Food and fitness: on the culinary trail in Melbourne | Travel
OWe may have been banned from Australia for years, but nobody told Melbourne’s ‘hospo’ industry (as the locals call it) to turn down the tools: new restaurants and bars sprung up appear almost daily. On my first visit since 2019, I was keen to try as many as time and physiology would allow. And, because non-stop eating has a bit of an inconvenience, I thought I’d tackle the new 100-mile-long Grampians Peaks Trail, which has finally opened after several years of construction. A foodie odyssey isn’t the ideal preparation for a 13-day trek, but visiting Australia without venturing into incredible scenery doesn’t make sense either.
Luckily, for luxury-loving fair-weather walkers like me, there are quality hotels along the itinerary, including the Royal Mail in Dunkeld, which has the largest private cellar of Burgundy and Bordeaux wines in the Southern Hemisphere (double room only from £128; royalmail.com.au). With their help, I thought walking the back streets of Melbourne to my first bar would be my kind of outback adventure.
Caretaker’s Cottage is a pretty bluestone house among Melbourne’s gleaming skyscrapers, built in 1914 to serve the nearby church. Its founders consider it a pub, but where I’m from pubs don’t have a trio of top bartenders who pimp liquors. Another welcome change: finally, the center of Melbourne has an indigenous restaurant. Big Esso opened last year in Federation Square. The name means “biggest thank you” in Torres Strait Creole; Chief Nornie Bero is from the Komet tribe and grew up on Mer, one of the islands. Its restaurant is a cheerful mishmash of tables backlit by indigenous artist Aretha Brown’s monochrome mural. This is the place to try the fried crocodile with peppery berries or the marinated mackerel with coconut and chilli (main course from £13; mabumabu.com.au).
One of the mountain view rooms at the Royal Mail Hotel
A five-minute walk away is also Gimlet by Andrew McConnell, the quiet hero of Melbourne’s culinary scene, with wooden and brass fittings and Australian wine pairings by Anthony Pieri so good the couple at the next table interrupted their anniversary dinner to ask what we were drinking (mains from £25; gimlet.melbourne). I’ve never found anyone who doesn’t like McConnell’s food – Supernormal’s lobster roll is legendary – and although Gimlet is more European in style, the flair is the same. The local duck breast is seasoned with blood plum; the crab is in a tarragon pesto sauce. Even the signature cocktail was the best spin I’ve ever tasted.
My sleek high-rise hotel, Next, in the new resort at 80 Collins Street, offered a breakfast omelet with chilli salsa that might have lasted me until lunch, if it wasn’t for a loss of time to eat (double rooms from £175; nexthotelmelbourne.com).
There’s plenty to do besides eat too – walk along the Yarra River, head south to St Kilda beach. Instead, I hopped in the car and followed sunny northwest roads for three hours, until mountains suddenly loomed out of a tawny landscape that is home to ancient wine cellars and old gold mines: I had reached the Grampians.
Anthony Pieri, Gimlet sommelier
Mount William Station in Willaura is a newly renovated 19th century farmhouse on 7,500 acres that has been in the Will Abbott family for four generations (B&B doubles from £240 for two nights; mountwilliamstation.com). The kitchen was modern, but everything else was as it would have been – if the old residents had had electricity, appliances and internet access. Beyond the windows, rolling meadows led to the bluestone stables; inside, lounges and dining rooms adorned with glowing jarrah, a native wood.
A cocktail at Farmer’s Daughters
From there it took 45 minutes to reach Halls Gap, where anyone walking the trail without a guide is encouraged to stop at Brambuk National Park and Cultural Center for maps and advice. The trail is remote, with uneven mobile reception and spans sandstone boulders or steep uphill paths; I would recommend a guide: among the best is Braeden Hyland of the Grampians Peaks Walking Company. Not only can he tell you how the yellow-legged wallaby was saved from extinction, he recognizes the mournful call of a yellow-tailed black cockatoo, knowing also that, for native people, it’s a indication of forthcoming rain.
● Best Melbourne Hotels
● Best things to do in Melbourne
The march is glorious. I walked through tea trees and pines to the Pinnacle, 2,000 feet above sea level, looking over layers of forest under vast blue skies. There were wildflowers and waterfalls with wondrous names: the trail weaves behind the flowing sheet of water that is Bridal Veil Falls and along Silent Street, a path cut through rock to form a narrow gorge, and climb steep stairs from the Grand Canyon’s dramatically ridged rock. You will only avoid seeing kangaroos and wallabies by walking with your eyes closed. If you’re less keen on serious hikes, there’s Dunkeld Arboretum, where kangaroos watch you fearlessly before leaping unhurriedly into the brush. It is a short walk from the Royal Mail Hotel; there’s also a one-mile loop that passes a 400-year-old gum tree, waving across the ground like a giant snake.
A dish at the Royal Mail Hotel
It’s easy to get an appetite. In the tasting menus served in the restaurant facing Mount Sturgeon, Royal Mail chef Robin Wickens prides himself on using only local produce (seven-course menu £145; royalmail.com.au). I visited the conservation area, where the hotel is protecting many marsupials from extinction: a red bettong (or kangaroo rat) was munching on corn; a mouse-like fat-tailed dunnart was chewing on a ground ball of beef and crushed black beetle; and in another paddock, the beautiful spotted fur of an Oriental quoll glistened under a log.
Those who prefer can avoid walking altogether. At Stawell Airport – a big name for a cabana and car park – Justin Neofitou of Grampians Helicopters checked our seatbelts and headphones, then whisked us over the apartments, the blue-gray mountains looming above proximity. It’s spectacular scenery, whether you choose to fly over the trail or land next to a vineyard – say, Best’s Wines Great Western, for a tasting and platter.
The bar at the Victor Churchill
Back in town, my second hotel was more fabulous than the first: the W Melbourne has a mirror above the pool and an underground bar, Curious, where cocktails come topped with swirls of dry ice (double room only from from £205; marriott.co.uk). After a backcountry hike, I felt justified in returning in search of dinner, seeking out the marble bar behind artisan butcher Victor Churchill for oysters and steak (mains from £28; victorchurchill.com). And I put a high stool at Farmer’s Daughters, where everything – the ham, the wine – comes from farms in Gippsland, 180 miles east of the city (set menu £73; farmsdaughters.com.au).
Service throughout was efficient but relaxed. At trendy Aru, dishes combining Australian produce (dried kangaroo, warrigal greens) and fragrant seasonings (kampot pepper, furikake) were so beautifully presented it was almost a shame to eat them (dishes from £22; aru.net.au).
When I finally put down my fork and made plans to get to the airport, I was just hoping not to exceed my own baggage allowance after such an Aussie food adventure.
Nina Caplan was a guest of Tourism Australia (australia.com) and Visit Victoria (visitvictoria.com). A deluxe Grampians Peaks package at the Royal Mail Hotel, including a day tour of the southern part of the trail with a private guide, two nights’ B&B in a mountain view room, dinner for two at the Parker Street Project and a other in Wickens, costs from £1,150 for two (royalmail.com.au). Flights with Grampians Helicopters cost from £130 pp for twenty minutes (Grampians.com.au helicopters). Fly to Melbourne
Three other short trips from Australian cities
1. Fly near Perth
From Western Australia’s capital, hire a car and drive three hours to Margaret River along the coast. Once settled in this pretty wine region, alternate walks on the beach by the Indian Ocean with strolls through the leafy town, and take a helicopter ride to all three wineries (with a stop at one for lunch ) and a scenic flight along the coast.
Details Two nights B&B at the Cape Lodge Hotel from £875 (capelodge.com.au). Helicopter wine tour £425 extra, including two winery tastings, lunch and coastal flight. Fly to Perth
2. Commune with koalas near Adelaide
The beautiful Adelaide Hills, with their vineyards and parks, are just a 20-minute drive from the city. Stay at Sequoia Lodge, a new luxury hotel perched on a hill overlooking the Piccadilly Valley, with hot springs and the Mount Lofty Botanical Garden right next door. The hotel can arrange a private wildlife experience at Cleland Wildlife Park, where you can feed kangaroos and cuddle a koala.
Details B&B doubles from £900, including some activities (sequoialodge.com.au). Wildlife experience for two additional £520. Fly to Adelaide
3. Get artsy near Hobart
The Mona Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania is a privately funded institution spread over three underground levels, a 15-minute drive up the River Derwent from central Hobart. The best way to enjoy the eclectic collection, which ranges from ancient antiques to contemporary works, is to stay in the resort’s luxurious pavilions, which also house a cafe, winery, and sauna.
Details B&B doubles at the Mona Pavilions from £455, including priority access to the museum and wine and beer tastings (mona.net.au). Fly to Hobart