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.
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.
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.
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.
The Mitchell and Harris families grew up in the Ballarat region. You could argue that they were early instigators of the food revolution off the main drag (Sturt St) in town. The last few years have seen the likes of Catfish, Meigas and the Mitchell Harris cellar door/bar open up and make Ballarat a foodie destination.
The Mitchell Harris style is of relaxed industrial and historic chic, and is at once familiar and fun. It’s a place you can spend a whole Friday night getting lost in a detailed exploration of your friend’s holiday recommendations over several bottles of whatever it takes to make that sound interesting. It’s a place for meeting up with your best friend to laugh about that time you couldn’t remember that thing you did together, and order the Sabre sparkling, complete with the actual sabring of the bottle. All the Mitchell Harris wines are of course made in the company’s own winery. They’re good. Really good. There are some fabulously sessional wines in there, perfect for the formerly referred-to Friday evening.
If you’re not content with just drinking the wine someone else made for you, you could enrol in the Curious Winemaker workshop. Over the course of several visits through the season, make your own wine: from grapevine to bottle. Don’t worry, you’re not left to your own devices. You’ll be under the expert guidance of winemaker John Harris, and with him make all the critical decisions along the way to produce a decent drop you can call your own.
Mitchell and Harris is also a place to eat. A bloody good one. The food is comfortable and brings on all the requisite ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhhhs’.
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.
It’s not clear what the people of Shepparton did for their smoky cuban sandwiches before Phil Barca and Tina Love opened their little cafe/bar. How they lived without 15-hour smoked brisket rolls, cubanos, or bourbon baby back ribs is a mystery. Life must have been dreary before the powerhouse kitchen team let their buttermilk chicken loose on the unsuspecting people of Shepparton. Where did they get layers of flavours upon bold flavours in sticky southern-style comfort food?
Barca Love is part of a food-led renaissance that seems to be happening in Shep right now. There’s a bunch of fun and interesting places to hang out and eat which have all popped up in recent times. It would do them all a disservice to say, ‘Just like what you get in Melbourne’, because places like Barca Love have got their own Shepparton flavour about them. It’s a killer combination of easy-going, unpretentious and bloody good food.
Oh, if that’s not enough to get you in the door, maybe the thought of a secret BBQ sauce will tip you over the edge. It’s an inherited recipe which is guarded like the nuclear codes.
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.
Just out of Shepparton is a tree-lined highway hamlet called Mooroopna. It’s home to Bill & Beats, and to possibly the most unexpected delightful surprise, Yiche. The moment you enter Yiche, you’ll be reminded of every 1980s Chinese restaurant you ever dropped into for take-away, from the white tables to the vinyl chairs. The similarities to those old days are superficial though. The food from chef Brian comes out on one-off ceramics (which he hand-makes himself), and is presented so beautifully that all vestiges of suburban restaurants from a bygone era pass into irrelevance.
Stunning is a word too small for both the surprise and the beauty of what Brian is putting on the table. Little gel soy balls gleam like caviar atop the salmon. Mulberries are something you’ll never see on other menus because they are so expensive and so time-consuming to prepare. But when it grows in your backyard, it’s relatively easy, and the result is breathtaking in a granita.
The ‘Surprise Me’ menu is a perfect way to eat. You get 12-13 dishes put together by the chef, so you won’t go hungry. You’ll get a bit of everything, all seasonal, and all from the great produce Brian gets in every day. He says, ‘I get a good ingredient, and I just cook it.’ Doesn’t get much more beautifully simple than that.
Yiche has a couple of Chinese meanings: ‘Together’, ‘Number One’, and ‘Keep going up’, according to Brian’s mum Evelyn. Brian says, ‘I’m just continually trying to get better.’ How perfectly apt.
Rutherglen is part of a little cluster of towns right near the NSW border. Within ten minutes’ reach you have Rutherglen, Wahgunyah and, just over the border, Corowa. So many producers of quality food are in the surrounding area that really, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to find Pickled Sisters doing such fine fare, nor that they’ve been doing it for so long.
It’s fair to call the restaurant a shed – that’s what it is. There’s nothing wrong with that in OHO’s reckoning. Sheds are where some of the best stuff gets made. In this particular shed, chef Stuart is quietly turning out some stunning-looking and beautiful-tasting food. The approach is simple – take good produce, respect it, and serve it with local wines.
Although Pickled Sisters shares the shed with Cofield Wines, the wine list is not limited to that one label. It’s a real showcase of the region’s best. In fact, it wouldn’t be unusual to spot a local winemaker like Mandy Jones dropping off another case.
If you have a tendency to get pickled yourself, you could plan ahead and book one or two of the ‘glamping’ tents situated at the very edge of the vineyard. These are tents in the literal sense, if not the traditional. Yes, there’s canvas and a fire. But when was the last time your tent was fully carpeted, had a queen-size bed, air conditioning and a fully stocked wine fridge?
It’s worth keeping in touch with the Sisters event schedule. The cooking classes would make for a fab fun weekend in a shed.