More than just a pretty face, this town offers fossicking fun and fabulous fare, writes Lee Atkinson.
As far as country towns go, they don't get much prettier than Bright, in the foothills of the Victorian Alps - and with some of the best regional restaurants in Victoria, great local produce, boutique breweries and cool-climate vineyards. They don't get much tastier, either.
What it's known for
Bright is famous for its tree-lined avenues and autumn display when its parks, gardens and streets are ablaze with colour. The annual 10-day Autumn Festival, which this year turned 50, is held in late April and early May and includes a parade, brass and highland bands, open gardens, a gymkhana and ball, the Wandiligong Nut Festival and farm tours. brightautumnfestival.org.au.
What you didn't know
The hamlet of Wandiligong, six kilometres from Bright, was the site of a short-lived gold rush in the 1850s. There's not much gold left, but the village is classified by the National Trust. There's a lovely walking trail along the river from Bright, and a highlight is the traditional Chinese swing bridge. It looks ancient but was built in 2003 as a tribute to the many Chinese who lived and worked on the diggings. The Bright Museum also features a Chinese joss house.
The House at Smoko, halfway between Bright and Harrietville, is a new luxury retreat inspired by the architecture of the mountain cattlemen's huts and tobacco-drying kilns around the region. Set on 11 hectares with fabulous views of Mount Feathertop, there are three rooms, open fireplaces and a communal living room, kitchen and dining room. Doubles start at $320 a night. thehouseatsmoko.com.au. In case you're wondering, Smoko allegedly got its name as the place where 18th-century workers stopped off for a billy of tea and a smoke on their way to and from the region's gold dredges.
Bright is a great place to base yourself for a classic mountain drive: the Great Alpine Road and Bogong Alpine Way. Together they form a spectacular 250-kilometre loop across the high country, via Falls Creek, Omeo and Dinner Plain. If that sounds like too much time behind the wheel, get on your bike and head towards Beechworth on a section of the Murray to the Mountains Rail Trail, or drive to the top of Mount Buffalo for a thrilling 30-kilometre downhill ride back to Bright. For a bird's-eye view of the peaks and valleys, take a tandem microlight flight with the Eagle School of Microlighting at Porepunkah (seven kilometres from Bright). Flights start at $70. eagleschool.com.au.
Where to eat
Food lovers have been making a beeline to Simone's Restaurant in Bright for more than 20 years to dine out on chef Patrizia Simone's Italian fare. It's so popular, you need to book several weeks in advance, and you can expect the dining room in the beautifully restored cottage to be crowded, but the food is worth it. A purpose-built cooking school is expected to open in November, but if you can't wait, get seven of your foodie friends together and chef will organise a class in her restaurant. Simone's Restaurant is at 98 Gavan Street, (03) 5755 2266. Closed on Mondays. simonesrestaurant.com.au. For classic French flavours, try Poplars on Star Road, (03) 5755 1655. Tuesdays to Saturdays. poplars.com.au.
Where to stay
If you like your food, you'll love Villa Gusto, an Italian-style villa (think Italian marble, wrought iron, lime-washed walls, antiques, water fountains and urns) 12 kilometres from Bright in the Buckland Valley. The restaurant has a swag of awards under its belt, and the five-course degustation menu ($75) changes daily. The restaurant is open Thursdays to Sundays and suites start at $250 a night. villagusto.com.au. In Bright, the Odd Frog has pretty studios with bush views and is an easy walk to town. Prices start at $150 a couple a night. theoddfrog.com.
How to get there
Bright is 325 kilometres north-east of Melbourne, about a four-hour drive. The closest airport is Albury (119 kilometres) and Qantas, Regional Express and Virgin Australia all have regular flights from Sydney.