A shiny new restaurant from the OHO perennial darlings at Round Bird Can’t Fly is just too exciting to pass on. It’s a little more suburban than the Lilydale restaurant, but Croydon is right on the path out of town if you’re heading out to the Yarra Valley and need a little caffeine comfort on the way. It’s at the gateway to the Valley and the foot of the Dandenong Ranges. We’re not just clutching at ways just to fit this cool outer-suburban joint into the OHO family, we do actually think this is the perfect jump-off planning point for a day in the valley. Get your friends to meet you here, plan your trip over breakfast, then carpool onwards. There’s heaps of parking over the road, and it’s just off the freeway.
Coffee is from Proud Mary, and the menu is a showcase of all the best stuff Evan and Laura could get their hands on. Worth the detour.
Amongst the hundreds of winemaking families in Australia, there are the ‘First Families’ – those pioneers who shaped the way Australia makes and drinks the nectar of the gods. All have generations of grape growing, squishing, fermenting, bottling and drinking to their names. Think McWilliams, Tyrrells, Tahbilk and De Bortoli.
Leanne De Bortoli brought the family name down to Victoria from Griffith in the late ’80s; she and her partner and the business’s chief winemaker Steve Webber have been living the ‘good wine, good food, good friends’ mantra. Three unique vineyards supply distinct fruit which expresses its sense of place. Steve has a passion for making wines that taste like where they’re from. For the lesson in terroir alone, you should book a private tasting experience.
The restaurant on site, ‘Locale’, sings from the same mantra song-sheet. Local produce (some of it grown just out the window next to the vineyard) combines with a slightly formal but definitely casual atmosphere. It’s like going to your fancy Nonna’s house for a big family meal with loads of great Italian food, more wine than you probably should have had, and laughs aplenty. Except Nonna is a chef. And has staff. And a cellar door down stairs. Oh, and a cheese shop. Dear Lord, do not forget the formaggio. There’s a great selection of extraordinary cheeses, matured right there, available as platters, tasting plates to go with the wine tastings at the bar, or for taking home.
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.
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.