Craig Tansley hikes the trails of a favourite national park, savouring local wines and gourmet fare en route.
Wilsons Promontory has become one of the world's most resilient national parks. Victoria's largest coastal wilderness - comprising 50,000 hectares of protected coastal forest, towering granite ranges and pristine beaches - is a textbook example of regeneration after a series of devastating natural events.
Last March, Wilsons Promontory experienced devastating flash flooding - 370 millimetres of rain fell in just 24 hours - that forced the closure of key areas. On February 7, 2009, the Black Saturday bushfires destroyed 25,000 hectares of forest - half the national park. And in 2005 bushfires destroyed 13 per cent of the park. A year after the floods, most of Wilsons Promontory National Park is open again. Here's my idea of a perfect outdoors weekend.
Day 1, 11am
Arrive at the park after a 2½ hour drive south-east of Melbourne. Ten kilometres south of the entrance, turn left to reach the three-kilometre Vereker Outlook Walk. It's one of Wilsons Prom's least-traversed walking trails, largely overlooked in favour of hikes closer to Tidal River, another 22 kilometres on and the main campsite for those staying overnight in the park.
Wilsons Promontory is laced with more than 30 walks covering 130 kilometres, ranging from hour-long, easy, flat-ground hikes accessible for families with prams (the Lilly Pilly Link Track) to three- and four-day endurance adventures (the 44-kilometre Wilsons Promontory Circuit Trail).
The Vereker Outlook Walk is somewhere in between, taking just two hours for a six-kilometre round trip. It begins with an easy flat trail through grass trees, banksia and eucalyptus woodland, then climbs above stringybark forest along granite-studded cliff tops. From here are views of both sides of a narrow isthmus at the northern perimeter of Wilsons Promontory, taking in deserted islands in Bass Strait and looking down on Corner Inlet and Cotters Beach. With wedge-tailed eagles wheeling overhead, it's the ideal introduction to the national park.
Drive south through the park towards Tidal River. From a series of hairpin corners five kilometres north of Tidal River, passengers glimpse the striking turquoise waters of Bass Strait at Picnic Bay. It's a five-minute walk from the car park to this crescent moon-shaped bay framed by grassy headlands and islands.
Swim among colourful fish that live in the seagrass on the beach's southern end beside massive, ochre-coloured boulders.
Just five minutes' drive south is Squeaky Beach - beautiful, better known and often crowded, in contrast with Picnic Bay's often empty shore. Squeaky Beach is closer to the camping ground at Tidal River (two kilometres by road) and so receives the majority of day visitors.
The two-kilometre walk from Picnic Bay to Squeaky Beach is memorable, rising 100 metres above tiny, horseshoe bays inaccessible to anyone without a boat or kayak. Pass through a coastal forest of gnarled and blackened remains of trees that didn't survive the 2009 bushfires.
Squeaky Beach earns its name for the sound made as feet tread on the beach's rounded white quartz sand. Explore the labyrinth of rock formations at the northern end of the beach, then wander along the half-kilometre beach and follow the clearly marked track across the headland to Norman Bay.
The return walk between Picnic Bay and Norman Bay takes just over four hours and is regarded as one of Australia's most scenic coastal hikes.
The bitumen road ends at Tidal River, where there are 484 tent and caravan sites and a range of self-contained cabins, huts and group lodges (some cabins remain closed due to flood damage). It's busy in summer; most accommodation for the period from Christmas to late January is decided by ballot each June.
One way to escape the madding crowd is to indulge in a night of glamping at Wilderness Retreats, four low-impact, safari-style tents five minutes' walk from Norman Bay. The tents, each sleeping two people (but with extra beds if required), have timber floors, covered decks and en suites with hot showers and flushing toilets. On the drive from Melbourne, pick up a hamper of supplies at Moo's at Meeniyan and cook dinner on the retreat's outdoor barbecue or in the fully equipped kitchen tent. Then walk to Norman Bay, a two-kilometre beach flanked by granite headlands: Pillar Point to the north and Norman Point to the south.
Norman Bay is the closest viewing point to the towering 558-metre-high Mount Oberon, one of the park's landmarks; it remains closed to visitors due to flood damage. However, most hikes south of Tidal River reopened on March 30, including Waterloo Bay to Refuge Cove, Refuge Cove to Sealers Cove and the South Point Track. As well, all six walk-in camping areas around Oberon Bay are also open. (The Telegraph Track from Telegraph Saddle to Telegraph Junction, Whisky Bay and the Cotters Lake track remain closed.)
For a night with a difference, hike 24 kilometres from Tidal River via Oberon Bay to stay at dormitory-style accommodation in one of four 160-year-old lighthouse cottages on the south-eastern tip of Wilsons Promontory.
Wilderness Retreats has tents with linen from $250 a night, twin share, 13 19 63, wildernessretreats.com.au. Standard dormitory beds at Wilsons Promontory Lightstation are $52.50 a night a person from Sunday-Friday and $85 on Saturday; standard-plus beds cost $82 a night Sunday-Friday and $113 on Saturday, 13 19 63, parks.vic.gov.au.
Day 2, 8.30am
Rise at dawn to a loud chorus of native animal noises - possums scamper over the tents, wallabies nose around them. Fry up a big breakfast, part of the hamper you cleverly hunted and gathered at Moo's. Drive four kilometres to Mount Bishop Walk, which begins in the Lilly Pilly car park. This 3.7-kilometre walk involves a moderate climb, at which point you look back on Tidal River's bays and hidden coves. The first section of the walk is an easy hike through a quiet valley. It spirals around Mount Bishop and ends at a clearing with a view of Mount Oberon and landslides caused by the flood.
Wilsons Promontory is located beside one of Australia's least-known and most underrated wine regions. The South Gippsland region produces some of the country's finest pinot noir, as well as award-winning chardonnay, pinot grigio and sparkling wine.
The best way to see the region's 16 family-owned vineyards and taste their wines is by following the South Gippsland Wine Trail along coastal ridges and through green valleys, all within several kilometres of the coastline.
Stop for lunch at Waratah Hills; enjoy a platter of local meats, cheeses and breads on a picnic table overlooking the nearby Hoddle Ranges. Twenty minutes' drive further on is Windy Ridge Vineyard and Winery. The region's wine pioneer, Chris Hills, began making wine here in 1978. Pinot noir and traminer can be tasted with stunning views to Wilsons Promontory, Corner Inlet and Bass Strait.
From Windy Ridge, take a 25-minute drive to Basia Mille Vineyard and Olive Grove to taste the region's finest pinot grigio. Built among its grapes and olives is the only nine-hole golf course in a Victorian winery.
Waratah Hills, 20 Cottmans Road, Fish Creek, (03) 5683 2441, waratahhills.com.au. Windy Ridge Vineyard and Winery, 27 Fish Creek-Foster Road, Foster, (03) 5682 2035, windyridgewinery.com.au. Basia Mille Vineyard and Olive Grove, Taylor Court, Fish Creek (off Savages Road), (03) 5687 1453, basiamille.com.au.
As well as being the produce shop where you picked up last night's dinner provisions, Moo's at Meeniyan is one of South Gippsland's best restaurants, a half-hour drive from the national park entrance. The menu changes frequently, in sync with the region's seasonal produce.
Sample venison sausages and line-caught fish, blue cheese and more of the region's pinot noirs. Try a two-course dinner for $35 or three courses for $45.
Stay overnight in one of Basia Mille's three apartments, where Italian-style architecture among olive groves and grapevines evokes a feeling of Tuscany. Over breakfast on the communal terrace, gaze at the blue of Bass Strait and the remarkable, regenerating beauty of Wilsons Promontory.
Moo's at Meeniyan, 89 Whitelaw Street, Meeniyan, is open for dinner on Friday and Saturday and for breakfast and lunch on Thursday-Monday, (03) 5664 0010, moosatmeeniyan.com.au. Basia Mille has one-bedroom apartments sleeping two from $225 a night.
Craig Tansley travelled courtesy of Inspired By Gippsland.
Wilsons Promontory is a 2½-hour drive south-east of Melbourne along the Monash Highway, which becomes the South Gippsland Highway. Take the turnoff to Wilsons Promontory via Fish Creek after Meeniyan. V/Line buses connect Melbourne with Fish Creek, with connections to Tidal River. Phone 13 16 38, see viclink.com.au.
See inspiredbygippsland.com.au for more on Wilsons Promontory, Prom Country and the South Gippsland Wine Trail.