Vintage Australia: Yarra Valley
You don't have to like wine to enjoy this region northeast of Melbourne (but it helps). Just check in to one of these friendly retreats and drop out in style.
Immerse in the Yarra Valley
Former corporate couple Stephen and Helen Myles visited the Yarra Valley for the first time in 2000, and a mere 24 hours later they bought an abandoned vineyard called Lovey's. Soon after, they renovated what had been the top floor of a mansion in suburban Melbourne (which had been relocated to the Yarra Valley by the original owner about two years before). At the new "wine lifestyle retreat," the five guest rooms cater to different personalities (No. 1 features an array of early-Australian antiques; No. 2 is decked out floor-to-ceiling in provocative reds). Most have tin ceilings, big Jacuzzis, and terraces opening onto the 48 acres, and all of the rooms have double doors that reveal bathrooms. Sympathetic to overworked urbanites, the Myleses have put together a menu of appealing vacation packages for guests to choose from (including gourmet picnics, hot-air-balloon excursions, and treatments at the hotel's in-house spa), though they'll also customize travel plans for anyone who asks. With the addition of 10 new guest rooms in 2007, Immerse in the Yarra Valley will become one of the region's larger inns, but guests will still run the show. "If you want to be alone, then we'll leave you alone," says Stephen. "But if you want to be spoiled, we'll spoil you." 1548 Melba Hwy., 011-61/3-5965-2444, immerse.com.au, $173 weekdays; weekend packages start at $289 per night.
While the Healesville's restored 1910 dining room features $33 steaks and its bar stocks bottles of Pol Roger champagne, the seven rooms up the worn wooden staircase have few amenities and share bathrooms at the end of the hall. The first step in making sense of this peculiar situation is learning that a "hotel" in Australia was historically not primarily a place to spend the night--it was a pub that might or might not have rooms for rent. At many old-school hotels these days, the presence of electronic poker machines and drive-through liquor stores preempts any rustic charm. But husband and wife Michael Kennedy and Kylie Balharrie saw real possibility in the Healesville, in the Yarra Valley's biggest town. Over the six labor-intensive years that the hipster restaurateurs have owned the business, they've spawned a mini Healesville empire, comprising the hotel's nationally renowned Dining Room; the casual Harvest Food and Wine Room, with its adjoining wood-paneled bar; a beer garden out back; Healesville Harvest, a café and shop next door; and now even a butcher shop. "We're food and wine people," says Michael proudly. "She's food, I'm wine." Upstairs, rooms come in contemporary hues (burnt orange, mustard yellow, and olive green) and the crisp linens atop the queen-size beds would suit rooms twice the price. The luxuries are limited, but there's something refreshing about a hotel room that costs less than a bottle of wine at an upscale restaurant. 256 Maroondah Hwy., 011-61/3-5962-4002, healesvillehotel.com.au, $82 weekdays, $112 Friday, $255 Saturday (package includes three-course dinner for two).
Kangaroo Ridge Retreat
The accolades come in pairs. Jacky and Toby, Simone and Simon, Lance and Michael, and loads of gushing couples like them are immortalized in Kangaroo Ridge's leather-bound guest books. Staying in one of the two mud-brick, cedar, and glass cabins is like playing eccentric millionaire for the day. Owner Olga Szymiczek (a wine country veteran who has served as a manager at regional standouts like Coldstream Hills and TarraWarra Estate) has decorated the cabins with Chinese and Japanese antiques, fabrics from Thailand, and handwoven Pakistani rugs. The secluded property is deep in the bush, at the end of a winding road that separates town from farm country. Kangaroos are indeed at home on the wooded hillsides, as are wombats and wallabies. You can look for the animals (and admire the stars) from the triangular balconies that jut out above the trees, or through the picture windows that line the spa baths. This kind of splendid isolation shouldn't be disturbed, and luckily guests don't have to drive down the hill in search of food. A cheese platter greets you upon arrival, each cabin's kitchenette is stocked with breakfast provisions, and for $35 extra Olga will put together a BBQ hamper for two with plump steaks and sausages ready for you to throw on the outdoor grill. 38 Turners Ln., 011-61/3-5962-1122, kangarooridge.com.au, $190 weekdays ($173 for midweek stays of three nights or longer), $224 weekends.
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