Charging across Victoria's Western District, the vast, sugar gum-lined sweeps of grazing and cropping country that have paid out millions in private school fees stretch all the way to the horizon. Then, all of a sudden, the rocky ranges of the Grampians leap like giants out of the flat lands. Our local heroes are three of their peaks – Mounts Abrupt and Sturgeon and The Piccaninny. They frame the views from the nearby town of Dunkeld, which has been given the royal treatment by the owners of the Royal Mail Hotel, a complex that is part country pub, part fine dining restaurant and part accommodation cluster and is a very fine sum of all those parts.
The curved art-deco front of the hotel has become a signature, and behind it lies a relaxed but polished reception, a friendly bar and a newly-renovated restaurant in the Parker Street Project, with a large terrace area outside. The internals are smart and recently-revived, the gardens mostly native and well-tended but the brick paving outside is looking dated amidst the recently updated surrounds.
We were in a Deluxe Mountain View Room; it's big with a private balcony and views up to Mount Sturgeon across the bush and grassland (with a wallaby nibbling happily away at that crass, as if on cue was having a nibble as I looked). The bathroom is equally spacious and there's a lightly-stocked mini-bar with a couple of top shelf Australian wines at reasonable prices. Also in the mix for accommodation are apartments and a four-bedroom house across the road, and a little way out of town, the bluestone cottages and homestead itself at Mount Sturgeon station.
It's the food that transformed the Royal Mail from country pub to regional hotspot. The Parker Street project is the place for breakfast and more casual meals, but it's a wander down the garden path that leads to the highlight. Named for resident chef Robin Wickens, the new (opened in October) Wickens at Royal Mail is a spectacular building. With a huge glass front that makes the most of views to the nearby peaks – and a massive gum tree that's even closer – it has been set with tables to seat four or six. That keeps the noise manageable and there's a separate room for larger groups. The food is fresh, creative and fun – how about a sheep's milk blancmange with broad beans and their juice? The degustation of five or eight courses can be matched with wines from the cellar of mixed or purely Australian or purely French origin.
Dunkeld is at the southern end of the Grampians, so there's all the walks and views, wildflowers and wildlife of that big national park to explore and plenty of it at the doorstep. Also worthwhile are a couple of tours at the Royal Mail. The wine cellar has one of Australia's best collections – all 28,000 bottles of it – with some classics from Bordeaux and Burgundy; the tour ($25) also includes a tasting. A 10-minute walk (or five-minute drive if you want to do it after check-out) from the Royal Mail are the kitchen gardens and they are massive. Every day at 11am one of the chefs hosts a complimentary tour of the gardens, showing the spectacular and unusual vegetables (anyone for strawberry spinach?), herbs, fruits and flowers they grow there and explaining the growing practices.
Country-style landscape and friendliness with city-style service and quality in the food and accommodation.
A Wickens opening package, including a night in a Deluxe Mountain View Room, Taste and Tour in the Royal Mail Cellar, five-course dinner in the new Wickens restaurant, full breakfast and chef's kitchen garden tour starts at $600 per couple. Standard rooms start at $195 a night. 98 Parker Street, Dunkeld, Victoria, 3294. Phone 03 5577 2241, see royalmail.com.au
The breakfast bacon; it's a thick-cut strip cooked to crisp perfection balanced on a couple of eggs so fresh, the chooks might have been outside the kitchen door.
Staying one night. The distance to Dunkeld isn't formidable but there's so much to see thereabouts, a two or preferably three-night stay makes most sense.
Jim Darby was a guest of the Royal Mail Hotel.