Australia: The bright side of Victoria's high country

By Dani Wright

Dani Wright takes in the country air, gourmet delights and small-town charms of Victoria’s high country.
Ginger Baker restaurant in Bright, Victoria. Photo / Dani Wright
Ginger Baker restaurant in Bright, Victoria. Photo / Dani Wright

It was summertime that drew us to Bright, Victoria - a shady town steeped in history - but it is touted as an "all-season" town.

Autumn colours paint the town red, orange and gold but later it's an alpine winter-wonderland base for days out on nearby Mt Hotham or Falls Creek snow resorts. The Ovens River that runs through town is perfectly positioned for long, lazy Lilo rides downstream or fast-paced river plunges after shooting down steep slides into the water.

For starters, we take the winding road up Mt Buffalo. There are plenty of trails to choose but we pick The Horn, where we feel on top of the world looking out over 360-degree views across the Australian Alps.

The quiet at the top of the granite tors is broken by the call of the crows, butterflies flapping at high altitude and geckos skidding past, even at the very top of the trail. At nightfall, it's said millions of Bogong moths fly out of the granite crevices.

In historic times, Aboriginal inhabitants of northeast Victoria journeyed here for their summers, feasting on the moths, a traditional edible delicacy. These days, the delicacies of the region include wine grapes, hops, nuts, olives, asparagus, peppermint, apples and berries.

We sample some of these in our Mt Buffalo Escape gourmet picnic hamper made by Coral Lee cafe in the village. It's stocked full of Gamze Smokehouse roast beef in thin slices worthy of the most fussy New York delicatessen, nostalgic potato and rice salads, the freshest sourdough bread, tart quince jam, giant Mt Buffalo olives and thick slices of the tastiest cheddar from Milawa Cheese Company, located in nearby Milawa Gourmet Region.

Coral Lee owner Sam Martin says her style is "Nana's food; never fancy" and her cafe pays homage to her grandmother and their shared love of cooking from when Sam was a child.
In a true waste-not-want-not approach, everything she makes is cooked in a pizza oven because that's what was in the building when she moved her cafe in. It's also filled with vintage items from the 1950s and 1970s, the eras that have most inspired her.

To work off the lunch, we pick up the stretch limousines of the bicycle world - tandems - from CyclePath Bright, and cruise along the fairly flat Murray to Mountains Rail Trail to nearby Porepunkah. If we had more time we could have gone for a winery or berry farm stop, but we choose instead to take a dip in the Ovens River and cool down with iced coffees and Dr Pepper spiders at the Lycra-welcoming Rail Trail Cafe.

Every style of drink bottle dangles from under the roof of the entrance to the cafe and in the evening you can pick up an electric bike, go for Mexican at the cafe before an easy electric bike ride back into Bright.

Ask CyclePath to create bike-riding itineraries for you to take advantage of their 20 years of experience and get off the beaten track with some of the rides out of town - there are so many to explore.

If you'd rather see the sights by bigger saddle, head like us to Bogong Horseback Adventures, family-run for the past 30 years. The horses are trained by "natural horsemanship" so they are gentle and responsive.

It's a beautiful property and you'll ride past cherry plum trees and wild berries out to the high country through what was once tobacco-farming land populated by Italian immigrants.

It takes a long bumpy time to get to the foot of the high country from the farm, so pack a few snacks if you're taking your children with you.

Apart from the stunning scenery and active lifestyle opportunities surrounding Bright, there are also dining options such as the gorgeous Ginger Baker Wine Bar and Cafe, set on the edge of Centenary Park on the river.

It doesn't get much better than sipping chilled local pinot gris, sharing plates of delicious morsels, such as fig and mango salad with candied pecan nuts; pork and fennel meatballs; and calamari with chorizo, chilli and lemon, while listening to live music, sitting under a giant elm tree.

Close to the cafe is the splash park where the kids can play instead of being bored at the table. Somehow, though, they make it back in time for the arrival of the prettiest desserts, sprinkled in edible flowers. Stopping a while at Ginger Baker is an experience not to be missed.

There's also the iconic Bright Brewery with flavoursome mountain-crafted beers benefiting from the freshest alpine water and craft brewing techniques. Try out a beer tasting paddle to find the perfect tipple to match with a pulled-pork burger oozing finger-licking flavour or oven-baked Harrietville trout - falling off your fork with freshness - on top of a rocket, walnut and parmesan salad.

For those with a sweet tooth, take a Bright chocolate factory tour set in the historic stables once part of the original Bright Bakery. Take home a beautiful bar of hand-wrapped single-origin chocolate or try choc-dipped mangoes and sour cherries - you won't be disappointed.

There's also the Old-Fashioned Lolly Shop - next to the dentist - or the original lolly shop opposite the library with its book sculpture bench seats outside. If that's not enough for your sweet tooth, try Le Blanche Ice Creamery.

Gourmet bites and granite tors, high country horse-riding and lazy Lilo river floats all add up to a charming experience in this Victorian rural town worth adding on to any Melbourne city visit, whatever the season.

Fact box

Bright is just over three hours' drive from Melbourne Tullamarine Airport. There are campgrounds but for a more comfortable stay, consider an Airbnb cutie such as Baba's Cottage, hosted by baby and kids homewares designer Little Wolff. It's in a quiet street just 10 minutes stroll into town and to the Ovens River.

- Spy.co.nz

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