Blue cheese, saltbush, abalone, shiraz - take your senses on a road trip, writes Wendy Squires.
It was as the helicopter took off I first noticed the smell permeating its cramped confines. It was rich and ripe and coming from my handbag. I knew what it was immediately, a wedge of Bolte's Bonanza blue cheese I had purchased the day before and deemed too precious to risk leaving behind in our bus. I was obsessed. The discovery of this crumbly, stinky dairy heaven was a highlight of a trip that contained many, with one of the best yet to come.
And so, as our chopper dropped over the famed cliffs off the Port Campbell National Park on the Great Ocean Road, flying over the eight remaining limestone stacks known as the Twelve Apostles, I was grateful the unfolding spectacle, complete with breaching whales, distracted from the cloying odour.
Not that my travelling companions would complain. They all had big chunks of this unforgettable cheese secured elsewhere, along with other gourmet delicacies from our travels off the main road and in to the hinterland along the Otway Harvest Trail.
The foodie trail was established by businesses in an area that stretches from Bellbrae to Beech Forest to encourage tourists and locals to veer away from the beaches and famous vistas of the Great Ocean Road and explore the lush hinterland. My eating adventure began beachfront at Torquay, an 80-minute drive from Melbourne, with a morning tea at the amiable surf shack cafe Moby's, famed for its sweet treats.
Feeling it rude not to try most, if not all, of the home-cooked baked goods owner Chris Owen stocks, I can reveal the front-runners are the chocolate cheesecake brownie, florentine, nut slice and warm raspberry muffin. And the crumbles. They were good too. As was the mud cake.
From there it was inland to Modewarre and the first of many wine tastings. Brown Magpie Wines' handcrafted pinot noir and shiraz were delicious, as were their pinot gris, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, these grapes loving the crisp, cool climate.
As a special treat, Duncan Green, the head chef/owner of Fusion restaurant in nearby Colac, cooked a four-course meal of local produce, matched with wines harvested in the area.
It would be tempting to continue on the trail and check out Winchelsea, Birregurra (apparently exquisite during festival time in October) and head on to Colac but instead, we veered back towards the coast and Lorne.
A weekend destination for Melbourne's moneyed, Lorne's Maple Tree restaurant alone makes the trip worthwhile. Its philosophy is to showcase local product and it does so beautifully. Every course was a revelation but it was the nibbles and beer match to start that set my salivary glands on overdrive - flash-fried Point Henry saltbush leaves (fresh picked from the dunes each morning, post surf, by the chef) matched with handcrafted India Pale Ale "The Raconteur" from the Prickly Moses brewery in nearby Barongarook.
Veering back inland to the quaint town of Forrest the following morning, it's brews for breakfast. It is hard to say no to sampling a selection from the Forrest Brewing Company.
Brewer Dan Bradshaw and his sister Sharon resurrected the former general store in Forrest after taking a liking to the scenic sleepy town known for its mountain bike tracks and fishing.
In nearby Timboon, the Timboon Railway Shed and Distillery is the place to find locally made single malt whisky (not a bad wee drop either) as well as schnapps, vodka and limoncello. The shed also showcases local products including sausages, cured meats, duck, cheeses, smoked eel and Gorge chocolates (my kingdom for their giant freckles).
From Timboon you can winery jump to Cooriemungle and Apostle Whey Cheese, the makers of the redolent blue that made it on to the helicopter. Julian and Diane Benson turned to cheese making when milk prices plummeted in 2005, and they haven't looked back.
Our day of gorging wound up in historic Warrnambool and the natural mineral spa baths of the Deep Blue Hotel and Spa. Pumped from 800 metres underground, the waters are rich in minerals and a treat for fatigued foodies.
Dinner was above the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village, a stunning replica. It's a must-see and its restaurant, Pippies by the Bay, is well worth trying, especially if fresh, local abalone is on the menu.
Breakfast is a treat the next morning, not just for the view of racehorses being exercised in the water in Warrnambool Beach from Pavilion Bar and Cafe; the breakfast menu is first class, as is the coffee. Later at Killarney and our destination, Pantry Door at Basalt Winery, the produce is out of this world. Shane and Ali Clancey use organic and biodynamic viticulture practices and their tempranillo and shiraz are particularly delicious. Wander through to the former family home, now the Pantry Door, and be prepared to drool big time. The chef is Andrew Hall, and he knows his stuff. Not only is the menu fantastic but you can take away most of the items you eat here (my handbag was rattling with pate jars as I left).
It was here, over a platter of local produce, that I was introduced to a woman called Thea Royal, who has become my new best friend. Why, you ask? She is the first person to import water buffalo from Italy and Bulgaria to Australia at Shaw River. The resulting cheeses, such as her Shaw River Dancing Brolga, buffalino and mozzarella, are to die for. Helicopter-worthy, in fact.
The writer travelled as a guest of Great Ocean Road Tourism.
All major airlines fly to Melbourne Tullamarine, while Jetstar flies to Melbourne's Avalon Airport, closer to the Great Ocean Road, from Brisbane and Sydney. Package deals are available with advance bookings. See jetstar.com; qantas.com.au; and virginaustralia.com.
There are so many options, from holiday houses to bed and breakfasts to luxury hotels. See visitgreatoceanroad.org.au. Options include the Cumberland Resort for the Lorne leg (cumberlandlorneaccommodation.com.au) and Quality Suites Deep Blue in Warrnambool (see qsdb.com.au). Both are located close to the beach.