Provided there is an excellent meal at the other end, day-tripping to a regional town isn’t out of character for Melburnians. Yet most of them drive.
Some of these day-trips do raise challenges once you disembark from the V/Line (regional train line) or ferry. But by challenges I mean a pleasant walk ranging from 20 minutes to two hours, and the same in reverse, which could be shortened by bringing a bike.
The pros of going car-free are many. First, avoiding the city fringe traffic. Second, gazing out the window at the Victorian countryside. Third, each of these destinations involves great local beer and wine, usually at the winery or brewery itself. Take the train!
For art and Chinese history: Bendigo
Settled on Dja Dja Warrung and Taungurung country, Bendigo is known for its goldfields but its quality offerings these days are art, tastefully stocked mash-up stores and – if you get a tip-off – great food.
Bendigo Art Gallery strikes a pose on Mitchell Street, the centrepiece of the city’s close-knit arts precinct. The gallery is Victoria’s second most-visited and specialises in fashion, design and celebrity. Currently, it’s showing an exhibition of stunning silk batiks made by women from five Indigenous central desert communities. The exclusive Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion exhibition, meanwhile, lured so many Melburnians that impeccable local restaurant Masons made a cocktail of the same name, placed alongside its all-Victorian wine list and locally-sourced food – each dish served with an inventive herb flourish.
Ghosty Toasty is part toasty joint and part film processing lab. But most of it’s all a place where a chat is a mandatory menu item too. “I see how isolation affects people when they’re not connected in their community,” says owner Nick Styles.
The Golden Dragon museum is a tad ye olde but you’ll see artefacts you can’t see in China due to the Cultural Revolution’s destruction. Bendigo’s Chinese history is enlivened by guides who’ll point to photographs of their grandparents in the displays, and the world’s oldest imperial parade dragon, Loong, is here too, as is a chariot made of jade.
Getting there: The V/Line to Bendigo takes two hours.
For a bush-walk with a winery payoff: Macedon
Given how many people I saw here (none), I’m guessing Macedon Regional Park is criminally under-hiked. Yet it’s one of the only parks close to Melbourne you can reach by train, and I spent five minutes hanging with an echidna.
Perhaps people go to nearby Hanging Rock instead? Yet the same Joan Lindsay juju permeates Macedon Regional Park too. Perhaps it’s the incessant creak of the stringybarks or the confounding six-way intersection I stalled at? Put it this way: if you’re solo, stick to Middle Gully Road from the train station.
A 90-minute amble will bring you to Mount Macedon winery, previously owned by Olivia Newton-John. At 680 metres above sea level, it’s one of Australia’s highest altitude wineries, meaning hotter weather has not forced it to move to Tasmania’s Tamar Valley like many of Victoria’s cool climate wineries.
Alternatively, hike early and take the V/Line six minutes to Woodend. There you’ll find 16 beers to sample at Holgate Brewhouse’s new taproom, a homewares store called Into The Woods that will delight bird-lovers, and the sustainably run Maison Maloa cafe, which serves fresh country fare with care.
Getting there: The V/Line to Woodend or Macedon (Bendigo line) takes around one hour.
For a true country town feel: Warragul
You won’t find croissants in the big smoke better than those sold as a side hustle by a local audiologist at Warragul farmers market. Held in a lush West Gippsland park on the third Saturday of every month, growers also come to connect with community; it’s a flurry of chatter and chucking babies’ chins.
The produce ranges from the usual suspects to saffron, biodynamic lamb, white strawberries, Wild Dog gin, local beer and cider, heritage apples and wild caught seafood. The longest line is for scones cooked in onsite ovens, but no one minds because a nearby choir is belting out Bohemian Rhapsody.
Walk (55 minutes) or bike (beware, it’s uphill) to Hogget Kitchen for lunch in a room so bright you’ll need sunnies. Encircled by vineyards, the artisanal butchery and restaurant opened in 2017 and while locals enjoy the view of the Strzlecki Ranges too, the clientele is mainly from Melbourne. Perhaps because chef Trevor Perkins just won a hat in the 2020 Good Food Guide.
Providers are written on a blackboard, with a shout-out to “mum’s veggie patch”, and with no perceptible pressure to turn around tables everyone seems to be long lunching. After, you can walk past the gnarled vine cuttings used to smoke and cook the meat, past the bush-tucker garden and around the lake.
Getting there: The V/Line to Warragul (Gippsland line) takes 90 minutes.
For artisanal everything: Kyneton
The heritage strip of bluestone buildings on Piper Street, Kyneton, is rather like the IRL version of Ballarat’s 1850s gold rush recreation, Sovereign Hill.
Setting the tone nicely is Lost Trades: The Artisans Store, a place you can grasp the past in your own two hands – and then buy it. Brimming with good shopping for blokes, the store stocks a range of functional items such as knives, axes, leather belts, rocking chairs and horsehair brushes. All made the “old way” by fairly paid master artisans.
Seated by the window at a table beautified by a native posy, a few hours can be happily spent at the hatted Source Dining, described by the Good Food Guide as mirroring Kyneton’s “mod country” mood, with chef Tim Foster taking inspiration from his mother’s mother.
For a splash of “edgy shit” (says sculptor and co-owner Jason Waterhouse) pop down to the old butter factory Stockroom, now a sprawl of art surprises and Victoria’s largest privately owned contemporary art space. Across the road, Animus Distillery is all natural light, happy houseplants and wickedly good gin. Cocktails are expertly handled by Iceland expat Ziggy, and chilled by long, translucent ice spear care of a boutique hand-cut ice company from Fitzroy.
Return to the station via the towering cedars, oaks and redwoods of the Kyneton Botanical Gardens, one of Victoria’s oldest.
Getting there: The V/Line to Kyneton (Bendigo line) takes around 70 minutes.
For the ‘other’ Mornington Peninsula: Bellarine Peninsula
Propped on the mantelpiece of the Grand Hotel in Portarlington, the town at the tip of Bellarine Peninsula, is an article from an 1886 Geelong Advertiser that describes the area as “splendid beach and seaside walks, bold cliffs, trees, gardens and shady nooks”. Little has changed.
Bar the newish Melbourne ferry. That’s changed everything, with one local saying the Bellarine is due to “take off like the Mornington did” because the ferry has wifi and comfy seats and people can commute.
From the pier, turn right along the esplanade to discover protected beaches for a swim. Or arrange Bella e-bike hire to meet you and head straight for Terindah Estate for a tasting. The road is busy but Terindah’s sparkling wine is worth it. Ten minutes further is The Whiskery – a misleading word, as it’s a gin distillery – with its signature gin Teddy and the Fox. Depending on the season, choose a fire, the gardens or the patio of the old farm shed to linger on with your cocktail.
Getting there: From Harbour Esplanade, walk five minutes to central pier, Docklands. The Port Philip Ferry to Portarlington takes 80 minutes, is wheelchair accessible and has bike racks.
• Guardian Australia was a guest of Visit Victoria.
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