Victoria: Lost in luxury

By Julie Dann

My mission, should I choose to accept it, is to fly to Melbourne alone, pick up a rental car, drive north out of the city for an hour-and-a-half, then find several places off the beaten track where I would be buffed and pampered to my heart's content.

Sounds fabulous? Yes. Easy? Well, maybe ... unless, like me, you've never been to Melbourne before and are "geographically challenged" as my husband likes to put it. Then it sounds a bit daunting.

So to avert disaster, I checked out Google Maps. Typing in "Hepburn Springs from Melbourne Airport" I promptly received very useful directions that included: "kayak across the Pacific Ocean, 3879 miles, entering Japan". Who knew there was a Melbourne Airport in the United States? and who kayaks the Pacific?

This would never do, the only answer was GPS. In the event the GPS was very polite when I went wrong, which was frankly inevitable, and politely said "recalculating" as opposed to the Billy Connolly version which probably swears at you.

In the end, I find navigating my way to the spa region of Daylesford and Hepburn Springs from Melbourne Airport a breeze.

Along the way, the aftermath of the terrible bush fires that devastated this region earlier this year is evident in blackened trees and a lingering smell of smoke.

But the people here are robust and undaunted - demonstrated by a stop-off along the way at Cliffys in Daylesford.

The outside of the building resembles a quaint old country store but inside is packed to the rafters with wonderful local food and produce. Its suppliers have been hit hard by the fires but they still produce divine country food. A simple but fabulous brushetta and a glass of local wine later, I was refreshed and on my way.

Next stop is the four-star Peppers Springs Retreat and Spa in Hepburn Springs. Beautiful, manicured European-style gardens surround the Tuscan-style Villa Parma. The private villa, built in 1864, is beautifully decorated and contains four bedrooms - all with en suites - making it a perfect spot for couples to share.

There are also separate spa villas and the rest of the accommodation is housed in the main building. There are plans afoot to build a further 24 hotel suites to replace garden suites with spa pools which can be noisy.

The Deco restaurant serves up delicious meals, all made from ingredients sourced locally or grown in the gardens.

The adjoining spa offers relaxing facials in "soft pak" water beds or almost any other treatment you can imagine.

No visit to this area would be complete without whiling away a couple of blissful hours at the Hepburn Bathhouse and Spa, which was renovated last year.

This region of Victoria boasts 80 per cent of the naturally occurring mineral water in Australia - so "taking the waters" is pretty much compulsory.

My spa experience begins with a private 30-minute healing mineral bath, followed by a 90-minute "Indoceane" spa ritual. I'm buffed with a mixture of warm sea salt and brown sugar with citrus oils before I shower and I am massaged into oblivion. Finally, a cocooning body wrap irons out any remaining minor kinks in the psyche. Bliss doesn't really cover it - and standing up afterwards proves the hardest bit.

All was right with the world now so I float off up the road to Lavandula, a Swiss Italian lavender farm established by Carol White.

White painstakingly restored an old farmhouse on the property and created European gardens as a homage to the Italian-speaking Swiss who first farmed the land. You can wander the gardens enjoying your own picnic, or enjoy top food at the Tattoria restaurant. There's another reminder of the bushfires here: the lavender harvest was almost finished when the fires reached this area on Black Saturday, two "cooked" rows have been left as a reminder.

From Lavandula it's off to one of the icons of Daylesford - Lake House, another business whose driving force is female - executive chef and co-owner Alla Wolf Tasker. Starting life as a weekend-only restaurant, Lake House has been voted Australia's best boutique hotel. Its lakeside-setting is stunning and a perfect companion to Salus Spa in the grounds. Nothing is too much trouble here, the rooms are plush and the views are to die for.

At dusk, after a hot mineral spa among the treetops and a one-hour facial, I watch flocks of huge white cockatoos settle in the trees. And while I sat and sipped bubbly, I was joined by a sociable kookaburra. The birds here must be among the best-fed in Australia, with a rib-eye steak dinner the doting restaurant staff offer them.

Lake House is filled with the paintings by Alla's artist husband Allan, whom you can visit in his garden studio, where, full of bonhomie, he will happily regale you with tales of his paintings. He is also responsible for much of the project management of the buildings.

By now I was feeling no pain and all was right with the world as I wafted into Daylesford's Convent Gallery on the slopes of Wombat Hill Botanical Gardens for more fabulous art and some light retail therapy. The creative force behind the gallery is the delightful Tina Banitska, who saw the potential of the broken shell of a building, abandoned by Holy Cross nuns, who once ran a boarding school here. It now boasts an ethereal chapel, conference centre, bar, retail store, penthouse and cafe as well as a small museum in the basement and nuns' cells, which tell of the building's history.

But all too soon, it was time to hit the road back to Melbourne with the help of my GPS. I promptly got very lost. When it told me to do a U-turn, back the way I had come, I was sorely tempted.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies non-stop every week from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch to Melbourne with connections available from other NZ airports.

Weblinks:

Peppers Springs Retreat and Spa
Hepburn Bathhouse and Spa
Lake House
The Convent Gallery, Daly Street, Daylesford. Open 10am-4pm.
Lavandula Lavender Farm, 350, Newstead Rd, Shepherds Flat. Open 10.30am-5.30pm, September to May.

Further information: See visitvictoria.com.

Julie Dann was a guest of Tourism Victoria.

- Herald on Sunday

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