Place names are the traveller's aphrodisiac. Who hasn't felt a tug at the sound of the names Mandalay, Samarkand or Zanzibar? But right now, with the stay-home shackles loosening, it doesn't take an exotic name to light the fire. If you're looking for a short break that packs scenery, history, walks, gardens, wineries and a taste for the finer things in life into a compact area, Victoria's north-east ticks all the boxes.
First stop Beechworth, whose bones were laid down when gold was discovered here in the 1850s. Financed by fortunes won from the goldfields, handsome banks, hotels and government buildings arose, built of stone and ornamented in the full-blown glory of the Victorian era.
When the gold rush ended, Beechworth slipped into genteel poverty, which effectively quarantined its architectural heritage. Today, awake and reinvigorated, the town is a treasure trove of beautiful historic buildings, many heritage listed.
A stroll along Ford Street takes you past a parade of time-warped wonders until you end up admiring the sequoia trees in the Town Hall Gardens, opposite the handsome historic courthouse. Among those who felt the long arm of the law in Beechworth Courthouse were members of the Kelly family, including Ned and his mother, who was sentenced to three years' imprisonment. It remains Kelly country to this day.
In recent years Beechworth has emerged as one of the dining hot spots on Victoria's culinary map, worth a long drive when in-house dining returns. At Provenance, a perennial two-hatter in The Good Food Guide housed in the old Bank of Australasia building, chef Michael Ryan brings a Japanese inflection to the excellent local produce. Try the starter of grilled kangaroo with onigiri, uni butter and salted shiso leaves with a glass of Giaconda pinot noir (it's one of the few places you can buy this near-mythical local wine).
In the resuscitated Empire Hotel Beechworth the menu takes a Tokyo turn with side dishes including enoki mushrooms, yuzu jelly and matcha ice-cream. Feel like something a little lighter? Project Forty Nine is a smart Latin-inspired cafe-cum-deli created by two winemakers.
As it leaves the town, the Beechworth-Chiltern Road dances through forest with sunlight streaming through the branches. Originally known as Black Dog Creek, Chiltern is another gold town that fell into a coma, its main street an almost perfectly preserved rendition of a 19th-century streetscape.
After Chiltern, you're in wine country. These are the Rutherglen wineries, mostly family-owned operations that have been making wines for generations.
Rutherglen was once synonymous with fortified wines, its tokays and muscats sourced from vineyards that were established over a century ago, but that's no longer so. A new generation of winemakers are using durif, chardonnay, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon varietals to add a new repertoire to stand alongside the "stickies" that made it famous.
A local culinary star is Terrace Restaurant at All Saints Estate, Wahgunyah, where British-born chef Simon Arkless orchestrates a seasonal mod-Oz menu with a strong Mediterranean accent to go with the sunny views across the vineyard.
Book in for the night at one of the crisp, self-contained suites at Mount Ophir Estate. Ophir takes its name from the Red Sea port that was a source of gold, pearls, sandalwood, ivory, apes and peacocks in biblical times. Which reminds me, you can add "romance" to the list of credentials that just might lure you to this sublime and serene part of the world.
What to read: Peter Carey's Booker Prize-winning True History of the Kelly Gang is the outlaw's life re-imagined, and redeemed, as a victim of fate, caste and creed. Scribbled by Ned on scraps of paper as an extended letter to his unborn daughter, the language is luminous, forcing a reconsideration of our past and the landscape of north-eastern Victoria.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale May 24.