Cycling adventure: The key is to relax and enjoy the ride.
There’s more to Victoria’s Yarra Valley than wine, for it’s also the gateway to the lesser known King Valley – one of the best cycling experiences in the world.
I’M NOT really into cycling. There, I’ve said it. I used to cycle as a youngster, but as I grew up, the oppressive Malaysian heat drove me into a car, pun intended.
But that was before I found myself on a crisp spring morning, cycling through some of the prettiest rural Australian landscape imaginable.
To my right were orange and lemon groves blanketing the soft rolling hills. The majestic Victorian Alps rose in a bluish hue off in the distance. To my right stretched a patchwork of vineyards to the horizon. Above me was a huge cloudless cobalt-blue sky… and ahead of me lay 100km of one of the easiest, most enjoyable cycling tracks in the world.
I was on the first day of a three-day tour along Victoria’s new and increasingly famous High Country Rail Trail route. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First the back-story: Australia’s southern state of Victoria used to have a train line called the V-Line that connected all the small towns in the interior of the state with its capital Melbourne.
A few years back, it went out of business. But rather than let the train track sit idle and unused to rot, the clever people at Victoria Tourism decided on a bold scheme to convert the old track into a dedicated cycling track.
It all made good sense: it was already fairly flat for the sake of the train, it was wide enough to allow two bikers to ride side-by-side and it connected all the charming little historical towns and farming communities in the ulu boondocks.
A big bonus, of course, was that the weather here is largely mediterranean – dry and sunny. The nearby mountains regulate the temperatures from the hot, flat farmland. In short, a perfect climate and route for cyclists, whether an inexperienced wobbler like me or a competitive cyclist.
Cyclists are a respected community in this part of Australia.
The paved and well-marked trail starts in Wangarratta in the north and arcs its way through historical gold-mining towns like Yakkandanda and Beechworth, ending in the jaw-droppingly pretty town of Bright. The trail not only provides a relaxing, snail’s pace tour of King Valley and its surroundings but also allows for close and personal experiences that visitors would have overlooked if they had opted to explore the area by car or tour bus.
Along the way, you have the option to explore the countless wineries, restaurants, bakeries, cafes and artisanal shops selling homemade mustard, cheeses and chocolates at your leisure. In short, you cycle-eat, cycle-drink and repeat, all the while working off those calories in a guilt-free fashion, getting from one town to the next.
My two-wheel adventure came courtesy of High Country Bike Adventures, an outfitter that specialises in renting bicycles and guiding visitors, as well as pedalphiles (yes, there is such a word), on the Rail Trail.
Through them, you can book fine meals, wine-tastings and lovely boutique B&B for as many nights as you want to take. Plus, they move your luggage from hotel to hotel and come to get you along the trail should you have a flat or are just too tired/lazy to continue for the day.
The bikes are simple, sturdy multi-gear mountain bikes with mercifully soft seats and a handy wicker basket on the front for any produce shopping you might do along the way.
It’s not uncommon to pick up a bottle of wine at a vineyard you go past, or some fresh fruits or cheeses from the little farmer’s markets, and save them to enjoy with dinner.
At the end of my three days in the saddle, I wasn’t tired or bored. I just really wanted to turn the bike around and do it all over again in reverse – which, of course, can be done. But for those who haven’t got the time, here’s probably the best way to get the most out of this cycling adventure: Arrange for the High Country Bike Adventures people to pick you up at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport.
They’ll transfer you the three to four hours to Milawa, a beautiful farming town just outside the regional capital of Wanggaratta. Next morning, make a plan with the operator where you plan to cycle to and what hotel your bags should go to. Then grab a map and a bike, and go.
You can’t get lost
If you aren’t sure of your fitness level or how far you’ll get that first day, make that first day a short one. If you surprise yourself by getting to your destination earlier than expected, adjourn to the nearest winery to sample the very best produce Victoria has to offer.
Let me tell you, there’s nothing nicer than sitting out under the stars at an award-winning restaurant/winery, glass of wine in hand, recounting with your friends the adventures and sights of the day. That’s how memories are made.
Detour to Yarra
On your way to or back from your cycling adventure in King Valley, Yarra Valley (back down towards Melbourne) is a slight detour well worth making.
Now, if you’re unfamiliar with the Yarra, I suggest you put Google to use right about now. The area is a renowned wine region located on the outskirts of Melbourne, which prides itself on its natural beauty and spellbinding views of vast vineyards, rolling hills and spectacular countryside.
The region has a vaunted reputation of producing some of the best wines around, along with inventive cuisine, and has become a hub for wine aficionados and gourmands the world over.
But great-tasting wines and indulgent meals aren’t the only reasons to visit Yarra Valley. For one, it’s fairly easy to get to – just hop onboard a flight bound for Melbourne, rent a car and within 45 minutes, you’ll be transported into the very heart of beautiful wine country. Secondly, the region has a little something for everyone, including adventure seekers, holiday makers and honeymooners, as well as family vacationers.
With a number of great inns and sophisticated restaurants, many of which are part of the wineries themselves, Yarra Valley stands as an ideal getaway destination that won’t burn a hole in your pocket. It’s also a gateway to Victoria’s best-kept secret – King Valley – a couple of easy hours’ drive to the north.
King Valley is more laid-back and oozes an old world charm compared to its more illustrious, modern and more tourist-developed neighbouring region. But King Valley is equally charming if not more so and also boasts a number of big name and highly respected wineries that has put in on the map for serious wine lovers.
Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies daily to Melbourne. Flights depart from KLIA for Melbourne in the mid afternoon and arrive in the very early morning.
This rabbit steak goes very well with the woody flavoured red wines at Brown Brothers.
Down in the valley
Essential experiences you shouldn’t miss while in the King Valley and Yarra Valley area.
Brown Brothers Milawa Vineyard
With gorgeous scenery, great-tasting wines and inspired dishes on offer, this modern vineyard stands as the perfect place to relax, eat great food and share a bottle of wine.
Located in the lower reaches of King Valley, the vineyard also caters for lunch and dinner at Epi.Curious and Patricia’s Table, the outlet’s very own fine dining restaurants. Open from 9am to 4pm daily.
Dal Zotto Wines
Fancy a taste of Italian heritage while you holiday down under? Well, the Dal Zotto family has provided that in spades with their signature wines as well as cuisine served exclusively in their winery.
In addition to free-tasting sessions, Dal Zotto wines also offer mini degustation menus with delectable rustic bite-sized food as well as classic Italian desserts such as Prosecco Pannacotta and Vanilla Brulee. Open from 10am to 5pm daily.
Lindenwarrah at Milawa
A stone throw’s away from Brown Brothers Vineyard is this immaculately designed boutique hotel.
The Lindenwarrah is a favourite stop-over for gourmands and visitors owing to its stylish lounges, courtyards and heated pool all of which overlook vineyards stretching to the horizon and beautiful gardens. The hotel’s unique location also gives it the perfect setting for leisurely outdoor pursuits such as cycling, fishing and bushwalking. Milawa-Bobinawarrah Rd, Milawa.
Domaine Chandon Winery
Established by renowned French champagne brand Moët & Chandon, this winery has carved a name for itself as one of Yarra Valley’s most prominent food and wine destinations.
The winery offers some of the best traditional sparkling wines and cool-climate wines as well as epicurean delights which can be savoured while looking out over their sprawling vineyards. Open from 10.30am to 4.30pm daily.
Cheese Tasting at Yarra Valley Dairy
Although it’s a relatively small, family- run business, Yarra Valley Dairy nevertheless offers some of the finest gourmet cheeses in the region.
Boasting a 100-year-old history, the establishment serves homemade cheeses and dairy products made fresh on site using milk sourced from top quality cattle raised on the property itself. Open from 10.30am to 5.00pm daily.