In the state's north-east, Susan Bredow pedals a gormand's trail from the Murray to the mountains.
In north-eastern Victoria, on the route steam engines once used to chuff along, we are cycling some of Australia's prettiest rural landscapes on the Murray to the Mountains Rail Trail.
The rail trail starts at Wangaratta and follows the defunct railway line, which was closed progressively between the 1950s and '80s, for more than 100 kilometres to Bright, with side trips to Rutherglen, Oxley, Beechworth and Glenrowan.
The cycling is easy on a smooth sealed track with uphill gradients of no more than five or six degrees, passing vibrant towns in a region of lush green valleys, orchards, vineyards and olive groves. It's about 40 kilometres between larger towns, or what in pioneering times would have been a day's horseback ride, so our next meal, coffee or glass of wine is never far away.
After five days, we have cycled the trail both ways, riding circuits averaging 50 to 60 kilometres a day from Wangaratta to Glenrowan, Wangaratta to Everton, Everton to Beechworth, Myrtleford to Everton, and Myrtleford to Bright.
Cyclists can stay in Myrtleford, which is a good central point, and drive to the start of each section of the ride, but we choose to stay in a different place each night to experience different towns and different styles of accommodation.
Each day starts on the bike and ends with a drive, branching out to explore local sites such as the Winton wetlands near Glenrowan, Lake Buffalo and its dam near Myrtleford, and the region's excellent wineries including Gapsted, John Gehrig, Boyntons and Brown Brothers.
The rail trail follows the region's former country railway line, with the stations of Bowser, Tarrawingee, Everton and Eurobin converted to rest areas with toilets and drinkable water.
In spring, summer and early autumn there are fat blooming roses throughout Wangaratta. The tourist office in the centre of town is where the cycle trail begins, running outbound along the banks of the Ovens River.
At first the distant boom-boom-boom sounds are perturbing. Shooting is a popular pastime in the area and a large part of the history of the region; about 20 kilometres from Wangaratta is Glenrowan, the site of Ned Kelly's last stand. The town has gone silly for naming its cafes, accommodations and souvenir shops for the outlaw and his kin.
We pass the Ned Kelly animated museum with its sign welcoming wheelchairs but warning of a show so frightening it may be too much for those with weaker hearts, and settle next door at a cafe for coffee and scones. Sitting in the garden, we are tortured by sweetly sung tunes such as Click Go the Shears. We might have been better off trying the renowned shiraz at the wineries in the foothills of the nearby Warby Range.
The valleys of the north-east are home to five distinct wine regions: Glenrowan, Milawa, Beechworth, King Valley and Alpine Valleys. Next day we follow the rail trail from Wangaratta to Everton, then branch across to Milawa and Oxley to complete a 62-kilometre circuit. Early on we run into a bug storm as midges cover our legs, arms and faces, then one flies under my glasses and into an eye. I keep my mouth shut, grateful it's not bogong moth season.
We stop at EV Olives in Markwood where the salesperson offers to drop off any purchases at our accommodation. We then visit the Brown Brothers Winery Epicurean Centre and, after tasting sparkling shiraz and an unusual pinot grigio rose, we return by car to pick up our order. Not long into our journey, the back of our station wagon is filled with wine and gourmet treats: mustards, olives, cheese and pink Murray River salt flakes. We finish the day's ride in the rain and the afternoon is spent at the cellar doors of King Valley wineries Dal Zotto and Pizzini tasting excellent wines, with another stop at John Gehrig Wines just outside Milawa.
Wherever we stop, everyone knows our host for the night, Peter Hoppach of Milawa Muscat Retreat, where we are welcomed by the man himself. He shows us to a large, comfortable motel-style room with separate sitting room, a spa and a delightful plate of pastries.
We don't need rocking to sleep but heavy rain on the tin roof is a worry. By the time we finish a breakfast of eggs laid by chooks we can see pecking about in the yard, the rain has stopped and the temperature has dropped more than 10 degrees.
We load the bikes on to the car and drive back to Everton station to begin the ride up to Beechworth, a 16-kilometre incline with a maximum gradient of 6 per cent. We spin through dense cool forest to a plateau of wide-open farmland.
In Beechworth, modern life exists within the town's well-preserved historical streetscape, including a bowling club, outside of which a sign tells us it was a Ned Kelly "fight site". The Burke Museum has a collection dating back from when it opened in 1863, including the Kelly death masks and the history of the area's gold rush.
A visit to one of Australia's few remaining honey growers, Beechworth Honey, is worthwhile, as is the Bridge Road Brewery across the road on Ford Street. You can buy trays of samples of the brewery's seven beers, including pale ale and a pilsner.
On the way down, we open a gate off the rail trail to Pennyweight Vineyard and taste sherry made using the traditional Spanish solera method, a way of blending wines to achieve a constant average age.
We drive on to Myrtleford and a room at the Motel on Alpine, where we sit by the pool and share an antipasto platter of local ingredients.
After a cooked breakfast at the Alpine Gate Cafe in Myrtle Street, we ride back along the rail trail to Everton, up over Taylors Gap, through lovely rural countryside and back. Lunch is a platter of cheeses, pate, terrine, fruit and nuts, bread and olive oil with a chardonnay at Gapsted Winery. It's just a nine-kilometre ride back to Myrtleford, where we get in the car to drive to Lake Buffalo, a 42-kilometre return trip with stunning views of the rugged slopes of Mount Buffalo. At the lake and its dam there are barbecues and a pleasant foreshore from which to swim or sit and admire the bush across the still, clear water.
But it is the last section of the rail trail, from Myrtleford to Bright, that is the prettiest. We start the day with breakfast at the Myrtleford Butter Factory and from here it's a gentle rise for 30 kilometres to Bright. The senses, particularly of smell, are working overtime as we pedal past stock-breeding runs, and there's plenty of noise from birds in giant eucalypts.
At the Rail Trail Cafe at Porepunkah, we stop for coffee before riding through an avenue of flowering trees in pinks and lilacs into the alpine town of Bright. The trees, from silver birches to rare pines, provide a cool and attractive canopy.
Returning to Myrtleford, we select lunch from an array of pates, terrines, cheeses, smoked fish and olives at Boynton Winery, teamed with an excellent cabernet sauvignon.
We toast the bounty of the north-east and five days' pedalling from the Murray to the mountains.
The Murray to the Mountains Rail Trail, from Wangaratta to Bright, is suitable for cyclists with a reasonable level of fitness. Late spring, late summer and autumn are the best times to ride the trail. Plan your trip around all or some of the 10 sections of the trail.
Bike hire is available in Beechworth, Myrtleford and Bright. Milawa Tours has a bike and luggage transfer service. Bike hire costs $35 a day, the daily rate reducing for longer periods. Transfers are quoted individually. Phone 0417 384 664, see milawatours.com.au.
Wangaratta Gateway Hotel has 76 rooms and apartments. The 4.5-star hotel is in a handy location for riding in and out of town. Rooms cost from $160; see wangarattagateway.com.au.
Milawa Muscat Retreat, a short distance from Milawa, has five rooms from $150 without breakfast, $180 with breakfast. See milawamuscatretreat.com.au.
Motel on Alpine has 20 renovated rooms and a swimming pool. Rooms costs from $139; see motelonalpine.com.
Historic Oriental Hotel has cycle-friendly owners and 13 rooms from $100. See brightoriental.com.au.
The Rail Trail Cafe, Porepunkah; see railtrailcafe.com.au.
Rinaldo's Casa Cucina, Wangaratta; see rinaldos.com.au.
Watermarc, Wangaratta visitwangaratta.com.au.
Tanswell's Commercial Hotel, Beechworth, beechworthonline.com.au.
See murraytomountains.com.au; railtrails.org.au.
Along the rail trail
A RANGE of journeys along the Murray to the Mountains Rail Trail includes one just for women, another for food and wine lovers and others for those who just want to escape.
Belles, Bikes and Bubbles Take your girlfriends out for a ride on the Wahgunyah to Rutherglen extension of the Murray to the Mountains Rail Trail for a sparkling-wine tasting at Cofield Wines and lunch at the Pickled Sisters Cafe, all part of the Victoria Hotel Rutherglen package. Be back in time for sunset drinks, watch a chick-flick and enjoy a two-course dinner in the hotel bistro.
It costs $275 a person for two nights in a shared room and includes arrival cocktail, continental breakfasts, cycling maps and directions, massage, $30 voucher at Passion Flora giftware shop and an organic cotton T-shirt. Bike hire costs from $30 a day.
Phone 6032 8610, see victoriahotelrutherglen.com.au.
High Country Villages Cycle through scenic wine areas, chat to producers at farm gates and discover historic villages on a two-day High Country Villages cycle tour.
The self-guided tour can be tailored for two- to five-day packages around Bright, Beechworth, Milawa, King Valley, Glenrowan and Rutherglen with accommodation, gourmet food and bike transfers included.
The two-day tour costs $700 a person and includes three nights in three-star accommodation, all meals, rider and bike transfers from accommodation to the rail trail and return and bike and helmet hire.
Phone (03) 5727 3784, see highcountrybikeadventures.com.au.
Boynton's Ride, Dine, Unwind Rest up in Boynton Winery's chic Feathertop apartment at Porepunkah, where you will be greeted with a bottle of wine and a deli and breakfast hamper. The comfortable apartment has wonderful views to Mount Buffalo and beyond.
The two-night package costs $890 for two and includes lunch to the value of $90 on the terrace of the a la carte Alfresco Dining Restaurant and one-day bike hire. The rail trail is just below the winery.
Phone (03) 5756 2356, see boynton.com.au.
Pedal to produce Check into Lindenwarrah at Milawa, then head out on the Pedal to Produce route and fill up your basket, sampling fine artisan produce including honey, cheese, mustards, olives and wine along the way.
It costs $425 for two and includes overnight accommodation, bottle of Lindenwarrah shiraz, country breakfast, bike hire and trail maps. Phone (03) 5720 5777, see lancemore.com.au/lindenwarrah.
Free bikes Brown Brothers at Milawa has bikes to borrow and cycle around Milawa. Phone (03) 5720 5500, see brownbrothers.com.au
A collaboration between three Beechworth businesses - Bridge Road Brewers, the Larder Fromagerie and Pennyweight Wines- offer complimentary "town" bikes. Gather produce at each stop and head to Lake Sambell for a picnic. Phone (03) 5728 2703.
Sag van For when you can't pedal any longer, the following operators will collect you and your bike: High Country Bike Adventures, (03) 5727 3784; Beechworth Mini Buses, (03) 5728 3112; Bus a Bike Myrtleford, (03) 5752 2974.
- Sue Wallace