Image credit: Sharyn Cairns
So lovely that it’s been attracting holidaymakers since the 1800s, and with contemporary twists to suit every taste, Daylesford is the town with it all when it comes to a country escape.
When we arrive in Daylesford, it’s already been spring for a couple of months, but the town seems unconcerned with trifling matters such as adhering to the seasons. Besides, the Victorian town fringed by the cuddly sounding Wombat State Forest, is more suited to puffer jackets and puffs of smoke curling from chimneys than balmy days.
“It’s a bit of a chick’s town, isn’t it?” observes my husband after a 10-minute stroll up the main street. I return his comment with the only correct response… an exaggerated eye-roll. But he has a point. With a cluster of knick-knacky homewares stores and day spas as prolific as suburban Thai restaurants, Daylesford does initially present as the holy grail of hens’ weekends.
But it’s unfair to write it off as appealing to just one sex. Although Daylesford could easily play backdrop to a British countryside TV drama, there’s a refined style to the lavender-scented soaps, and ordering a macchiato doesn’t elicit raised eyebrows.
This idyllic town, first established in 1854, was built on gold. Once the mines were abandoned, the legacy of a town once aglow with bullion remained in its grand buildings. The addition to this lofty architecture of a quaint influence from Swiss Italian migrants, a distinctly European feel, and the highest (85 per cent) concentration of mineral springs in Australia, means Daylesford, Hepburn Springs and their surrounds have been attracting holidaymakers since gentlefolk first popped open their parasols in the 1800s and declared the area delightful.
Let’s also not forget the town’s location; a stone’s throw from the Macedon Ranges, where excellent wine and wonderful produce abound. And where there’s good wine, food, and genuinely heart-skipping property prices, you’re going to find a procession of tree-changers eschewing their office-cubicle careers to write that book they always knew they had in them, or finally begin that more creative but less lucrative vocation their parents/spouse/voice-of-reason always dissuaded them from pursuing. These city dodgers, mostly from Melbourne, bring with them a pulsating energy and enthusiasm for their adopted home, resulting in wonderful restaurants, shops, and polished hospitality.
When it comes to travel, first impressions are often as useful as the paper knickers you’re given at day spas. And, after a good-sized beer and matching fish and chips at the Daylesford Hotel, my husband had seen the error of his assumptions and reversed his opinion. After two days, he was as delighted with the town as any ‘chick’ would be. So even if you’re not the type to languish in artesian waters, Daylesford’s history, architecture, elegant gardens and destination-making food and wine will please you. Here are a few not-to-be-missed experiences.
Take a class at Natasha Morgan’s dollhouse in the forest
If you could choose to be a flower anywhere in the world, you’d do well to be a part of Natasha Morgan’s garden on her property, Oak and Monkey Puzzle, just outside of Daylesford. Although, you may not make the cut: “Every plant in my garden has to be spectacular for it to be here,” says the woman who calls herself a ‘place maker’. Formerly an architect and landscape architect, Natasha is now, essentially, a creator of beauty. Her wonderland-style garden and achingly perfect white wooden home (once a post office) makes one’s own dwellings seem frightfully mediocre.
When I arrive, the lovely, pixie-faced Natasha is making a pork roast for a bunch of people who are learning to make a dry stone wall in her backyard. The students get the knowledge, Natasha gets a wall and everyone gets a pork lunch (with bubbly crackling). It’s just one of the workshops she runs from her exquisite property. If you don’t have anywhere to build a wall in your urban life, you can also learn, among other things, the arts of shibori, garden design, fermenting, and carving in stone.
Natasha leads me outside where her gorgeous garden gives way to a forest behind. She shows me the nissen hut and shipping container she is preparing to turn into accommodation and I make a mental note to return when they’re up and running.
Before I reluctantly leave, Natasha bundles her homemade cordials into my arms and advises me to make an elderflower gin and tonic. The three large bottles make for slightly awkward carry-on, but turn out to be entirely worth it.
Perfect the art of leisure at Lake House
A pre-dinner note by culinary director Alla Wolf-Tasker confirms that spring has come late to Daylesford. For this reason the produce on the Lake House menu, which the restaurateur proudly sources locally, lingers somewhat in winter. We couldn’t care less; such is the elegant symphony of flavours that entertain our palates throughout the tasting menu of such things as tempura of Moreton Bay bug in nori, and signature smoked eel in pancetta. A gin and tonic with a glassy round of candied cumquat reminds me of Natasha’s elderflower cordial.
You could come here just to delight in the award-winning restaurant and marvel at the achievement of revered chef Alla and her pure tenacity, which, over four decades, has turned what was once just a creek with a Chinese market garden on its banks into a location of astounding beauty. But you’d miss half the experience, because staying here is bucket-list worthy.
Take your time to explore the grounds. Stroll the manmade lake and watch the mist rise from the water in the early morning, admiring the stringy barks, silverbirch and old varieties of fruit trees. Visit artist (and Alla’s husband) Allan’s studio on the property. And, of course, in the wellness capital of the country, enjoy a treatment at the on-site Salus spa.
If you’re feeling gold rush-style flush, spring for the Atrium Villa and pretty much emerge only for dinner. Everything you need to languish in a robe for a large part of the day is here: a fireplace, plenty of books, a deep bath, wine and whisky (probably don’t combine those last three).
Don’t stop with the food and wine
Of course, now you’ve eaten at Lake House you might not see the point in any further culinary pursuits. But, this will pass, and must, because Daylesford has a lovely selection of places to enjoy a meal.
Belvedere Social, on Vincent Street, is a good place to reflect on what gold rush-era Daylesford might have been like, and then to decide that 21st century Daylesford, where you can spend a lazy few hours with a bottle of Punt Road gamay, is probably much better. Pair it with a bowl of mussels and beef carpaccio and your afternoon is made.
Because wine and the country complement each other so well, some clever people have opened a bottleshop where you can drink your purchase on the premises. Wine and the Country sells regional wines, gin and vermouth and has a small cabinet of local cheese and other morsels. It’s handily located very close to Lake House, just make sure you take it easy crossing the road if you’ve sampled your purchases somewhat liberally.
Take a walk on an extinct volcano
Long after the site ceased being a volcano, the manicured and well-tended Wombat Hill Botanical Gardens were established in 1863. The dome-shaped gardens look down on Daylesford but if you feel like a loftier viewpoint, clamber up the Pioneers’ Memorial Tower (built in 1938) to see the town in miniature. Having made such strenuous efforts, rewards await at Wombat Hill House store and cafe, which happens to be another Alla Wolf-Tasker-run eatery.
Mosey on for a stroll through The Convent. This gorgeous 19th century mansion was initially built as a private residence but was later bought by the Catholic Church and filled with nuns. Today the nuns are long gone and in their place is a gallery, a cafe, and a steady procession of brides come wedding season.
Inhale the scents of the garden, filling your lungs with country air, which seems particularly restorative in Daylesford, before heading back to city life with a blueprint for your own tree change taking shape.
Daylesford is a one hour and 40 minute-drive north-west of Melbourne.
You can’t beat a stay at Alla Wolf-Tasker’s delightful property, with its gorgeous grounds and award-winning restaurant.
Oak and Monkey Puzzle
Take a class in anything from dry stone walling to shibori at Natasha Morgan’s property.
Three levels of art in a 19th-century mansion, with a cafe and leafy surrounds.
Wombat Hill House
As well as dining at Lake House, stop into Alla’s other lovely eatery in the Wombat Hill Botanic Gardens.
Enjoy a produce-driven menu and craft cocktail list at this central Daylesford location.
The Wine And the Country
Drink your purchase on the premises or enjoy in the nearby comfort of your Lake House digs.
WRITTEN BY Lara Picone for Australian Traveller