by James Litston, The Daily Telegraph, May 30, 2018
Dame Nellie Melba was a most remarkable woman. Born in 1861 as plain Helen Mitchell, the bold and talented soprano overcame the Victorian era's moral strictures to establish herself as a global phenomenon - and arguably the world's first celebrity. Her staggering success saw her become one of the era's highest-paid performers, making her fabulously wealthy at a time when Melbourne - the home town from which she took her stage name - was still the richest city on the planet.
It's a captivating story to take in over morning tea at Coombe The Melba Estate, a gourmet destination in the Yarra Valley, an hour's drive from Melbourne. Blending a high-end restaurant with estate-grown winery 'cellar door' tasting room, it's located in a remodelled building that once housed Melba's fleet of motor cars (she was one of Australia's first female drivers) within the grounds of Coombe Cottage, her country home.
From my window table, I'm looking down an avenue of English elms where Melba liked to ride her horses. Behind a hedge is the house itself, filled with treasures from her travels, and the formal gardens in which the diva felt her happiest.
I can see why she felt such affinity with the Yarra Valley. Its gentle pace and spectacular scenery were a haven from day-to-day cares, just as it is for present-day Melbournians who flock here for weekends and holidays. The big draw today is the valley's proliferation of wineries. It's also quick and easy to get here from the city, which is why I've made it my first stop on a road-trip though regional Victoria.
As mainland Australia's smallest state, Victoria is handily compact, which means its varied landscapes can be easily combined with Melbourne's urban buzz. After my history lesson at Coombe The Melba Estate, on top of an early start to beat the city traffic, I feel that I'm justified in my thirst for trying some local wines.
The Maroondah Highway is liberally strung with wineries, each of which tempts travellers to sample its wares via cellar doors and fine-dining restaurants. The level of sophistication at these outlets far exceeds my expectations of the countryside. I kick off with a flight of sparkling wines at Domaine Chandon (an affiliate of Moët ) before moving on to premium cabernet at award-winning Dominique Portet . Down the road, Oakridge Wines pulls in crowds with its Chef's Hat (equivalent to Michelin star) status. I stop here for a superlative lunch overlooking the vineyard that produced the paired wines.
But world-class wineries and dining are only part of Yarra Valley's appeal. Time spent immersed in nature is a tonic for the soul, so this picture-perfect countryside backed by the Yarra Ranges escarpment is very much an attraction in itself. All the leafiness comes into its own at Yering Gorge Cottages, my comfortable home-from-home for a couple of nights.
The cottages themselves are spread across a wooded hillside looking down on the Yarra River, and are the perfect vantage point for watching wildlife. As dusk approaches, mobs of grey kangaroos emerge to graze on riverside meadows, affording an almost Edenic animal encounter. There are wombats here too, plus platypuses in the river, but for now my attention is distracted by dinner: a chef has arrived to fire up the barbecue for a private cookout.
Fortunately, there's plenty more wildlife-spotting to anticipate at my next stop, Wilsons Promontory. It's a three-hour drive to get there (the longest stretch on my itinerary), but it's a pleasure clocking up those miles on smooth, essentially traffic-free roads lined with stately paperbark gum trees and sun-baked pastures.
I break the journey at Loch, a pretty village of heritage houses and a foodie scene that quite outweighs its stature. Its calibre is such that it stages its own food-and-wine festival every June, and I spend my too-brief visit sampling small-batch gin at Loch Distillery and filling up on feel-good food at Olive café .
From Loch, the road to the Prom gets prettier still. I follow it via open plains and shaded gullies where tree ferns stand sentinel until finally it peters out at Tidal River, the National Park's camp site and visitor centre. What makes this so appealing is again that sense of immersion in nature - a sense that I've accentuated by reserving one of the four Wilderness Retreats (wildernessretreats.com.au) tents. With showers, flushing toilets, proper beds and a shared mess tent for cooking, these safari-style lodgings offer every comfort without compromising the sense of adventure.
I check in and go straight for a paddle at half-mile-long Norman Beach, then hike up to Tidal Lookout to view the river's final, dramatic sweep before emptying into the ocean. The trail in parts is littered with distinctively square wombat droppings, whose maker - like an Ewok on all fours - I meet on my way back down to the campsite, a half-grown joey [baby] at its heels.
Wilsons Promontory encompasses more than 50,000 hectares of forest, shoreline, islands and peaks. It's criss-crossed by miles of hiking trails, but to better appreciate its scale, I take a boat tour along the Prom's inaccessible east coast. It's an untouched, rugged stretch of weather-worn granite and sandy coves backed by groves of 100ft-tall eucalyptus trees.
We sail past mainland Australia's southernmost tip and ride the swell alongside Kanowna Island, where fur seals entertain us as they slide down weed-covered rocks to the sea. Whales and dolphins pass this way too, but their absence today is compensated by gannets raining down around the boat in lightning-fast plunges.
All too soon, it's time to push on and start heading back towards Melbourne, taking in a few other highlights en route. At Phillip Island, I spend a night at Oak Tree Lodge - whose picket fence and clapboard design have delightful vintage charm -and venture out at dusk to witness little penguins waddling ashore. Then on the Mornington Peninsula, where I discover more farm-to-fork dining, two world-class sculpture parks and plenty of high-end wineries tucked away among leafy scenery.
At Montalto, one of the leading estates , a private tour lets me sample the product - including stops to try vintages among the vines that grew their grapes. I also discover the Jackalope Hotel, where daring, avant-garde urban design creates a country escape for hip, young city slickers. I join them and spend my final evening watching the sun set over the vineyard while sipping the hotel's home-grown wine. It's a magical way to round off my time spent on the road less travelled.
Next morning, on the 90-minute drive back to Melbourne, I find myself thinking about Dame Nellie Melba. In so many ways, she was a woman who lived ahead of her time; but what strikes me most is the thought that, in spite of her almost boundless means, the one extravagance she craved was the simple pleasure of escaping to Victoria's countryside.
I've found the experience to be energising and spirit-lifting - as Melba did - which is ultimately what holidays are all about. A century late, I've discovered what she seems to have known all along - that being surrounded by unspoiled nature is one of life's most valued luxuries.
Original Travel offers an eight-night trip to Victoria – taking in Melbourne, the Yarra Valley, Wilsons Prom, Phillip Island and the Mornington Peninsula – from £2,750 per person. This includes international economy flights, accommodation mentioned in the article, car hire, private wine tours in the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula, and the services of Original Travel’ s in-country concierge. For further information on Melbourne and Victoria, go to visitmelbourne.com and australiaroadtrip.co.uk