Yarra: Up, Up and away

By Luke Costin

Luke Costin meanders over farmland, tidy rows of grapevines, and the Yarra Valley’s wandering rivers and creeks in a hot air balloon
Global Ballooning, in the Yarra Valley.
Global Ballooning, in the Yarra Valley.

Kiff Saunders, the one-time lumberjack piloting my balloon, has been at the burners of balloons for the past 30 years.

It is like a scene from a dream. Nothing but a golden sun and a fluffy blanket of cloud in my sight.
I can barely resist the urge to leap out of my hot air balloon basket and dive among the cushions around me.

Ballooning delivers some surreal moments and my brief peek above the morning fog over the Yarra Valley has been particularly hair-raising. And not for the reason I expected.

Wind, it turns out, has little effect on those travelling with it, making many thick clothes unnecessary at altitude. It's one of a few instances where my quick pre-flight assumptions about ballooning are pleasantly ruled out once we are in the air.

Global Ballooning, in the Yarra Valley.
Global Ballooning, in the Yarra Valley.


Another poor assumption is there is no fun in cruising at a slower speed. Sure, catching glimpses of landmarks are possible from the window seat of a plane. But those fleeting flashes cannot compare to the gentle meandering over farmland, tidy rows of grapevines, and the Yarra Valley's wandering rivers and creeks.

The third wrong assumption is that ballooning in the Yarra Valley would be anything but first class.
Kiff Saunders, the one-time lumberjack piloting my balloon, has been at the burners of balloons for the past 30 years. In the past 12 months, he's flown in Brazil, Ireland and, after tethering a balloon to a Russian icebreaker, at the North Pole.

But, despite the calls for him to remain overseas, Saunders has kept his base in Melbourne and played a part in the Yarra Valley's revival.

Tesselaar Tulip Festival.
Tesselaar Tulip Festival.


The state's first wine region failed to see out the Great Depression but the industry was resurrected in the late 1960s by a few curious winemakers. Once Moet & Chandon, De Bortoli and McWilliam's came knocking in the 1980s, the region quickly expanded and is now home to more than 80 labels.

One of those to set foot in the area was Bendigo Winery Balgownie Estate in 2002. Set on 12ha of undulating terrain outside Yarra Glen, the label's Yarra Valley site has quickly built a satisfying list of locally-produced wines. Its pinot noir made the leap to the winery's premier Estate label for the first time in 2013. "It may not be a big deal for everyone but we're really proud," says sales manager Melanie Watson.

Balgownie Estate sets itself apart from other boutique wineries with its integrated first-class resort.

A minute on the property is enough to see how it snapped up the award for Victoria's best regional accommodation from Tourism Accommodation Australia last year.
An indoor pool and gym can help do away the guilt of consuming a few too many wines, while those looking for relaxation sans alcohol can step inside the day spa and health club for a soothing massage.

As for food with views, few guests turn down the opportunity to watch the sun set over the vineyards as they dine at the on-site restaurant.

But the most valuable player on the Balgownie team is the courtesy driver, Mark.

Worry about who should be designated driver ends with Mark, who makes visiting several cellar doors and the tantalising Yarra Valley Chocolaterie & Ice Creamery in all in a single a day more than possible.

The restaurant at Balgownie Estate winery in the Yarra valley.
The restaurant at Balgownie Estate winery in the Yarra valley.


DON'T MISS ...
The Healesville Hotel's desserts are a treat not to be missed.
Meeting vets and nurses as they treat sick, injured or orphaned wildlife at Healesville Sanctuary.

A chance to sample all the local produce in one place. A farmers' market runs on the third Sunday of each month from Yering Station.
Viewing Yarra Valley from above. Global Ballooning has flown 110,000 passengers in 25 years.
Walking among one million spring flowers in bloom at the Tesselaar Tulip Festival. The four-week family festival runs from September 14-October 10.

CHECKLIST

Getting there
Qantas flies daily from Auckland to Melbourne, with Economy Class return flights starting from $530.

- AAP

- NZ Herald

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