Before you head off for a Victorian High Country adventure, always check the air quality rating, check for closures on the Parks Victoria website, and check fire danger ratings and fire bans for all regions you are travelling to and through. Extreme weather conditions and catastrophic bushfires have led to the closures of many national parks in recent months.
Update 17/01/2020: At the time of writing, Tourism North East is encouraging visitors to return to the Victorian High Country townships mentioned in this article. For more information, visit Tourism North East's website.
There is so much more to do in the Victorian High Country than ski and snowboard (though of course the region is justly famous for its snowfields), and it's a perfect destination for a week or long weekend any time of year.
Roughly three hours drive from Melbourne, the High Country region has award-winning craft beer, wine, spirits and produce, a rich history to explore and hundreds of kilometres of breathtaking scenery to walk, cycle or even paddle through.
Things to do in the High Country
Due to the 1850s gold rush, much of Victoria’s high country was once denuded of trees and pockmarked with mining tunnels. But in a tour de force from Mother Nature, the landscape has sprung back to life and now sports some of the state’s most scenic (and historically rich) walking tracks.
The Beechworth Gorge Walk is, for lack of a better word, gorgeous. If you’re travelling direct from Melbourne you’ll likely drive over the gorge on your way in to Beechworth and we highly suggest stopping for a stroll (there’s a dedicated car park near the Beechworth Powder Magazine plus lots of on-street parking). The circuit takes roughly an hour, during which you’ll be taken past gum-lined vistas, colossal granite boulders, babbling creeks and languid, crystal-clear pools that makes this walk look like something straight out of a Tourism Australia catalogue.
If you’d like to walk through a veritable bushland fairytale, try the Lake Kerferd to Lake Sambell walk. The 7km (one-way) walk takes you between two of Beechworth’s major lakes. Both were artificially constructed to shore up Beechworth’s water supply, but that doesn’t take away from their beauty. The forested track between the two lakes is fairly easy to follow – make sure you keep following the trail markers for Beechworth and obey the signs telling you to stick to the path. As you’ll quickly realise, this walk takes you past and over old mining tunnels that are morbidly deep and dark.
The High Country is the undisputed cycling capital of Australia, whatever your speed and preference. There are more than 250 kilometres of flat(ish) sealed rail trails, plenty of cyclist-friendly bars, restaurants, cafés, wineries and breweries, and dozens of mountain bike trails through some of the most gorgeous scenery in Victoria.
If you didn't bring a bike with you, you can hire one from Bright Electric Bikes in the centre of Bright – owner Leigh Marlow has a fleet of 45 electric and standard bikes for hire. Get a standard bike if you're feeling energetic, but the electric is a terrific option to give you a bit of extra oomph up the hills (this is Alpine country, after all).
We highly recommend the Sunrises and Sombreros tour – the self-guided 20km round-trip ride will take you from the centre of Bright to the beautiful Ringer Reef winery, with a stop at the Rail Trail Café in nearby Porepunkah for a Mexican-themed breakfast along the way. Ringer Reef specialises in rarer cool-climate wine – the Petit Manseng is a perfect delight after a morning of riding.
Northern Victoria is Ned Kelly country, and don't they know it. The famous bushranger spent a fair bit of time in the historic Beechworth jail and courthouse, as did his mother. The courthouse is cleverly set up, with speakers positioned at key spots playing the sounds of local actors recreating important trials. The telegraph museum is also worth visiting, to learn about this crucial form of communication throughout the 19th and 20th centuries (did you know that telegraph was the only way anyone knew about the bombing of Darwin during World War II?).
It's hard not to enjoy the Old Beechworth Gaol tour. The 160 year-old prison complex was in operation right up until 2004 – but it only installed flushing toilets in 1994. Local guides are knowledgeable and helpful, full of interesting facts and historical tidbits that will keep you engaged (and at times, a little bit grossed out). Spend a day exploring Beechworth's entire historic precinct – you will learn the fascinating history of the region, from gold rush town through the Ned Kelly era and beyond.
The Ovens River is at the heart of the High Country, and it is a very seasonal beast. In spring the snowmelt from the nearby mountains turns it into a roiling torrent, irresistible to adrenaline junkies – whitewater kayaking is popular when the river is high. In late summer, the river drops by several metres and becomes a lazy current, perfect for swimming and splashing around. We recommend renting a stand-up paddleboard from Bright Adventure Company (it also does rock climbing and abseiling if you don't want to get wet) when the river is at its nadir. The experienced staff will teach you how to stand and balance, and paddling down the tranquil river is a peaceful way to spend an afternoon. Our tip: wear something you don't mind getting wet, because you might very well end up in the river.
Eat and drink
The High Country is home to a surprising number of craft breweries, and it punches well above its weight when it comes to award-winning and interesting beers. If you are going to the High Country in autumn, check out the High Country Hops Festival, which is hosted at a different craft brewery every year. The festival celebrates the completion of the hops harvest and brings together beers from eight breweries as well as food, music and entertainment.
Even if you miss the festival, make sure you stop at some of the marvelous breweries in the region. A good place to start planning is the High Country Brewery Trail, which will bring you to several craft breweries in the region – you can drive or opt for a more adventurous bike ride between them. A highlight of the Brewery Trail is the famous Bridge Road Brewers in Beechworth. The Beechworth Pale Ale, the brewery's most popular brew, was voted number nine in GABS Hottest 100 Craft Beers of 2017 poll. Three other of the brewery's offerings also made the top 100 list.
Also worth checking out is the Malt Shed Brewery in Wangaratta, which stocks local craft beers and ciders as well its own specialty brews. The team at the Malt Shed use local produce as much as possible, and they brew limited-edition beers on site. Wangaratta's connection to beer goes back a long way – one story has it that the original Victoria Bitters recipe was born in Wang.
In Bright, you'll find local stalwart the Bright Brewery. Founder Scott Brandon and his team have eight regular beers available all year round, plus an ever-changing cast of about 12 seasonal brews. We highly recommend the Stubborn Russian winter stout. Thick, rich and creamy, it's brewed with chocolate from artisan chocolaterie Bright Chocolate and is perfect for evening sipping.
You can eat very well in the High Country – many establishments have a focus on local produce, and high-quality ingredients shine through. For a simple and delicious lunch or dinner, try Bridge Road Brewers in Beechworth – the apple-and-blue-cheese pizza is a standout and its classic margherita ticks all the boxes.
For something just a little fancier, try Ox and Hound Bistro. This smart casual Beechworth restaurant (cloth napkins but nil airs and graces) plates up dishes inspired by rustic French and Italian cuisine – something that head chef and owner Sean Ford admits to having an obsession with. Underneath the wattle branch chandeliers, diners are served bistro classics like rainbow trout terrine, chèvre gougères and pillowy plates of gnocchi alongside a wine list that boasts almost 70 bottles (including plenty of local drops plus French and Italian vintages).
And for something really fancy try Provenance. Although you might eat one of the animals from our coat of arms on your visit, the flavours will remind you a little bit of Europe and a lot of Japan – and will be distinctly the signature of chef and co-owner Michael Ryan and the Australia he has built for himself.You could opt to order your dishes from the a la carte menu, but you just drove for a whole afternoon – go all in for the six-course tasting menu. You’re worth it.
Although it has a population of fewer than 3,000 people, Bright has a wide variety of eating options – there are nearly 30 cafés in the town, plus a host of restaurants and bars. The Bright Brewery offers a wide variety of food, from ribs and burgers through to pizza and salads. But there is one venue in Bright that every single person in town mentioned: Tomahawks. The venue feels like the most fun Hawaiian beachside bar you can imagine got transplanted to the snow, and the food is exceptionally good. Burgers and small sharing plates are the order of the day here, with the Southern fried chicken, lamb ribs and char-grilled broccoli must-haves. Seriously, I do not think I have ever said, "I need all of that broccoli in my face right now" before, but this broccoli is that good. Wash it down with a Tiki Sour cocktail, with fizzy house-made sherbert on the rim. Delicious.
Residents of Bright were left bereft when Hamish Nugent and Rachel Reed decided to shut their hatted restaurant Tani Eat & Drink, but as any singing nun will tell you, when one door closes, somewhere a window opens. The food and drink power couple turned their attention to gin, and they now own Reed & Co, whose first batch, Remedy Gin, hit shelves in December. Remedy is spicy and interesting, with desert lime and mountain pepperberry providing delicious botanical notes. Keep an eye out for Nugent and Reed's next release, which will be called Black Remedy and will have smoky overtones. Reed & Co has a bar in the heart of Bright, with gin tastings, a limited food menu and gin-based cocktails.
If you are looking for a classy cocktail bar that would feel at home in Fitzroy or Carlton, make sure you visit Dr Mauve (and do ask a staff member about the name, and the provenance of the wall full of ridiculous cat pictures and paintings). The stylish, cosy and intimate bar has moved into Tani's old digs and is committed to top-quality cocktails at very non-Melbourne prices. You can meet the who's who of the Bright hospitality world in this bar, too, watching staff from surrounding bars and restaurants filter in all night as their venues hit quitting time.
1. Brown Brothers, Milawa
The most well known of the region’s winemakers, Brown Brothers is known for its bustling cellar door and variety of mainstream and quirky varietals on offer, from sauvignon blanc to tempranillo. Sample the sparkling wine range and ensure you try the limited release vermentino.
2. Pizzini, King Valley
Long live prosecco! Up at Pizzini, that’s the first wine you’ll tuck your beak into and you’ll most likely leave with some nebbiolo, sangiovese and riesling as well. At Pizzini, you can make a real experience of it, thanks to its cooking school and B&B on site.
3. Campbells, Rutherglen
Rutherglen is most well known for its fortified wines, but the shiraz and durif are also top notch at Campbells, a winery that has been producing top drops for 140 years, spanning five generations of winemaking.
4. Boynton’s Feathertop, Alpine Valleys
Flanked by Mount Feathertop, Boynton’s is worth a visit for its stunning location alone. It’s here you come for the alpine air and a range of reds, particularly the shiraz, and the cabernet blend.
5. Ringer Reef, Porepunkah
Along the famous High Country Rail Trail, Ringer Reef is a cyclist-friendly, family-owned winery that produces wines a bit different from the standard riesling-sauv blanc-pinot you find at most cool-climate wineries. Definitely try the Nebbiolo and the Petit Manseng, and if you arrive by bike, the staff can deliver your wine to your accommodation so you don't have to try to balance a case on your handlebars.
Where to stay
The four houses the comprise Our Place at Bright can be booked individually or together and can cater for groups from two all the way up to 28 people. The houses are bright and airy and in a great location – you can walk from the complex to the centre of Bright in under 15 minutes.
But if you are looking for somewhere really special to stay in the High Country, you should book the 1860 Luxury Accommodation in Beechworth. The timber cabin (from, yes, 1860) was originally situated in the town of Emerald and was shifted to Taggerty and then to its present home in Beechworth. Current owners Matt Pfahlert Gina Bladon lovingly restored the cabin, using period materials and reclaimed wood from other 19th-century buildings. That doesn't mean it's a dark, windswept cabin, though, as it would have been in 1860. No expense has been spared to turn the cabin into a gorgeous retreat, complete with modern comforts and beautiful period styling. The cabin sleeps just two people, and it is the perfect romantic retreat for you and a special someone.
Located on the southern side of Beechworth Gorge, ArtScape Cottage is part accommodation, part gallery and part studio. The cottage features a bedroom, bathroom and combined living and dining space, the latter of which is brimming with works by local artists (you can even purchase many of these works).
There’s everything you need for a relaxing escape (including a full kitchen with breakfast and snacks provided) plus an easel, art supplies and a number of musical instruments – it’s pretty impossible to resist trying out the piano and banjo, even if you have no clue what you’re doing.
After indulging in some creative downtime, make yourself a cuppa and venture out into ArtScape’s lush, wildly floral garden that we’re pretty sure must have once belonged to Miss Honey from Matilda. Sit outside long enough and you’re sure to meet some of the resident rosellas, bowerbirds and plentiful sparrows.