Wye River General Store

Wye River is a tiny hamlet between Apollo Bay and Lorne. Its main feature is a gob-smackingly gorgeous bit of coast where the river meets the surf. Running a close second is the General Store.

A late-ish breakfast at the General Store is a relaxed affair, even with the hubbub of a busy cafe that has the honour of being the only early option on this part of the coast. Sunlight floods the cafe, and on a clear day the view of surfers riding the break and families taking some time together across your avo toast and killer coffee is enough to make your heart a little gladder. If the French toast lulls you into unconsciousness, just order another coffee.

The tiny community of Wye River was hit pretty hard after the devastating Christmas Day fires of 2016. But it’s bouncing back better than ever. The Store and the pub just across the road are something of a focal point for a resilient community getting its stuff back together. There’s a really positive and friendly vibe from the store manager Briony Payten as she tells us how busy it has been, and just how supportive locals, weekenders, and tourists have been too. By the way, if you recognise that surname, yes the wine list does carry the great wines of her brother Ben Payten of Payten and Jones, amongst a strong list of locals.

For warmer days, there’s heaps of outdoor seating, and if children pepper your party, there’s the most epic playground right next door.

Though your focus might initially be on a sourdough toastie and great coffee, once you remember that you have no bread in your B&B and that you forgot your toothbrush, you’ll be glad of the other facet to the business. It’s a true general store, with all the essentials for the weekend visitor. You could easily self-cater from the selection of produce at hand, and all the ingredients for surviving a coastal retreat are available.

LiveWire Adventure Park

High-wires, swinging bridges, and zip-lines. It’s tempting to say ‘Not for those afraid of height’, or ‘Not for the feint-of-heart’. Actually, if that describes you, then LiveWire in Lorne is absolutely for you. It’s super-challenging to face your fear of heights, but oh gosh, the rewards for giving it a go and succeeding are so worth it.

The concept of a high ropes courses is not a new one. You might recall it from school camps, where you climbed a few metres in the air and walked across a wire or took a zip-line flying-fox ride through the trees. What’s new about LiveWire is the sheer scale and audacity of the build. There are three circuits plus a zip-coaster ride. The Canopy circuit is free with your basic entry-fee to the park, and is a series of swing bridges in a loop that takes in the treetops of the famous Otway Forest’s tall timbers, ten metres off the ground. It’s peaceful, and only the sounds of wildlife and of people enjoying other adventures punctuate the sound of the breeze in the leaves.

The Short Circuit and the Super Circuit are designed to challenge you in different and ever-increasing degrees. The Super Circuit is well worth the (mental and physical) effort required for the two hours it takes to complete. There are 53 mid-air trails, bridges, and swings to negotiate. Then there’s the zip-coaster. It’s one of the biggest in the world at 525 metres long, and it’s fun to see different people’s reactions to the hard turns, drops, and the force of gravity. Not as much fun as taking the ride for yourself though!

Standing high in the canopy, safely harnessed with no way of falling any further than your short tie-line, you could take a little time to consider the tiny environmental impact of this remarkable installation, or the bright future for eco-tourism. Honestly though, you’re probably just having the time of your life.

La Bimba

When you’re staying in a seaside village, one of the great joys is sitting with a view of the ocean, eating fresh seafood with a glass of whatever takes your fancy. La Bimba’s upstairs view of the water beyond the foreshore is superb, and it really does make sense that this beautiful food came from just over there.

Chef Steve Earl is Western Victoria born and bred. His passion for local producers doing small interesting things is writ large on his face when he talks about the friends and suppliers of La Bimba. The couple who started a duck and chicken farm, the guy who grows native limes, the guy who rings him in the middle of the afternoon and says ‘Hey, I caught some fish you might be interested in’. As we walk down the pier after collecting fish that are considered ‘by-catch’ of another industry, he expresses his disbelief that everyone isn’t doing this. ‘I mean, the sea is right there, the people who work it are right here – it’s mad that there are so few doing what I do!’

Steve’s food is just beautiful. The best way to enjoy it is with a bunch of friends, and a table full of  dishes to share. A whole fish with Sichuan pepper, coriander seed and ginger with a touch of sourness from raspberry vinegar, is gorgeous. The ceviche made from that by-catch collected off the pier just a few hours earlier is the pinnacle of restraint and beauty. Paella is made the right way, with the freshest fish, calamari, and the perfect crunchy rice on the bottom. Every element is carefully considered, including the small curated wine list.

La Bimba is definitely the food highlight of Apollo Bay. Don’t miss.

Oakdene

You’ve got to love a venue that has you smiling before you step out of the car. Oakdene will have you tilting your head and chuckling. It looks like a huge wind pushed it over, and they just decided to run with a cellar door on its side! There’s so much to look at, and the experience you have will vary according to how much time you’ve got on your hands and what kind of food you feel like. Honestly, you could start with breakfast in the cafe, spend some time in the garden walking through the sculptures, and squeeze in a full wine tasting before a lazy lunch in the restaurant.

The restaurant is decorated much like the entire property, in living technicolour and with liberal splashings of artwork. It’s a quirky place to sit and eat food as sophisticated as these chefs present. Dishes like the lamb, for example – slow-cooked for ages and falling apart in glorious stickiness. The Oakdene William Shiraz is perfect with it. The house-cured trout has just the right texture. All produce is local where possible, and it shows in the freshness of the dishes.

Definitely worth a detour if you’re in the area.

Manzanillo Grove

The perfect olive is the ideal accompaniment to a long afternoon on the deck – still a little salty from the brining, still a little firm from just the right amount of time in the brine, kept in fresh extra-virgin oil.  It’s one of life’s simple pleasures.

Manzanillo Grove started as a gardening project for Renate and Len – something to do in their retirement. It grew rapidly into a business processing well over 100 tonnes of fruit each year. The little shed which once served as a processing facility now houses their farm-gate store. There’s a range of other local produce amongst the infused oils and Manzanillo Grove oil products, but it’s the pure flavour of a simple table olive or a new season cold-pressed oil on bread that carries the day. If you’re planning a Bellarine picnic, start here.

Or, if you’re planning a quiet weekend away, stop at the farm-gate store at the end of the day and grab a big jar of olives and a bottle of oil. Be sure to bring the best sourdough and a couple of bottles of your favourite wine. Then you can sit out on the deck of your accomodation at Manzanillo Grove whiling away the evening. Len and Renate have recently built stylish, self-contained studio apartments right in the middle of the grove overlooking the large dam.

Yabby Lake

You might know Yabby Lake for its wines. The wines from winemaker Tom Carson are exquisite, and the subject of many a wine review containing rapturous hyperbole. The 2014 pinot noir quite famously won the Jimmy Watson Trophy – Australia’s most prestigious wine gong. It was the first pinot noir to do so.

The cellar door is a welcome breath of casual air, despite the lofty reputation of the wines. It’s a nice place to stand and taste a few of the award-winning wines while staring at either the sculpture collection, the view across the vineyards, or that Jimmy Watson Trophy in the cabinet. Take a little time to try the single block wines if you have the opportunity – they are a stunning lesson in terroir*.

The tasting is a lovely prelude to a long lunch. The menu is casual but sophisticated, the plates generous but refined.

There are few better ways to spend an afternoon than sitting in front of a view drinking some of Australia’s best wines, eating good food, and pondering the artworks. The Kirby family are well known patrons of the arts in Australia, and the collection at Yabby Lake is significant.

The attention to detail extends right to the end (or the beginning, depending on your preference) with expertly made Market Lane coffee.

* a French term which roughly translates as ‘the influence of all things local to a place upon the end product’.

Foxey’s Hangout

Here at OHO, we don’t like to play favourites or single out any particular experience. Foxey’s Hangout at Red Hill is our favourite, and a singularly fabulous experience. Hey – rules are made to be broken, right?

Owner Tony says that he ‘didn’t come here to run a restaurant’, and it follows that the combination of cellar door and food service is fun and unique. It’s compact and casual, and the menu is an exercise in minimalist attention to detail. It’s a bit like great minimalist architecture: if you’re going to put up super-simple dishes, they have to be precise and perfect. Tick. The quail, for instance, is simple pan-fried legs, made for picking up and sucking the meat off the bones. They are cooked to perfection, unsullied by technique, and addictively delicious.

Tony is rigid and focussed in his approach to Foxey’s Hangout. You can’t book a group, he doesn’t do events. It’s for casual dropping in and hanging out, and it’s all the better for this simplicity.

Foxey’s Hangout wines continue this focussed approach. Nothing is rushed. You can learn this at one of their sparkling wine–making workshops. The DIY approach to things like bottling means that it can take time to get the job done, but Tony’s not worried. It’s a ‘nicer time’ than running about madly for a day with an industrial portable bottling line contractor. But let’s face it, we don’t really care about the bottling. We care about what’s in the bottle. Sauvignon blanc drinkers will love the pinot gris. Anyone will love the Kentucky pinot noir.

Ten Minutes by Tractor

Earning ‘hats’ in the restaurant trade is a vexed thing. It can become an obsession for those who just can’t quite make the grade. But the reality is, for those who have ‘it’, ‘the knack’, ‘the x-factor’ – it just happens. Ten Minutes by Tractor has all of that, and sitting down to one of the memorable lunches of a lifetime, it felt like things happened easily. The atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable, the staff cheerful and courteous.

Obviously, this appearance belies the preparation and hard work that actually goes on to make it look easy. Chef Stuart Bell has been perfecting the food here for nine years, and before that with the likes of Phillipe Mouchel, Langtons and Liberté, and Alain Fabrègues at Loose Box, as well as Jacques Reymond. His food is an exercise in yin and yang, a balancing act. It’s visually stunning, and the chef’s philosophy is apparent in the flavours.

Of course, the food is only half the picture at Ten Minutes by Tractor. Equal attention is paid to the creation of cold-climate wines of great quality. Leave a little extra time to go through the whole range. The Estate wines age beautifully, so it’s worth taking home more than one, because they’re hard to keep for too long without opening.

Port Phillip Estate

It’s an unassuming introduction to Port Phillip Estate, through a door that feels a little bit industrial and a little bit James Bond. It opens out into the most extraordinary view across the fields to the ocean, with cellar door and casual bistro to the right, and more formal restaurant to the left.

There is a kind of curious dissonance in the slightly casual chairs and the formal settings, the friendliness of the staff and the formality of the restaurant fit-out. It’s like the formality has been dialled down in a venue where the quality has been dialled way up. It’s a feeling that carries through to the food. It’s hard to describe the visceral experience of sitting in front of such beautiful food. It’s an exercise in the balance of beautiful presentation without overshadowing the beautiful produce. Desserts are a stunning display of skill, but still don’t overshadow the produce they’re made from. That produce is locally sourced wherever possible, and the menu is seasonal.

The cellar-door experience is worth leaving a little extra time for. The wines of the estate are renowned for their quality.

For those wanting a little more time to take it all in, the accommodation is spectacular and shares that view across the fields to the ocean.

Merricks General Wine Store

It’s been a while since the last visit to Merricks General Wine Store. I had fond memories of a great long lunches with a bunch of day-tripping friends. We’d seen a few wineries, walked on a wintery beach at Shoreham, and sat around a long table swapping dishes, tasting everything and sharing some great wines. The ownership has changed since then, but my memories are accurate. This place is just a perfect pause in the middle of a long weekend or just a long day out.

French chef Patrice Repellin’s food is seasonal, from local produce. We’d been to a farm-gate store where they were growing mushrooms earlier in our day out, and it was fantastic to then eat the king brown mushrooms in a dish a few hours later.

Wines are mostly local, showcasing in particular the wines of the Baillieu vineyards and other “friends of the wine store.”

Don’t miss the art gallery next door. It has a regularly changing exhibition. Also, if you’re on an early run and just want a coffee, they have a hole-in-the-wall style cafe too.