Jesse Mulligan ventures three hours north of Melbourne to discover a region with enough eating delight to make him a very happy man.
It's too easy for a New Zealand foodie to book yet another weekend in Melbourne city — to visit a couple of old favourite restaurants and perhaps take a punt on a trendy newcomer.
But for the truly adventurous Aotearoan food-hunter, the region of Northeast Victoria, three hours up the line, offers restaurants just as acclaimed as those in Melbourne, along with a first-class rail trail, vineyard tastings, beautiful scenery and authentic country life.
You'll need to rent a car from the airport to get to the wine-growing high country, but the trip flies by with air conditioning and a good car stereo.
The Northeast has several wine-growing regions, four Good Food Guide "hatted" restaurants and dozens of gourmet businesses devoted to craft beer, honey, olive oil and coffee.
Here are my highlights:
I began in this quaint, historical gold-rush town, where regulations forbid any changes to the 1860s-era main-street building facades. It feels like driving into a Wild West town, and it's no surprise to hear this was the location for many of Ned Kelly's most famous moments, including his last stand.
Nowadays the mines have given way to vines, and you can explore the best cellar doors by electric bike on a self-guided or hosted tour from Tour de Vines. I particularly loved Pennyweight Wines, where a fifth-generation family winemaker ignores commercial imperatives in favour of traditional techniques. His sweet, fortified "Gold" blend is famous but I was blown away by all the wines I tasted, including a fino sherry that could have come from Andalusia.
Beechworth has plenty of eating options, of which Provenance is justifiably the most famous, a Japanese-influenced modern restaurant where celebrated chef Michael Ryan creates mindbending dishes of exquisite taste and texture. A favourite was the pork jowl, smoked, braised and served with bitter radicchio and sweet soaked raisins; still, the menu changes according to what's falling off the trees that week, so the most useful recommendation is just to book early.
Two more casual options include Italian bistro Ox and Hound and family-friendly Bridge Road Brewers, where you can wash down your margarita pizza with a 12-glass flight of craft beers from this superb local brewery.
For coffee in the morning head to Cellar Door or Project 49, where the world's most over-qualified barista might tell you about his history working with some of Australia's most celebrated food and wine stars. Both these places also do good wine and food later in the day.
It's worth spending half a day in Rutherglen, where you can find wine, bikes and snake-wrangling advice at the local information centre, where they'll most likely send you an hour up the rail trail to All Saints winery (there's a good halfway stop for tastings of both wine and olive oil at The Wicked Virgin). Another family-owned operation, it's been around since the mid-19th century, when the owners built a European-style castle then set about putting the land around it to use.
Adjoining the cellar door is another restaurant that is recognised with a well-deserved "Hat" in culinary bible the Good Food Guide. Known as Terrace, it was my favourite meal of the whole trip — superbly simple meats with fresh produce, perfectly cooked and beautifully presented. Eat here if you possibly can.
From there I moved on to this pretty tourist town, where on Saturday morning young families play on the riverbank and browse the produce market. I hired a high-spec electric cycle from Bright Electric Bikes, a friendly business that will soon be licensed for wine tastings too.
My grunty German motor made short work of the 10km ride to Feathertop Winery, where a charming and passionate local couple make wine, host weddings, serve lunches and generally do whatever it takes to keep their loyal customers happy. The wine is spectacular, and best enjoyed with an antipasti platter in the sun.
At night, you have two hatted restaurants to choose from. I went for Tani, another Japanese-style degustation dinner served with matching sake. Squid, fried and cut into linguini-style noodles with fresh radish and cucumber, was a typically surprising and delicious dish, and the tasting menu was satisfying without leaving you horribly stuffed.
The other famous restaurant in town is Simone's, where original owners Patrizia and George only make cameo appearances these days — their son Anthony now presides over a menu combining traditional Italian recipes with seasonal Australian produce, and if you come on the right day you can take a cooking class.
I flew back to Auckland on Sunday night, refreshed after three nights in luxury accommodation and having enjoyed some of the best food and wine on the planet. This is a region built for the happy foodie, and in spring or autumn when the temperature eases off and the landscape is bursting with colour, it's hard to think of anywhere in Australia you'd prefer to be.
Getting there: Qantas flies daily from Auckland to Melbourne.
Further information: See victoriashighcountry.com.au.