Seven heavens: Victoria's best boutique hotels

Susan Gough Henly checks in and gets comfortable at some of the best boutique hotels in country Victoria.

What makes a great boutique hotel? There is no formula, because by their very nature, boutique hotels aren't creatures of some corporate marketing department but reflect the style and personality of their owners, as well as a strong sense of place and, often, history. They are not large but size is a relative term. Some may have as few as half a dozen rooms while others stretch to as many as 40.

One thing any great boutique hotel must have, though, is a terrific restaurant. In order to settle in and really enjoy an overnight stay, you don't want to be forced to eat elsewhere. The seven boutique hotels profiled here all offer fine dining. In some, the restaurants are the main attraction. In others, it is the rooms that draw the accolades, or perhaps the spa, the ambience or even the complete package.

Lake House

Nestled among gum trees on the edge of Lake Daylesford, Lake House sets the boutique hotel benchmark. Named the best Australian boutique hotel in Luxury Travel's Gold List and the best spa and health resort in Australian Gourmet Traveller and awarded two chefs hats in the The Age's 2009 Good Food Guide, Lake House very much reflects the passion of owner Alla Wolf-Tasker and her artist husband, Allan, whose evocative paintings adorn its walls.

After discovering French provincial cuisine in the 1970s, Alla set about creating an Australian country house restaurant that nurtured local artisan producers. Today, Lake House embodies seemingly effortless country hospitality, whose heart is its gracious restaurant, which delivers witty and masterful regional cuisine that changes with the seasons and is matched with a 600-plus wine list. The whole package has been described as "fine dining with its top button undone".

Thirty-three spacious, light-filled, contemporary rooms and suites have balconies or terraces overlooking the lake. The Salus Spa features cedar-lined tubs in wooden-shuttered bath houses perched high among stringybark trees. There's also a swimming pool and tennis court. See lakehouse.com.au.

Craig's Royal Hotel

Craig's Royal Hotel is an imposing, Victorian gold-rush edifice started in 1853 and expanded grandly during the next 50 years on Lydiard Street in Ballarat, one of Australia's greatest heritage streetscapes. Recently voted one of the world's best hotels in the US magazine Travel And Leisure, Craig's has been restored to its former grandeur by owners John and Mary Finning.

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William Morris wallpapers, hand-crafted carpets, chandeliers, elaborate ceiling rosettes, intricate floor tiles, and polished woodwork combine to evoke the stylish grand old days, when the likes of Prince Alfred, Mark Twain and Nellie Melba were guests. Forty-one individually decorated suites sport one-of-a-kind antique furniture and marble bathrooms. The beds, too, are all different: mahogany, brass, four-poster or half-tester. There is even a 600-year-old Chinese wedding bed, not to mention a grand ballroom and tower suite perfect for nuptials.

French chef Philippe Desrettes presides over the Gallery Bistro in the glass-roofed conservatory, while the original Craig's Bar offers French-inspired bar food. Craig's Royal Hotel cafe is due to open in four weeks, with the fine dining restaurant open during June and July. See craigsroyal.com.au.

Royal Mail Hotel

Named Australia's best regional restaurant for 2009 by Australian Gourmet Traveller and Victoria's country restaurant of the year in the 2009 The Age Good Food Guide, the Royal Mail Hotel has become a magnet for foodies from all over the country. No one seems to mind that it is three hours' drive from Melbourne in the hamlet of Dunkeld in the Southern Grampians.

Chef Dan Hunter, who until 18 months ago was head chef at Andoni Luis Aduriz' new-age Basque restaurant phenomenon Mugaritz, is creating some of the most innovative dishes in the country. Much of the cuisine is based around exceptional local produce grown in the gardens of Royal Mail owner, Allan Myer. The 10-course degustation menu, which sommelier Lok Thornton will match with wines from what is probably Australia's most extensive international wine list, is the only way to go.

Twenty-two sleek, mountain-view rooms with balconies overlook the imposing volcanic stack that is Mount Sturgeon. There are also garden-view rooms, apartments and a swimming pool, as well as a restored four-bedroom house across the road from the hotel. Better still is Mount Sturgeon Estate, a working sheep station three kilometres away that offers a colonial homestead and eight fully refurbished, historic blue-stone cottages with open fireplaces and bathrooms located in attached corrugated-tin water tanks. See royalmail.com.au.

Chateau Yering

Set on 101 hectares along the Yarra River, Chateau Yering was built in 1854 by Paul de Castella, who developed some of the Yarra Valley's earliest vineyards. Chateau Yering is the only Victorian property to be a member of the prestigious Relais et Chateaux group. Len and Elly Milner bought the chateau in 1996, refurbishing the original structure as well as making extensions. An interior designer, Elly has created a soothing and sumptuous atmosphere throughout. The pale blue drawing room still has its original fireplace and gold-leaf inlay ceiling; the library has dark woods, maroon walls and velvet drapes.

There are 32 old-world suites, all with separate showers, some with claw-foot tubs and others with spa baths in white marble bathrooms. The Stable Suites feature four-poster beds as well as open fireplaces.

Eleonore's Restaurant caters for grand-occasion dining, while the Sweetwater Cafe in a sunny atrium offers casual breakfasts and lunches. There is a tennis court and swimming pool in the beautiful gardens, which were developed with assistance from the creator of Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens, Baron von Mueller. Both the house and gardens are listed in Heritage Victoria. See chateauyering.com.au.

Woodman Estate

Set by an ornamental lake amid formal rose gardens in 20 hectares of pastures and bushland in Moorooduc in the northern Mornington Peninsula, Woodman Estate started life as a private home in 1980 but was converted to a luxury country hotel 10 years ago by Rick and Stephanie Woodman.

Today, guests stay in garden rooms in the manor house, suites in the purpose-built spa lodge or in enormous lake-side chalets, each with a large living room and bedroom, private deck and spacious, white marble bathroom with spa bath. The decor is plush, country-style befitting a Victorian manor experience. There's a residential spa, billiards room, indoor spa pool, tennis court and even fly fishing on the lake.

The country breakfast will last you all day, high tea is served on Sunday afternoons and dinner takes place in the formal dining room or casual brasserie. See woodmanestate.com.

Lindenwarrah

Surrounded by vineyards in the heart of the Milawa Gourmet region, the architect-designed Lindenwarrah boutique country hotel is just down the road from Brown Brothers Wines, Milawa Cheese Factory and a host of other gourmet delights.

The sleek, modern building is enlivened by the remarkable art collection of owner Jan Clark, which includes a huge ceramic urn from Madrid, a hand-painted Berber door, Aboriginal etchings from Warmun and a range of exotic tapestries and bold modern art.

The 40 spacious, clean-lined rooms are bright and airy with floor-to-ceiling windows and doors that open to terraces or decks. There is a swimming pool and spa and the restaurant Merlot offers Mod Oz cuisine based on local gourmet specialties. A sister property, Lindenderry, is on the Mornington Peninsula. See www.lindenwarrah.com.au.

The Empyre

With its cast-iron lacework and stained-glass windows overlooking Mostyn Street in Castlemaine, the Empyre hotel was built with gold money and first licensed in 1860. John Ganci bought the property in 2005 and, after an extensive renovation, turned it into a delightful, six-suite boutique hotel with a casual cafe and fully fledged evening restaurant under the baton of chef Brad Hawker, who delivers regional produce in inspired contemporary dishes.

Original 18th-century French provincial antique armoires, bedside tables, sideboards and dressing tables, as well as a few select Asian pieces, adorn the suites while the bathrooms are dressed in mosaic tiles. The two largest suites have gas fireplaces and balconies. See empyre.com.au.

Susan Gough Henly travelled with assistance from Tourism Victoria.

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