It was a common enough dilemma, but one which posed serious consequences for the upcoming trip. Faced with a midweek getaway from Melbourne, we first had to deal with one key issue before hitting the road: would it be the beach or the mountains?
Wilsons Promontory did sound appealing, but for a recently-arrived Fremantle boy from the flat coastal plains of Western Australia, there was one obvious answer. It was called the High Country. And apparently it had hills.
After that, it was easy. Head north from the CBD along the Hume Highway for three hours, make a right at Wangaratta and you begin to see craggy peaks in the distance.
Head up a little higher, take in some cool alpine air and stunning vistas, then choose your destination and settle in.
Beechworth, 58km north-west of Bright, was first on the agenda. This is a former gold-mining hub perched on the edge of a surprisingly deep gorge. Spring Creek once delivered the water necessary to supply a thriving gold industry in Beechworth but, these days, the deep canyon cut by the river makes up the pretty Gorge Historic Park. Visitors can walk, drive or cycle around the rim of the gorge before circling back to great views of the town and historic homes clinging to the hillside.
There’s another excellent reason to visit Beechworth, too. This one is frothy, amber and comes in a chilled glass. The town is home to Bridge Road Brewers, one of the state’s most innovative craft breweries and no trip would be complete without testing a few of their latest seasonal beers.
Food-wise, visitors are also spoiled for choice. Provenance – housed in an old bank – was voted Best Regional Restaurant in the 2013 The Age Good Food Guide.
THE ROAD TO BRIGHT
The next morning, it was just a short drive to reach Bright, passing through Myrtleford and Ovens along the way.
The same long history of gold-mining and European settlement in the area means Bright and nearby towns are surrounded by a host of exotic deciduous plants that live alongside the usual Australian natives in gardens and on the roadside. Every autumn, these trees attract thousands of visitors who enjoy displays of spectacular red and gold, but in spring, the town is instead awash with the vivid greens of young foliage and blossoming flowers on every tree.
Victoria’s gold-mining boom long since passed, Bright now bills itself as a winter base for exploring the nearby Hotham and Falls Creek snowfields but, outside the ski season, a whole range of new activities opens up. In fact, year-round, the region has plenty for visitors to appreciate and, despite being set at the foot of Australia’s ‘mountains’, the area is a cycling hotspot.
ON YOUR BIKE
The Murray to the Mountains Rail Trail is 120km of sealed, mostly-flat, cycle path stretching from Wangaratta to Bright. As a whole, it offers an easy scenic ride through rolling farmland but, for the casual visitor, it also provides a convenient link between Bright’s attractions. From Bright it’s a peaceful 6km ride to the quiet village of Porepunkah, but venture just a little further and you chance upon Ringer Reef winery – with its cellar door backing onto the forest – and neighbouring Boynton’s Feathertop Winery, a popular family spot with playground and lawns.
The area’s elevation (Bright is 310m above sea level) ensures cycling is a downright pleasant proposition, even during summer and, for those without bicycles, they can be hired in town.
There are more than 10 wineries within 45 minutes of Bright, producing excellent cool-climate varietals and right in the heart of town, nestled up against the banks of the Ovens River there’s a sweet surprise – another brewery. Are you seeing a theme here? It was hard to complain about the view down to the river bank with one of their frosty beers in hand.
The ridiculously picturesque Ovens River winds its way through town among willow and oak trees and, together with Morses Creek, the two streams provide impressive backdrops.
Much of the life in Bright centres around the Ovens River and with good reason – it’s especially beautiful. Poplars, silver birch, oaks and towering gums shade the grassy banks and the crystal water flowing direct from the mountains is something you never see in the city.
Riverside markets are held on the third Saturday of every month and several smart operators have set up restaurants and cafes overlooking the water. One of these is Ginger Baker, where we enjoyed a fabulous breakfast and Melbourne-grade coffee in the dappled shade of some ancient oaks where they also do lunch or dinner matched with local wines. An outdoor bar had just opened at Ginger Baker during our visit, and the owners plan to host music on weekends as well as screening intimate outdoor films during summer.
But when you’re done breakfasting and relaxing in the shade, there’s no shortage of physical pursuits on offer. Just behind town, it’s an easy climb to the top of Mount Porepunkah via the Apex Lookout track, which provides sweeping views back over the Bright township.
VIEW FROM THE TOP
When you’re ready to tackle something more substantial, head along the Great Alpine Road towards Mount Buffalo National Park, an easy day trip that offers a huge variety of terrain.
The park is known for its granite cliffs, tumbling waterfalls, snow gums and wildflowers scattered among 90km of well-posted walking trails.
After following a twisting mountain road through the eerie landscape of snow gums to the highest point of the park (leave the van behind!) a 45-minute return hike takes you to the summit of The Horn, and stunning 360-degree views of the park.
While challenging, the trail to the top features stairs cut into the granite plus handrails on steeper sections, so it’s navigable for all levels of fitness and well worth the trip.
In late October, we even found a few patches of snow (some might call it ice) but it was enough to bring a smile to the face of your WA-born author who had never seen snow in Australia. He was pretty excited, but his icy snowballs were not well-received.
Camping is also possible in the national park at Lake Catani campsite, but bookings are advised during busy periods.
There are 49 unpowered sites with many suited to small caravans or camper trailer, and the lakeside location among alpine woodland is particularly appealing during hot summer months.
PARK ON A RIVERBANK
Bright Pine Valley Tourist Park has been rated four stars by AAA Tourism and is one of Victoria’s Top Tourist Parks.
A central location just 1km from town means easy access once your caravan is stowed and the park also features a large camp kitchen, free stainless barbecues, plus a pool and tennis court.
For campers with children, there’s a large jumping pillow, a games room, a video arcade, playground and an air-conditioned TV lounge.
The cycling rail trail runs right through Bright, meaning simple access for caravan park guests and their children – it’s quiet enough that junior cyclists can roll safely through town away from main roads.
Bright Pine Valley manager Dee Hedley said the park was particularly popular with families during the warmer months.
“The park suits everyone as different ages seem to come through at different times of the year, but summer is always full of families who love the Ovens River along with our solar-heated pool, jumping pillow and playground,” she said. “Couples also enjoy activities including paragliding, rock climbing, bushwalking and cycling.
“Our more senior visitors love spring and autumn when the gardens and trees are an absolute delight and it is a little quieter, giving them time to wander and enjoy.”
Other caravan parks with riverside campsites include Bright Holiday Park, Porepunkah Bridge Caravan Park, and Bright Riverside Holiday Park.
So much more than just a winter skiing base, Bright genuinely offers year-round attractions and for those travellers looking to escape the heat of the coast during summer, it’s certainly worth considering a trip to the High Country.
- Alpine Visitors Centre: 1800 111 885, www.greatalpinevalleys.com.au
- Guided walking tours of Bright and Wandiligong: 1800 111 885.
- Hire bicycles from Cyclepath in Bright: www.cyclepath.com.au
- Lake Catani campsite bookings (Parks Victoria): 13 19 63.
- Bright Pine Valley Tourist Park: 7-15 Churchill Avenue, Bright, (03) 5755 1010, www.brightpinevalley.com.au
Originally published in Caravan World #511, February 2013.