Friday, February 10, 2006

Yarra Valley Wineries

It was so different to London on a Friday afternoon: we set off on our journey to the Yarra Valley in prime-time rush hour, expecting the worst. However it seemed that most of Melbourne had already headed home and were relaxing in the garden with a beer. We were out of the suburbs in less than an hour and the low red-tiled houses gave way to gentle hills and smallholdings.The Yarra Valley is a wine buff’s paradise, and a gourmet’s pantry. A network of small towns offer boutique accommodation, spa getaways and gastronomic experiences as well as a plethora of small and no-so-small wineries to tour and sample.

Soon we were well into wine country with vines covering the low hills into the distance. Many of the vines were covered with muslin, and it made some of the fields look like lakes from a distance.

The countryside was gentle but beautiful. The small towns we drove through were modest but attractive, low-rise wooden buildings with generous verandahs lining the wide main streets. Beyond the towns the darkening horizon was broken by the outline of majestic gum trees, their red or silver or fire-blackened spindly arms offering clumping umbrellas of dark green leaves to the enormous sky.

In time we approached our destination. Healesville is home to a famous native animal sanctuary where people can see koala, platypus, wombats and possums up close. We sought out the Sanctuary House Hotel as the sun started to set, and found a retro-looking American-style motel amongst the gum trees, rooms set around a small pool in which a family was splashing.

Our room was waiting for us – a simple but clean room overlooking the pool, straight out of the 70s. We tidied ourselves up and went in search of Katharine and Pete’s campsite, where they were waiting for us in their small but perfectly formed three-berth camper van.After a convivial (and extremely intimate given the surroundings!) evening of pasta, wine and chat, Orlando and I set off again through the darkness to find our hotel again. We stopped at a side road to gaze at the most amazing night sky emblazoned with an infinity of stars. The Southern Cross and Orion were easily picked out, but the most spectacular thing was the white stain of the Milky Way clearly laid out before us.

Morning saw us in search of a winery or two. We headed off through the hills again, clocking up at least one winery sign per kilometre at one stage. Familiar names like de Bortoli and Domaine Chandon jostled amongst tiny family-run vineyards. We stopped at the famous Yering Station, Victoria’s very first winery. The wine tasting area was through a gourmet’s delight of a shop, with everything from fresh sourdough bread, preserves, salamis and chocolate on sale.

Katharine slowed, but I resisted and headed straight for the wine counter. Well, somebody has to show backbone, I reasoned.

Friendly young waiting staff waited until we chose and poured a modest amount of our choices into glasses for us to try. Enthused by a couple of mouthfuls of amazing cabernet sauvignon before 11.30 in the morning, I vowed to try every red they had. Three of four tastings later, I was a slightly confused and not a little tipsy. Steady, I told myself.

I allowed myself to be led outside into the glorious sunshine where we wandered through the gardens and into the restaurant pavilion, where you can peer through well-placed windows into the cellars and wine-making area below. The view from the lawn (and from the restaurant) across the valley was panoramic, with hills echoing into the haze as far as the eye could see.Back at the wine counter I couldn’t resist a bottle or too of one of the loveliest Sangioveses I’ve ever met, and tried a couple more wines while I was waiting for the sale to go through.

I think I’ve found my calling.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Hanging Rock: It's No Picnic

North and west of Melbourne, the Macedon Ranges are perhaps best known as a wine-making area, and also boasts Australia’s highest concentration of mineral springs making it classic spa country too. Our journey (in convoy, our Honda following Katharine and Pete’s campervan) had as its destination the famous Hanging Rock, a mysterious place where a group of young female students disappeared without a trace way back in 1900 (or did they? Some say it was fiction). The movie Picnic At Hanging Rock told this chilling tale – I remember being taken to see it years ago as a birthday treat.

We parked under the gum trees and spied a lone wallaby or small kangaroo lounging in the shade. He lay quietly and allowed us to pet him; even so, I noticed his powerful rear quarters and the razor-sharp nails on his front paws. Cuddly, but not so cuddly.

The sign said it was a forty-minute return walk to the top of the rock formation. We had plenty of time before the park closed and we headed off up a well-defined footpath. Elderly couples strolled along and children chased each other through the rocks as the path climbed up through the volcanic rock formations.

We were glad of the shade offered by the gum trees. Part way up the actual Hanging Rock crossed the pathway, a huge plinth making a roof for the path and presenting an excellent photo opportunity for those who wish to be seen using amazing strength to keep the rock in place. (Yes, we did).

From the top of the rock formation we had spectacular views in every direction, except that the Macedon Ranges obscured our view of Melbourne city in the distance. Dull gold-coloured fields were littered with copses, and country roads cut dead straight lines through it all. No winding laneways here in this big country.

Time was passing on and it was time to make our descent. Three of us were wearing sensible footwear, while one of our party (OK, it was me) wore fashionable cream-coloured suede flip flops. But this place is a well-trodden tourist attraction and our walk to the summit had been easy and uneventful. There would be no problem.

Then the menfolk saw two teenage girls taking a slightly off-piste path down a tricky bit, and decided not to be outdone. Being ill-prepared shoe-wise for this, and my companion being dressed in a knee-length skirt, we chose the more sedate and modest route and followed the original path. Or so we thought. False start after false start saw us ascending more often than we descended. At one point we found ourselves in yet another dead end, cut off by a sheer descent on one side and a wire fence on the other. So much for taking the less intrepid route, I mused. Not less intrepid, quoth Katharine, just differently trepid.

Eventually, and not after we had both seriously begun to regret our lack of emergency flares and water supplies, we spied something vaguely man-made through the rocks and scrambled down until we found ourselves on tourist ground again. I strode along with my handbag relegated to my neck, rather like (as Katharine kindly pointed out) a St. Bernard dog's brandy barrel. Charming. By this time it was less than ten minutes to the park’s closing time, and we could only hope that our beloved partners would not leave without first raising the alarm of yet more luckless females disappearing on the rock. Would they make a movie about us this time?

We strode along as quickly as we dared, finally reaching the café and shop with moments to spare. In typical country style, they were only tidying up and there seemed no danger of us being locked in for the night. Our men were lounging under an umbrella with cold drinks, looking suspiciously unworried about our plight.

Hanging Rock: it’s no picnic.