Things to do in the High Country
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.
The town of Benalla is the regional street art capital of Australia, with walls all over town covered in colourful murals. Once a year dozens of artists converge on the town to paint new murals (and paint over some old ones) in the Benalla Wall to Wall Festival. More than 4000 come watch, but even if you can't see the works being painted live you can still enjoy the finished product. Some 40,000 people come to Benalla, about two and a half hours from Melbourne, to see the street art during the year. Make it a stop on your High Country tour – you will be wowed, we promise.
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?). Local guides are knowledgeable and helpful, full of interesting facts and historical tidbits. 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.
Residents of Bright were left bereft when Hamish Nugent and Rachel Reed decided to shut their hatted restaurant Tani Eat & Drink, but as any signing 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.
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. Although it has a population of fewer than 3000 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 are 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.
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.