Wine, design, and wildlife. Popupla contributing editor Larkin Clark got a solid dose of all three during a first-time road trip through Victoria, Australia.
VICTORIA, Australia — If you take northern California and add dashes of London, Boston, Tuscany, and Hawaii to the mix, you get something like the state of Victoria in southeastern Australia. The energy is warm and welcoming, it's insanely easy to get around, and you'll have no shortage of enviable Instagram opps (check out my photo tour for highlights).
Driving through the state reveals a new facet each day. Take a short jaunt south from the laid-back capital of Melbourne, and you'll find yourself surrounded by picturesque seascapes, in close proximity to indigenous wildlife, and among vineyards that give Napa a run for its money. If you appreciate good design, you won't be disappointed, as it's apparent in everything from outdoor art installations at wineries to remote boutique hotels.
You may have Bondi Beach at the top of your Australia travel list, but it'd be a shame to miss this breathtaking region, especially in the summer (November through February). A weeklong road trip is enough time to get a solid feel for Victoria, but you could easily spend two or three weeks immersing yourself in the region. To kick off your planning, here's a guide to what to see and do.
Days 1 + 2: Nurse Your Jet Lag in Melbourne
The first rule of any road trip is to make sure you're awake for it — especially if you're planning to drive. You'll fly into Melbourne, so drop your bags and get onto local time at QT Melbourne, a cool new boutique hotel that's equal parts design-forward luxury and free-spirited fun zone. Take a bath (many rooms have tubs) and raid the cool, neon-lit mini bar — you'll want to nab the snacks for the road trip ahead. The restaurant and bar on site are solid, so you won't be disappointed if you decide to stay in for lunch or dinner as you reorient yourself and ease into the local time zone.
Some have called Melbourne the "Brooklyn of Australia," so once you're feeling rested, it's worth exploring to see if it lives up to the hype. (It does.)
The city is known for whipping up a wicked cup of joe. Industrial-chic Gold Drops is a short stroll from QT and specializes in all-natural brews.
Melbourne is an extremely walkable city. First-timers will want must-sees like graffiti-filled Hosiers Lane and the cool, contemporary structures of Federation Square. But wandering around is just as much fun. The guides at Walk Melbourne can show you more niche highlights (like hidden shops and the best dumpling stops) through the eyes of locals.
For lunch, head to Auction Rooms, an old auction house that's now a hipster hangout balancing antique auctioneer paraphernalia with fresh vignettes (plant-draped conservatory!) and warm, modern decor.
Cumulus Inc. is a cozy-chic eatery on Flinders Lane, Melbourne's famed art and design district. Get the stuffed zucchini flowers if they are in season. And the halloumi cheese with burnt honey and fennel pollen is incredible. In fact, eat halloumi wherever you see it on this trip (the Australians really embrace the stuff).
Day 3: Check Out the Wildlife
Now that you're on Aussie time, hit the road. The great thing about Victoria is you can drive a couple of hours from Melbourne's city center and find yourself in an entirely new landscape. Case in point: Phillip Island, a semi-rural area known for its sprawling coastline and diverse wildlife. Make a lunch reservation at Cape Kitchen, an airy, modern bistro with sea views, before heading out on a fur seal-watching adventure on Seal Rocks and Wilsons Promontory (those sensitive to sea sickness may want to pack Dramamine).
Back ashore, The Nobbies — an expanse of rolling hills that house natural bird gardens — are the perfect place to walk off your sea legs. About an hour before sunset, make your way to Phillip Island Nature Park for the nightly tiny penguin parade, one of the most visited natural attractions in Australia. Best to book tickets ahead of time.
Days 4 + 5: Meander Through the Mornington Peninsula
Aussies pronounce "peninsula" as "peninchula" — in case you want to try and sound like a local. Today's first stop is Pt. Leo Estate, a sprawling vineyard perched along Western Port Bay. Work up an appetite with a wine tasting and stroll through the impressive oceanside sculpture park, which features large-scale works by artists Tony Cragg, Augustine Dall'Ava, Inge King, Anthony Pryor, Clement Meadmore, and Deborah Halpern.
Lunch at Pt. Leo Estate Restaurant is a visual feast, so make a reservation ahead of time. Inventive dishes conceived by culinary director Phil Wood (formerly of Sydney's Rockpool and Napa's French Laundry) are so artfully presented, they mirror the sculptures outside.
Let the food coma wear off at Peninsula Hot Springs, a spa and outdoor labyrinth of natural mineral springs with healing properties. It's kind of like a wellness theme park for adults and could very well get its own full day on your itinerary if you're up for hardcore spa-ing.
Once you're feeling fresh and rejuvenated, check into your home for the next two days — Jackalope, a sleek, contemporary retreat (and a Popupla Travel Awards Winner for Best Foodie Escapes) from the masterminds at Carr Design Group, one of the country's most forward-thinking architecture and interior design firms. Surrounded by breathtaking vineyards, the hotel sits on a property modest in size, but there's more than enough to keep you occupied for two days: a vineyard-facing infinity pool and outdoor lounge space, mixology-forward cocktail bar that feels like an art gallery, "wine and food store" concept gastropub, and an exquisitely designed restaurant serving creative cuisine made from local ingredients. Pro tip: At dinner, ask your server to request your bath be drawn before the dessert course. After your meal, head right back to your impressive Japanese stone tub, situated in the center of each room, for a soak. It's quite possibly the most luxurious way to end a day.
Day 6: Dip into the Yarra Valley
It'll be hard to pry yourself away from Jackalope, but the promise of getting up close and personal with koalas and kangaroos may do the trick. Healesville Sanctuary in Yarra Valley is home to both — as well as tons of other indigenous species and an onsite animal hospital that lets visitors go behind the scenes.
Now, onto the tastings. If you enjoy gin, make time for nearby Four Pillars Distillery, home to award-winning gin made in custom-built German Carl stills. A leisurely lunch and wine tasting awaits at Coombe — The Melba Estate, the former home of opera star Dame Nellie Melba (the same dame who inspired the Peach Melba dessert and Melba toast). The modern-rustic restaurant is situated in a restored motor house and clock tower, with expansive windows that look out onto the surrounding courtyard and gardens. If you're craving historical context, book a tour of Melba's house on the property, which contains many of her belongings and artfully curated period decor.
If you still have steam (and a designated driver), fit in another tasting at Yering Station Vineyard. Based on the sleek architectural facade of the restaurant and winemaking facility, you may not guess it's actually the oldest vineyard in Victoria, first planted in 1838. As the day fades, you can turn in right next door at the luxurious Chateau Yering Hotel, a stunning Victorian mansion on a massive estate, or continue on to your next and final destination, Melbourne.
Day 7: The Last Hurrah
As fun as it is, road-tripping can really take it out of you. Rest up for the long flight home at the modern-classic Park Hyatt Melbourne, which is within walking distance of Fitzroy Gardens and has a luxe pool and day spa on site. If you'd rather end your trip with party vibes, try Notel, a cool-kid concept hotel comprised of suped-up Airstreams on an urban rooftop in the heart of Melbourne, off Flinders Lane.
St. Patrick's Cathedral is across the street from the Park Hyatt, and while you may be tempted to skip a visit, the inside is so stunning, it's worth the quick walk over for a peek.
Come dinner, Annam, just outside Chinatown, is a solid bet. Order a steady stream of chef Jerry Mai's Asian-inspired small plates (Thai pork sausage, dumplings, Wagyu tartar) while watching vintage movies projected on the wall.
The last stop of the night is where that whole "Brooklyn of Australia" thing really shines through. Grab a nightcap at Arlechin, a sexy cocktail bar reminiscent of NYC's peak mixology phase: dark wood, moody lighting, vintage-inspired service and decor. There's a sharp signature cocktail list, well-curated wine selection, and savory light bites to fuel you into the wee hours of morning. Drink to try? Something with gin — ask for Four Pillars.