I remembered the drive as flat and lifeless and the mid-sized provincial town in much the same light. I wasn’t surprised when in 2014, Nick Cave, one of Australia’s best music exports, labelled it a “horrible town”.
Cave left in the 1980s as a 13-year-old. I left in the early ’90s as a 22-year-old after just a few months. Today, it is easy to question our memories of Wangaratta because it seems such a pretty town full of art, culture, local produce and natural beauty.
Let me explain.
Approaching North East Victoria from the south through the Strathbogie Ranges is possibly where the magic begins. Lichen-covered boulders hang precariously on top of each other or off hills, creating a child’s fantasyland.
This is lucky because our small children are getting restless after two hours in a car. Spreading out in front of the Hume is our destination, a collection of towns surround by mountains, a wild sky and the lush, cool-season foliage. Though the sun is out, there is a chill in the air.
Driving around Wangaratta’s main township, it is easy to see why people are passionate about this place. It’s not just the well-kept historic buildings, including the W.H. Edwards Museum, Wangaratta Exhibitions Gallery, Pinsent Hotel, St Patrick’s Church and the Holy Trinity Cathedral. It’s not just the curious weeping mulberries, described by a friend as bonsais on steroids.
It’s not just the glorious Ovens River, which now runs through the town and has a path lined with Red Gums. It’s all this and more.
Although Wangaratta has gourmet outlets and good, old-fashioned hotels, we want to spend our first full day feasting in the nearby tiny towns of Milawa and Oxley.
Here we taste every type of cheese, mustard, olive and bread available and have designs on hopping between wineries. But we are only here for the weekend so we settle on the Plough Inn Hotel in nearby Tarrawingee where the chef presents the region on your plate and the barkeeper pours it into your glass. Perfect, particularly the Onion Brulee and the Beechworth Porter.
This eating adventure is exhausting so we retire to the caravan park on the riverfront. The more seasoned campers set up away from the amenities and the children but in the evening we all want to walk along the paths. It’s the perfect antidote to a day of grazing and foraging.
The next day we are up early as it’s time to drive and then walk to the Warby Ranges. At Ryan’s Lookout we see the snow-capped peaks of the Alpine National Park.
To the east is Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park. It’s a great spot for a picnic but we are also struck by masses of fully skirted grass trees and wander for hours up towers and down tracks. Delightful.
Coming back to this area for the weekend reminded me of the lovely times and the gorgeous places in this part of North East Victoria. But don’t just take my word for it: many others are keen to back me up.
Alicia Canning says: “So many wonderful things about living in Wangaratta . . . sport, food, arts, something for anyone really and (it’s) central to the snow or the city. (I’m) proud to call it my home.”
Others suggest Cafe Derailleur, Watermarc Restaurant, Wangaratta Woollen Mills, the Sunday market in Newman Street and the farmers market on the second Saturday every month.
Jacqui Durrant says: “Perched on the side of the Warby Range is Taminick Cellars with its ancient vines, historic stone winery building, and stunning views across the Winton Wetlands. It is also home of the Black Dog Brewery. The Booths are lovely people, and the experience is authentic; sometimes even magical.”
Other spots recommended include Salisbury and Pine Gully Falls, Warby Tower and the Jubilee Golf Course.
Heather Landers says: “A visit to the Milawa Cheese Factory is one of the best outings. Beautiful food, wonderful cheeses to try and a lovely gift shop, also fresh-baked bread to die for.” Others suggest Muse - Milawa’s art gallery, Brown Brothers Winery, John Gehrig Wines, Milawa Mustard Factory, Milawa Hotel, Snow Road Produce and, in Oxley, the market and Sam Miranda of King Valley.
For me though, it is Robyn Funston who really sums it up: “Come and meet the community - that’s the best part.”
Story Celia Kennedy. Photos: Anne Morley