If you ask Bill Inglis what makes the Yarra Valley special, he is hard pressed to give you one answer.
Why ask Bill? Because he’s a local and a tour guide for Wild Wombat Tours. It’s his job to showcase the very best of what’s on offer in Victoria’s oldest wine region. He comes from a long career in hospitality, so Bill knows how to entertain. And he knows the Yarra Valley.
I asked Bill to give me a tour that RV owners would love — a bit of everything — so he drove the 12-seater van down the main street of Healesville and off he went.
The day started, and so did the stories, anecdotes, fun facts and feasting.
“You’ve picked a great place to base your stay,” Bill said.
“Yarra Valley stretches about 30km long and about 10km wide and Healesville is right at the heart. We’re only 90 minutes from Melbourne but we’re surrounded by mountains — the Great Dividing Range along the north and east, the Dandenong Ranges to the south and the Plenty Ranges to the west.
“In the middle of all of that are hills and valleys, pastures, vineyards, orchards, little towns, about 70 cellar doors, and the Yarra River runs right through the middle.”
Before we venture anywhere, I am shown the highlights, starting with the Beechworth Bakery. Great coffee and great place to start the day, according to Bill.
Close by are cool places like the Innocent Bystander, a winery and eatery, Matilda Bay Brewery and Giant Steps, a winery with a huge glass wall between the winemaking and cellar door. The RSL is not nearly so fancy, but “they have good meals and they’re not expensive”.
I have already walked the main tree-lined street of town, loving the long pockets of shade, cafes like Nature’s Cakes, where the coffee is good and cakes are huge, and the op shop (I can’t resist them).
But, despite getting a good look, it’s best to get a local’s tips. I learn from Bill not to try buying dinner after 8pm as most places shut; that the butcher also sells beautiful cheeses; the Grand Hotel has great atmosphere; and the Healesville Hotel has a funky beer garden as well as an upmarket restaurant.
Further down the road is a new Aldi store, a shoe repair shop, and a men’s shop — the only one in town. Judging from his face, Bill is a little annoyed at that.
He’s pleased I have already been to Healesville Sanctuary. You need at least half a day to take in a good chunk of this 30ha not-for-profit animal sanctuary that backs on to Coranderrk Bushland.
Start with the koala loop and keep an eye on the timetable for ranger talks as you wander around the 2.6km of paths.
Wetlands, drylands, you name it, they have created natural enclosures for more than 1000 birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. You can walk among the birds, see what a platypus does under water and even play with dinosaurs.
We head out of town past the east-end Sanctuary Precinct where I parked the RV. The scenery along the Old Healesville Road is green and gorgeous. Coming from Adelaide, I’m used to the beautiful jigsaw patterns of vineyards criss-crossing rolling hills. But add cattle grazing in pastures right next to those vines plus a mountain range backdrop, and it’s next-level mesmerising.
Who has the best view? That honour goes to Denton Hill Vineyard. Owned by TV personality Andrew Denton, the hill-top shipping crate container structure takes in 360-degree vistas.
Our first stop is the Yarra Valley Chocolaterie. It’s the second most visited tourist spot in Victoria after the Great Ocean Road, and I know why. The walls are lined with chocolate, the showroom floor is filled with chocolate displays, and you can see chocolate being crafted into delicate morsels and there’s a counter with exquisite choc truffle art. The smell is intoxicating. But who’s going to stop at the smell, right?
We book in for a tasting. At $3 each, this is the bargain of the day. Twelve creamy mouthfuls of bliss then coffee with a view.
The Melba Highway, named after Dame Nellie Melba, turns north towards Yea, past a farm gate butcher and Alowyn Gardens. Green thumbs will love the five different gardens on display — it’s structured, symmetrical and soft all at the same time.
It’s on the Melba Highway we start talking wine and doing a drive-by of some of the biggest and oldest names in Yarra Valley winemaking.
This cool climate region is famous for chardonnay and pinot noir. Spread all around the valley, the likes of Domaine Chandon, Balgownie, De Bortoli, St Huberts, TarraWarra, Rochford and Yarrawood are all impressive, but the best story is found at Yering Station.
“This is the oldest and most famous winery in the Yarra Valley,” Bill announced.
“A Scottish fella by the name of William Ryrie started it all when he came out here in 1838 with sheep and cattle and planted the first vines.”
In 1850, the site was sold to Swiss-Italian immigrant Paul De Castella, who bought more land and build a winery in 1859. That building is now the cellar door and gallery.
“But the story gets better,” said Bill.
“In 1889, they sent some wine back to Europe for the World Exhibition wine judging and won a Grand Prix, the first ever in the Southern Hemisphere.”
It’s worth visiting Yering Station even if you’re not into wine. There’s history, architecture, a restaurant and bar, cellar door, art space, underground barrel room to explore, local produce store, stunning grounds and a monthly farmers' market — the oldest in Victoria.
For more boutique wineries, Cosmo is one of Bill’s recommendations.
“The dad and daughter act is something to experience,” he said.
“Hanrahans has a ‘reverse BYO’ so you buy their wine and bring your own picnic lunch. Then there’s Punt Road, Warramunda Estate and Coombe Farm that’s in the grounds of Melba House.
“But one place I wouldn’t miss is Coldstream Hills, the home of Australia’s famous wine judge, James Halliday. Halliday fell in love with the Yarra Valley. He’s still here, and he has some of the best bubbles around.”
Our lunch stop is, thankfully, at a winery. All that talk and no tasting was killing me.
We head up Madden’s Lane Winery Trail at Gruyere to Soumah where the winemaking inspiration and the grape varieties come from northern Italy as well as pinot noir and chardonnay — think brachetto, viognier, Nebbiolo, savarro and pinot grigio.
I can vouch for all of them, along with a delicious spanner crab pasta dish enjoyed while looking out over hectares of green vines. Tough job, I know.
Back to the business of touring and a close look at the importance of the valley as a ‘fruit bowl’ is next.
It all started when the Napoleone family bought their first orchard at Coldstream. Four generations have extended the Red Rich Fruits apple and pear growing business to cider, beer and wine production through Napoleone Cider, Punt Road wines and Detour beer.
The sprawling Stones of the Yarra property next door is a tourism arm which has thrived thanks to the Napoleone connection. It includes old churches, barns and stables renovated for weddings and functions, accommodation and Meletos restaurant, all surrounded by rows and rows of fruit trees and vineyards.
Yarra Valley Dairy is another nod to the valley’s agricultural focus and, because wine and cheese go so well together, it’s a must-stop on the tourist trail.
The property is called Hubertswood, named after one of the early settlers and vignerons, Hubert de Castella. Here you can taste cheese ($2) or indulge in a whole cheese platter with a glass of wine or coffee while looking out over the pastures.
Bill saves one of the best stops for last — Four Pillars Gin back in Healesville.
Three young blokes, who went to school together, started it all with the help of a copper still called Wilma. From humble beginnings making gin in a mate’s shed, they have gone on to win the World’s Leading Gin Producer twice.
A tasting paddle will set you up nicely for a great night out or a mellow night in around the campfire.
THE CHEESE BLOKE
It’s not until he drops me back at the RV that I learn Bill is also known around town as the Cheese Bloke.
With wife, Marg and chef Amy Stanley, they started Yarra Valley Cheese Box to showcase some of the stunning local produce.
You can order a grazing box for a picnic or, if you haven’t had time to shop, it makes a great first night dinner in the RV — and then some. Filled to the brim, it lasts for days.
WHAT TO DO IN
Badger Creek Blueberry Farm takes wine tasting to a whole new level — it’s all made from blueberries.
Horse lovers can take the reins at Yarra Valley Trails. Nature lovers can head to Sugarloaf Reservoir for fishing, sailing or walking, including the 15km hike around the reservoir.
Beware, there is no lake! Named after Alexander Kinglake, author of the history of the Crimean War series, Kinglake National Park has walking tracks for day hikes and camping grounds for overnight stays.
Take the beautiful Black Spur drive through lush forests to this town with a history in gold and timber logging. It’s ideal if you’re into nature, adventure and outdoor activities. Snow play at Lake Mountain Alpine Resort, fish at Buxton Trout & Salmon Farm, check out Steavenson Falls or hike to your heart’s content.
Gateway to the Redwood Forest, you can walk among the 1500 trees standing up to 55m tall.
Visit visityarravalley.com for all the details.
WHERE TO STAY
Waking up to the sound of kookaburras will put a smile on your face every day.
We based ourselves at the BIG4 Yarra Valley Park Lane Holiday Park in Healesville and between that wake-up call, a gum forest and distant mountain to look at, there’s a lot to like.
You’re spoiled for choice with RV sites ranging from gum-shaded, creek-side settings to a three-tiered new ‘extension’ area with slabs to park on and manicured lawns to relax on. The amenities rival any bathroom on TV reno shows and there’s plenty to do with tennis courts, playgrounds and pools, including a 35C container pool.
BIG4 YARRA VALLEY PARK LANE HOLIDAY PARK
419 Don Road, Healesville
Ph: (03) 5962 4328
BIG4 TAGGERTY HOLIDAY PARK
3380 Maroondah Highway, Taggerty
Ph: (03) 5774 7263
HAVEN LIFESTYLE VILLAGE
322 Don Road, Healesville
Ph: (03) 5962 4398
LILYDALE PINE HILL CARAVAN PARK
105 Warburton Highway, Lilydale
Ph: (03) 9735 4577
MARYSVILLE CARAVAN & HOLIDAY PARK
1130 Marysville-Buxton Road, Marysville
Ph: (03) 5962 2600
WARBURTON HOLIDAY PARK
30 Woods Point Road, Warburton
Ph: (03) 5966 2277