In the good ol' days, travellers on the mighty Hume Highway would stop and stretch their legs at any number of small rural towns along its flanks, offering refreshments such as "famous pies" or "the best burger". After filling up stomachs and petrol tanks, it was back in the car and on the way.
But improvements to the highway have seen townships bypassed, streamlining the route from Sydney to Melbourne so motorists need only get out of their vehicles at large service centres, marooned in the landscape of featureless tarmac. Without the passing parade, some places withered. One bucking the trend is Jugiong, the little town that could.
With a population of just over 200, Jugiong was the epitome of a sleepy valley where you could shoot a cannon down the main street – one church, one petrol pump, one pub – without fear of hitting anyone. These days, you'd be lucky to find a parking spot in what has become an example par excellence of destination dining, long-haul travel style.
Sitting close to the half-way mark between Sydney and Melbourne, Jugiong is a good place to spend the night if you're driving in either direction and want to spread the journey over two days. The cafe which almost single-handedly kicked everything off, and has been drawing in the punters since, is Long Track Pantry. For the past decade, word-of-mouth spread that this was the place to stop, revive and survive the gruelling road trip.
And while the queues were growing for Long Track Pantry lunches, coffee, and take-home preserves and pies, right next door, Australia's oldest family-owned pub was mouldering from neglect. The Sir George, built in 1852, had seen seven generations of the original owner, John Sheahan, before it was put up for tender and purchased by mother and daughter team, Liz Prater and Kate Hufton in 2015.
Their dreams of restoring the grand old institution have finally come to fruition, with the Sir George now offering travellers a feed and an overnight stay. But there were hiccups on the way.
Liz, an interior and garden designer, was over from Perth visiting her daughter Kate, who'd married a local farmer, when she saw the place. It was just a run-down pub with a lot of possums in residence. The building was falling to ruin with electrical and power issues but, cannily, the liquor licence had been retained.
In spite of the decay, the women had a vision for renovating the hotel and providing accommodation in a beautiful garden setting. Work began in January 2016, but various problems with fire regulations, stairs and disabled access meant they had to shelve the accommodation plans for a later date, and push ahead with the pub, which opened for business at the end of that year.
Fortunately, Liz's partner Kim Gamble had spent 30 years in restaurants, pubs and bakeries, and his skills allowed the St George to further cement Jugiong's foodie reputation. When we visited a couple of months ago, he took us on tour.
"I've always had a passion for bread," says Gamble. "Together with a German baker called Sebastian, we developed a really good sourdough culture from the high country up near Adjungbilly. The Wild Billy loaf is a beautiful sweet sourdough and we built a wood-fired oven in the old laundry to a design by Australian blacksmith Alan Scott. Scott promulgated the wood-fired bread revolution in America."
As well as bread, they make their own sausages and many other menu items are sourced locally – Riverina beef, lamb from Kate's farm, olive oil from Harden and wines from the surrounding Hilltops region.
As we walk through the pub kitchen, Gamble proudly shows off the Spanish charcoal oven, one of only a handful in Australia. "It is an unbelievably hot oven that keeps the steaks moist. We are pretty serious about what we do." He's not wrong about it being unbelievably hot. The oven hasn't been lit in two days and is still showing a reading of 70 degrees.
Leaving the kitchen proves no relief from the heat. It is 41 degrees as we walk across the property to view the new accommodation which is nearing completion: eight standalone A-frame bungalows whose exterior timbers have been finished in Japanese-style shou sugi ban charred cladding. Just as well the original 1852 hotel rooms proved unviable for renovation; these luxury "huts" employ the latest design standards, including insulation, which means that when we enter, they are cool even without the airconditioning turned on.
The rooms are spacious (38 square metres) with five-metre-high pitched roofs, and include a mix of wheelchair accessible, family accommodation with bunk beds, and queen-size rooms for two, all arranged around a huge lawn lined with silver birches.
In addition to these brand-new huts, the owners were able to create three additional rooms in one of the old buildings onsite – the Cobb and Co stables. Where horses rested, now luxe accommodation with traditional European oak flooring, exposed sandstone walls and French linens is to be found.
Serendipitously, work on the stables was undertaken by a local stonemason, Joe Leahy, who happens to be, I'm told, the great-great-great-grandson of the the pub's original owner. "He used to come and play at the pub when he was a kid, and he said if we ever wanted to do up the stables at the back, he'd come and do it." Leahy was able to use mainly old stones from the property to recreate the original building.
While the Sir George has been busy since the new owners opened the doors, "and almost too busy sometimes", they realised that to create a destination to which people would come, they needed more than just food and beds. "We are right on the beautiful Murrumbidgee so we are going to do things on the river, such as a canoe trail from Yass to Gundagai for guests," Gamble says.
"We are also holding a craft beer and a wine festival to create interest in the area. Our chef, Nick Williams, does market days at Easter time. We are trying to fill the calendar."
They are also filling up the property. There's a tiny garden shop in a potting shed built from timbers lying around the place, a kids' playground with two goats, Maxy and Jasper, and they are building a redwood barn for bakery and cooking classes.
Things are happening in Jugiong. As well as a couple of recently opened shops selling giftwares and leather goods, there's a new art gallery coming to town, and Long Track Panty has opened a gelato bar called Lickety Splits.
"A lot of people coming from Sydney or Melbourne use this as their meal stop, and now they can stay here. There's 7500 private cars a day travelling the Hume. Some of them must want a bed for the night."
The Sir George is now ready to welcome them.
FIVE PLACES TO BREAK A JOURNEY BETWEEN SYDNEY AND MELBOURNE
Charming Southern Highlands neighbour to the more touristy Bowral, try Highland Merchants (gigantic scones and cream) or Bernie's Diner, nearly a century old and serving up house-smoked pastrami sandwiches, burgers and sundaes. Do a little holiday shopping at the craft and design shops, including the well-curated Made by Others. See highlandsmerchant.com.au; berniesdiner.com.au; madebyothers.com.au
Forget the trap of driving through the city centre for a meal break. Head instead for Grit, the great little cafe on Goulburn's southern side, near the once-famous giant merino. You'll lose less time and get a superior coffee and feed.
Worth the small detour for the grand old main street's beautifully preserved buildings now housing boutique shops and cafes. Spend the night at the newly restored Empire Hotel (modest accommodation, great restaurant) and visit the local wineries. See empirehotelbeechworth.com.au
Famous for its annual jazz festival, the town offers plenty of dining and snacking options. If you have time to explore, visit the local wineries or eat at the French-inspired Milawa Kitchen at the cheese factory. See visitwangaratta.com.au
Benalla Art Gallery, which overlooks the lake and botanical gardens, is a rare gem. Free entrance and open every day but Tuesday, you can do a quick tour of the collection and eat a delicious meal at the cafe while taking in the view. See benallaartgallery.com.au
Jugiong is 338 kilometres from Sydney and 544 kilometres from Melbourne.
From $250 a night for black barn rooms; $295 a night for heritage stable rooms. See sirgeorge.com.au