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Higher Ground

 An edited version was published in Interval World, November 2015

Fittingly, in Victoria’s High Country, the higher you go, the better the views get. Start down low and you’ve got valleys and fields flush with wildflowers, rustic old farm buildings and row upon row of grapevines. A little higher up, you can add tumbling rivers and majestic lakes. Higher again, and it’s winding roads, undulating hills, and sweeping sky-scapes making it into the mix. Oh, and mountains. Did we mention the mountains? 

That’s right, this rich and fertile region is not only responsible for producing some of Australia’s best food and wine, it boasts the country’s second highest mountain peak, Mt Buller. Now I’ll bet your bottom Aussie dollar that you’ve started imagining smattering snowflakes, jaw-dropping glaciers and more ice caps than you could possibly hope to photograph … and that’s all true, and come winter, snow sport fans flock to the High Country to avail themselves of the snow and powder that pepper its slopes. 

But the High Country is picture perfect at any time of year, and there are plenty of reasons to come here in the warmer months – that’s January through April – starting with sunshine, and a lot of it. So head for the hills for your next big adventure: the Victorian High Country in southeastern Australia. We take you on an elevating tour of five of its must-sees.

Elevation 152 metres: The King Valley’s food and wine

Imagine rolling green hills interspersed with vineyards, and open plains coloured by a wildflower palette. Quaint brick and stone farm buildings, picnic blankets on the grass, and wine glasses shimmering in the sunlight … you could spend an entire weekend happily cellar dooring in the King Valley, but you’ll receive the very best Italian-style hospitality spending a day exploring the ‘Prosecco Road’, a mouthwatering food and wine trail that celebrates the success of the prosecco vines winemaker Otto Dal Zotto first planted here in 2000. Today there are six King Valley vineyards producing this delicious sparkling white wine. Sample them over a game of bocce at Dal Zotto Estate, knocking shoulders with the prestigious Brown Brothers, and cellar dooring at the Chrismont, Pizzini, Ciccone and Sam Miranda vineyards.

And what’s a decent wine, without a decent cheese? The Milawa Cheese Factory is housed in a historic butter factory, and has developed an award winning range of hand-made cow and goat milk cheeses. You really must try them all, and browse their country cottage inspired range of tableware. You’ll also be rather pleased with yourself for calling into The Olive Shop, which is nearby. It stocks gourmet treats – including olives – women’s clothing and accessories, and an indulgent range of 100 per cent Merino wool products to wrap yourself up in.

Elevation 230 metres: Water sports at Lake Eildon

The High Country is home to the second largest inland waterway in Australia, a sparkling freshwater lake that was created by the damming of the Goulburn River in the 1920s. The lake’s silvery shores stretch for some 330 miles, and when it’s full, it holds more than six times the water contained in the whole of Sydney Harbour. A handful of townships – namely Eildon, Alexandra, Mansfield, Bonnie Doon, Howqua, Jamieson, and Yea – live their lives around its splendid waters, and it’s also home to more than 700 houseboats (you can view one of the earliest, the Mimi Jane, up-close in Eildon by visiting the Information Centre on the Main Street).

On long, hot summer days, locals flock to its pristine waters to picnic, swim, and take to its shimmering surface for boating, canoeing, kayaking and water skiing, and fishing. Along with its tributary, the Goulburn River, Lake Eildon is one of the country’s most popular freshwater destinations for fly-fishing, and good old fashioned bait and lure fishing. Rainbow trout, brown trout, perch, redfin, Murray cod, roach, tench, and carp are just some of the species that can be caught here. There’s no need to bring all your own fishing gear, nor is there any need to have any previous experience. Several providers offer boat hire and guided fishing experiences, and some will even clean your catch for you. Hello dinner! 

Elevation 254 metres: Jamieson’s history and beer

The picturesque town of Jamieson is nestled on Lake Eildon’s southeastern shore, and sits at the junction of the Goulburn and Jamieson Rivers. It’s a must for history buffs, car enthusiasts, and lovers of that most iconic of Aussie beverages: beer. 

Jamieson was first settled during the heady goldrush decade of the 1860s, when brave hearted migrants flocked to various pockets of inland Australia to try their luck panning and digging for gold. The town became a supply base for the surrounding mines, and a rollicking good place for lucky gold panners to celebrate their successes. Many traces of this colorful bygone era remain and the town’s historical streets and sign-posted historical sites a-plenty make for interesting walking. The heritage-listed Jamieson Courthouse and Museum is great for a visual fossick through the years. Another spot, the Bimbi Car & Memorabilia Museum, hosts a large collection of vintage cars, machinery and displays, and ticks a nostalgic box of a motoring kind.

For sustenance, the award winning Jamieson Brewery melds traditional beer brewing techniques with a modern beer tasting and Aussie pub dining experience. Preservative free beers handcrafted using fresh water from the surrounding mountains come in odd yet palate-pleasing flavours, like raspberry. Brewery tours and tastings happen at lunchtime – so whet your appetite sampling at the tap,s then enjoy a classic Aussie pub lunch in the bistro as the waters of Lake Eildon and the Goulburn River shimmer nearby.

Elevation 320 metres: Shop and spa in Mansfield

Many people whiz through the town of Mansfield on their way to the nearby Mt Buller and Mt Stirling Alpine Resorts, stopping just to fill up on petrol and use the local amenities. More fool them, as this cozy town is more than a gateway, it’s a vibrant destination worthy of a proper visit all its own. 

Bring your wallet, because you’re going to be tempted. Very tempted, as Mansfield is great for shopping. Big enough to keep you busy for an afternoon, but small enough to not get lost in, your shopping experience here will be a follow your nose and find the treasure affair. Some stores to look out for include Mansfield High Country Apparel for high quality country fashion, Ja Beta Creations and Oobidat for women’s fashion and homewares, Edith and May for flowers and eclectic items, and artisan collective Made in Mansfield. Be sure to stop into the Regional Produce Store on the High Street for coffee and food from the seasonal menu (or heck, just cake), and step out the back to the gallery to see works by local artists. 

The High Street is also the home of the Mansfield Farmers’ Market. Considered one of Victoria’s best, it’s held on the fourth Saturday of every month. It’s filled with delicious regional produce and a bunch of friendly locals who love to chat with visitors. 

All that browsing is going to be hard on your feet, so book yourself in to Coco Beauty Retreat on Malcolm Street for an end of the day rejuvenation session. Facial treatments? Check. Manicures and pedicures? Check. Body exfoliations, wraps and massages? Check! 

Elevation 1,804 metres: Bushwalking, hiking, mountain biking atop Mount Buller

Sure, the Mt Buller Alpine Resort’s busiest time of year is between June and September, when snow bunnies ascend its slopes, snowboards and skis at the ready, and make merry getting air, carving snow and riding powder. But this stately mountain, which at nearly 6,000 feet is one of Australia’s highest peaks, is a 365 days of year destination. During the summer and early autumn, temperatures are comfortable and the snow that covers its slopes in the cooler months has given way to lush bush and cascading waterfalls, abundant grasses and wildflowers, sultry sunsets and panoramic vistas of the high country. 

People come here to walk, hike and run its trails, to cycle its curving uphill ribbon of bitumen on road bikes, and increasingly, to hurtle down and along its world-class bronze-level runs and cross-country terrain on mountain bikes. You could be a beginner, an advanced rider, or somewhere in-between, and find your place (and pace) on the guided Downhill Rush Tour. It begins with a skills session at the top of the mountain, then takes you down (and down, and exhilaratingly down!) for 7.5 miles to the Delatite River.

The Mt Buller Alpine Village is the mountain’s mini metropolis, and is open all year round. Here, you can hire bikes, book tours, pick up audio guides and maps for walking, play tennis and soccer, tackle the indoor climbing wall, visit the Breathtaker spa, or avail yourself of the bars, restaurants and cafes.