Hungry? Bring your appetite with you on the South East Touring Route: an enticing agenda that ticks off destination restaurants, world-famous wineries, succulent seafood and luscious local produce…
Eat and Relax
© Winery at Bulong Estate Yarra Valley
Eat and Relax
When presented with a delicious menu, you shouldn’t choose just one thing. The same rule applies to the South East Touring Route, which allows you to hop from several of Victoria’s tastiest highlights – the Yarra Valley; Phillip Island; Dandenong Ranges; Mornington Peninsula – without having to sacrifice one course for another. The best bit of all? Roughly an hour’s drive separates the key draws, making for blissfully easy road trips.
This will be hard, but don’t overindulge in Duke’s coffee, Gelato Messina’s sweet treats or Supernormal’s lobster rolls in Melbourne – you need to save room for the Yarra Valley. If you’re setting off at night, break up the trip with a stay at Yering Gorge Farm Cottages: eight freestanding, one-bedroom cottages with large private decks, kitchenettes and barbecue areas overlooking the bucolic countryside.
From the cottages, it’s a 12-minute drive to Balgownie Estate Vineyard Resort & Spa, where a long lunch, boozy wine tour and warm-stone massage or vitamin-packed facial in the spa are pretty much obligatory. If you’re still thirsty, pay a trip to Punt Road Winery – whose potent portfolio includes pinot gris, chardonnay, pinot noir, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon – or dazzling TarraWarra, which has an impressive onsite art museum.
You’re likely to be sleepy after all that wining and dining: slumber in style at Chateau Yering hotel. The revamped Victorian mansion is home to the excellent Eleonore’s Restaurant, which champions Yarra Valley wines in its historic cellar.
Wild about Wildlife
© The elusive Platypus
Wild about Wildlife
The local wildlife is as lovely as the grapes. Platypus are notoriously shy, but you can go wading with them at Healesville Sanctuary, or admire them from dry land. Random platypus fact: adults don’t have teeth; they use horny plates in their mouth to crush down their food. The sanctuary is also home to a gang of placid koalas, plus kangaroos, wombats, wallabies, echidnas, pygmy-possums, lyrebirds, orange parrots and other indigenous critters.
Be inspired by the native birds and take to the skies: one of the best ways to admire the Yarra Valley is by hot air balloon (splash out and opt for one with a champagne breakfast). Alternatively, stop for lunch in a winery en route to the Dandenongs: Oakridge Wines, perhaps, where chef Matt Stone rustles up edible love-letters to the region.
The Dandenong Ranges – low mountains with lush rainforest gullies, tranquil valleys and rolling hills – are a half-hour drive from the winery. Items for your Dandenong to-do list include chugging along a historic mountain railway, legs dangling over the open-air carriages, on the endearing Puffing Billy. Billy wends his way slowly (he’s more than a hundred years old, after all) and steamily between Belgrave and Gembrook, through picturesque forests and farmlands.
© Little Penguins, Phillip Island, Parer-Cook
Don’t miss top-chef Shannon Bennett’s Piggery Café, in Sherbrooke. Shannon is the culinary wizard behind glitzy Melbourne restaurant, Vue de Monde; here in his café, the tone is more country-casual. Lawn bowls, bocce and croquet pitches beckon outside; don’t leave without waving goodbye to the porky resident pigs.
From Sherbrooke, it’s a 90-minute drive to rugged Phillip Island, home to little penguins, koalas and fur seals. Swoop over the island in a helicopter, or hop on a Wild Oceans EcoBoat to Seal Rocks, where you can watch Australia’s largest fur seal colony bark, banter and bob about.
When the sea air makes you hungry, head into Cowes for fish and chips, or feast on oysters, local lamb, pistachio parfait and the ilk at Harry’s on the Esplanade. Instead of the evening news, watch the Penguin Parade at the Nobbies Centre on the western tip of the island: you’ll spy on diminutive penguins waddling across Summerland Beach.
© Port Phillip Bay
Penguins shouldn’t be the only ones enjoying the life aquatic. Don bathing togs for the Peninsula Hot Springs on the Mornington Peninsula (a two-hour drive away), where thermal mineral waters bubble and steam in a labyrinthine natural network of pools and private baths. For the most romantic experience, arrive in early evening and wallow around at night, when the springs are lit prettily with lanterns. The waters are a delicious winter-warmer, barring the ice-cold plunge pools (very good for the circulation, apparently – just follow the screams).
If you don’t fancy the thought of sudsing with Joe Public, splash out on a private bathing pavilion or outside bath. You can also have Aboriginal-inspired spa treatments while you’re here: kodo full body massages, ancient healing stone experiences or facials, rubs and scrubs using indigenous ingredients. You’ll be too blissed-out to drive far, so bed down at Big Blue Backyard: a serene three-suite retreat by St Andrews Beach, where you can continue the liquid thrills in the two-person spa bath on your private deck.
Dolphins aren’t as innocent as they look, apparently. Learn all about the mysterious marine mammals with a dolphin swim in Sorrento, a 15-minute drive from Big Blue. Polperro Dolphin Swims will take you out by boat to see bottlenose dolphins and fur seals in the waters around Port Phillip Bay; brilliant owner Judith Muir will also clue you up on marine conservation and dolphin behaviour (they’re a little bit frisky, apparently).
Still hungry for adventure? Extend the route by boarding the ferry from Sorrento to Queenscliff ferry and ticking off the Great Ocean Road or driving inland to the Grampians. Home isn’t going anywhere.
You’ve achieved a lot. The drive back to Melbourne from Phillip Island takes around an hour and three-quarters: plenty of time to congratulate yourselves on your exploits.