Victoria: Happy Valleys

By Nicola Whitham

Nicola Whitham experiences the sweet life in Victoria's green and pleasant North East Valleys.

Historic Beechworth is beautifully preserved. Photo / Tourism Victoria
Historic Beechworth is beautifully preserved. Photo / Tourism Victoria

Melbourne is a sophisticated, cosmopolitan city, so I'm told.

I have yet to visit it, and I watch it whizz past the car window a little wistfully. Luckily, though, we are instead bound for the good life of Victoria's North East Valleys.

About three hours' drive from the city, nestled between the skifields and the Murray River, the North East Valleys are all rolling hills, vineyards and gourmet produce.

The region is best viewed from atop Mt Bellevue - the drive over a long, winding gravel road rewards you with a panorama over 400ha of vines, olive trees and black cattle.

First stop is Bellevue B&B, owned by Winnie Jones, who runs the place as well as keeping cattle and growing grapes and olives. Her own house, next to the pool and tennis court, acts as the centre-point for the property, around which satellite buildings provide private, unique suites and cottages for guests. Winnie takes us downhill to play with the kids (of the goat kind) and admire the horses, while talking enthusiastically about the valley lifestyle.

Next thing I know I am clinging to the back of a quad bike as we ride the beaten track to another lookout with breathtaking 360-degree views over the King Valley and beyond.

The next day we take a drive along the promisingly named "Prosecco Road" between Whitfield and Milawa for wine tastings. There is a strong Italian culture in this part of Victoria and the region's cooler climate allows winemakers to experiment with more "alternative" grape varieties, particularly Italian. The difficulty is choosing a vineyard - Sam Miranda, Pizzini, Dal Zotto or Mt Chrismont?

We make our first stop at Pizzini, where owner Katrina Pizzini talks of her family history since the 1960s, when they transformed their tobacco farms into vineyards, as we taste some stunning Italian-style wines. There is even a chance for a cooking lesson here with Katrina's latest venture, a cooking school, A Tavola.

The family links are strong in this area. Dal Zotto, next door to Pizzini, is run by Katrina's nephews, Christian and Michael. We visit, tasting more Italian-style wine, as they share their own story. By the time we leave, we feel practically part of the family.

After many more wine tastings, food seems essential, and it's a short drive up to Wangaratta to visit Rinaldo's Casa Cucina. Owner/Chef Adam Pizzini (yes, another relative) runs the restaurant as a tribute to his father - from whom it takes its name. The place is buzzing with fans of Adam's Italian/Australian cuisine.

Once sated, we drive another 30 minutes to Milawa, north of Whitfield, where we check into the lovely Lindenwarrah Hotel. I wake in the morning to singing birds and more of those endless views over rows of vines.

Cycling is the best way to see Milawa and its abundance of gourmet produce, so we rent bikes - complete with cute baskets - and take a breezy ride in the sun on the "Pedal to Produce" gourmet trail.

We visit the cheese factory for tastings of locally made cheese, the olive shop and mustard house, then Brown Brothers for thirst-quenching wine. What a rough morning.

Tying many of these townships together is the Murray to Mountains rail trail, 94km of sealed historical railway lines. The trail suits all levels of fitness and you can ride as much or as little as you like.

Taking the easy option, we decide on a small, mostly downhill portion which allows us yet more epic views over the fields, and still lets us work off the morning's indulgences.

With the work-out done, we head further northeast to discover the beautifully preserved town of Beechworth and the delights of Bridge Road Brewers, which include refreshing home brews, ciders and wood-fired pizzas.

Then I'm off to discover Beechworth, wandering the streets lined with heritage buildings, including the courthouse in which Ned Kelly stood trial, before taking the full Ned Kelly tour.

The town is filled with cute vintage boutiques, gift shops, cafes and, my favourite, the Beechworth Sweet Company - three full shop spaces filled with every kind of confectionery.

After my exploration, it's time to check in to Freeman on Ford, a stunning Victorian-themed B&B in what was once the Oriental Bank, built in 1857. Elegant and detailed, the interior is all stencilled walls, delicate furniture and French antiques.

As night falls, we head to dinner at Provenance Restaurant, across the road from the B&B.

You can't spend any time in this part of Victoria without hearing rave reviews of Provenance - well-deserved, it turns out.

Located in another former bank, this time the Old Bank of Australasia building, the restaurant has high ceilings, atmospheric lighting and seating through several interconnecting rooms.

The stunning food by chef Michael Ryan, combined with locally matched wines and seamless service, makes it a memorable meal - the perfect end to a visit to the North East Valleys.

* Nicola Whitham travelled courtesy of Tourism Victoria.


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