The River Drive Motel is such a treat, I engineered a return visit within a few months of my first.

I stayed at the motel, in South Gippsland, for the first time last July, on a wild and woolly winter weekend.

My family and I ventured to an old, remote clifftop lighthouse, but couldn’t stay long (thanks to violent wind gusts, sideways rain), got drenched at a farmgate (while loading up on seasonal greens, vegetables and homemade chutneys) and mucked up a trip to a handsome art deco pub (the kitchen was closed between lunch and dinner). The silver lining of this very wet weekend? More time in our cosy designer motel.

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When an opportunity arose to return to Gippsland for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival’s regional edition a few months later, I raced back to River Drive.

The five-room motel is located opposite the tranquil, reed-fringed Tarwin River. Kate Hannaford and Dic Coates, business and life partners who own Melbourne-based Moth Design, spent more than a year restoring the place with the help of Coates’s brother and his wife. They’d bought it in 2021, run-down and in need of a hefty refurbishment. The end result is a contemporary retreat that melds Australian nostalgia with modern polish.

There’s been a spate of motel refurbs around the country in recent years. Some of these revamps feel superficial, with inexpensive modifications and little imagination, while others have been substantively restored and enhanced; River Drive falls squarely into the latter category. Spacious rooms feature custom-made Victorian hardwood furniture, considered layouts and meaningful decor, including paintings and photographs by Australian artists, and vintage pieces.

Both times I visited, I stayed in The Nest, a room for four with a queen bed and a pair of generously-sized bunk beds. Other rooms at River Drive sleep two, three or five. There’s a communal garden, too, with picnic tables and a barbeque, plus a shed stocked with games like Jenga, Finska and quoits.

The food and drink options in the surrounding towns are myriad (and part of the reason you’d visit the region in the first place) but, with their well-stocked kitchenettes, rooms are equipped with everything you’d need to eat in.

We ate at “home” each morning, with a spread of hyper-local produce you can order through the motel: sourdough from Inverloch, eggs from Wonthaggi, cultured butter by Gippsland Jersey, the creamiest milk from Glen Forbes, and organic cheddar made 30 minutes down the road in Bena at Prom Country Cheese. (River Drive has partnered with local caterer Acacia Edibles to supply these seasonal boxes.)

The mini bar is also a love letter to the best of Gippsland, with ARC Wines, cans from Loch Brewery & Distillery, Gurneys Cider and Wawa Chocolate all on rotation.

Where to eat, shop and explore

South Gippsland is dairy country and one of Victoria’s most important food bowls. This means a breadth of choice when it comes to food, drink and dining options. No matter where you find yourself, you’ll encounter small-batch cheese, wine by exacting and imaginative vignerons, limited-run drinks by craft brewers, fermenters and distillers, and in-season produce from local farms.

It’s also a beautiful part of the world, with scenic beaches, old pubs, charming village main streets and rolling farmland peppered with black and white Holstein cows. This means travelling to your destination is part of the pleasure of the trip.

Venus Bay

Venus Bay, about 10 minutes by car west from River Drive Motel, is your quintessential Aussie coastal town with a small clutch of shops and five surf beaches.

The surf here can be treacherous, and there are plenty of rips, so if you plan to swim make sure it’s at No.1 between the flags, as the other beaches aren’t regularly patrolled. All are great for a fortifying morning walk flanked by grassy dunes, pipi hunters and fishers casting their lines into the waves. (Inverloch is another nearby option for a pretty ocean beach, roughly 15 minutes by car from Tarwin Lower.)

Fish Creek

Fish Creek, a 20-minute drive west from the motel, is a small, charming town home to, among other things, the Alison Lester Gallery – the celebrated children’s author and illustrator grew up in the area. It’s an easy stroll around town before or after a classic pub lunch at the art deco Fish Creek Hotel.

If you’re looking for more than pub fare, the menu at Waratah Hills Vineyard, just eight minutes’ drive from Fish Creek, highlights South Gippsland produce and ingredients from the property’s own gardens. Gurneys Cider in nearby Foster is also a worthy detour for some of the state’s best cider and more local snacks.

Meeniyan

This pretty, one-drag township is home to two wonderful diners.

Moo’s brings a touch of city polish to the country with its smart, wood-clad interiors. Dishes are hearty and comforting and use top local ingredients.

Trulli, a southern-Italian spot, specialises in woodfired pizza and housemade, hand-rolled pasta. Owner Francesco Laera was born and raised on a farm in Puglia, where his family made their own bread, olive oil, cheese and wine, and he brings this spirit to his so-called neighbourhood “cucina povera”. At Trulli Pantry next door you can pick up Italian pastries, ready-made meals and Gippsland-sourced groceries and wines.

Loch

Loch is just one hours’ drive from Melbourne – drop in on your way to the motel or make it the last stop before heading back to the city. It’s a charming village with one main drag, home to a brewer-distiller, antique shops and cafes. I’m a fan of the Loch Grocer, with its tiny but changing menu revolving around regional produce (think housemade frittatas and soups, eggs with a side of thick crispy bacon), which it also sells direct to shoppers.

Grab a coffee there, then meander down the main street. Peruse locally made ceramics, fresh flowers and Aussie goods and plenty of antiques at Mr Tarlo and Friends, Talking Pieces and the warren that is Carrington’s.

The cabinets at Olive at Loch are full of house-made sausage rolls, pies and cakes. Don’t leave town without grabbing one of its superb beef pies made with ale from nearby Loch Brewery & Distillery. The red-brick distiller makes small-batch spirits ranging from gin to vodka, but the speciality here is limited-run single-malt whiskies and beers made with old English recipes.

River Drive Motel
19-21 River Drive, Tarwin Lower
0483 906 736

riverdrivemotel.com.au

The writer was a guest of River Drive Motel and Visit Victoria.