A winter Grampians getaway for nature and food lovers

Deluxe Mount Sturgeon One Bedroom Cottage - Credit Emily Weaving
Deluxe Mount Sturgeon One Bedroom Cottage - Credit Emily Weaving

If a private cottage that looks out to the majestic Grampians peaks isn’t enough of a drawcard, a stay at the Royal Mail Hotel is topped off with exceptional service and an unforgettable degustation. This is the ultimate couples’ retreat.

Privacy and exclusivity abound when staying in the newly renovated Mount Sturgeon one-bedroom cottages at the Royal Mail Hotel, Dunkeld. Renowned for its fine dining restaurant Wickens, the Royal Mail Hotel continues to elevate its luxury experiences with the renovation of four standalone cottages. Located a short drive away from the main hotel and restaurants, the secluded cabins exude a bucolic charm with Mount Sturgeon (Wurgarri) as the breathtaking backdrop.

The small town of Dunkeld is at the southern end of the Grampians National Park, about a three-hour drive from Melbourne. With not much else around, the Royal Mail Hotel has undoubtedly put the town on the map as a notable destination for food and wine lovers. Especially for those with a penchant for French wine (the owners have one of the most extensive privately-owned collections of French wine in Australia).

While there are different stay package options available to suit all kinds of travellers, the Gariwerd Luxury Escape package is perfect for couples and includes just the right balance of activities, quiet time, and, of course, food.

After a straight-forward drive on the Ballarat highway out of Melbourne, I arrive a bit after 3:00pm for check-in. The reception is quite busy, yet the staff are nothing but calm and welcoming. There’s a lot of information to convey — instructions on exactly how to get to the cabin, meeting points for the different tours and confirming transfer times for dinner — but all my questions are answered with ease.

Driving up the red dirt road and double-checking the map several times, the bluestone cottages come into sight, and I know we’re in the right spot. It’s early winter and clouds hang over Mount Sturgeon. I half expect the cottage to be freezing cold, given the thick bluestone walls, but stepping inside it is a warm haven; the heater has been on and the whole place is perfectly cosy with a demi-bottle of champagne calling my name.

The cottages have been refurbished by Byrne Architects with a refined farmhouse quality and the character of the buildings retained. Think: rough bluestone, painted white inside, decadent green drapes, large, exposed timber trusses, and a bathroom set within a corrugated-iron water tank. Most notably there is no TV, just a king-sized bed, wood fireplace and large, worn-leather chairs and sofas — this is truly a place to escape and unwind, read a book by the fire and switch off. The cottage is just the right size, large enough to not feel cramped. Luggage can be hidden away to keep things tidy, yet there is a lovely enveloping scale.

There are a few tours planned as part of the package, and not long after check-in is the Native Wildlife Tour. The meeting point is just a short walk from the cottage. The tour takes guests inside a range of enclosures with a conservationist and allows you to get incredibly close to some very rare Australian animals — I even get to hand-feed a tiny squirrel glider and spotted an endangered rock wallaby perched in a tree.

The grounds are managed by the Dunkeld Pastoral Company, which has 14 sites around the area. Essentially, staying in a Mount Sturgeon Cottage puts you in the middle of a large-scale biodiversity reserve. This also means as a guest, you get access to walking trails that are not open to the public. If the weather had been less drizzly, I would have certainly taken advantage of this, but cosying up by the fire was more my speed.

A late Saturday morning kitchen garden tour with the head chef himself — Robin Wickens — makes even the cold and wet winter morning worthwhile. Wickens’ knowledge is extensive, right down to all the strange and wonderful vegetables and herbs throughout. There’s a large group who have joined this tour, and it is an absolute highlight.

Wickens notes that there are two acres of food-producing kitchen gardens that feed the restaurant, the first of which was started more than 13 years ago. Originally set up in the owner’s backyard, the gardens have spread into new parcels of land that each offer unique growing qualities.

Seeing the raw vegetables and fruit that will make their way onto my plate later this evening adds to the excitement and wonder of the experience. There’s a sense of authenticity and genuine respect for sustainable practices; Wickens elaborates that all the kitchen waste comes back to the garden, which will feed into the next batch of crops.

The team of three full-time kitchen gardeners works with the chefs to plan the food production about one year in advance. Of course, things don’t always go to plan and the chefs bring creativity and adaptability — the menu for the fine diner is only finalised a week or so ahead.

The circularity and effort that goes into the garden and the kitchen is so apparent and a big drawcard for the unique gourmand experimentations. According to Chef Wickens, it also means they get “access to produce you wouldn’t otherwise be able to use.”

To dine at Wickens is to have a completely immersive food experience. The subtle smells and connection to nature make themselves immediately known when taking the garden path into the restaurant, where bird song calls out. (Spoiler: it’s a pre-recorded sound, but it undoubtedly adds to the atmosphere).

The 50-seat restaurant has a meditative quality to it. Despite being very open, with a large viewing window out to the mountains, the noise is at a soothing level. The kitchen is a place of Zen; these are professionals at the peak of their game.

The symphony of dishes is well-paced, and the connection to the gardens and seasonality of produce a constant reminder — for instance, the amuse-bouche is acorn custard, using an unconventional ingredient that speaks to the cooler time of year. After a long and luxurious dinner, we have a transfer back to the cottage. This service is a wonderful addition for cottage guests so there’s no fighting over who gets to enjoy the wine!

Also included in the package is a dinner at Parker Street Project. While not quite at the esteemed level of Wickens, this more casual food experience is still head and shoulders above your average restaurant. And for the wine connoisseurs, a tasting before dinner in the cellar across the street puts you face-to-face with a vast and very global range of wines.

Throughout the weekend, the friendly demeanour and general helpfulness of the staff is above and beyond. This truly is the perfect weekend escape to indulge in exceptional food and take a step back from the mayhem of city life.

The two-night Gariwerd Luxury Stay package is priced from AUD$1,910 on Wednesday & Thursday or AUD$2,010 Friday & Saturday. The writer was a guest of Royal Mail Hotel.

Photography: Rob Heneghan and Royal Mail Hotel.

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