The Grampians are Victoria's best back-to-nature destination, with a series of rugged, ancient mountain ranges that really deliver in the scenic stakes. And while hiking, climbing, riding (horse or bicycle) and fishing might be the most popular pursuits, there are an increasing number of visitors who are making a culinary pilgrimage to the Royal Mail's much-lauded restaurant in Dunkeld. This region can feel like your own little secret, but, be warned, it does get mighty crowded in holidays, especially the Easter break.
It's a 2.5-hour drive along the Western Highway and then via Stawell
, or if you're not in a rush, take the scenic routes via Ararat
or north of Ballarat
and then Dunkeld
buses aren't direct and take four hours.
When you get there
Okay, the Kookaburra Restaurant
may be a teensy bit on the daggy side, but the food is cooked with love and the duck, steak and roo have kept the locals coming back for decades. If the weather's warm, the balcony is the
place to take in the bush air with a glass of wine.
This is outdoor adventure heaven, and you'll want to pack a picnic and pull on the polar fleece and get out there. The rock climbing and abseiling here attracts the fearless from around the world. If you're a first-timer, tackle the stunning collection of cliffs, pinnacles and bluffs with a professional climbing guide, such as those provided by the Grampians Mountain Adventure Company
If the mere mention of crampons gives you vertigo, the Grampians National Park is ripe for walking, and with more than 150km of tracks, everyone from casual strollers to outdoor survival specialists will find one to suit. There's a huge variety of wildlife and almost 1000 varieties of native plant expect a spectacular show of wildflowers come spring.
The McKenzie Falls are a particular draw for hikers, with an easy loop track that includes a viewing platform, as are magnificent collections of Aboriginal rock painting. Parks Victoria's website has information on walking trails and more or call into the Brambuk National Park & Cultural Centre. The centre also organises two- to three-hour guided tours of the main rock art sites.
There are a number of stables in the area if you'd prefer to see the area on horseback, including Grampians Horseriding Adventures, with day-long or 2.5-hour personalised, small-group rides.
After all that fresh air (and a hot shower/bath/spa back at your hotel), you'll be well in the mood for the "nature-based" degustation at the Royal Mail Hotel. There's both an omnivore and a vegetarian version, and courses can be matched with either a local "village" range of wines or opt for some hard-hitting international action. The food is extraordinarily thoughtful in both attention to individual ingredients and presentation, and dishes are often tinged with fragrant Hispanic and eastern Mediterranean flavours. Much of the produce used is from the restaurant's own gardens. Town or country, this is one of Victoria's best.
Take it easy on Sunday, starting with a late breakfast at Bushfoods Café
, part of Brambuk
. Cafe staples get an Indigenous twist with the use of native ingredients; the all-day breakfasts include scrambled eggs dusted with native herbs and damper with quandong jam. Brambuk
has hourly presentations that tell the Gariwerd
(the Indigenous name for the Grampians) creation story and illustrate the natural and cultural history of the area, as well as displays, a gift shop and lots of information about local activities. The centre's building itself is worth a look with architecture that represents the various dreaming stories of the five Koori communities who manage it.
Stock up before the journey home at Mount Zero Olives farm, just north of the national park. Their own range of produce includes olive oil, condiments and French lentils, and they also stock gourmet goodies from surrounding farmer friends. Big Spring Mount, which has been growing and selling native blooms for almost a century can organise a tour of their operation if you book ahead.
Before hitting the highway, a massage might be order; the charka balancing one at Didjun Spa really does work wonders perhaps the primal landscape lends a hand. They have two locations, one in tiny Pomonal and another in the Grampians National Park itself.
What to bring home
After visiting Bunjil's Shelter
, one of Victoria's most sacred Indigenous sites, a greater understanding of Victoria's rich Indigenous heritage.
Where to stay
There's no shortage of B&Bs and house rentals, many of them in delightful bushland settings. Listed below are a few options that really stand out.
DULC has gorgeously designed cabins that combine a very cool, contemporary aesthetic with warm, earthy textures.
Boroka Downs is a luxurious, small couples-only retreat.
Royal Mail Hotel has new mountain view rooms that are simple, warm and comfortable, and have huge windows to make the most of magnificent Mt Sturgeon.
Grampians YHA Eco-hostel yes, it's a hostel, but you're in flashpacker territory here. The hostel is both eco-smart and stylish, there's private doubles and bike rental and fresh organic produce are complementary.
Brambuk Backpackers is another cut-above backpackers, with private ensuite rooms and a spectacular location.
Got any other suggestions? Share your insight below.