David Reyne searches for some of the finest places to eat and rest around the Victoria.
The Stanley Pub, Stanley
Two colossal oaks shade the heart of town. The petrol pump stands forlorn. This is Stanley, in the north-east of the state.
The pub is gilded with a fat fringe of wisteria. There's a local at the bar. He's got a thousand-yard stare. The rusted blade of an old bushman's saw is nailed to the beam above his head and a dartboard hangs against a wall pock-marked with misses. A spicy aroma of tap beer, wine cork and wood smoke greets you.
Fireplaces are everywhere. The one in the bistro has left a sooty lick on the outside of the bluestone chimney. Two boisterous fires crackle as we enter our room. One throws a glow across the old timber bed, the other across a couple of funky leather armchairs. The ceiling is lined with timber planks. The light switch requires a little exertion and although there's been a restrained overhaul, there's never any doubt you're staying in a pub. Until, that is, you sit down for dinner.
The bistro's gone French and the wine list is vast. (A New York sirloin with french fries costs $33, seasonal vegetables $9; Ellis Wines shiraz, $42.)
It's superb but what must the locals think? They clearly don't mind. There are more at the bar now and the dartboard's looking nervous.
Myrtleford-Stanley Road, Stanley. From $150 a couple a night. Breakfast included. Phone 5728 6502, see www.thestanley.com.au.
The Empyre, Castlemaine
From the street, the Empyre looks solid: stone, brick and wrought iron. An expansive balcony shelters the entrance. Classic pub doors swing inward. A long, narrow, light-filled room with polished floorboards, smart dining tables and chunky leather couches inhabits the space where the horse and carriage used to pull in to unload travellers. The Empyre was built in 1860 but it didn't look like this then.
Its transformation reeks of warmth and taste. Olive and grey walls are hung with antique mirrors. A timber staircase offers the perfect amount of creak as you head to the rooms. Inside, chandeliers, antique furniture and a bold green bathroom are bit-part players to the antique french bed.
The Empyre wraps you in style; the food in the restaurant and bistro is outstanding. (Steamed baby snapper with mussels and tiger prawns, $34; Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch chardonnay, $50.)
68 Mostyn Street, Castlemaine. From $220 a couple a night. Breakfast included. Phone 5472 5166, see empyre.com.au.
Mountain View Hotel, Whitfield
Whitfield is silent. The only sign of activity is a leaf drifting from a row of golden trees. It joins others that have laid such a thick carpet upon the main street that there mustn't have been a car through since yesterday.
We can't even find the mountain let alone the Mountain View Hotel. Finally, there it is, lost in the shadows of a thicket of forest. The public bar is a large, open, dimly lit space that, like many a public bar, looks ready to host a skirmish.
A scrawl of chalk lists a wagyu burger, chermoula spiced chicken and duck parfait on the blackboard. And that's just the bar menu.
Our room is out the back in a wing that looks like a classic '70s brick dormitory. I'm reminded of a thousand itchy motels. The interior erases the memory; it's freshly modernised, tastefully refurbished and sparkling. There's a whopping television, comfortable bed and slick bathroom. There's a toaster but no toast. It's surely a ploy to lure us to the restaurant. We're grateful for it. The food is magnificent and if they manage to find a dimmer for the bright lights, all will be perfect. (Roasted leg of confit duck, braised du Puy lentils, dutch carrots, caramelised pear and prosciutto, $28; 2010 Pizzini sangiovese, $35.)
Mansfield Road, Whitfield. From $130 a couple a night. Phone 5729 8270, see mvhotel.com.au.
Royal Mail Hotel, Dunkeld
There's a cafe, petrol station, general store and a wisp of smoke from a chimney. Everything is as you would expect of a hushed country town until you reach the western end of Dunkeld's main street, where the shiny, spearmint-coloured Royal Mail Hotel sits beneath Mount Sturgeon.
I head for the bar. The fireplace throws a thirst-provoking heat while the blackboard menu makes the mouth water. I can see through to the sleek restaurant where diners flock, enticed by a fine-dining reputation. A wall of glass reveals a courtyard of neat trees. A pathway winds through clumps of native garden, past an array of rooms. Mine is a two-storey leviathan, architecturally inspired but improbably cavernous. The bookcase is stacked with leather-bound classics and there's a Grampians view at every window but the bathroom's yellow tiles threaten to wreak havoc with my taste buds. I flick off the light.
The legendary 10-course degustation dinner and 90-page wine list beckons. (The "menu omnivore's" 10 dishes include pork sandwiches, eel and bone marrow, duck and fig, beetroot and mandarin and costs $160; 1998 Riddoch Estate shiraz, $45.)
98 Parker Street (Glenelg Highway), Dunkeld. From $165 a couple a night. Breakfast included. Phone 5577 2241, see royalmail.com.au.
Yea Peppercorn, Yea
There's a ute out the front. It's slowly rusting. Perhaps it's there by design. A sign says: "Winner. Best restaurant and best accom". It needn't bother. I would stop anyway.
This hotel is exactly how a country pub should look. It's a chunky and inviting two-storey hunk of history. A tall brick chimney reaches for the sky. The deep balcony is fenced with pickets. The front door takes a little muscle to open but it's worth the effort.
One look at the bar and I feel a thirst rising. One look at the tables set for dinner and I'm ready to book. I don't care how many awards it's won. Racks of wine congest a corner by the fire where the hotel cellar door lures. Upstairs the rooms are large, inviting and strikingly furnished. Is that a Louis XIV chair? I switch on the Tiffany lamp for a closer look. A claw-foot bath adds to the excess of comfort.
Back in the brightly lit restaurant, there's an eye fillet reef and beef on the menu for $36.
21 Station Street, Yea. From $150 a couple a night. Phone 5797 2000, see yeapeppercorn.com.au.
Oscars Waterfront Boutique Hotel, Port Fairy
A flicker of wind has ruffled the surface of the Moyne River. It is otherwise still and grey beneath an overcast sky. Brawny fishing boats are manacled to their moorings. It's an idyllic scene witnessed from my bathroom window and although mine is known as the premium room, I've got room envy.
Three of Oscars' seven rooms are on the riverfront; you'll need to be first up the Gone with the Wind staircase to nab one. What mine lacks in terms of view it makes up for in terms of size. The bed looks lonely in this space.
A couple of stout, canary-yellow armchairs blend stylishly with the drapes. Downstairs, the sitting room is scattered with plump couches and chairs. A breakfast room takes full advantage of the riverfront view. Fortunately, breakfast is the only meal served here; otherwise, I would be tempted to wallow in Oscars' splendour and miss discovering Port Fairy's charms.
41B Gipps Street, Port Fairy. From $265 a couple a night. Breakfast included. Phone 5568 3022, see oscarswaterfront.com.
The driveway winds through a clipped garden. The reception area is dominated by a sweeping staircase. High-backed armchairs dot the drawing room.
This is hardly your typical country pub. The rooms are vast. The carpet is thick, with a busy motif. Floral drapes frame the windows, beyond which green, sodden paddocks stretch to yonder hills. The bed is somewhat daunting. There's a padded floral bedhead and an arrangement above, the likes of which I've never encountered. What is it? A visor?
A tin of complimentary biscuits adds to the grandmotherly tone and framed prints of gentlemen on horseback chasing hounds chasing foxes lend hunting lodge spirit.
Downstairs in the grand dining room of Eleonore's Restaurant, the tables are laid with gleaming cutlery and enormous glasses. The 2011 Age Good Food Guide awarded Eleonore's a chef's hat. (The chef's tasting menu starts at $130 and includes items such as smoked bonito, suckling pig and slow-cooked pigeon.)
42 Melba Highway, Yering. From $495 a couple a night. Breakfast and dinner included. Phone 9237 3333, see chateauyering.com.au.
Lindenderry, Red Hill
A private country lane, edged by trees, dips and turns through a neat vineyard. Trim lawns and hedged paths border a cream-coloured stone manor lit by the afternoon sun. People are having Devonshire tea by a huge fireplace in a lounge overlooking a dip of gums and grass. They've eaten the lot.
Passageways studded with art lead left and right. Signs point to the restaurant, the spa, the swimming pool, the tennis court and the cellar door.
My room has blue gingham lampshades, a couch of red checks and a floral bedspread. Whoa! Did they need to go to such lengths to remind me I'm in the country? It is, after all, right there, tapping on the window.
A dam hectic with ducks sits in the paddock just beyond the eucalypts that shade my balcony. It's so instantly relaxing that the most pleasant of decisions seems almost a burden. Which first, the cellar door or the restaurant? (Peninsula Blue Ribbon eye fillet, beetroot puree and wild mushrooms, $42; 2008 Lindenderry merlot, $20.)
142 Arthurs Seat Road, Red Hill. From $286 a couple a night. Breakfast included. Phone 5989 2933, see lancemore.com.au.
David Reyne travelled courtesy of the operators.