The undercurrent of quality places to eat and stay in regional Victoria is slowly becoming a swell. Chefs of great calibre, smart restaurateurs and produce stores that insist on quality product are appearing across the Victorian countryside and providing the curious food-lover, the wine aficionados, the novices and the weary travellers a comforting mix of respite and pleasure.
While some places offer accommodation along with the dining experience, others have ongoing relationships with nearby hotels, bed-and-breakfasts and guesthouses that they readily recommend. This process of recommendation clearly gives emphasis to the strength of community spirit in regional Victoria, and is built on the kindness of support and help that can often be lacking in the urban landscape.
Loam is an award-winning restaurant and still one of the newer establishments in regional Victoria. Proprietor Aaron Turner and his wife Astrid offer an already renowned dining experience driven by what’s available on any given day – rather than list dishes they hand customers a list of ingredients. They don’t have accommodation on site but they do have a relationship with Athelstane House in Queenscliff, where Turner used to be head chef.
“We’re friends, so that helps,” says Turner when asked why he suggests his guests stay overnight at Athelstane House. “But it’s a very relaxed and very friendly place to stay that’s also professional.”
Turner also has a good relationship with two of the region’s taxi drivers, who are happy to drive guests the 10 to 15 minutes it takes to get from Loam to Athelstane House.
Further round the Great Ocean Road, Nigel Pickup, head chef and co-owner of Wye River’s General Store, has one hell of an operation to manage through the summer months. “From Boxing Day to Australia Day the only word to describe it is manic,” he says.
The population of Wye River, Kennett River and Separation Creek is 100 throughout the year; this number grows to 6000 over the summer holidays. The General Store doesn’t offer accommodation but the community is tight and supportive, and while Pickup happily suggests places to stay in the area, he admits you’ve got to get in quick. “Most accommodation is booked out years in advance,” he says, “but it’s always worth ringing around as there may be a small opportunity to find something. There’s always the camping ground if you don’t mind roughing it a bit.”
The area around Wye River, surrounded by ocean and rainforest, has seen very little development. Unsurprisingly, the beauty of the place increases the demand for places to stay. “We have a very captive audience,” Pickup explains, “but we live in a give-and-take community, everyone is very helpful. If we know of somewhere to stay we’ll help, but do get in early.”
Head north-west and you may stumble across the town of Yarck, population 223, where Pietro Porcu has set up the Tea Rooms of Yarck and converted a former Uniting Church across the road into The Churches B&B. This is a poppet of a place: sweet, charming and juxtaposed by big Sardinian flavours that are executed with a refined hand, giving cohesion to the whole package.
Co-owner Bianca Stephenson reiterates what other business owners have suggested here: plan ahead. “After two years of renovating the churches, we are full every weekend,” she says. The Tea Rooms offer a daily degustation menu and are only open three days each week – Friday nights and from midday into dinner on Saturdays and Sundays. This can make the experience special or frustrating, depending on whether or not you can find somewhere to stay.
So pack a bag, jump in the car or take the train, but don’t forget to call before you leave home.
Tea Rooms of Yarck
6585 Maroondah Highway, Yarck
(03) 5773 4233