Your blooming weekend at the Begonia Festival: a recommended itinerary

Words Cara Sputore
Images supplied

Older than Moomba and steeped in history, it’s not hard to see why the Ballarat Begonia Festival is one of Victoria’s most loved events. What started as an ode to the flowers that grow so well in the region is now a three-day celebration of flowers, food, live events and community, in a knock-out setting among the botanical gardens.

To help you make the most of the three action-packed, floral-scented days, we’ve planned the perfect long-weekend in Ballarat.

Day 1

10am Start your day at the centrepiece of the festival: the spectacular Begonia Display, a colourful symbol of summer planned 12 months in advance. More than 600 begonias from the City of Ballarat’s famous collection are on show this year, so take your sweet time strolling around. If you want to know how to grow and care for these beauties, talks by local Begonia experts happen twice daily. A little bit of calm is 100 percent guaranteed.

1.30pm All this festival-ing is busy work, so you’re going to need some sustenance. Grab a wood-fired pizza from the local legends at The Forge Pizzeria in the Begonia Courtyard, then relax under the trees with beers from Red Duck Brewery and Cubby Haus Brewing, wines from Wightwick or gin from Kilderkin Distillery. Look around and remind yourself that life can be quite nice indeed.

3pm Time for some tunes. Move between the festival’s four music stages and be entertained by artists and performers from across the state. Highlights include Motown soul band Motor City Sounds, local singer songwriter Anna Oliphant Wright and 2018 Music in the Vines Emerging Talent winner Flynn Gurry.

8pm A great day out deserves a great evening meal, so head to Moon and Mountain for modern Hawkers-style cuisine in a super cool setting. They’re open late so throw the anchor down, order some plates to share and work your way through the list of cocktails and craft beers.

Need a bed for the weekend? Ballarat Premier Apartments, Craig’s Royal Hotel, Lake Wendouree Luxury Apartments, or The Provincial Ballarat are all excellent bets for a good night’s sleep.

Day 2

11.15am Former host of TV series A River Cottage Australia and sustainable farming advocate Paul West is a special guest this year and a very likeable guy. He teams up with Dirtgirl for a chat about compost and how to keep the good stuff in our soil; they return later this afternoon to discuss the secret life of bees.

12.30pm Need a gift for someone, or some plants for your garden? The festival’s got you. Head to the Creative Designers and Gardeners markets and chat to the stallholders, who’ll give you good advice and sell you good stuff. For a small donation you can leave your newly-acquired plant babies at a creche while you explore the festival. Handy!

3.30pm Catch a ride on Ballarat Tramway Museum’s floral tram, which returns to the festival after an 80-year hiatus. The heritage tram is decorated with thousands of flowers made from recycled plastic in an instagram-worthy homage to the trams of 1938 and 1939, which were decorated with crepe flowers.

7pm You’re really embedded now, so it makes sense to eat somewhere with a long history in the region. Mitchell Harris Wine Bar is that place. All the wines are made at the company’s winery, and the food is bloody good too.

Day 3

11am Did you know there’s a board game called Everyone Loves A Parade? This speaks volumes about how much people love parades. Ballarat’s version is major, with around 10,000 people taking to Wendouree Parade to watch local businesses, schools and community groups celebrate the town and the rainbow of people who call it home. The Begonia Parade is loud, colourful and joyful. It’s community spirit in action. Get there early to score a good spot.

12.35pm Gloriously hirsute garden guru Costa Georgiadis returns to the festival for one day only to share his passion for plants and people, teaming up with Dirtgirl and the Grubby TV gang for a workshop on sustainable living.

3pm If your kids have a bit of daredevil in them, head to the Circus Drop Zone and Comedy Cafe to try your hand at juggling, unicycling and hula-hooping. The not-so-daring can play it safe and watch amazing performers show a six-metre high trapeze rig who’s boss.

4pm Finish up with the perfect floral keepsake – a photo on the ‘green carpet’ at the gorgeous Stems Greenery Wall. Then head home and congratulate yourself on a long weekend very well done.


THE DETAILS
What: Ballarat Begonia Festival
Where: Ballarat Botanical Gardens
When: 9 – 11 March 2019, 10am – 5pm
More information here: www.ballaratbegoniafestival.com

Rusty Water Brewery Restaurant & Bar

Road trips are all about the journey, not just the destination. If your destination is Phillip Island on a Friday night for a weekend getaway, we have an idea for you to make your mini-break kick off just that bit better. Rusty Water Brewery Restaurant & Bar is on the road to Cowes, Phillip Island. We suggest knocking off work a little earlier and heading for this road-side gem. It’s a casual tavern-style experience with great pub food, paddles of beers for tastings, and their own brews on tap. It’s definitely a place for meeting up with mates to get things started right. There’s usually live music on Friday, and the atmosphere is lively and fun. Things can get pretty hectic during the Grand Prix or V8Supercars rounds, but it’s still a great destination and loads of fun even when it’s bursting at the seams.

As for the beers, they are brewed with food and fun in mind. There’s a wide range of styles, with something for everyone. If you can’t make up your mind, just get a tasting paddle. Pick your favourite from there, and bingo! Your session beer.

The beer sourdough is a highlight. Just be sure to leave room for that steak.

Saltwater Phillip Island

Saltwater Phillip Island opened a while back in an incredible waterside position at San Remo on the Phillip Island side. The water dominates 270 degrees of the view, from the bridge to the mainland around to the waters of Westernport. It boasts a wood-fired pizza oven, inside or outside dining, and an impressive bar.

Of course, sitting in a place like this, looking across the water to the fishing boats moored under the lee of the bridge, you’d expect seafood to be local. It’s exciting when the chef points to the boats and says, ‘That’s where the calamari came from today.’

The beers are a good mix of local and from further afield, as are the wines. A seasonal menu makes use of local produce, like Archie’s Creek rib-eye, and Koo Wee Rup asparagus.

If you’re a fan of Innocent Bystander in the Yarra Valley, then this is a no-brainer for you. The warehouse vibe, the casual fun food turned out to very high standard, combined with that view, make Saltwater an easy sell.

Phillip Island Winery

Here’s a reminder to people who might wonder what on earth a tiny coastal hamlet has to offer the wine lover. Phillip Island is nestled just next to the Gippsland coast. So, all those things you love about the flavour of Gippsland wines apply here. The wines are complex and full of character. But that’s not the whole story.

The owners of this place have form putting together the kind of venue where you want to spend a lazy afternoon with friends, having made a success out of the Westernport Hotel. The experience shows. Decor is considered and comfortable, dining choices from inside, to the outside open fire, to the expansive lawns are all beautifully put together without being fussy. Food is casual, from local produce. It’s for sharing, or for keeping to yourself, depending on how much you love your friends. The wines are on taste in the cellar door, so have a look before you order with lunch.

The venue is perfect for larger events, with a couple of spaces designed for the purpose. But don’t let that thought put you off an intimate lunch here, because that stunning view across the paddocks to Westernport is the prettiest way to spend a quiet foodie afternoon with wine and the person you love.

There’s a quirky bonus in visiting the winery, in the form of a little farm-gate style shop/studio for floral designer and stylist Bec Newman.

Warmer months here are ideal for a venue that boasts so many outdoor options, including the atrium, bean bags, live music, and a menu for your dog.

The Waterboy Cafe

Heading to Phillip Island is a nostalgic experience for most Melbournians. The trip down the South Gippy Highway brings back memories of being piled into the car late on Friday and staying in a friend of a friend’s family holiday shack, on dreadful vinyl bunks. There was one option for food, and it was a good one, but there were only so many hot donuts you could eat from that little foreshore caravan.

Well, things have moved  on down on the Island. You need to go back on a nostalgia trip of your own, spend a couple of days there, and remember the relaxed pace that your parents used to talk about. ‘We should get a place here, it’s so relaxed,’ they’d say.

We do understand your anxiety about venturing over the San Remo Bridge to the sleepy seaside hollow though, so here are your top three questions answered.

  1. Will there be good coffee?
    Answer: Yes. The food scene has matured significantly in the last couple of years. The Waterboy Cafe is part of a growing movement prioritising local produce and simple, high quality dishes. The coffee revolution has not passed The Waterboy by. They’re using Five Senses coffee, which is a reassurance of a good roast, and pulling shots expertly. They’re also pouring Prana chai, which will be the perfect match with your divine organic blueberry pancakes.
  2. Is the accommodation OK?
    Answer: Look, it’ll be fine. Air BNB is pretty good on a little island with such a high density of accommodation offerings. The family holiday home has had a make-over and the beds are good. Or, if you like your luxury, there are expensive new places. Just get out and enjoy that coffee at The Waterboy. Try the pancakes too. They’re to die for.
  3. Will I abandon my diet?
    Answer: It’s completely up to you. The Waterboy is known for its fresh produce and healthy dishes – but let’s not forget those blueberry pancakes. They’re worth abandoning the diet for a couple of days.

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’.

Deirdre’s

All good destination food venues have something unique. It could be the view, the remote location, or the proximity to something else amazing. All have one thing in common. Someone had the audacity to stick an unmissable culinary experience in a location that’s off the beaten track.  Deirdre’s is the definition of all of that. Literally in the middle of an olive grove, up a track, somewhere in the wilds outside of Horsham at the base of one of those stunning rock escarpments. It’s also unmissable.

Everywhere we went in Horsham, people asked us if we were going to Deirdre’s, and how much time we’d allowed. Deirdre defines hospitality in the true sense of the word, not as an industry. Food comes when she’s cooked it. She brings it out to you. It’s bloody fantastic. So are the wines, the majority of which are local. You don’t come here for a quick bite to eat – and why would you. The location is enough to slow your world right down. Drink a few vinos, munch on the bread with the property’s own olive oil, and just chill.

Deirdre’s food is simple, full of flavour, and beautifully executed. She uses great produce, and just lets it do the talking. Confit duck and cauliflower puree is just that, and sublime. Vegans are well catered for with a dish of lentils and many garden veg, pickles, and herbs. This accidental chef knows how to turn up the natural flavours. (Deirdre says she kind of fell into it, because she liked to cook a bit.)

Deirdre’s, the quirky shed in the middle of an olive plantation, is well worth the detour. Just book, and allow some time to relax and go with the flow.

Yea Peppercorn Hotel

Something is going on in Yea – something good. In this little ‘on-the-way’ town, we stumbled upon a couple of gems. Among them is the 1860s-built Yea Peppercorn Hotel. It sits a little off the main street, bathed in sun or fog, depending on the season. Both are spectacular, though the former is better for making use of the shade of the spectacular peppercorn tree in the rear garden.

There are a couple of noteworthy things at this pub, apart from the fact that it’s just over an hour from Melbourne, and has a closed-circuit TV that displays your food as it’s prepared. Most notably, the menu is good honest pub food. Good steaks, generous serves and a beverage list featuring local highlights. You’d expect good steaks from a pub in the heart of cattle country, and it doesn’t disappoint. The notable surprise for a place in that country is the seafood platter. These guys have managed to get fresh seafood up the highway, and deliver it cooked and laid out to feed a horde.

Keep in touch with the social media channels of the Peppercorn for info about their regular foodie events and live music.

For those staying around, the accommodation is spacious, comfortable and quiet.

Oh, I nearly forgot another notable. The limo out front is available for tours. It’s a 1987 stretched Jaguar with its own special charm, and you’ll feel like some kind of rock-star as you’re driven about.

Mitchelton Wines

When you make your way up the long driveway into Mitchelton Wines, it only takes moments to be struck by the large tower that looks out across the vineyards. The driveway cuts through the coincidentally named vineyard, Airstrip, which echoes the airport control-tower aesthetic of the property’s iconic building. It’s a coincidence that makes you smile.

Students of architecture will spend the whole day smiling out here, not just because of the wines and the stunning food, but because of the great Robin Boyd’s recognisable building design. Sadly, Boyd passed away before the completion of the project, but Ted Ashton finished the build and the tower to complete Boyd’s vision.

Wines from this region of Central Victoria are typically powerful and full bodied. Expect lush fruit flavour for days, to go with your architectural smiles and your lunch of seasonal Goulburn River Valley produce from Muse Restaurant.

If a lighter option or cheeky breakfast is your preference, the Ministry of Chocolate Cafe is worth a visit in its own right. Speaking of chocolate, where’s the emoji for drooling? Some of the finest Belgian couverture chocolate is crafted into all kinds of things you’ll want to take home, but will probably just eat on the way.

The Criterion Hotel

It takes fortitude of a wardrobe-changing kind to take on a crumbling old building destined for demolition, and turn it into a hub for the community. That’s exactly what Ferg and Andrew have given the people of Sale in Central Gippsland – a pub to be proud of. It came as the result of a passion for heritage; ably guided by Heritage Victoria, they have turned a wreck that had barely survived since it was built in 1865 into the kind of local establishment where you’ll want to spend hours with your mates.

The hospitality side of things is looked after by Ferg Horan, a former chef at places like the Tinamba Hotel, amongst others. His team is turning Gippsland produce info the kind of pub food that brings a smile to your face. Nothing too wanky, just beautiful flavourful dishes that actually make you smile when they arrive. Yes, there’s a parma for those who are on that quest for the perfect one, but the steak is amazing too. It should be – Gippsland is beef country.

The hotel has some stunning accommodation as well, for those on the way somewhere.

All pubs should be a collection point, a place for people to meet, unwind, and put aside the cares of the day over a pint of the finest. The fact that the kitchen turns out some damn fine food is the best of bonuses.