Lose yourself in the food and wine of the Yarra Valley - and walk with the birds when you're done, writes Lee Atkinson.
A popular weekend getaway spot since the railway came to town in the 1890s, Healesville is on the western edge of the Yarra Valley about an hour's drive from Melbourne. It's a food and wine lovers destination that also offers plenty to see and do that doesn't involve eating and drinking, with wildlife, art and scenic drives topping the list.
What it's known for
Healesville's most famous attraction is the Healesville Sanctuary, which was first established in 1934. Not just another zoo, this conservation park is home to more than 200 species of Australian wildlife, all housed in open-air and open-range exhibits.
Highlights include the birds of prey flight demonstrations, a daily reptile show and the Platypusary, where you can tickle Australia's most elusive monotreme on a "wade with platypus tour" (daily, 1pm, $180). The sanctuary also looks after more than 2000 rescued animals each year and you can watch the vets and keepers caring for these sick and injured animals.
The sanctuary is open daily, 9am-5pm. Adults $26.10, under 16s free on weekends and during Victorian school holidays, $12.90 at other times (kids under 4 free). zoo.org.au/healesville.
What you didn't know ...
TarraWarra Museum of Art is one of the hidden gems of the Yarra Valley. Housing one of the most significant collections of modern Australian art, this private gallery includes works by outstanding Australian artists from 1950 onward, displayed in a series of seasonal exhibitions (including the Archibald Prize finalists for the past two years) in a stunningly designed gallery space, where even the view is framed as art.
It's on the Healesville-Yarra Glen Road, six kilometres west of Healesville and is open Tuesday to Sunday, 11am-5pm. Entry is $5, kids under 16 free. twma.com.au.
Healesville Sanctuary has just opened a new walk-through aviary called the Land of Parrots, housing parrots of all persuasions from tiny budgies to large cockatoos, but be warned, you may find you become a perch for an inquisitive bird. You can even sign-up for a Brekkie with the Birds tour, which includes breakfast after watching the parrots being fed. Also new is Lunar's Secret Forest, an interactive multimedia experience especially for kids about the endangered Leadbeater's Possum. Both are free with general entry.
The new Gourmet Food and Artisan Market, which started on November 4, will be held on the first Sunday of every month at Rochford Winery (9am-2pm: 878-880 Maroondah Highway) with Yarra Valley produce, local art and other hand-made goodies. rochfordmarket.com.au.
Due to open in mid-December, the Yarra Valley Chocolaterie promises free chocolate tastings and a decadent cafe featuring desserts, fondues, gelato and cakes. yvci.com.au.
Great in a car, but even better on a motorbike, the 50-kilometre Black Spur Drive from Healesville to Marysville through Yarra Ranges National Park and on to Lake Mountain ski resort (great for mountain biking and bushwalking) winds through towering mountain ash and lush green fern forests. Although affected by the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, the forest is regenerating and it still rates as one of the country's most scenic short drives.
Where to eat
With the wineries of the Yarra Valley on its doorstep there's no shortage of great places to eat and drink in and around Healesville, but perennial favourite is the Healesville Hotel, a grand old country pub offering local produce and a stunning wine list. 256 Maroondah Highway, Healesville. (03) 5962 4002, healesvillehotel.com.au.
Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander (one winery, two labels) has a cellar door in the heart of town and also offers great gourmet pizzas, artisan breads and pastries, coffee, a cheese room, bistro and a boutique beer list. Open for lunch and dinner daily. 336 Maroondah Highway, Healesville. (03) 5962 6111, innocentbystander.com.au.
Where to stay
Healesville Apartments have four apartments, each with a balcony or terrace, an easy walk to centre of town. Rates start at $150 a couple, midweek. (03) 5962 5555, healesvilleapartments.com.au.
The Tuck Inn B&B, which was the local Freemasons' Hall in a former life, has five ensuite rooms starting from $160 a double mid week. (03) 5962 3600, tuckinn.com.au.
How to get there
Healesville is 65 kilometres east of Melbourne via the Eastern Freeway and the Maroondah Highway.