Mary O'Brien combines fine foods and wine with river walks and bush treks at an historic cottage stay.
No television, no phone and, it turns out, temperamental mobile phone coverage. What more could a person in search of a peaceful weekend want? Add an open fire, walking tracks and a gourmet pub in town. Bliss.
The Mount Sturgeon Cottages at the Royal Mail Hotel meet all our requirements, although our teenagers aren't so enthusiastic. One doesn't quite understand the concept of no TV until the morning we're leaving and then it's a full-on panic. We confer, we discuss and at the last-minute laptops are packed.
At the southern end of the Grampians National Park, Dunkeld is well out of day-trip territory and the upside is that even on busy weekends it still feels like a real break from the city. This is a one-hotel town and the Royal Mail, a gourmet getaway whose kitchen is under the command of chef Dan Hunter, has become one of the best places to eat in regional Victoria, winning three hats in The Age Good Food Guide 2012.
In the past five years, Hunter (who is also Victorian chef of the year) has drawn on his experience at Spain's famed Mugaritz to turn the Dunkeld pub into a serious foodie destination. The low-key dining room relies on produce from the kitchen garden, heirloom fruit orchards and free-range hens. It even has its own bees.
For those in search of a culinary experience to remember, Hunter's intense and technically complex 10-course (sometimes more) degustation is a must, though weekend dinners are often booked weeks in advance.
We want to indulge in the food but still enjoy the peace of the countryside so we opt for the hotel's Mount Sturgeon cottages, about three kilometres out of town. Armed with a map after check-in, we drive through torrential rain, spotting Cavendish Road and then the turn-off to the historic homestead and cottages.
Built in the 1840s to house shearers and cooks, the bluestone cottages have been sensitively restored. Our two-bedroom cottage shares a dividing door with the neighbouring cottage, which is a bit of a disappointment. We can hear voices, albeit well-behaved ones, but we were hoping for more seclusion.
The cottage is tastefully decorated and kitted out with fireplace, leather sofas and comfortable beds. The bathroom is ingeniously housed in a water tank connected to the back of the cottage so it doesn't interfere with the original structure. A kitchenette provides limited cooking facilities with a microwave, electric frypan and toaster.
The southern-most point of the Grampians, Mount Sturgeon and Mount Abrupt are a dramatic contrast to the flat plains around Dunkeld, with several interesting walks. Cottage guests can walk to the base of Mount Sturgeon and join the official trail without having to drive or step on the road.
Another bonus is that you can stroll into Dunkeld by the seven-kilometre river trail, eat at the Royal Mail and arrange for staff to drive you home. The Picaninny is another enjoyable, easy walk and my husband and son enjoy some male bonding tackling Mount Sturgeon.
Even though I booked the cottage about two months ahead, I'm told at the time that Royal Mail dining room with its degustation menu is booked out. Instead I book a bistro lunch and on our first night we try our luck in the bar.
There are a few hotly contested tables in the bar, a cosy room with fire and snooker table. In the overflow annex lounge we nab a table and order from the reasonably priced menu. Dishes such as fish and chips and beef burger are standard fare but the quality of the produce and care of cooking is obvious.
Our bistro lunch the next day is in the same space as the dining room at night, with the carpet and linen marking the difference.
We're shown to a table with a view of the light-and-shadow-filled Mount Sturgeon on one side and on the other an open kitchen with an army of chefs. Duck with calamari and risotto with wild mushrooms satisfy the older diners and luckily our youngest is allowed to order from the children's menu. The wine list is among the best in Australia with 2300 choices, including a strong selection of Bordeaux and Burgundy and local gems such as Crawford River riesling or Best's pinot meunier.
Back at the cottage we visit the native animal enclosure where the hotel's owner, the Dunkeld Pastoral Company, runs a breeding program to reintroduce native species such as the eastern quoll, squirrel glider and long-nosed potoroo to the Grampians.
Generous breakfast provisions include cereals, house-made fruit compote, delicious plum jam, juice, local sheep's yoghurt, plunger and ground coffee, nice teas and beautiful house-made bread.
Other amenities include dressing gowns, slippers, electric blankets, a CD player, heaters and a reverse-cycle system.
Weekends Away are reviewed anonymously and paid for by Traveller.
Mount Sturgeon Cottages at the Royal Mail Hotel
Cavendish Road, Dunkeld.
Historic cottages, ideal for enthusiastic bushwalkers with gourmet tastes.
$335 a night midweek, $365 a night at weekends for two-bedroom cottage; one bedroom $230-$325; tariff includes provisions for a continental breakfast.
Phone (03) 5577 2241, see royalmail.com.au.
Dunkeld is 260 kilometres west of Melbourne, about a 3½-hour drive. Take the Western Highway to Ballarat and the Glenelg Highway to Dunkeld. Sharp Airlines flies from Essendon Airport to Hamilton, about 20 minutes' drive. Heli Experiences offers helicopter transfers.
Couples or families who value peace and quiet.
While you're there
Dining at the Royal Mail Hotel is a must. Tackle one of the beautiful walks in the Grampians National Park, especially Mount Sturgeon. Or relax with a morning yoga session at Griffins Hill Yoga Retreat and indulge in the wholesome brunch afterwards.