Iconic laneways, fantastic food, superb shopping, dynamic arts scene – Melbourne has it all. Renowned the world over for events, world class coffee, buzzing restaurants and local arts scene, Melbourne is up there when it comes to taking a break at an urban destination with a bold, individual demeanour to it.
It’s nothing short just to say that Melbourne would tick all the boxes when you’re in the heart of the city and there to experience it all. Broaden the canvas about 2-3 hours out of Melbourne, there’s a lot to miss if you don’t get a chance to venture out into the surrounds.
What is great about the surrounds is that a short drive out of Melbourne through the green valleys is a chance to meet the most passionate of food and wine producers, encounter local wildlife, meet boutique ginneries, and absorb the talents of renowned local artists in their space. On my latest trip to Melbourne, I decided to venture out to the surrounds and discovered passion and persona that is an extension to the great city.
My journey started in Melbourne heading out to the Yarra Valley which is roughly 1.5 hours’ drive. The drive turned scenic as I headed out of Melbourne suburbs towards my first stop – Rochford Estate winery.
Rated Red 5 Star Winery, Rochford Wines is a family owned estate. Apart from award winning Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and aromatics, the winery also incorporates the acclaimed Isabella’s Restaurant, cellar door and shop, together with other purpose built facilities – a conservatory, a pavilion, amphitheatre and lakeside deck – to service fabulous outdoor concerts, summer food and wine festivals, and a host of other functions and events. Well known across the region for staging exceptional events, weddings it’s also a popular spot for rock concerts. It’s very easy to spend a lazy afternoon having scrumptious lunch matched with award winning wines.
Rock concerts like Bryan Ferry World Tour 2019 is a great night to spend on the perfectly manicured lawns of the estate. Latest edition to the estate is 400 Gardi – the best known pizza joint in Oceania in a brand new purpose built pavilion overlooking the lake. Isabella’s Restaurant, formerly known as Rochford Restaurant, provides a memorable and exceptional dining experience in a unique, relaxed atmosphere.
Celebrating seasonal fare and combining classic flavours with modern day twists, each dish is created by Executive Chef Raki Andriana to maximise fresh and local produce, and to beautifully complement Rochford’s globally renowned and awarded wines.
After a rest and lunch, it was time to move on to explore more of the valley. The drive through the valley on a sunny day is a world-class experience. Acres of vines across paddocks provide striking views making the journey that much interesting. My next stop was the Halesville Sanctuary. Owned by Zoos Victoria, Halesville Sanctuary is world renowned for its native Australian animal species. With an aim to conserve and educate, the sanctuary is probably the best place to learn about Australia’s native animals and their conservation efforts.
Top animals to spot here are Kangaroos, Wombats, Platypus, Tasmanian Devils, Koalas, Dingoes, birds and reptiles. Halesville Sanctuary also encompasses a fully operational wildlife hospital operated by the Australian Wildlife Health Centre that is open to visitors. It’s an interactively designed building where people can see surgeries, rehabs of animals that the hospital treats from time to time. The hospital also treats rescued wildlife who are in accident on roads across the valley and rehabs them to the sanctuary.
The sanctuary also features two shows called Tales from the Platypus Creek and Spirits of the Skies – that are interactive shows with Platypus and birds which is highly recommended.
It was turning into a hot day and what better way to beat the heat that than to visit a boutique Gin distillery. Four Pillars Gin Distillery is an award-winning gin distillery that’s been in business since 2013.
It produces some of the purest and best drinking spirits. If you’re a Gin drinker, this is as good as it gets. An interactive Gin tasting of its four pillar varieties is a great way to start where you get to learn about the state of the art stills and the distilling process of making high quality Gin.
You’re given a taste of the four different gin and the botanicals that go into making them. As the Gin are strong it’s recommended that you hydrate yourself again before hitting the road.
The distillery is viewable through the glass and the tall stills. The bar in the distillery offers tasty cocktails and are mostly created with the Gin distilled in-house.
After a refreshing drink at Four Pillars it was time for something sweet and an opportunity to visit one of the most famous choclateries in Australia – Yarra Valley Chocolaterie.
Surrounded by picturesque Yarra Valley Vistas, Yarra Valley Chocolaterie is a destination in itself. Set on a 40 acre section of emerging orchards, gardens and reclaimed wetlands the Chocolaterie is a must-visit when in the valley. With a team of talented chocolatiers from Europe, there are over 250 products that are produced. From chocolate buttons and drops to giant chocolate bunnies and everything in between is tastefully displayed in the showroom for customers to buy and taste.
A glass window shows the chocolatiers at work and how different products are prepared. Freshly dried apricots are put on a conveyer that covers them with molten chocolate and passes them through a cold section for the chocolate to set. The automation is great but what’s even greater is that the quality of the finished product isn’t compromised. The café has equally good surprises.
To get chocolated out, I suggest the self-saucing cake that comes with a generous serving of home-made ice cream and chocolate sauce. And to finish it off with a delightful Mocca.
My excitement of being around the lush green outskirts of Melbourne had just started. But it had been a long hot day and I had been on the road for almost four hours. I wasn’t feeling it that much as I had taken breaks in-between and I guess that the beauty of driving through the valley – the opportunity to see and visit so many places keep the balance right. But, it was time to drive to my nest for the night in the Yarra Valley, Chateau Yering Historic House Hotel.
Chateau Yering Historic Hotel is one of the most luxurious and spectacular lodges that you can choose to stay in at the valley. The original lodge dates back to 1864 and is a heritage rated property. The hotel is situated on 250 acres of land with a 2.7 kilometre frontage to the Yarra River enjoying spectacular views across the Yarra Valley to the Great Dividing.
The Heritage listed gardens have undergone rejuvenation with the restoration of the antique bronze crane as the centrepiece of the formal front garden. The Hotel’s continuous investment in its surrounds will see ongoing work to extend and restore the gardens to the rear of the property including a walking/jogging track around the river to Yarra Glen and picnic facilities along the river. Chateau Yering Hotel consists of 32 suites that are fully individual in their look and feel, decorated with different colour schemes and fine furnishings.
The suites are lavish and inviting, each boasting a private balcony or a veranda, offering sprawling views of the gardens and the Great Dividing Ranges. Large bathrooms are tastefully wall to wall tiled with white marble and include exquisite toiletries from Apples Comfrey for guests’ pleasure. The bed is adorned by crisp, white linen with super-soft feather down pillows to give you the best night’s sleep after a long day of activities.
The main dining room Eleonore’s Restaurant is names after Eleonore de Castella, wife of the original Swiss developer of the lodge. The restaurant is well acclaimed as the winner of Australia’s Best Fine Dining Restaurant to 13 consecutive years holding a prestigious Good Food Guide One Hat Classification.
The fare at the restaurant is contemporary cuisine created by some of the best chefs and around local produce and is matched with some of the finest vintages of international and award winning local wineries from its 19th century cellar. Having dinner with General Manager and host Sue O’Brien and watching at the restaurant and watching the sun set over the Great Dividing Ranges was a great way to wind down the evening.
Next day was an early start and a key activity to tick off my bucket list of things to do – Hot Air Ballooning. Global Ballooning is the largest ballooning company in Victoria. Hot air ballooning is extremely weather dependent so we weren’t sure about the flight next morning but that all changed when the phone rang at 4:30 am to confirm that the flight was going ahead. Hot air ballooning is usually very early starts and so an early night’s rest is recommended if you’re in line for one the next day. I was picked up by the captain of our balloon from the hotel. As we started off in the Ute making our way through the narrow lanes of paddocks we were met with three other ballooning companies who were flying too. Together we set out to look for the ideal launch pad for the balloons.
Balloon flights are usually about 45 minutes and take off from one end of the valley and land on the other end. As we reached the launch pad, we got to work with the ballooning guys to unpack and get our balloon ready to get in the air. With the gigantic balloon rolled out from the trailer and the basket attached, it was time to fill it with air.
The idea is to fill the balloon with cold air and then heat the air so that the balloon rises. Giant fans filled the balloon with air and the fire jets fuelled with liquid propellant heated the air and the balloon started rising.
It was a quick jump in the basket and we were away. The feeling of riding in a hot air balloon is different yet amazing. Flights to our minds are mostly limited to aeroplanes where we experience thrust and g-forces, noise to relate with flight. In a hot air balloon, all you hear and feel is the gentle hissing of the wind. And before you realise you’re over 1500 meters sailing away in the wind. There are no rudders in a balloon and so we’re on the mercy of the wind and the direction it takes us.
But experienced pilots ensure safety and make sure the experience is absolutely amazing. We float over the paddocks of the valley, glide over the vines as the sun rises with striking views across the horizon. The most peaceful flying one can ever imagine. After a 40 minute ride, it’s time to land and our pilot ensures it’s a safe one. After helping the team to pack the balloon, its team to head back. And after a quick breakfast at the hotel, it was time to start driving to my next destination – Phillip Island.
Best known for the exhilarating Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix, Phillip Island has a reputation as a great costal gateway surrounded with some of the best surf beaches in Victoria. Also popularly known for its Cape Woolamai Pinnacles walk, one can see Penguins, Koalas, seals in their natural habitat.
From the Yarra Valley, it was a two hour drive to the island. At the island, I was staying at Phillip Islands Apartments, which is ideally suited in the heart of town. It provides self-contained, well established 2-3 bedroom apartments. The town seemed a bit busy and I realised that I was in town the weekend after Australian Moto GP. So I decided to head towards the track as my first thing to tick-off. As I entered the area (another first for me) it was hard to imagine the sheer size of the arena.
This world-class track is managed by Phillip Island Circuit. The track is world-renowned for its location which is perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Bass Strait, with nothing but a couple of hundred kilometres of open water fed by the Antarctic Ocean between it and Tasmania. The layout of the track has been unchanged for decades. It’s one of the fastest tracks in the world where there are only really two places you brake other times it’s either accelerating, or rolling off.
The corners are sensuous flowing curves without sharply delineated corners. While the most important event at the circuit is the Moto GP, there are a host of other public and private events that keep the track busy. I wasn’t about to jump on a 500cc motorbike on the circuit but welcomed the idea of go-karting on the exact replica of the track built right next to it.
A five lap challenge and as I strapped on my helmet and got a feel of the track, it was all go. The speed of the track really is something where you speed up and carry that momentum through 80% of the track. It really relinquishes the need for speed. Five laps came and went very fast with my top lap speed of 1 minute 40 seconds. I wasn’t close to the record but did well not crashing or stopping at all. With my stripes earned – it was time to visit the next biggest attraction at the Phillip Island popular the World over – The Penguin Parade.
After a visit to the Nobbies Centre and Antarctic Journey which is a breath-taking experience with state of the art audio visual displays and an augmented reality experience, it was time to visit the Penguin Parade.
This is the star attraction of the Phillip Island Nature Park. With over 500,000 visitors experiencing the attraction annually, the management of the natural resource that protects the habitat of the penguins is spectacular. As the sun set over the cape, we joined our ranger and made our way through the walkway down to the bay to see little baby penguins waddle up to their burrows.
There are about 20,000 penguins in the conservation area and most go out to sea at day break and make their way back home at sun set. As we sat and listened to our ranger tell us more about the penguins we saw the first lot of penguins swim out of the water and form a pack as they stealth fully made their way through the rocks out to the open sands of the beach. As now they were out of cover, they waddled and ran across the sands in a single file through lanes making their way to the burrows. The noise little creates are small and could be easily mistaken for a puppy or a small dog if not for the upright walk and their two fins. The 45 minute experience where no flash photography is allowed is a great way to experience nature up close and learn about the smallest penguins in the world. As the parade concluded, it was time for our penguins to head home and so was ours as it was drive to a new destination on my trip around Melbourne.
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