Sue Wallace puts on the hiking boots for a high-country ramble fuelled by good food and wine.
There's a lull in conversation as I climb higher on the slopes of Mount Buffalo, which I notice are getting steeper with every step. This morning we have walked and talked for more than seven kilometres since starting near Lake Catani.
We have come face-to-face with sheer cliffs, imposing granite tors, snow gums and stunning wildflowers. But even more amazing is that we haven't seen anyone else.
It seems we have the slopes of Mount Buffalo to ourselves today but something is missing and I can't quite work out what.
We are on the path less travelled and are being led by Jackie and Mick Parsons, who make a living out of guiding gourmet walks in Victoria. They also head to Italy during winter and do the same over there in some of the country's most scenic regions - but always off the beaten track.
"Yes, you could say we have the best of both worlds," says Mick, who grew up in Wagga. He met Jackie, a trained linguist from England, while leading tours in Europe, where they both fell in love with Italy.
They love good food, fine wines, wonderful scenery and exercise, so they created Hedonistic Hiking. "Hedonistic, which means devoted to pleasure, just seemed to fit with our idea of hiking - it's all about getting a nice amount of exercise and enjoying the good things in life,"Jackie says.
By now I admit I am puffing a little as the gradient increases and I offer a feeble excuse about my daily walks along flat roads but I have a hunch about what's up ahead so I know it will be worth it.
Just a few more rocks to climb and we come to a cliff where Jackie is waiting for us with a spread of regional produce: homemade buns - made by Mick, who was a chef in another life - delicious cheeses, meats, pates, crisp salads, fruit and biscuits, as well as local wine. Suddenly that climb doesn't seem too bad at all.
We remove our backpacks, spread out on the rocks and catch our breath while we soak up the views that stretch out in front of us across the Buckland and Buffalo valleys.
There's still no one in sight, just us and the majestic mountains and bushland studded with brightly coloured wildflowers amid peppermint gums and snow grass meadows.
Our chatter turns to the unique flora and fauna of the area and its history and Mick, who has an interest in history, is eager to share his knowledge. Aborigines were the first to make summer ascents of Mount Buffalo, to gather and feast on protein-rich Bogong moths that cluster in rock crevices and to meet and hold ceremonies. In 1824, explorers Hume and Hovell passed this way and named the mountain Buffalo because of a resemblance to the animal. Goldminers and botanists followed, finding routes up to the plateau, and tourism started in the 1880s.
The area around the spectacular Mount Buffalo Gorge was reserved as a national park in 1898. It has been extended several times and now takes in all the plateau and surrounding slopes. Sadly, the historic Mount Buffalo Chalet, built in 1910, is now closed.
Walking through the 31,000-hectare park, we see evidence of the fires of 2006 and 2007 but it's the vivid colours of regeneration that take our eye as Mother Nature bounces back. Everywhere we look, new life is sprouting.
As we stop for a break, I realise we aren't alone as a flock of Eastern rosellas flies around and we spot evidence of a wombat's burrow. The park is also home to lyrebirds, swamp wallabies and the endangered alpine silver xenica, a species of butterfly found only on the Mount Buffalo plateau.
The Bogong moths shelter in rock crevices and it is common to see birds darting in and out of the cracks to feed on them. Peregrine falcons sometimes nest in the granite rock faces and crimson rosellas are abundant throughout the park.
No wonder 19th-century botanist Ferdinand von Mueller referred to Mount Buffalo National Park, boasting 550 species of native plants, as a "garden of the gods".
We walk a further eight kilometres, mostly downhill, and stand in awe as we see massive bluffs and near-vertical granite rock faces soaring among stands of alpine ash and snow gum.
It is a spectacular sight and one we won't forget - there's just something about being here that's almost spiritual and again our conversation stops as we contemplate this country's beauty. I suddenly discover what's missing (there is no noise except for birds) - no mobile phones ringing, no traffic sounds, just nature at its best - and I love it.
It has been a moderate hike, say Mick and Jackie, who tailor their walks to suit all ages and fitness levels.
"Our gourmet walking holidays, both in Victoria and Italy, are eco-friendly and designed for maximum enjoyment with minimum impact," Jackie says. "We take small groups and our itineraries are meticulously researched to make sure we take the best routes.
"The trips are not just about walking. We bring alive the culture, nature and history of each area and make each meal a culinary journey."
Jackie, who speaks fluent French, Spanish and Italian, has specialised in walking tours of Italy since 2000, while Mick has led tours in Italy for the past seven years, including the 240-kilometre pilgrim route walk from Siena to Rome. They offer longer, continuous walks for those who want a challenge and more leisurely trips for the less energetic.
Back in the car park, we pack up and return to the Buckland Studios, a luxury, eco-friendly, secluded retreat created by German-born couple Sabine Helsper and Eddie Dufrenne.
The four studios and new eco-friendly pod - No. 5 - blend into the landscape and have amazing views of the mountains and the valley.
"Watch out for the resident wombat," says Sabine and not long after we see him - at least we think it's him - wandering across the road.
As we take off our boots and shower, there's a knock on the door. It's the masseuse from Bright ready to massage away our aches and pains.
That night Mick and Jackie return to cook a gourmet meal in our studio with an impressive array of regional produce from the North East valleys. We dine on the deck under the stars and watch kangaroos watching us and Sabine's inquisitive goats frolicking in the fields.
Tonight's three-course dinner features terrine of smoked Harrietville trout, smoked salmon and fresh dill, followed by tagliata - locally reared, aged Angus beef seared on the barbecue and served on a bed of rocket with shaved parmesan.
The finale is individual home-made pavlovas topped with fresh berries and served with a Michelini 2006 sangiovese.
For once I have no qualms about dessert - I feel I have earned it today.
Jackie admits she wasn't too keen about living in Australia for six months each year, until Mick introduced her to the north-east, where shediscovered its Italian connection.
"It really does remind me of Italy in so many ways," she says.
"There's great places to hike, wonderful scenery, great fresh produce and wine and colourful characters who want to share their heritage."
Next morning we wake and feel none of the effects of the hike and do a brisk walk to the Buckland Cafe, where a gourmet breakfast awaits us.
Today we are on the move again and drive across to the Kiewa Valley for a short hike, followed by a Tuscan banquet at Ceccanti Winery at picturesque Mongan's Bridge, close to Mount Beauty.
It's a less strenuous walk but the scenery is just as spectacular and we are ready to enjoy a lunch served on tables under gum trees and colourful umbrellas.
Angelo Ceccanti, who hails from a wine-making family in Lucca, Tuscany, arrived in Australia in 1969 and continued the family tradition. He's known for his cool-climate wines, including riesling, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, shiraz and other classic varieties that thrive in this region.
"The soil type here, the altitude and the climate is comparable to the Chianti region in Tuscany," he says.
Ceccanti admits he loves food as much as he loves wine and what follows is an Italian feast prepared by his wife, Moya.
Today's menu starts with an antipasto platter, Tuscan bean soup, fettuccine carbonara, chicken in mustard sauce and the "piece de resistance" - Ceccanti's secret ice-cream recipe.
Words like "bellissimo" are murmured among those dining as the sun starts to sink. No one here is in a hurry to leave.
I take a short walk down the road and remember the words of Robert Frost's famous poem, A Road Not Taken: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference."
I have to agree with Frost; it is those roads less travelled that are always the most memorable.
Sue Wallace was a guest of Hedonistic Hiking.
The Buckland Valley is about a three-hour drive, or 350 kilometres, from Melbourne via the Hume Freeway, turning off at the Great Alpine Road. Hedonistic Hiking can pick guests up from Albury Airport and train stations.
Hedonistic Hiking offers tailor-made, short-break packages for one to seven days hiking in the north-east including Bright, Buckland Valley, the Kiewa Valley, Falls Creek and the Bogong High Plains, Beechworth, King Valley and Milawa gourmet region. Available from November to Easter.
Packages include three nights' luxury boutique accommodation, three dinners with fine local wines, guided hike with gourmet picnic, one free indulgent or adventure activity. Buckland Studio Retreat package is $2595 for two.
Phone 5755 2307, 0406 500 979; see hedonistichiking.com.au.
Hedonistic Hiking and the Buckland Cafe will hold Lazy Lunch Italian-Style: A Taste of Piedmont, with four-course regional menu and imported premium Italian wines to match. Tomorrow, 1pm, $105 a person, courtesy bus from Bright. Prepaid only, 5755 2307 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.