If there’s a single regional town that has captured the imagination of Melbourne day-trippers, it is Daylesford. The admiration is the result of a perfect storm of factors. First, the countryside is beautiful – all rolling pastures and native forest filled with wombats and other wildlife. It’s also next door to Hepburn Springs, one of the few spa towns in Australia and a place to where visitors flock to soak in the mineral springs that bubble to the earth’s surface. Add in its reputation as a food bowl, and you only need some art and shopping to create a perfect weekender or day-trip destination. Of course, Daylesford has all that, too. Here’s what to do and see when you jump in your rental car for a day trip to Daylesford.
Where to start? A lap of Lake Daylesford is a great place. If you arrive early, the mists might still be hanging over the water. Hang out at the jetty and look for ducks and other waterbirds looking for their next meal.
On Wombat Hill, high above the town, you’ll find the area’s most popular gallery, The Convent, the former home of the Presentation Sisters. Owner Tina Banitska, who is also a practising artist, took over the enormous space about 30 years ago. Now, she runs a series of galleries, a cafe, retail space and a function centre from the historic building. She rotates the exhibitions in the galleries regularly and has a strong commitment to showing the work of artists who live and work in the area.
Park your rental car close to Vincent Street, the town’s main drag. Be sure to drop into Bromley&Co Gallery. The work of renowned Australian artist David Bromley lines the walls, alongside art from emerging and established local and international artists. Plus, you can buy creative fashion and homewares here. Then check out the chic boutiques, rustic homeware stores and vintage shops that line the rest of the street.
If you can cope with a crowd, the Daylesford Sunday Market is a huge gathering of people selling just about everything. Farmers bring their produce, artists offer their wares, and second-hand sellers spread out their treasures. Each Sunday, there’s also the chance to ride the Daylesford Spa Country Railway’s heritage trains to nearby Bullarto or Passing Clouds winery.
As hard as it may be to believe, there was one resource that took precedence here over gold in the 1800s: spring water. The towns of Daylesford and Hepburn Springs are surrounded by more than 60 natural mineral springs, and it was these, as much as the prospect of easy riches, that attracted the first wave of Swiss Italian migrants to the area.
Rich in magnesium, calcium, and silica, among other minerals, the region’s springs were believed to cure all sorts of afflictions from acne to arthritis. By the early 1800s, the locals were aware of these health benefits and lobbied the local council to halt sluicing for gold to protect the water. That lead to the creation of the Mineral Springs Reserve in 1865 and, in 1895, the Hepburn Bathhouse was built.
Today, it’s called the Hepburn Bathhouse & Spa and that original building has been transformed into relaxing and sun-filled reception lounge, but there is an array of communal and private bathing areas, and treatment rooms for massages and body treatments.
Thanks largely to the work of chef Alla Wolf-Tasker, who owns and runs Lake House, there’s a dedication to the growing and use of local produce right around Daylesford. And it’s not just the special occasion spots like hers that are committed.
No day trip to Daylesford is complete with a trip to Cliffy’s Emporium. Check to see if there’s a table on the verandah shaded by grapevines before checking out the front room where shelves are piled high with local jams, bottles of olive oil, packets of fresh baked bikkies and other local produce. Order from the all-day brunch menu then stock up on delicious treats to snack on in the rental car during the trip back to Melbourne.
Go for a walk through the Wombat Hill Botanic Garden, stopping at the quaint Wombat Hill House for a coffee, freshly baked pastry or light cafe meal. Another small but perfectly formed option is Pancho Cafe, where the menu is concise but everything that comes from the kitchen is memorable.
Back in town, The Farmers Arms is a country pub that’s been polished up and serves some delicious local fare. The meals here, however, are far from pub grub. Expect instead charcuterie plates of locally cured meats, cheese from a few towns over baked and served with garlic toasts, and pan-fried duck breast with carrot mash. If it’s a sunny day, find a table in the beer garden.
Ready to discover the delights of Daylesford and surrounds? Then hire a rental car in Melbourne before you set off.