Pop-rock chanteuse Ella Hooper returns to her High Country heartland for a girls' weekend exploring the villages and towns of the Strathbogie Ranges and beyond.
SINGER, SONGWRITER, MUSICIAN
VIOLET TOWN, about a two-hour drive north of Melbourne, is home turf for Ella Hooper, who hit the limelight heading the rock band Killing Heidi with her guitarist brother, Jesse, before going acoustic as The Verses. She says Winter, her favourite song from the Verses album Seasons, is an ode to going home. "It's about healing there when you don't know quite where life is taking you."
Now a solo artist with a just-released single, Haxan, Ella says she usually takes the train to Violet Town. "I'm a public transport girl. I read, veg out, listen to music. I get a lot of writing done.
There's inspiration in motion." Ella's recent weekend visit with friends also took in Euroa, Benalla, Swanpool and Dookie. About 1000 people live in Violet Town and it's a quiet place, except on the second Saturday of each month. That's market day.
I seem to do more cultural stuff in the country. In the city, it's overwhelming.
"There's the bushies and the artists from up in the hills, the pseudo-hippies who wear a lot of purple and do a lot of yoga, and the townies. The market's really all about seeing who's in town," Ella says.
"I usually stock up on Wallygrubb Soaps. This time I bought honey, vanilla and goat's milk, lemongrass and green clay, and "Jungle Jim" soap, which has patchouli, clove and cedarwood in it. I also bought a bottle of riesling from Falls Vineyard & Longwood Wines, a winery in the Strathbogie Ranges, and some sweet candied walnuts from The Honeysuckle Produce Store, which is my mum's nut company."
Between Benalla and Shepparton is the village of Dookie, home to about 250 people and the famed Dookie Emporium & Cafe. "I'm a bit of a vintage tragic," confesses Ella. "I love old clothes and I'm a fan of kitsch. I love the Benalla op-shops, but Dookie Emporium is the creme de la creme. Everything is handpicked by the couple who own it, both of whom have worked in film and theatre. On this visit, I can't believe I didn't come out of the emporium with a hat: I love pillboxes and bonnets. But I bought a beautiful, moth-eaten silk blouse which is full of holes, but I had to have it. And a pair of antique sailor pants, which I can't stop wearing. The cafe also serves the best coffee in the north-east."
Another Dookie drawcard among the region's rich red volcanic soils is Tallis Wines. "It's not a well-known wine region, but the viognier is amazing and I bought a really complex dessert wine, which I don't usually drink. They're so passionate at Tallis, they're really into their dirt and the vista's gorgeous." Ella and her girlfriends shared a Tallis Wines' cellardoor tasting platter of local produce including caperberries, walnut bread and olives.
Benalla Art Gallery, housed in a modernist building, and Swanpool's historic arthouse cinema are also must-visits, Ella says. "I seem to do more cultural stuff in the country. In the city, it's overwhelming. Swanpool Cinema is one of my favourites. People dress up to go there, wearing bowties and black-and-white suits, which is kitschy and cute. I used to dress up as a kid. The film selection is really, really good, and there's always a double feature. I dream of having a party in full '50s gear there one day.''
Summer visits to the High Country include taking cool dips in local waterfalls. Polly McQuinn's weir, about a 30-minute drive south of Violet Town, is a favourite. "It's haunted," says Ella, matterof-factly. Polly McQuinn was a settler who fell in the water one night and was never seen again.
"They say the waterhole is bottomless. No one I know has ever touched the bottom, and I've been swimming here since I was a little kid."
WHERE TO STAY
Ella stayed at Ain Garth (''our home''), a self-contained cottage in Violet Town. (www.violettown.org.au). Built in 1910, the cottage has pretty period features, including pressed metal ceilings and polished baltic pine flooring, along with modern finishes. Ain Garth has four bedrooms, several living spaces and a large garden and is perfect for a group of friends or families who want to stay within walking distance of Violet Town's shops.
Holiday-makers seeking a chic retreat should head to Beechworth's newest accommodation, the Stone Tryst Spa Villas. Three luxury self-contained villas, each featuring hand-built drystone walls, polished eucalypt floors, log gas fire and a spa bath built for two, are built on a hill overlooking the town's stunning gorge. Floor-to-ceiling windows in villas showcase the views, and guests have free use of bikes and helmets - a perfect way to explore Beechworth's historic sites and lively dining scene (www.stonetryst.com.au).
FOOD & WINE
Built in 1901 on the banks of Sevens Creek, the Euroa Butter Factory (www.euroabutterfactory.com.au) now houses a boutique B&B, restaurant, cafe and store. Ella and her friends stocked up on cheesecake, muesli slices, corn fritters and coffee from the cafe. The butter factory's Delivery Room Restaurant has built a reputation using ingredients from its own gardens and from artisan producers in north-eastern Victoria
"I'm a white-wine girl. It's less harsh on my throat than reds. I love pinot gris and grigio. Oh, and riesling," Ella says. One of her favourite locals vineyards is Tallis Wines, in Dookie (www.talliswine.com.au), between Benalla and Shepparton.
Beechworth's Bridge Road Brewery (www.bridgeroadbrewers.com.au) serves hand-crafted beers and has a pizza kitchen turning out great combinations, especially when matched with a tasting plate of beers. Housed in an old coach house behind Tanswell's Commercial Hotel on Beechworth's Ford Street, the brewery has a beer garden and children's play area.
Ruffy Produce Store and Cafe on Nolans Road (www.ruffy.com.au) in the Strathbogies, is famed for its lunches. It's open Friday to Sunday, so on this visit home, Ella and her friends dropped in, ordering smoked lamb and horseradish sandwiches, zucchini fritters with haloumi and poached egg, and a Japanese pancake - okonomiyaki. Ella recommends the store's pantry, too. "You can buy jams, preserves and pickles. Ruffy's got a real general store vibe, and its home-made stuff is great."
Where to picnic with produce from Ruffys? On the rocks at nearby Polly McQuinns Weir, of course. The weir is on Seven Creeks between Euroa-Mansfield Road and Merton-Strathbogie Road, where McQuinns Road and Galls Gap Road meet.
The Violet Town market has been running for 35 years on a ''make, bake or grow it'' basis. It is held on the second Saturday of each month from 8.30 am to 1 pm. Local produce, including regional wines, are a favourite buy.
Benalla Art Gallery's collection includes paintings, prints, works on paper, textiles, ceramics and sculpture. The gallery is open from 10am to 5pm daily. (www.benallaartgallery.com)
Swanpool Cinema, on the Midland Highway at Swanpool, is a not-for-profit community theatre, operated by volunteers. You can catch foreign and arthouse flicks, from silent movies to new releases. Get in the mood and don your best coat-tails and 1950s-style fashion, then settle in for a double feature. (www.swanpoolcinema.com.au)
Ella Hooper says Gooram Falls, on the road between Euroa and Mansfield, is another waterhole popular with the locals. It's faster flowing than nearby Polly McQuinns Weir. "If you're feeling brave, you can go behind the waterfall, but it still freaks me out when there's a lot of water," she says.
At Beechworth, the brave and ghoulish can check out a site considered one of the most haunted in Australia - the former Mayday Hills Lunatic Asylum. The brave tour the site at night, but day tours are available, too (www.beechworthghosttours.com).
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