Rolling hills, farm-to-table cuisine and some of the best local wine we’ve tasted in years… what more could you ask for in a country escape?
One of the best things about Sydney – beyond its world-class beaches, spectacular harbour and trailblazing culinary scene, that is – is its location. And by that, I mean that the city is blessed with an all-too convenient proximity to an incredible variety of New South Wales landscapes, so all that’s required when you’re craving a change of scenery is an overnight bag and a set of wheels.
Feel like doing some wine tasting? Head up to the Hunter Valley, two hours north-west. Craving some fresh mountain air? The Blue Mountains should do the trick, just 90 minutes away. How about Maldivian-style white sand beaches? Jervis Bay and its countless pristine sandy shores are just three hours south, while surfers can head to the Central Coast’s famous golden shores of Avoca and Terrigal, plus the cosmopolitan hubs of Palm Beach and Avalon. For a quintessential countryside experience, there are cute-as-a-button Mudgee and foodie-focused Orange, but if you’re the type to seek out green pastures, rolling hills and the Hatted gourmet fare – there is the picturesque Southern Highlands. An easy 90-minute drive south-west will see you arriving at the pretty – and affluent countryside town of Bowral, and that’s exactly where this foodie has found herself on a mission to escape the rat race of city life – if only for the weekend.
I’ve been to the Southern Highlands a bunch of times, but not in the last two years – and I’m about to find out that in this short period of time the region has become even more of a gourmet hotspot than I recall – Sydney-based luxury travellers need not venture far at all to experience world class dining, wineries and shopping.
I’ve planned a luxury, epicurean itinerary in the Highlands, taking me to the region’s best restaurants, most impressive shopping and something I’m particularly curious about – wine tasting and vineyard-hopping – and arriving on a crisp Autumn evening in early May I’m keen to get this gourmet getaway underway.
If I’m not alone and you’re too wanting a taste of the region’s full epicurean experience, read on for the ultimate Southern Highlands gourmet weekend itinerary.
Friday Afternoon: Check In
I’m staying in what is perhaps the Southern Highlands’ most famous hotel – Milton Park Country House Hotel & Spa. Set apart in its own secluded hilltop woodland just east of Bowral, the hotel has long been revered for its glorious, sprawling gardens, and more recently its onsite restaurant, Horderns, which was awarded a Chef’s Hat this year.
The property’s history is one of its most attractive features. A grandiose mansion built at the turn of the 20th century, Milton Park nods to a Golden Era, when the Southern Highlands was the go-to weekend destination for Sydney’s wealthy elite, many of whom had Highland retreats characterised by tree-lined driveways, tennis courts and formal gardens.
Much of that ambience still exists at Milton Park, but it’s a hotel that isn’t for everyone – namely the modern, design-led traveller. You won’t find a Nespresso machine in your room or modern furnishings, but you will find oodles of warmth, especially by my favourite place in the hotel – the cosy bar with its crackling fire.
Friday Evening: Dinner at Birch, Moss Vale
What a perfect way to see out the work week and ring in my gourmet weekend. As one of the newest culinary highlights of the Southern Highlands, Birch makes the most of the region’s bounty with a menu where seasonal produce takes centre stage.
Head Chef Ben Bamford’s relationships with local suppliers is evident on the plate with a menu that changes daily depending on the seasonal produce, and a considered approach to each ingredient. Diners can go the whole hog with a seven-course degustation, but we decide to take the shorter router after the long drive down and opt for a la carte. For me, it’s black tiger prawn, wasabi greens, finger lime, tomato and cucumber, and my travel companion opts for a paddock-to-plate starter of carrot tarté tatin, crisp pastry, cappuccino, truffle mascarpone and coconut.
For mains, it’s a ginormous serving of braised duck pappardelle, porcini, zucchini, baby spinach and basil for me and for him, noisette of lamb, buttered turnips, smoked celeriac, rosemary, mint and spinach. Despite how stuffed we are, we also order Birch’s signature baked apple, crisp pastry, cinnamon anglaise and vanilla ice-cream – a modern take on apple pie that’s baked to order and is very tasty.
Other moments that win us over? The restaurant’s historic location – in the old Moss Vale post office, and the relaxed, personable and passionate approach of owners Renee and Glenn Wallace, who talk about their dishes and local wines with an contagious enthusiasm.
Saturday Morning: Shopping in Bowral
It might sound counterintuitive to go shopping in the Southern Highlands when the country’s best – and most diverse – shopping can be found right on your doorstep, in Sydney, but those who know the Southern Highlands know that it offers the type of satisfying, leisurely weekend shopping experience that can only be found in a regional town like Bowral.
First stop? It’s got to be Dirty Janes, a vintage and antique stall market that is likely to convert even the most anti-antique shopper. I first visited this unique emporium in 2017 at the recommendation of a Southern Highlands local, and as an avid vintage shopper I’ve been eagerly awaiting my return ever since.
As a part of The Acre, a hub of boutiques and cafes on the corner of Bong Bong and Banyette Streets, Dirty Janes spans a total of 1600 square metres and is the Southern Highlands’ largest indoor market. The emporium features dozens of stallholders, each showcasing their unique set of goods – vintage fashion, new homewares, antiques, art… the list goes on. And while the shops themselves are gorgeous, the experience of wandering the labyrinthine warehouse is half the fun.
When you’re all tuckered out from shopping, you can head next door to The Press Shop Cafe – “that lovely little cafe in Bowral” housed within the flagship store of the world famous and locally owned Bespoke Letterpress – another one to aded to your list of stores to visit.
Green Lane Bowral
This leafy, green dining and shopping precinct is located just next door to Dirty Janes and is well worth a look.
Few and Far
Another favourite on the Southern Highlands retail circuit is Few and Far – a beautiful homewares store clearly headed by a buyer with an exceptional eye. I can’t help but take my time here, going from shelf to shelf, wall to wall admiring the furniture, textiles and bric-a-brac. Needless to say, I leave with a bag full and by the time I arrive at The Mill – a newish hub of boutique businesses a ten minute walk up the main road – it’s about time for lunch.
Saturday Afternoon: Lunch at Katers Restaurant in Peppers Manor House
We head to lush and leafy Suttons Forest for lunch, where Peppers Manor House and its onsite restaurant, Katers, is located. With its picturesque, manicured gardens vibrant and vivid thanks to a perfect, sunny autumn day, it’s not hard to see why the hotel is a favourite for weddings. But today, it’s quiet and we are loving the serene scene as we dig into a light, grazing lunch menu accompanied by local rosé.
Like Birch, and many of the region’s restaurants, Katers’ Head Chef Thomas Pirker follows a philosophy of embracing seasonal produce, and making the most of the abundant and quality ingredients that are grown and produced in the region, supporting farmers, artisans and the local community. This includes chemical-free vegetables and salad greens from Brillig Farm in Exeter; dairy, milk and yoghurt from Country Valley in Picton; free range, grass fed beef and lamb from Maugers Meats in Robertson; and organic vegetables and artisan breads from Moonacres, also in Robertson.
While lunch is a lovely, laid-back affair, for the full experience I recommend going for dinner, where you’ll be treated to a more comprehensive a la carte and degustation dining menu replete with roaring open log fires on those chilly winter evenings.
Saturday Afternoon: Food and Wine Tour with Wild Food Adventures
Really taking this gourmet getaway to the extreme, our epicurean journey doesn’t end at lunch, with a food and wine tour ahead with the fantastic Wild Food Adventures. Wild Food Adventures offers guided and tailored day trips, seasonal food foraging workshops and cultural outdoor feasts, with founder Amanda Fry at the helm. Friendly and knowledgeable on all things Southern Highlands, Amanda quickly shows us that today’s gourmet adventure is one that digs beneath the surface beauty of the Highlands, to reveal a cool climate wine region that is quietly going about producing some exceptionally tasty drops.
Our first stop is Bendooley Estate, a stunning 200-acre property owned by the Berkelouw family (of Berkelouw Books) in nearby, historic Berrima. Its wines are not the most impressive of the region, but the estate is absolutely unmissable on any trip to the Highlands thanks to its iconic Berkelouw Book Barn and Rare Book Room, where you can also dig into delicious wood-fired pizzas.
The cellar door is equally beautiful, but be sure to go early in the day to avoid the crowds – it is often teeming with wedding parties and events. Gourmet Traveller Wine Cellar Door awarded Bendooley Estate with best food 2018 and 2019 so this is a must on any Highlands visit.
Just ten minutes down the road, an entirely different experience awaits at a quintessentially Aussie bush cellar door that simply blows us away. Tertini‘s wines are world class, with a large variety of cool climate wines and a focus on alternative varieties like Arneis, Nebbiolo and Lagrein. Although the vineyard is young, it consistently receives medal after medal at wine shows and plenty of accolades from Australia’s leading wine writers, and it’s easy to see why with every drop we taste. The cherry on top is the Pecora Diary cheese platter that comes with each tasting.
Our final stop of the day is the beautiful Artemis Vineyard, a family-run boutique winery owned by two Mittagong brothers, a seven-minute drive down the road. Don’t be surprised if Artemis rings a bell – the vineyard has been around since 1996, and has won plenty of awards over the years including Star Cellar Door in 2017 Gourmet Traveller’s Wine Cellar Door awards. It’s the perfect spot to conclude our food and wine afternoon, with Artemis’ gorgeous sprawling vines making a picture-perfect setting as the afternoon turns to dusk.
Saturday Evening: Dinner at Biota
An iconic, award-winning Highlands restaurant, the only thing more impressive than the food at Biota is the live tree coming out of the floor in the centre of the restaurant. Its clean and minimal Scandinavian-inspired interior is as well matched to the elegant fine dining as the wine list, every part of the experience oozing contemporary chic.
On the menu you’ll find the option of a five-course or seven-course tasting menu with chef James Viles’ modern Australian dishes showcasing local produce such as mudcrab from Weipa and grilled lamb; not to mention a dessert that’s so Aussie you can taste it – Banana & Sheep’s Whey Caramel Sanga (that’s Aussie slang for ‘sandwich’, for our international readers).
Much-lauded over the years, Biota isn’t my favourite restaurant in the Highlands, and I am nostalgically thinking about a memorable meal I had in the region two years earlier – at an earthier, more relaxed restaurant – Bistro Officina, now sadly closed. But Biota is, regardless, the type of restaurant any foodie should experience in the Highlands – if just to see what all the fuss is about. As to whether the fuss is warranted, I’ll leave that up to you to decide…
Arriving back at Milton Park, there’s just one thing left to do to complete this perfect day – have a tipple by the cosy fire at the hotel bar.
Sunday Morning: Shopping at Moss Vale
If you didn’t get your retail fix from Bowral, Moss Vale is another worthy contender on the Southern Highlands shopping circuit. One of the Highland’s major towns, it has strong ties to the region’s rural centre with livestock saleyards, farmer’s markets and a traditional agricultural show.
In the last few years, though, Moss Vale has become up-and-coming as more and more families are priced out of affluent towns like Bowral and gentrification gets underway. Expect a peppering of stylish retail shops on the main strip, such as Susie Anderson, a tried-and-tested homewares favourite; Hunter and Gatherer Collection; Motique – a men’s gift and game store – and The Vintage Toy Box. Nature lovers, be sure to visit Leighton Gardens in autumn and spring for some serious botanical beauty.
Sunday Afternoon: Lunch at Eschalot
It seems we’ve saved the best ’til last, because the food at Eschalot is sensational in every way, and it’s no wonder this Berrima restaurant, located in one of the most significant heritage buildings in the area, won the AGFG Reader’s Choice Award for Fine Dining this year… the 11 prestigious chef hats notwithstanding.
With head chef Matthew Roberts at the helm, this restaurant is all class and the food is delectable. It’s fine dining but not uptight, beautiful but not over the top. Locally sourced produce is once again the hero, and I’m in foodie heaven digging into an entree of master stock pork jowl, shaved abalone, compressed joadja gin plum and turnip. My main, a grade 6+ waygu fillet, short rib, potato gratin, charred witlof and pumpkin is perhaps one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten, and that’s before I get to the dessert: hazelnut doughnuts, banana, dulce de leche, fig ice cream and coconut snow. In one word: wow. I couldn’t ask for a more heavenly conclusion to the ultimate gourmet getaway in the Southern Highlands.