With word-class wine, handcrafted chocolate and views to die for, a trip to the Yarra Valley is something of an indulgence
Words and Images Jan Hawkins
Being a frequent traveller along the National Highway 1 for many years, all 14,500km of it, you arrive at the sense of it being your very own ‘shared space’ driveway after a time. You know that feeling that you are in your backyard when you cross a state border into your home state, even though you have hundreds of kilometres ahead of you? That is when you truly know you have arrived at being a traveller.
And part of being a traveller, is planning diversions along your regular routes to discover hidden spots, or to re-visit favoured haunts. Many of these special locations we regularly check out are in the delightful wine districts of each state. As an advocate of the ‘farm gate’, I love visiting these spots, so it’s a good thing we have several world-class wine regions scattered around the country! It’s also a great way to prep for the traveller’s infamous happy hour – not that you need an excuse to enjoy a full glass and a sunset with friends in any good camp.
On a recent tour between Sydney and Melbourne, we knew it was time to revisit the Yarra Valley in Victoria, as it had been way too long. The camps in and around the Dandenong and those along the Murrumbidgee and Murray also came under review, as it being damn hot, the relief the rivers and mountains could offer was high on the agenda. So we found ourselves plotting a run between river camps and mountain views, and what we found during our visit was simply a delight. It truly is all in the planning as to how much you enjoy what, in time, becomes a familiar run.
PICKING A GROG SHOP
The Yarra Valley, a bare hour from Melbourne, offers some really great wineries. There are the favourites such as De Bortoli, and another handful around Coldstream, including the popular Dominique Portet Winery. These are the go-to choices, but choosing a smaller boutique cellar door to explore can often turn up some great surprises. We like to choose the wineries we know and love, as well as one or two we haven’t been to before. The local information centres can help you decide which ones to visit, or a quick Google search on the ‘Yarra Valley wineries’ works a treat. Many offer a restaurant or cafe, and De Bortoli has some lovely shady grounds where we enjoyed a cheese platter overlooking the vast stretch of vines. This was after a visit to the cellar door and an entertaining round of tastings, along with the promise of a couple of bottles to enjoy with the sunset once back at camp.
FOR THE CHOCAHOLIC
One of Victoria’s understated treasures is the Yarra Valley Chocolaterie and Ice Creamery at Yarra Glen, particularly on a hot day. Watching the chocolatiers at work is a real delight but the free samples is what draws the kids and adults like flies. With 40 acres devoted to chocolate, it’s unbelievable what taste temptations are available. Shelves overflowing with indulgent desserts, pastries and handcrafted choccies, not to mention the house-made ice cream selection, which you will find at the cafe tucked into the corner. It’s a great stop anytime of the day, one I would love to revisit as often as I can.
Trying to decide on any particular ice cream flavour is the hardest of choices, but enjoying your selection in the cool air of the cafe or in the fresh air at one of the outdoor tables is a special treat. They have also have a brekky menu, while lunch runs from 11:00am until 4:30pm. Featuring kids’ lunchboxes as well as pizza, waffles and salads, the menu is designed for all tastes; they even cater for vegetarians and those who are gluten-free.
THE SOUL OF THE DANDENONGS
With a retreat into the Dandenong Ranges, you will find William Ricketts Sanctuary, a hidden treasure in the Aussie bush that inspires a sense of wonder among visitors. William was a renowned artist, a sculptor in tranquility with a skill and imagination that has become an icon of the Dandenong. He was a quiet soul who lived with the earliest Australians for many years, adopting their philosophies and respecting their spirituality and connection with nature.
William Ricketts was a deeply spiritual man who began his major work, the Potters Sanctuary, in 1934, developing it up until his death in 1993. It is now known as the William Ricketts Sanctuary and was eventually acquired by the Victorian National Parks. You can visit his old workshop, and the sanctuary gardens feature many sculptures settled comfortably within the forest landscape in such a way that they emerge as part of the cool, quiet world surrounding you. Now a public park, the sanctuary offers a unique insight into the spiritual world of Aboriginal Australia.
It’s an adventure into the forest, with sculptures hidden throughout the winding paths, and to help you along the way an audio tour is available at the entrance. Picnic facilities can be found at the nearby Alfred Nicholas Gardens as well as in parts of the Dandenong Ranges National Park, as the sanctuary itself is not a picnic stop … but it is food for the soul.
Finding a spot to camp in the Yarra Valley can be a challenge due to its closeness to Melbourne, and I would recommend booking ahead in the scattered caravan parks available. We chose the country township of Lilydale as our base as it was the end of the rail line out of Melbourne, giving us easy access to the wine region. Planning ahead is the best advice I can offer.
We chose Pine Hill Caravan Park of the Kui Parks brigade, mostly for its location just out of Lilydale, on the Warburton Highway, and the centre of the Yarra Valley. This also gave us ease of access to the beautiful Dandenong Ranges. The park offered security gating and some drive-through big rig sites, and was reasonably priced. A great option for our needs.
On our trip down into the Yarra Valley, the beautiful free camps along the Murrumbidgee and Murray were our choice. A particular favourite was the Lime Kiln Reserve along the Murrumbidgee River, access being off the Old Hume Highway, just out of Tumblong NSW. Here on the Travelling Stock Route reserves, livestock always has right of way but the serenity around these permanent water sites is often unsurpassed. Please be aware that the local farmers often lease these reserves for livestock in times of drought and hardship, and you should park your van away from animal tracks down to the water.
De Bortoli Wines, Yarra Valley Estate
Address: 58 Pinnacle Lane, Dixons Creek Vic 3775
Cost: $5 tasting, refunded at purchase
For more information: www.debortoli.com.au
Yarra Valley Chocolaterie & Ice Creamery
Address: 35 Old Healesville Road, Yarra Glen Vic 3775
For more information: www.yvci.com.au
William Ricketts Sanctuary
Address: 1402 Mount Dandenong Tourist Road, Mount Dandenong Vic 3767
Cost: Free entry
For more information: https://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/william-ricketts-sanctuary-gardens-of-the-dandenongs
Pine Hill Caravan Park
Address: 105 Warburton Highway, Lilydale Vic 3140
Cost: From $36 p/night for two people
For more information: https://www.lilydalepinehill.com.au/
Lime Kiln Reserve
Address: Access off Old Hume Highway, just out of Tumblong NSW 2729
For more information: http://www.waterwaysguide.org.au/section-detail/6340