The sky is astonishingly blue, painted with watercolour wisps of cirrus clouds. Roadside verges are carpeted with tiny bluebells and the green and gold of wild fennel flowers. Massive granite boulders punctuate the fields, and have tumbled into the creeks, and even occupy people’s front gardens.
Just over two-hours’ drive from both Brisbane and the Gold Coast, the Granite Belt is home to Queensland’s highest towns and the only place that, on very rare occasions, sees snow. The climate and soil are also ideal for growing wine grapes, as Italian immigrants discovered in the post-war years. Today, with areas at 1000m above sea level, it hosts some of the highest vineyards in Australia.
As well as wine makers, artisan producers grow or make everything from cheese to gourmet vinegar, and black garlic to truffles.
The Granite Belt has plenty to please nature lovers too, with two national parks on the doorstep, country lanes to get your caravan or RV authentically dusty and lots of wildlife, from wallaroos to echidnas. Bring your thirst, a country-sized appetite and a sense of adventure.
Mount Stirling Olives
Located around 15 minutes south of Stanthorpe there are around 3500 kalamata trees in Mount Stirling’s grove, and a large open barn next to a picturesque goods shed from the Glen Palin Railway Station serving as a shop to sell the olives. Most of the olive range is out for tasting; from fat manzanilla to intense sun-dried olives and herbed kalamatas as well as olive oil, dukkahs and tapenades. The olives come in convenient packs, making them easy to transport back to your accommodation. Rather randomly, (but no complaints from us) there’s also a selection of fudge for tasting and purchase.
If you’ve never experienced the pleasure of tasting a sun-warmed, ruby red strawberry straight from the strawberry plant, you can remedy that here.
Slather on sunscreen and don a hat and take a punnet from inside the large shed where they also sell strawberry sundaes and parfaits, real strawberry milkshakes and strawberry ice-cream made on site. Open for the season between October and May, you’ll be directed to the neat rows that are currently ripe for the picking. It’s easy to fill your punnet but resist snacking as you pick as they’ll be weighed for pricing.
Jamworks Gourmet Foods, Cafe & Larder
The quantity and quality of Granite Belt fruit is put to good use by Steph Ingall and business partner and chef Christine Hood. Jamworks is a huge Aladdin’s cave — a treasure trove for jam lovers — with around six of its 120-odd jams, relishes and pastes available for tasting. Spice lovers should look out for the ‘Red Hot Chilli Relish’ — it won silver at the Sydney Royal Show last year.
The cool, high ceilinged cafe dotted with paintings by a local Indigenous artist is also a great spot for lunch; with burgers, cheese platters and more, showcasing its own local produce.
Stanthorpe Cheese and Jersey Girls Cafe
There are many idyllic picnic spots in the Granite Belt, or you might just want to sit out under your van or tent with a glass of wine and some cheese and biscuits after an active day. Stanthorpe Cheese has a range of cheeses made onsite using its own jersey herd. There are usually around half a dozen for tasting; from a young buttery ‘Thulimbah,’ to a big, bold French-style brie or a tangy ‘Brass Monkey’ blue. It also sells cold packs for transportation. Don’t leave without trying a slice of the cheesecake!
Varia’s is the restaurant at the College of Wine and Food Tourism, which was set up to train wine and tourism students. Don’t expect 'amateur hour' though; housed in a contemporary building, Varia’s combines city standard food with friendly, country service. Food on the seasonally-inspired menu is sourced locally; from organic Mallow lamb, to fried quail and the wine list promotes the college’s own Banca Ridge wine as well as some other local drops.
Sutton’s Apple Orchard
This orchard no longer offers a ‘pick your own apples’ package, but you can visit the cafe for a try-before-you-buy tasting of a range of apple juices, both single varietal and blended; from Pink Lady to Cox’s Orange Pippin, as well as vinegar and cider. The cafe serves warm apple pie with apple cider ice-cream, which is reason enough to visit the Granite Belt. Also, don’t miss the ‘as good as Paris’ almond croissants at Zest Pastries.
“How do you make a million dollars with a winery? Start with ten million!”
Winemaker Adrian Tobin, 77, may be a bit of a joker, but his winemaking skills are taken pretty seriously in these parts. For good reason. Restaurateurs, sommeliers and wine lovers country-wide rave about his wines. We perch on stools at the Tobin Cellar Door at Ballandean, where we were to make a quick visit, but find ourselves still tasting, laughing and admiring his wine an hour later. A self-confessed perfectionist, Tobin’s passion is 'terroir' — the expression of place in a bottle — and all 22,000 bottles he produces each year are straight-up varietals, not blends. “Wine is not just a drink, but a story,” he says, and the chances are strong that like us, you’ll leave with plenty of both.
The contemporary Granite Belt wine story began with Ballandean Estate, Queensland’s oldest winery. The family-owned winery — rated 4.5 stars by James Halliday — is open for tastings daily. There’s an 11am tour that takes you to the heart of the winery, where you can breathe in the smell of fermenting grapes and maybe ask winemaker Dylan Rhymer why he still bottles under cork. You can also see the enormous 150-year-old barrels now used for muscat, and wander through the 50-year-old shiraz vines on the Opera Block.
Robert Channon Wines and Paola's The Winemaker’s Kitchen
You’ll probably hear her joyful laugh before you see her. Paola Cabezas Bono is a force majeure in these parts, not only heading the kitchen at the cafe here, but the winemaking too. With her Argentinean background you can expect good malbec, but the winery is also well known for its verdelho. Meanwhile Paola’s tapas menu draws on her heritage, with dishes like chorizo in verdelho, or pork cooked in butter, jamon and cream salsa.
As famous for his impressive moustache as his wine, Ridgemill Estate’s wine maker Peter McGlashan was co-founder of the wine trail known as Strange Birds. If you’re interested in tasting varietals that make up less than one per cent of Australian wine, grab a Strange Birds brochure from the information centre and follow the map to the wineries who produce them.
At Ridgemill’s contemporary cellar door, you can graze on a cheese platter and taste your way from a savoury merlot to a real ‘Strange Bird,’ — a saperavi. Peter’s food matching recommendations are both pleasantly down-to-earth and very specific. He reckons “BBQ sausages or supreme pizza” are the go with the Joshua’s Pub Shiraz Grenache, while ‘’smoked brisket and deep-fried macaroni balls” are the perfect match for “Benny’s Blend”.
Brass Monkey Brew House
Fancy a palate cleanser between wine tasting? Brass Monkey Brew House owner Ernie Butler can help. Ernie is living the dream, having transformed his hobby as a home brewer into a full-time job. The brewery is casual and laid back, housed in a fancy tin shed where Ernie serves as both beer meister and waiter. Made with rainwater and locally grown hops, there are eight taps of seasonally changing beer; from an easy drinking pale ale to a bold, malty Italian pilsner.
Also, head to the Summit Estate’s patio overlooking the vines for a Friday sunset session with a glass of wine and a chilled musical soundtrack to watch the sunset.
Girraween National Park
You’ll definitely need to do something active after all that good food and wine. There are 17km of walking tracks in Girraween National Park; from an easy stroll to an 11km walk up Mount Norman, mostly starting from the Visitors’ Information Centre.
Even the less strenuous walks have spectacular scenery along the way, with massive granite boulders, eucalypt forests, creeks and pools — so keen photographers should pack their cameras.
Sundown National Park
Sundown is more rugged and secluded, with walks starting from the Broadwater camping area (4WD only. Some are well maintained tracks, others only suitable for experienced bushwalkers. Sundown NP is known for its birdlife.
Quart Pot Creek
In town itself, there’s a lovely and little-known short walk from the Tourist Centre along the creek to ‘the red bridge’ and onwards to a series of small rock pools, perfect for a swim on a hot day.
Ever wondered who trains those dogs you see at airports or with police? The answer is, companies such as Lawdogs. It offers a daily show where owner and trainer Matt Hibberd demonstrate exactly how they’re trained to attack bad guys on command, detect drugs or explosives, and more. In recent years, Matt’s also been training truffle dogs, to supply a niche market since Stanthorpe has started growing its own truffles. You can buy truffle oil and other truffle products at Lawdogs, too.
Check out the markets at Wallangarra at the station, on the QLD/NSW border, where the track on one side of the platform has a different gauge to the other. The relaxed, friendly markets are held on and around the platforms the first Sunday of every month and have stalls of local produce and arts and crafts. There’s also a lovely cafe open in the heritage listed station for breakfast and lunch. Also, keep an eye out for eccentric sites like a stone pyramid in a field, the Ballandean triceratops and a miniature Scottish castle.
- The Granite Belt is approximately 220km from Brisbane and 239km from The Gold Coast. There are numerous camping grounds and caravan parks in the region. In Stanthorpe, Top of Town Tourist Park has powered sites with ensuite, plus powered and unpowered sites, as well as bush camping, from $25 per night. Visit www.topoftown.com.au.
- Just 10km out of town on Storm King Dam is the tranquil Sommerville Valley Tourist Park. Unpowered sites are from $30 per night, powered sites are $32. There are also cabins for $75 per night. Facilities include barbecue areas, a kiosk and Wi-Fi. Visit www.sommervillevalley.com.au.
- Due to water restrictions, Bald Rock Creek and Castle Rock camping areas within Girraween National Park are closed until April 2019. Visit https://parks.des.qld.gov.au/parks/girraween/.
- There are unpowered camping areas at The Broadwater in Sundown National Park, where there are 15 sites that are suitable for caravans less than 4m, camper trailers and small motorhomes. There are small barbecues, pit toilets, bush showers with a donkey heater (boil your own water), and you’ll need to remove all your rubbish. Permits are $6.55 per person per night, or $26.20 per family per night. Visit https://parks.des.qld.gov.au/parks/sundown/camping.html.