There are few sights more quintessentially Australian than a bluestone cottage set against a backdrop of gum trees, craggy mountains and paddocks dotted with the odd kangaroo. The Mount Sturgeon cottages, part of the renowned Royal Mail Hotel, sit at the southern end of the majestic Grampians mountain range in western Victoria. Dunkeld is the quieter cousin of Hall's Gap - the region's hiking hub - but the Royal Mail's foodie cred has quickened the pace in recent years. A short drive out of town, the Mount Sturgeon property is a working sheep station run by the Dunkeld Pastoral Company, with an historic homestead and gardens stretching across 28 hectares. Its six guest cottages face the ancient, inscrutable Mount Sturgeon, whose rocky presence dominates the landscape.
The cottages were converted from workers' housing built on the station during the 1840s. The largest offers spacious two-bedroom accommodation, with a living area dominated by a farm-style table, two leather sofas and a massive fireplace that was once the heart of the station's cookhouse. The rough, thick walls are painted in white gloss, reminiscent of shiny meringue, and underfoot, chunky slate slabs are softened by the occasional rug. The rooms are tastefully decorated, with a subdued colour scheme, and local photographs and wildlife posters add to the sense of rural elegance. Attached to each cottage, what appears at first sight to be a corrugated iron water tank reveals itself as a funky bathroom, its circular interior split into toilet, shower and vanity.
The thick bluestone walls insulate against weather extremes; each room has heating and there's an abundance of fuel for the wood-fired burner. Air-conditioning and a sturdy fan are provided for warmer months. The beds and pillows invite lazy mornings, with quality linen lending a touch of luxury. On the downside, a rough outdoor timber setting is rustic in the extreme, quashing any thoughts of leisurely alfresco dining.
A kitchenette tucked away behind bifold doors in the living area carries enough equipment for a basic meal: frypan, microwave, toaster and kettle. The fridge is well stocked with breakfast provisions - juice, milk, yoghurt, butter and jam are replenished daily, along with cereals and bread rolls. House slippers and robes are supplied, and the bathroom has a selection of fragrant toiletries from the organic Appelles Apothecary range. Cottage guests have access to the hotel's swimming pool.
Complementary maps detail a number of walking tracks on the Mt Sturgeon property and adjoining Grampians National Park, though be sure to heed the warnings about the highly venomous Eastern Tiger and Eastern Brown snakes. A short stroll from the cottages, two native wildlife enclosures, part of the Dunkeld Pastoral Company's captive breeding program, prepare squirrel gliders, long-nosed potoroos and eastern quolls for a return to the national park.
Beyond Dunkeld, an hour's drive takes you to Hall's Gap, stopping-off point for a number of stunning hikes of varying length and intensity. The strenuous but picturesque climb down to MacKenzie Falls is a highlight, crossing varied terrain and thriving vegetation and ending in a verdant valley through which the MacKenzie River meanders. After a day's hiking, return to the Royal Mail for gourmet fare in the public bar or the more refined dining room; fresh produce from the hotel's kitchen garden makes dining here a highlight. Executive chef Robin Wickens stepped into big shoes following the departure of Dan Hunter in 2013, but the hotel continues to draw visiting foodies and locals alike.
Getting away to the country can mean leaving life's luxuries behind, but at these attractive cottages, the finer things in life are still within reach. In the absence of TV, telephones or computer screens (Wi-Fi access peters out beyond the town limits) it's impossible not to unwind and the cottage offers an appealing retreat for families seeking quality time: teenagers swap screens for books and boardgames, while younger kids are happy climbing a massive gum tree outside the main bedroom. The idyllic setting soothes harried city nerves and offers a range of activities for those keen to explore one of Victoria's most dramatic landscapes.
HOW TO GET THERE
Dunkeld is 260 kilometres west of Melbourne. Follow the Western Highway to Ballarat and then the Glenelg Highway to Dunkeld. The Royal Mail Hotel is at the far end of the main strip, and the Mount Sturgeon property five minutes further on.
The two-bedroom cottage costs between $335 and $375 a night for four, including breakfast provisions; a two-night minimum stay applies on long weekends and public holidays.