This pretty resort town is more than just a stopover on the way to Mount Buller, writes Paul Edwards.
Since winter sports became popular shortly after World War II, Mansfield has, geographically and metaphorically, stood in the shadow of Mount Buller. For many people, it has been the place where you grab a quick burger and head for the hills.
All that has changed and Mansfield is now a visitor destination in its own right, with theadded advantage of having one of Australia's great snowfields, Mount Buller, on its doorstep.
It has a range of accommodation options, many attractions and some of the best food and wine in regional Victoria. More than half thedistrict's residential properties are secondaryresidences, owned mainly by Melbourne people who love to get away to the mountain greenery.
Certainly the heart lifts when you drive past The Paps and see snowcapped Buller rise head and shoulders above the surrounding mountains.
What to visit
There are major and minor roads winding off into the forests and valleys. You could spend days driving around here without crossing your own tracks and there's a new vista and slice of country life around nearly every corner.
You can skirt Lake Eildon now lamentably reduced in size and follow through to the quaint town of Jamieson and the even smaller settlements heading towards Woods Point.
Or, for a reminder of our bloodthirsty history, head off to Stringybark Creek to see the Kelly Gang's killing fields.
Alternatively, you can visit the tiny towns of Tatong, with its excellent old pub, and Swanpool, where there's a lovely old cinema playing art-house features. Take time to chat with dinner-suited owner-projectionist Kevin Smith before taking your coffee and Jaffas into the auditorium.
If the hills are calling, head over the top to King Valley, with a minor detour to Power's Lookout, where young Ned Kelly roamed. If this still isn't high enough, head up Delatite Valley through Merrijig and take the winding road to Mount Buller. In winter you're going to need snow chains.
The traditional owners were the Youngillim or Wuywurung people and the explorers Hume and Hovell moved through the area in 1830. First settled as a pastoral region, it quickly developed into a supply town for the gold prospectors. Farmers and loggers followed and the broad main street was laid out.
Mansfield hit the headlines when Ned Kelly and his gang shot dead three of the town's policemen Lonigan, Scanlon and Kennedy and a memorial stands in front of the Delatite Hotel. One wonders what locals thought early last century when a new publican revealed his name as Edward Kelly.
Mount Buller developed as a ski resort in 1946, although hardy souls had already been making the long trek to the summit for more than 20 years. Today it is the largest Victorian snow resort. Mansfield has become associated with The Man From Snowy River, largely because much of the 1982 movie of the same name was shot here and had its world premiere at Mansfield's little cinema. Sadly, the theatre was closed in 2007, although the town now has a community cinema.
See and do
If your budget can stretch far enough, ask Alpine Helicopters to take you to Craig's Hut, on Mount Stirling. With good luck you'll have blue skies, crisp snow underfoot and absolute silence unless you want pilot David Blunden to name the mountains all around (see alpineheli.com.au).
Mansfield Zoo is privately owned and has many animals roaming freely. Visitors are encouraged to hand-feed many, although the owners sensibly draw the line at the crocodile and lions (see mansfieldzoo.com.au).
Don your Akubra, Drizabone and find a straw to put in your mouth before getting into the saddle at one of several horse trail-riding establishments. Choose from High Country Horses (see www.highcountryhorses.com.au), Lovick's High Country Adventures (see lovicks.com.au), McCormacks Mountain Valley Trail Rides (see mountainvalleytrailrides.com) and Watson's Trail Rides (see watsonstrailrides.com.au).
Start walking, either vigorously up and down the mountains or with more decorum around the cafes and boutiques in Mansfield.
Have a look at superb craftsmanship at Frank de Rijcke's furniture workshop his latest creation is a massive single-slab redgum table valued at $50,000 (phone 5775 2277).
To stretch your legs, try the Howqua River bridle track (two hours, moderate grades) or the Carters Road and Plain Creek nature trail (two hours, easy grades). The excellent visitor information centre (phone 5775 7000) has more details.
Like most other Victorian tourist destinations, Mansfield has embraced wellness therapies. Spirits High, in Paps Lane, offers spas and other therapies along with workshops (see spiritshigh.com.au).
The last time anyone counted, you could take your pick of 18 lunch venues. The Mansfield Hotel has twice been acclaimed as regional Victoria's best and has a wonderful beer garden. I also found the nearby Delatite to be a comfortable, welcoming pub with a good range of beers, wines and meals.
Kinloch is within a short drive, with the reward of an excellent cellar door, terrace cafe with views and a knowledgeable discourse on food and wine by owners Malcolm and Susan Kinloch (see kinlochwines.com.au). Other local wineries include long-established Delatite, operated by the Ritchie family.
Beer lovers will find heaven at the Jamieson Brewery on the Goulburn River. While you're there, ask about the pub trail, taking in 10 country hotels (see jamiesonbrewery.com.au).
The Produce Store is a lively, affordable and interesting combination of restaurant, reading room, gallery and food shop (see theproducestore.com.au). Across the street, The Deck on High is a stylish, sophisticated restaurant with excellent food and service (phone 5775 1144).
In and around Mansfield, you can choose from campsites to luxurious hospitality. While there is no five-star accommodation, several places give the top category a serious nudge. Highton Manor is an old country house on the outskirts of town, with large suites, open fires and Jane Austen-style charm. See hightonmanor.com.au.
Studio 3, in The Parade, represents the cottage-style self-catering retreat that is increasingly finding favour (phone 0417 514 306).
A short distance from town, on the Broken River, Ovata offers solitude with pastoral views towards the mountains (see ovata.com.au).
In town, Alzburg Resort, which was once a convent, now offers rooms ranging up to 4 1/2 stars (see alzburg.com.au).
Mansfield is about 185 kilometres from Melbourne. Visitors from the north and west like to take the Hume Highway and turn right at Seymour, along the Goulburn Valley Highway. Most Melburnians take either the Melba Highway through Yarra Glen and Yea, or the Maroondah through Healesville and Alexandra. Each route runs through some attractive scenery (see mansfield-mtbuller.com.au).
DEAN BELLE owns and operates the Produce Store in Mansfield's High Street and is enjoying life at the lower levels of the High Country. Before taking over the thriving restaurant-gallery, his beat was up where the air is rarefied - on Mount Buller, at the Mount Buffalo Chalet and at Thredbo.
"You could say I've had my share of the high life," he jokes. "Then a few years back I realised it was time to get down to the valley below and experience life in what has to be the best country town in Australia."
Belle first became aware of Mansfield around 25 years ago when he was operating five bars and restaurants in the Thredbo resort. On business trips to Melbourne he'd detour from the (then) Hume Highway to see Mount Buller and its surrounds.
"There has been a wonderful transformation since those days," he says. "This is visitor paradise - there's everything here all year round. And with around 5000 beds in the district there's room for people who want to see what we have to offer.
"I'm sure a first-time visitor would be impressed by the drive into town. The sight of Mount Buller is unforgettable - it's the best looking mountain in Australia. Then, as it disappears behind the streetscape, you start to get a handle on Mansfield.
"There's always something happening, yet it's clearly a long way from the hustle and bustle of the city. Walk around for a few minutes and you'll notice how the locals are constantly greeting one another. That doesn't happen much in suburbia."
Belle says the area inspires people. "We have artists, farmers, cooks, winegrowers, artisans - all deeply involved in the community and taking their inspiration from the region. We're the happiest of happy mediums - too small to be a hectic regional centre [but] big enough to have all the necessities and creature comforts of a prosperous community."