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Victorian towns to visit on a revival road trip
Plan your next revival road trip to support Victorian towns after the summer bushfires.
Between the devastating Victorian Bushfires and then the COVID-19 pandemic, there are scores of scenic towns across the state that desperately need visitors. If you're planning on getting out and about, here are a few places to visit on a revival road trip, plus the best local delights to fill your esky with. (Plus: How #EmptyEsky gave the gift of hope during Victoria's darkest hour.)
Slides: Paynesville; Red Beard Bakery, Trentham; Halls Gap and the Grampians.
Nine Victorian towns to visit on a revival road trip
Every Christmas, bakers John and Alan Reid brace for a huge festive rush on their award-winning organic bread and mince pies. Customers swamp RedBeard Historic Bakery, in a lane behind Trentham’s main street, lured by the sweet smell of slowly fermented loaves baking in the town’s 120-year-old Scotch oven.
But last Christmas, nobody came. The tiny Central Highlands town was hundreds of kilometres from bushfires in Gippsland and northeastern Victoria, but talk of regional devastation kept tourists and locals at home. And, says John, Trentham businesses are struggling to recover.
“I hate to complain because there are people out east who lost everything,” he says. “We were nowhere near the fires, but financially, it was quite disastrous. And we aren’t the only country town to lose tourism business because of the fires. It’s been happening everywhere.
“We’re surrounded by bush in Trentham, so people do stay away on the super-hot days, but this was something else.”
Now as autumn settles over the Central Highlands, turning the grand European trees to red and gold, locals are hoping Trentham’s reputation for excellent food and wine will bring back the tourists.
The little town atop a ridge on the Great Dividing Range has punched well above its culinary weight for years. Chef, gardener and local food legend Annie Smithers is a drawcard, harvesting produce from her nearby farm to create lunches at her acclaimed restaurant Du Fermier each weekend.
The local pub, the Cosmopolitan Hotel, is a great place for pizza and beer in front of an open fire. Cafes, art galleries and intriguing shops line the old gold mining town’s main street, making it a perfect day trip from Melbourne, just over an hour’s drive away.
But here’s arguably the best reason to visit: each Sunday morning the Reid brothers host dough-to-elbow baking workshops by the warmth of their old wood-fired oven. Learn about the bakery’s history and the magical science of sourdough, making your own loaves to take home.
Fill your esky at ...
Wolff Lane, Trentham.
Pick up a warm loaf fresh from the oven then stick around for lunch or afternoon tea in the cafe.
Great Trentham Spudfest
2 May, 10am to 4pm, Quarry Street Recreation Reserve.
Australia’s self-proclaimed potato capital turns it on with live music, cooking demos, kids’ activities and stalls selling everything from loaded fries to rosti.
Third Saturday of the month, 9am to 1pm at the town square.
Bring a shopping cart or Esky and stock up on local dairy, preserves, potatoes, honey, eggs, bread, flowers and wine.
42 High Street, Trentham.
Acclaimed chef Annie Smithers harvests produce from her own farm to create a new lunch menu every weekend (plus Mondays).
Amid the chaos of evacuation messages and fire sirens of those first dreadful days of 2020, Mark Briggs remembers feeling strangely calm watching the ominous orange glow across the lake from Paynesville. The owner/chef at the acclaimed Sardine Eatery and Bar could see fires burning to the east, yet he felt his adopted hometown was the safest place in the world, surrounded on three sides by water.
When Mark and his wife Victoria opened Sardine in 2017, the boating town secured a spot on regional Victoria’s gourmet dining map. Local seafood is the restaurant’s main game, with a focus on produce from across East Gippsland. Mark encourages visitors to linger in Paynesville to explore the lakes and canals, or catch the free ferry to Raymond Island to see the marsupials that call it home.
Mark and Victoria kept Sardine open through the fires, but turnover dropped 60 per cent in January. Still, Mark is confident Paynesville will bounce back. “It’s the most beautiful town around. You come over the hill and see the water and stress just falls away. I reckon it’s one of Victoria’s best-kept secrets.”
Across the water in Swan Reach, Andrew Collier was evacuated several times from his Seasalt Sourdough bakery. The bakery escaped the flames, but his business suffered a massive loss because local wholesale customers affected by fire were unable to trade. He started supplying free sourdough to bushfire victims, while callouts on the Empty Esky page kept his family afloat with donations. “The Empty Esky post helped a lot and it inspired me to do more,” Andrew says. “I want to be in a position to continue helping people long after ... the fires.”
Fill your esky at ...
Badger and Hare
20 Tyers Street, Stratford.
The go-to place to stop for a coffee and a toasted sandwich on the 3.5-hour drive between Paynesville and Melbourne. Pick up some house-baked goodies on your way out.
The Long Paddock
95 Main Road, Lindenow.
Fresh local produce is the hero at this unpretentious but fabulous cafe/restaurant in sleepy Lindenow, northwest of Paynesville. Be sure to leave room for the house-made cakes.
Nicholson River Soaps
182 Main Street, Bairnsdale.
Artisanal soaps locally made using natural hemp and goat, buffalo and camel milk.
Sardine Eatery and Bar, Paynesville.
Carly and Richard Flecknoe might by “new blood” in Halls Gap, but their connection runs deep. The Melbourne couple ditched their corporate jobs to transform an old 1950s weatherboard into a thriving cafe and provedore, forging bonds with the region’s farmers and wine growers.
Five years on, Carly and Richard are fully fledged villagers. “Locals still call us the new blood, as we arrived after the fires,” says Carly, referring to the 2014 bushfires that wiped out 55,000 hectares of the Grampians, along with 21 houses.
“We’ve been part of the rebuild and business has only gone up since we opened. But this summer has been hard. Even when the fires are on the opposite side of the state, it creates bushfire fear. If the weather’s hot, people stay home.”
Summer revenue dropped by a third at Harvest and bookings for the next peak season are down 40 per cent. Halls Gap businesses now have their hopes pinned on a busy Easter, along with the opening of the Grampians Peak Trail. The first 36-kilometre section of the track is complete, offering a three-day circuit walk starting in Halls Gap. As well as the walks and soaring scenery of the Grampians National Park nearby, Halls Gap also has Victoria’s biggest regional zoo, with more than 160 native and exotic mammals.
The Flecknoes offer updates on the latest seasonal beer from Paper Scissors Rock Brewery, and news of the restoration of the long-abandoned Harrison’s Orchard. The couple is also behind the Peaks Precinct, a new retail zone set to open in March. Tenants include restaurateur Simon Freeman (ex-Brae and Royal Mail Hotel), who is opening a wine bar and store called Grampians Wine Cellars.
Fill your esky at ...
Paper Scissors Rock Brewery
119 Grampians Road.
Pick up some fresh beers to take home but make sure you taste a few brews first, paired with seriously good beer food.
Great Western Granary
Don’t leave Harvest without a loaf of Anthony Kumnick’s sourdough made from locally fermented grain.
Harvest Halls Gap
2 Heath Street.
Local produce is at the heart of this sunny provedore and eatery.
Harvest Cafe, Halls Gap.
Fires blazed just 35 kilometres and two valleys away from Beechworth’s historic town centre in early January, leaving a thick shroud of smoke and fear over the town. Restaurants, bakeries, shops and hotels that would normally be buzzing over summer were eerily empty as visitors were scared off by the fire threat.
But a couple of months on autumn brings clear, sunny days and crisp nights, custom-made for exploring the town’s surrounding mountain rail trails and their many delicious pitstops. Beechworth is well and truly open for business.
Social media campaigns like Empty Esky have helped keep more than a few local businesses afloat during the tough summer, encouraging people to visit or make orders online. Among them is Beechworth Berries whose owners were about to throw away their precious fruit for lack of customers during their peak summer season. A single Instagram post from Empty Esky, and the farm’s carpark was overflowing with visitors the next day. All stock was sold.
Also hard hit was the town’s most famous restaurateur Michael Ryan, whose two-hatted restaurant Provenance and accommodation lost $30,000 in cancelled bookings in January. “At one point, there was a thought in my head that this could be the end of my business,” Michael says. “But then people have come through the door saying they’ve come from Melbourne to support us.”
“If you’re thinking about taking a long weekend, jump in the car and come up. It’s a beautiful time of year.”
In a bid to lure visitors back to town, Michael has corralled some of Australia’s best chefs to host a series of special lunches and dinners in April and May. Attica’s Ben Shewry has committed to cook a lunch featuring local food and wine. Also involved are Embla’s David Verheul, Sunda’s Khanh Nguyen, Anchovy’s Thi Le, Ides’ Peter Gunn and Stokehouse pastry guru Lauren Eldridge. (Details: 03 5728 1786)
But there’s more to Beechworth than food. There are high-country rail trails and waterfalls to explore, cool-climate wines to taste and hand-crafted beers to sample in the beer garden at Bridge Road Brewers. And there’s history in spades with a line-up of beautifully preserved 19th-century buildings that tell the story of Victoria’s history, including the courthouse where Ned Kelly was tried for murder.
Fill your esky at ...
31 Ford Street.
Fourth-generation beekeepers Jodie and Steven Goldsworthy have gone all Willy Wonka with their honey tasting room, offering dozens of honey varieties from around Australia to taste and buy, along with an active hive safely tucked behind Perspex.
Silver Creek Sourdough
42 Gilchrist Ave, 0413 087 563
Louise Richie is famous for her slowly fermented loaves. Get in early, as she usually sells out by noon, and be sure to grab some of her sourdough crumpets.
Beechworth Ice Creamery
3 Camp Street, Beechworth, (03) 5728 1330
Icy treats made on site using traditional recipes and seasonal fruits.
Beechworth; Honey Mead tastings, Beechworth Honey.
Five of the best towns to visit along the Great Ocean Road
The double whammy of destructive bushfires and the coronavirus have caused a massive tourism slump for businesses along the Great Ocean Road.
Autumn and winter are beautiful seasons to visit Victoria’s world-famous coastal highway, with the awesome combination of big, spectacular surf and cosy venues.
The Great Ocean Road is a spectacular drive that deserves several weeks to fully appreciate all of its gems. If you only have a weekend to spare, here are some great places to stop for a feed.
Anglesea has a lot to offer, including the super-cool Captain Moonlite in the local surf lifesaving club, but it’s hard to go past the irresistible chook rolls at Jums Chicken Shop (77 Great Ocean Road).
For a great coffee, drop in to Moons Espresso Bar and order a bacon-and-egg pide with homemade relish, or grab a super-fresh Japanese bento from Umisango, tucked under the Cumberland Resort.
With restaurants like Dan Hunter’s Brae and Simon Stewart’s Yield, Birregurra punches well above its weight and deserves a quick detour from the Great Ocean Road. This little Otways hinterland town also has a general store with the best hamburgers in the region.
A quick 15-minute drive west of Portland, this secluded bay is worth a visit for the view alone. But it’d be a crime to go past the Bridgewater Bay Cafe, where the deck almost meets the beach and the all-day breakfast keeps everyone happy.