Noble Monks

Shepparton is not blessed with street after street of stunning gold-rush architecture like, say, Ballarat. So the enterprising and stylish types here have to take a different approach. At Noble Monks it’s the semi-industrial bare brick and steel vibe. It works. You’re instantly reminded of your regular Yarraville haunts. The coffee here is from Bean Around – roasted locally by John at the Last Straw. The menu is driven by fresh local fruit and veg.

We had corn fritters made fresh – this is generous country hospitality. Big fritters with a soft poached egg.

Local seasonal fruit is the kind of fresh and easy breakfast you want in the country. When you go to the ocean you want fresh fish. When you go inland to the state’s food-bowl you want fresh grown produce.

A selection of humorously named,  deliciously fresh juices keeps the morning healthy and clean. There are good beers on tap and a respectable wine list if you have other ideas.

Little Prince Eating House and Bar

Walking into Little Prince in Traralgon was, to put it mildly, a surprise. You could be forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled upon Chin Chin’s little brother. It has that busy, diner-esque vibe with bustling staff, tiles on the walls, and a bit of quirkiness. The quirk carries to the menu, with a solid hint of dude-food. Pinch yourself for the reminder that this is Traralgon, on the way to Lakes Entrance, not Melbourne or Sydney. Dishes like the crab sliders – with legs out the sides, about to walk off – bring a sense of humour to the place, as well as deliciousness. The salmon sashimi was fresh and clean, like it should be. Salted caramel and popcorn ice-cream was designed to kill, as it should.

The cocktail list includes proper alcohol-free alternatives, a welcome sight for some. The cocktail and wine list is extensive and well sourced.

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.

Best’s Wines

If you’re new to wine, this is a must-visit for a lesson in the history of wine in Australia. If you’re a seasoned wine-lover, then this is a pilgrimage.

Best’s is like walking into a piece of Australia’s post-goldrush past a time when wine growers had little idea what would grow well or what would make a good wine in a country so far from the indigenous soils of grapevines, so they planted one of everything.

Now Best’s is a modern wine-making facility owned and operated for four generations by the Thomson family after a series of Best family splits, deaths and sales. It is a complex history which Viv will gladly regale you with. The property is set on the flat land of Great Western, at the foot of the Grampians. Beneath the rustic log-cabin cellar door there are the original dug-in storage vats, lined with years and years of paraffin wax. You are free to walk down to explore among the museum stock, the old barrels and vats, and the ancient wine-making machinery.

The wine here is a happy place for this author. Old cabernets so fragrant they could be worn as cologne, and intriguing white blends worthy of the high scores given by revered wine writers like James Halliday. The museum tasting experience of six old wines is a rare treat. It’s not often you’ll get to taste a 1999 cabernet at a cellar door. For beginners, it’s a treat to see how wine ages, and the virtues of cellaring.

Go for the history lesson, stay a while for the wine.

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.

Helen and Joey Estate

A winery with a name is not unusual. Most are named for families, properties, or a geographical feature. In France, wines are named for the place – the region, the Chateau (winemaking house) and the quality of the vineyard. It’s refreshing to find a placed named simply for the names of the two people who own it. Helen and Joey have hit the ground running since purchasing the Fernando vineyard a few years back. In short order, Helen has made a passionate lunge at carving out a corner of the Yarra Valley wine industry.

The cellar door is a simple building perched on the hill with amazing views across the valley floor to the ranges beyond. Keep an eye out for a few unicorns between. The focus is squarely on the wines, made skilfully by Meg Brodtmann. The range is extensive, but the core is always the Alena, Layla, and Inara wines, expressing the strengths of the valley in chardonnay, pinot, syrah and cabernet. Take a look at the ‘Wayward Child’ labelled wines, too. The skin-contact pinot gris is rosé pink, and textural.

Simple local produce platters can be taken out onto the deck, and with a few glasses of vino, you can while away an afternoon with friends, watching the light change across the valley.

Hello Coffee

Well, Hello indeed. To the rescue from a caffeine-deprived morning comes the gallant Hello Coffee in Apollo Bay. Eschewing the mantra that ‘location is everything’, this place is pretty much nowhere. And it’s perfect. Nestled in the industrial estate out the back of town, it’s quirky and fun.

Let’s deal with the food first before moving on to the reason we all function in the morning, the coffee. The menu is simple and local. The food is tasty and prepared with love: the perfect accompaniment to the star attraction. (Thinking of Holly’s famous yo-yos here – divine.) Banana bread with a little caramelised banana is delicious, or if you’re feeling a bit more like lunch, the salads are healthy and fresh.

Let’s face it, though – you’re thinking of going here for the coffee. That’s a wise choice, because the house-roasted beans are prepared with love and attention. It’s been roasted, rested, and poured with an almost fanatical devotion to the art of coffee. That’s pretty much all you need to know.  If (when) you love this coffee so much that you want to take it home with you, there are also take-home bags of beans. You can prepare your own brew of caffeine love-potion in your own kitchen.

Platypi Chocolate

Forrest,  in the Otway Ranges behind the Apollo Bay/Lorne stretch of coastline, is nestled amongst tall timbers in a cool temperate rainforest.  Note the spelling – it’s named after a state MP, Mr Charles Forrest – the name is not a statement of the blatantly obvious. It’s a gorgeous little place, close to Birregurra (Brae) and a stone’s throw from the coast.

The newest place to stop for coffee or decadent hot chocolate is Platypi Chocolate. It’s set amidst the treetops, with balcony views to the birds and wildlife almost close enough to touch.

Speaking of the hot chocolate, the menu calls it a ‘Bomb’ – a ball of chocolate containing a rich ganache that you pop into a cup and pour hot milk over. There’s a house-made marshmallow to complete the luxurious camp-fire experience. It’s a fun bit of theatre, with a good ‘Mmmmm’ to match.

The owners are passionate about the use of local produce, and the simple menu makes honest use of them. Coffee is roasted in Birregurra, just up the road. Their commitment extends to the flavourings in the chocolate selection, which is all made on-site. Instead  of manufactured essences, Platypi uses infused creams made on-site from ingredients like lemon myrtle from Mandy’s yard.

Cheeky Grog Cider Co

If you’re an apple grower, and you see the premium paid for cider apples and the further value-add from making cider, it’s really a no-brainer to have a bit of a look at selling your own stuff. Cheeky Grog have nailed the concept of grower-turns-brewer with their roadside cider house.  With orchards everywhere in the surrounding fields, it’s both no surprise and an absolute delight to find that someone is taking the fruit and turning it into the makings of a fab Friday night.

The list of ciders on taste is long, and there’s something for everyone’s palate. Some medal-winning drops are on taste too, and of course available for you to take home.

For anyone after adventurous flavours, they’re doing some funky things with brettanomyces (“brett”), much as beer brewers are doing. It’s not for everyone, but it’s interesting and a bit of fun.

The outdoor lounge area is fantastically created from old fruit bins, with sprawling timber lounge chairs and tables for group tastings, or for enjoying a few slow cold ones and something to eat. The kitchen has a short simple menu, which on the weekends includes wood-fired pizzas. Regular live music happens out there on the lawn too.

Of course, you can just pull in to the roadside stall and, old-school honesty-box style, pick up a bag of apples or pears.

Meigas

Spain calls like the voice of a food-obsessed friend. ‘Hey, we should do a tapas bar crawl!’ The friend makes a valid argument. When in Ballarat, the tapas begins at Meigas.

The idea of tapas is that you can put together an entire meal by eating a collection of small tasty things. The menu at Meigas fits that bill perfectly. The hung cured meats in a specialist fridge over the top of the bar, the Spanish beers, the details on the walls – it all adds to the Spanish vibe. It’s part of the niche food scene in Ballarat that’s exploded in the last few years. It’s like an off-Sturt St revolution. Meigas greets the revolution with a little bit of Spanish rock and roll: a proper bodega bar with its relaxed style, live music, and flamenco dancing. You can drop in late if you want to, and just do small plates and drinks. The latter includes a long list of Spanish beers, wines, and spirits, and when you imagine you’re in Spain, you must drink as you imagine the Spanish do.