Mountain magic in the three Ms

In the hippie hinterland of the Blackall Range, Katrina Lobley and her father revisit a trio of once-sleepy villages.

MY FATHER and I think we know this country. I was born near the Big Pineapple, east of the Blackall Range in Queensland's Sunshine Coast hinterland. He popped into the world on the other side of these peaks. The family home lies a couple of shires south, so these mountains are practically in our backyard.

Our plan is as loose as they come: to reacquaint ourselves with the three Ms - Maleny, Montville and Mapleton - strung out along the crest of the range while enjoying views that stretch all the way to Caloundra's beaches and beyond.

It's a hugely popular tourist drive, which is why I haven't done it in years. Tuesday seems like a good day to avoid the masses. We veer off the Bruce Highway at Steve Irwin Way, pass Australia Zoo, the Big Lawnmower and the great hulking silhouette of Mount Tibrogargan and hang a left at Landsborough.

Straight away we're nosing up a 10 per cent gradient into the range and the air starts to smell like a perfume made from lantana, wet leaves and rich soil.

I wind down the windows so it can blow away the last whiff of suburbia.

After stopping at the big wine barrel that is the cellar door of Maleny Mountain Wines and a chat with the lively volunteer manning the visitors' centre next door, we zip past the turn-off for Maleny to make Montville the first stop - and this is where our jaws drop.

It might be midweek but the joint is jumping.

"This is a quiet day," says Peter Sturzaker, the manager of Castle Glen Liqueurs, which sells kooky aperitifs that taste like jellybeans, musk sticks and iceblocks. His best seller is Queensland Delight, which features a busty blonde in a bikini on the label of the rum-chocolate-coffee concoction.

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Dad drains every drop of his tasting and licks his lips.

Montville, Sturzaker says, attracts "mega, mega people" - something like 10,000 a week. Not bad for a village of 350. It's got a hippie, rainforesty vibe with a touch of ye olde worlde Europe. Visitors can buy a 30-minute psychic reading for $50, a technicolour Indian hammock or a polished grandfather clock. Dining is cheap: a burger at a leafy cafe costs just $8.

Amazingly, for a place that was once part of a thriving timber industry, towering camphor laurels still shade the street. Under one lurks a metal sculpture of a fruit bat as big as a horse. A local stops and confesses she'd like the sculpture at her place - sometimes she even dreams it's glaring at her with red-sensor eyes. Definitely time to move on to Mapleton.

The reason visitors put Mapleton on their itinerary is usually the Mapleton Tavern, whose long timber verandah has unbeatable views over the Sunshine Coast. Its kitchen also has quite the reputation. Prices are higher than in Montville but the meals are big on quality and quantity.

The burger's rustic patty, drizzled with garlic aioli, could easily feed two. We devour the apple, ginger and macadamia crumble as a rainstorm sweeps in from the sea and straight over our heads. It comes as no surprise: we've been tracking its progress over a couple of pots of XXXX. I could not feel more in touch with my Queensland roots if I tried.

The only regret of the day - besides not allowing enough time for Kondalilla Falls - is eating so much at Mapleton. The visitors' centre volunteer had raved about the ice-cream at the Colin James emporium in Maleny. "It's the best ice-cream in the entire world," he gushed unprompted, so we stop just to perv at the stuff. The idea of a cone of lemon myrtle and quandong almost makes me drool. Same goes for the choc aniseed.

With 5000 residents, Maleny is the commercial hub of the Blackall Range. Mobs of cattle were still being driven down the main street in the early 1990s but these days the place buzzes with backpackers, artist co-operatives and those who embrace alternative living.

Many young travellers cruise through Maleny hoping to pick up seasonal farm work or to spend time at the Crystal Waters Eco Village, 27 kilometres out of town.

The village's 200 residents live on 85 plots in homes made of mud, rammed earth, pole frames and straw bales.

Its umbrella organisation, Crystal Waters Community Co-operative, hosts permaculture tours, monthly markets, regular concerts and overnight guests in its caravan park and camping grounds.

As we chill on a bench while it rains, it could well be a Crystal Waters family that races undercover to join us. The two little girls are clutching flowers, which they insist we inhale. Don't worry, kids, we've finally stopped and we're smelling the roses.

Trip notes

Getting there

The 55-kilometre Blackall Range Tourist Drive incorporates Maleny, Montville and Mapleton. Maleny is a 15-minute drive from Australia Zoo, an hour from Noosa and 90 minutes north of Brisbane.

Staying there

With more than 100 choices, the greater Blackall Range area claims to have Queensland's highest concentration of B&B and accommodation options. The arty, mountain-top communities are popular with day-trippers and couples seeking a romantic weekend away, so book your digs early.

Blue Summit Cottages, eight kilometres from Maleny on the Maleny-Kenilworth Road, has three posh self-contained cottages for couples, no kids or pets, from $220 a night midweek to $240 on weekends. (07) 5435 8410, bluesummitcottages.com.au.

The Narrows Escape, 78 Narrows Road, Montville, offers couples rainforest cabins from $285 a night midweek and $320 a night on weekends, with a two-night minimum. (07) 5478 5000, narrowsescape.com.au.

Wittacork, 286 Tesch Road, Maleny is a dairy farm with family cabins (two adults and four kids or four adults) overlooking Lake Baroon, $400 for two midweek nights, $460 for two weekend nights, $300 single night if available. (07) 5494 4369, wittacork.com.au.

Roseville House, 640 Maleny-Montville Road, Maleny, is a federation Queenslander B&B, $160 a couple midweek, $170 a night on weekends with two-night minimum, cottage $180/$190 a night. (07) 5494 3411, rosevillehouse.com.au.

See + do

Maleny Mountain Wines, 787 Landsborough-Maleny Road, Maleny, open daily 9am-5pm, for wine tasting, drinks and meals. (07) 5429 6300, malenymountainwines.com.au.

Colin James Fine Foods, 37 Maple Street, Maleny, open weekdays 9am-5pm and weekends 9am-4pm for gourmet ice-cream, gelato, cheese and snacks. 07 5494 2860, colinjamesfinefoods.com.au.

Mapleton Tavern, Flaxton Drive, Mapleton is open Monday-Saturday 10am-10pm and Sunday 11am-7pm and has hearty meals, cold beer and views to the coast. (07) 5445 7499, mapletontavern.com.au.

Crystal Waters Eco Village, an "intentional community", holds markets on the first Saturday of each month from 8am until noon at the community's Village Green. It also has powered caravan sites and bunkhouse accommodation ($22 a night), camping ($16 a night) and cabins ($65 a night). crystalwaters.org.au.

More information

hinterlandtourism.com.au.

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