarians, but the complex, flavour-driven vegetable degustation here is no mere afterthought. With an equally high reputation, Warden’s does excellent southern-tilting but super-smart Italian (the pastas and desserts are particularly intriguing) and has a huge, ambitious wine list. Both are in heritage surrounds that are warm but fuss-free.

Outdoor types will want to head straight to the beautiful Mt Buffalo. The park is at its most enchanting in spring when alpine wildflowers blanket the valleys, and the temperature’s optimal for hiking; see the Parks Victoria website for suggestions of what walks suit according to fitness levels and the season, as well as details on climbing, horseriding and kids’ activities.

Cyclists can hit the off-road Murray to Mountains Rail Trail from Beechworth to Wangaratta and onto Bright. Ride through gorgeous bushland, but with the comfort factor of plenty of towns, toilets and sustenance stops.

No need to be in training for the high country’s gourmet trail; it only requires a discerning palate (and a fairly flush wallet). The towns of Bright, Milawa, Myrtleford and the King Valley region are particularly rich pickings for food lovers and the country roads — especially the lovely Snow Road — are made for leisure driving. Cyclists will find it’s even more charming on two wheels. The Pedal to Produce website has great cycling routes between farms, cheese factories, bakeries, wineries, and every little worthwhile picnic spot in between.

Rustic French bistro food (rabbit rillettes, cassoulet, steak frites with anchovy butter) awaits, just a short drive (or uphill peddle) from Beechworth at the Stanley Pub. The publican is a onetime Sydney sommelier so you can also expect a savvy wine list as well as some nicely handcrafted beers.

Back in Beechworth, the Historical and Cultural Precinct tours take in the courthouse where both Ned Kelly and his mother were once held, the fascinating Chinese Cultural Centre and the Burke Museum dedicated to the ill-fated explorer. Just outside of town, there is 12km of walking tracks around the gorge and through a park that was once where miners dug for gold. If you’re really keen to catch up on the area’s historical sights, head to Glenrowen, and those predisposed to the spooky can indulge in a twilight ghost tour by lantern light.

If you’ve still got an appetite after a big lunch or a day of gourmet sampling, the Green Shed Bistro is a cute, casual place for dinner, with very reasonable good wines by the glass (37 Camp Street, Beechworth; phone (03) 5728 2360).

Gigi’s — right in the centre of town — is the local favourite for big brunches. They bake their own brioche, cook up their own baked beans, and serve their own house-roast coffee.

Beechworth’s shopping is super stylish (think French linen water rather than doilies), and it’s not hard to while a way a morning having a retail-infused wander. If you’re as interested in historic shopfronts as what’s on offer inside them, a Sunday stroll around Yackandandah is another must-do. There are 37 stunning buildings here classified by the National Trust — almost the whole town. Grab a High Street walking map from the visitors centre for detailed information on each one.

If you’re all quaffed out, a cleansing ale might be in order. The High Country has Victoria’s first beer trail, highlighting the area’s growing collection of micro-breweries. The half dozen stops might be too many for a weekend, but with one to be found in downtown Beechworth, visiting two or three in an afternoon shouldn’t be too arduous.

Beechworth’s Bridge Road Brewers, behind the Tanswell’s Hotel, also serves up the beer drinker’s best friend: home-baked pretzels, as well as crisp-based pizza. They’re known for their dark cocoa-y porter, bière de garde, and pale Belgian-style saison. Then wind your way to the Bright Brewery via Boynton’s Brewing Co in Porepunkah.

What to bring home
Stanley organic saffron and Milawa cheese.

Where to stay
There’s no shortage of gorgeous accommodation options in Beechworth and other parts of this region, but, with the exception of the Stanley Pub, don’t count on budget options. Recommended options include Beechworth Black Springs Bakery, The Provenance, The Kilns, Mount Pleasant Accommodation, 1860 Luxury Accommodation and Latrobe at Beechworth.

What to splurge on
Pick up a Johnstons lamb’s wool throws from Frances Pilley, right on Ford Street. There’s nothing like a country town to bring out the urge for a granny blanket.