The Grampians National Park sounds almost Scottish. So as I wound past miles of open plains and farms, from the coast, I wondered what this region would have in store for the second half of my Australia road trip.
I had already been in Melbourne, then driven the breathtaking Great Ocean Road. I’d taken in one of Australia’s most popular road trip routes, and one of its standout landmarks, the Twelve Apostles.
I’d also had incredible experiences like hot-air ballooning and cultural dalliances like learning to throw a boomerang at Tower Hill.
But as the state of Victoria has so much more to explore with mountain ranges, national parks and historic towns, I extended my trip to see more.
While Melbourne and the Great Ocean Road are characterised by cool city adventures and iconic coastal sights, rural Victoria allows you to immerse yourself in its culture and delicious lifestyle treats.
Australia road trip: Grampians National Park, Goldfields, Daylesford and Melbourne
This road trip itinerary continues from part one, Melbourne to the Great Ocean Road, to take in the Grampians National Park – one of more than 500 national parks in Australia, Ballarat and the Goldfields, and Daylesford before completing a circular route back to Melbourne.
It includes recommendations for hikers, cultural explorers, foodies, wildlife lovers, and spa-goers (after all this road trip adventure you’ll need a little rest and relaxation!). It also places a greater focus on the luxury hotels in the region as they only add to Victoria’s countryside idylls.
Day 5: Grampians National Park
One of the things I loved about that day’s road trip was how the landscape shifted like sands on a breeze. We left the quiet coastal scene of Port Fairy, drove through woods, then green pastures and blowy plains where farms patterned the land.
Exiting the one street town of Dunkeld, we drove up to the Grampians while spindly gum trees crowded into view, tracking our course.
The Grampians National Park is an area of five sandstone ridges with lookouts across peaks and valleys plus heathlands and waterfalls. The area is a hiker’s dream. I’m no hiker, but after driving up to Boroka and Reeds Lookouts I slipped into reverie, breathing in the fresh mountain air and mile wide views.
After soaking it all up, we wound our way back down the hillside for lunch at Brambuk Cultural Centre featuring indigenous bush ingredients and tasty smoked meats like emu and kangaroo.
Gathering lemon myrtle dampers, or scones, plus jam and cream for tea later that afternoon, we got on the road again to one of the most sacred spots for Australia’s indigenous people.
On our approach to Bunjil’s Cave from the car park, Jidah led us in bare feet so he could feel closer to the land and the spirits of his ancestors there. As a light wind blew across the round rock faces and through the weeping branches of trees I soaked up this fascinating experience.
Bunjil’s Cave (or Shelter) features wall paintings dated at somewhere between 15,000 to 22,000-years-old, where the Aboriginal deity is said to have sheltered in Dreamtime stories.
There are six different indigenous language groups between Melbourne and Hall’s Gap. And each has a strong identity, but our guide Jidah Clark said: “We are one, but we are many,” quoting a line from the song I Am Australian. Later, I joined Jidah on a rock as he taught me how to play a didgeridoo. In truth, I don’t think I could call myself skilled, but I had a lot of fun.
Where to stay: The Royal Mail Hotel
Back down the hillside from the Grampians National Park we were in Dunkeld once more and at The Royal Mail hotel, an oasis of luxury in this small town.
My deluxe room came with a balcony with views of the bush, and I spotted a wallaby from my window the following morning as it grazed in the early morning light.
The hotel also has views of evocative Mount Sturgeon from restored blue stone cottages, at nearby Mount Sturgeon Station, where kangaroos bounce through the fields.
The Royal Mail prides itself on its food. Its restaurant has been awarded two hats by the Age Good Food Guide, for not only its creativity but its use of the very best, fresh ingredients the region has to offer.
It also has a cellar with 26,000 bottles of wine and the largest collection of Bordeaux in the Southern Hemisphere, as well as high quality Victorian and other Australian vintages. We started our five-course tasting menu with an aperitif of Mount Langi Ghiran Blanc de Blancs, 2012 – a Grampians sparkling chardonnay with perfect acidity.
Before sitting down to dinner however we’d had a wander around the hotel’s kitchen garden to see the source of its organic produce. Here we learned of its fantastic (and cute) pest control – a badling of ducks, who eat up all the bugs. And the evidence of their hard work was in the tasting – we feasted on all manner of produce from the garden in a meal rich with flavour. Tomatoes were a big feature, served in palate-cleansing cold drinks, salads and even a dessert – a dish of red and green tomato, cardamom, rocket custard, and mascarpone.
It was perhaps the most Victorian place I’d eaten as only food grown in the state was served in the restaurant.
Days 5-6: Ballart, the Goldfields, and Daylesford – Victoria’s spa country
Leaving Dunkeld and Grampians National Park the next day, I was ready for a historic adventure plus one of the highlights of the trip.
Since my last visit to Australia where I fell in love with the animals and wine in the Yarra Valley, I’ve always been excited about encounters with the country’s wildlife, and as we were greeted by a mob of doe-eyed Kangaroo Island ‘roos at Ballarat Wildlife Park, I knew it would be a fun morning. You’ll find cuteness in abundance and more on my encounter with the park’s native Australian animals in this photo story.
My rumbling tummy took me into the small city of Ballarat, something of an outpost here in the wide open countryside, but which as I was later to discover, was built on the region’s historic gold rush.
Stopping for lunch before taking in this history, I had a chance for my first wine tasting on this trip (something of an incredible feat as I’d spent so much of my previous visit tasting Victoria’s food and wines). Mitchell Harris is a small producer in this region of Victoria and serves an exciting collection of sauvignon fumes, shiraz, cabernet sauvignons and more from its Ballarat wine bar.
It also serves incredibly delicious meals. We lunched on haloumi salad with tomatoes, rocket, pickled fennel, and asparagus, married with beansprouts, basil and sauce gribiche. Then pork belly sliders, and the bowl dish of the day – a braised lamb shoulder with kohlrabi puree, smoky eggplant tofu parcels and charred beansprout salad with tamarind dressing. Excellent quality and value, proving that not all the best eateries are in Melbourne.
Full and ready for adventure, my Australia road trip next took a journey back in time at Sovereign Hill where Ballarat and the Goldfields’ history came to life. They may not pan for gold in the Goldfields, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.
Sovereign Hill brings the gold mining region’s history to life in a re-creation of Ballarat in the 19th century, complete with real (tiny) nuggets of gold for you to find, the chance to dress like a lady of the time, visit shops including a pharmacy and confectioners and all manner of experiences. I even had chance to hold a freshly smelted gold bar, worth around £75,000 and weighing what felt like a tonne.
High-tailing it out of town, we made for Daylesford, the last stop on the Australia road trip for what was set to be a relaxing final 24 hours.
Where to stay: Lake House
We spent the night at Lake House, another of rural Victoria’s luxury hotels, highly rated by Melburnians (Daylesford is just an hour and a half from the city).
And it’s not hard to see why…
Put aside its spa – the views from my suite of the lake alone were restorative. It’s a serene place where geese, heron and other water birds gather by the lakeshore, and this bird life is reflected in the ornamentation throughout – rosella door handles greeting your arrival at reception through to the furry kookaburra that you set on your bed to request a sheet change.
Dinner that evening was another fine display of Victoria’s food-producing excellence – but could you expect any less from a hotel owned by Alla Wolf-Tasker. A leading light in Australia’s food revolution and now TV chef and consultant, Alla embarked Lake House on a course of championing local, seasonal cuisine long before it became popular around the world.
And every single mouthful at Lake House was to be savoured – from my pre-dinner Negroni sipped by the lake, to tasting menu dishes including crisp pork belly croustillant with scampi, and squid ‘noodles’, right through to my breakfast of shakshuka the next day.
Residents of Daylesford appreciate the finer things in life – the town enjoys a wonderful mix of the arts with a number of festivals throughout the year, including the biggest countryside gay pride event in the country.
Art is also to be found at the town’s gallery established in a former convent school. The Convent Gallery has an extensive collection of modern works by Australian artists. But to visit the gallery just for the art is to miss out on its fascinating history, expansive countryside views and lovely café where I felt I could while away many hours.
This part of Victoria is known as spa country, so we just had to take the short drive out of town to Hepburn Springs home of Hepburn Bathhouse and Spa. It dates back to 1895, but long before that was known as an indigenous fertility ground where women would bathe in the mineral-rich waters.
The spa offers any number of modern therapies, but I opted for a pure mineral water bath. In a private room I seeped into a granite bath filled with warm spring water. With magnesium, carbonate of lime, sulfate, sodium, calcium, iron, potassium and more the water was so rich in minerals it was a light copper colour. But the warmth, softening and soothing effect of the minerals soon took my mind off the colour, leaving me restored and ready to head back to Melbourne.
Time on your hands? Where and how to extend your stay
My Australia road trip took in a circular route with stops in Melbourne, the Great Ocean Road, Grampians National Park, and Daylesford in just six days. But you don’t have to do it this quickly!
- Take time to explore the hiking trails in Grampians National Park.
- Spend more time in Daylesford for yet more rest and relaxation in the countryside.
- Perhaps stay at Hepburn Spa Retreat, 10 five-star villas adjacent to the baths for easy access to those heavenly waters.
Getting to the Grampians National Park and Victoria’s countryside
I travelled to Melbourne with Qantas from London Heathrow via Dubai. The journey to Melbourne is loooong. Do not underestimate this!
Qantas offers one of the most direct services which takes approximately seven hours to Dubai and then anything from 12-14 hours to Melbourne from Dubai, depending on trade winds.
For this and quality of service, I’d upgrade cabin class. I flew Qantas premium economy one-way and business class on the other. Both were excellent – naturally business class is always a cut (or even two) above premium economy for space, comfort and service. But if your budget doesn’t stretch that far, premium is a good alternative.