On a clear but chilly Saturday night, 3500 people gather at Lakes Entrance on Victoria's eastern coast to witness the magical sight of giant lanterns in the shape of prawns, sharks, jellyfish and a technicolour bogong moth illuminating the night sky.
The Lakes Lights Festival, a one-off event on the last Saturday night in June, is part of the huge East Gippsland Winter Festival 2021. The light installations, representing the region's flora and fauna, were on display on the Main Beach side of the town's footbridge. Visitors queued to cross the bridge to see the giant lanterns, while on the town side, live music and stalls selling food, mulled wine, local produce and retro clothing kept festival-goers entertained.
Events have been created across East Gippsland so each of the towns have an opportunity to showcase their best features as part of a new drive to draw visitors to the state's east, where beaches and lakes are a massive drawcard during summer, but can be exceptionally quiet in winter.
The East Gippsland Winter Festival 2021 includes workshops, sunset stand-up-paddleboarding on the lakes and photography exhibitions. There's also plenty of opportunities to show off local produce, including food truck festivals, wine nights, degustations, high teas and burger and bonfire nights.
A series of long winter lunches takes advantage of this produce in an iconic and rather unusual setting which is not accessible by road. Ocean Grange is a tiny piece of land wedged in between 90 Mile Beach and the lakes. To reach it, you must take a boat from lakeside Paynesville, passing tiny islands inhabited by black swans.
Ocean Grange Homestead. Photo: Peter Tarasiuk
Part of Gippsland Lakes Coastal Park, the Ocean Grange Homestead we're dining at was built in 1889 and, along with a handful of other properties, is on land that will see no more development. Its owners have converted it into a novel guesthouse available to book through Airbnb, and with nine bedrooms sleeping 16 guests, it is ideal for groups or families looking for a real off-grid escape that has an enviable position between a beach and a lake.
The long lunch is hosted by Sardine, Paynesville's high-end diner, which overlooks the lakes. Canapes include umami-bomb comte gougeres topped with grated parmesan and truffle and stuffed with black garlic; and local smoked sardines on house-made crumpets. For entree, kingfish crudo makes tastebuds sing with a tangy yuzu kosho. Seared scallops, smoked duck and grass-fed beef follow - all from local producers, and matched with Sailors Grave beers and Lightfoot & Sons wines.
Scallops and squid ink by Sardine Photo: Peter Tarasiuk
Before dessert, our group takes a stroll to 90 Mile Beach, pristine sands that stretch as far as the eye can see. As if on cue, a humpback whale breaches the water, so close you can see the folds of its rorqual and its pectoral fin tips, like it's waving hello.
Each member of the group receives a showbag of Forge Creek Free Range eggs, truffle butter, Maffra cheddar and Seasalt bread with a recipe from Sardine for truffled eggs before departing on the boat back to Paynesville, the sunset reflected spectacularly over the lakes.
Photo: Peter Tarasiuk
East Gippsland Winter Festival runs from June 19 - July 11
Four more places to eat and drink in East Gippsland
Lightfoot & Sons Wines
Photo: Rob Blackburn
East Gippsland is not an area known for its grapes, but the exceptional wines at Lightfoot and Sons wines could change this. Brothers Rob and Tom Lightfoot took over the winery - formerly a farm - from their parents and they've steadily become one of the region's best producers of chardonnay and pinot noir, along with a few other popular varietals. They also have an unusual setting; overlooking a floodplain filled with vegetable crops that from a distance looks like a patchwork quilt. Similar to the terroir of South Australia's Coonawarra region, their vineyard stretches longways on top of a limestone escarpment that borders the valley below. It's a unique - and not unspectacular - spot from which to enjoy their vino by the glass or tastings, which are measured into COVID-safe beakers for self-pouring. There are also platters of local food, including bounty from the region's best restaurants - Sardine, Northern Ground in Bairnesville and The Long Paddock in Lindenow - for a truly unique wine tasting experience. lightfootwines.com
Wyanga Park Winery
Located in the bushland just above Lakes Entrance, family-friendly and art-filled Wyanga serves meals as well as wines. Several years of bad luck with drought and bushfires have caused smoke taint to the vines, so they're getting grapes in from Yarra to supply the shortfall and produce excellent muscat. The winery has its own jetty on the river and you can organise kayak tours there from Lakes Entrance, and be dropped back in town afterwards, saving you the paddle back. They also have free camping on site (provided you have a self-contained caravan). wyangapark.com
Across from Bellevue in a former ferry is Lakes' best restaurant, Sodafish. With the ocean metres away from the kitchen, you know the fish is going to be sublime. It also has friendly staff, a great wine list, and excellent tiramisu. Sodafish.com.au
If you're making the three-hour drive from Melbourne, you might want to save your appetite for this little cafe in the main street of Bairnsdale. The cute sun-filled courtyard out back is the best place to enjoy inventive dishes from the surrounding lakes, farms and market gardens of Lindenow. Chef Rob Turner is from Leeds in the UK and this is where he seeks inspiration for his dishes which include colourful side salads to accompany Maffra cheddar and caramelised onion tart; there's sandwiches and burgers on the lunch menu, with fillings of corned beef, haloumi and pork belly, and he's turned Ploughman's platters into showcase pieces for the region's fine produce. There are also great coffee, wines from Lightfoot & Sons and Tambo, and Sailors Grave beers. northernground.com.au
Central to Lakes Entrance, Bellevue on the Lakes has large rooms overlooking the water with a good restaurant, Albert & Co, that serves excellent coffee and breakfasts; bellevuelakes.com.au and albertandco.com.au
The writer was a guest of Visit East Gippsland