Bright's booked out and Portsea's packed but there are plenty of other towns that offer great food, wine and places to stay. And bring an empty Esky.
An old wood-fired bakery sits on the escarpment above the Mitchell River in Lindenow, a small country town near Bairnsdale, 280 kilometres east of Melbourne in East Gippsland where tractors outnumber cars.
The Long Paddock is a beautiful little cafe frequented by generations of local families. Here, chef Tanya Bertino, formerly of the Ledbury, London, prepares baked goods such as asparagus and brie tart, pork terrines, and an ever-changing array of cakes and slices. She is one of several experienced trained chefs in the region.
Another is Rob Turner, former development chef at Marks & Spencer, now owner of cafe/ bistro Northern Ground in Bairnsdale's main drag. Standout dishes are salad Lyonnaise and cassoulet with confit duck along with smallgoods from David Lucke's Fresh Food Market.
Down by the waterfront at nearly Paynesville is Sardine Eatery. Here former Vue de Monde head chef Mark Briggs specialises in local seafood such as plump sardines, sourced from a fishing family in Lakes Entrance, and simply served with herb oil and sourdough.
You can buy the same fresh sardines, as well as scallops, bugs and filleted white fish, fresh off the boats, at Lakes Entrance Fisherman's Co-op.
These local restaurants also pour local wines from Tambo Winery, just off the East Gippsland Rail Trail, Nicholson River Winery, and Lightfoot and Sons who produce a delightful blanc de noir sparkling. All have cellar doors.
Ryan and Kirstyn Sessions at Drift House in Port Fairy. Photo: Jo O'Keefe
Whalebones still wash up on the beach at Port Fairy, and the lighthouse throws its guiding beacon at night, keeping ships from Griffith Island, once a grizzly whale station. With bluestone pubs on every corner and boats moored on the Moyne River, you get a sense of what Port Fairy, 280 kilometres west of Melbourne, was like when it was a bustling but remote 19th century fishing port.
This historic town's beauty has reeled in a talented pool of chefs. They work in characterful old buildings and tell a story about the region using locally grown food. Tanya Connellan worked under the best Melbourne chefs like Stephanie Alexander but was drawn to a beautiful old pub with creaking floorboards and mullioned windows, The Merrijig Inn, Victoria's oldest. Here she uses eels netted in local lakes for superbly smooth smoked eel parfait. Look out for grass-fed beef and pan-fried snapper.
In the centre of town is Conlan's Wine Store, where local-born chef Matt Dempsey, formerly of award-winning Gladioli, has returned to his birthplace. He offers casual dining in an old shop with thick bluestone walls and bare floorboards. This week, he celebrates spring in a little plate of Shaw River Buffalo mozzarella with freshly podded peas and local asparagus. His signature dish is dry-aged Great Ocean Road duck, roasted and served with a honey glaze.
Down the road is the Oak and Anchor, a formerly derelict 1857 pub that has been lovingly renovated by local couple Blair and Sally Robertson, who stripped back the old tavern to reveal its lovely timber and basalt DNA. Teaming up with hospitality veteran Ally Richardson, they now now offer accommodation, bar and cafe-style menu with breakfast, all-day toasties, and share dishes such as chilli garlic prawns and arancini.
Nearby, by a bridge over the Moyne is Drift House, a small luxury hotel, where two-hat chef Ryan Sessions of Fen fame prepares a degustation menu for house guests. His next much-anticipated dinners will be in March.
Port Fairy sits in the Henty wine region, named after Edward Henty, who planted the first vines in what was to become Victoria on a headland in Portland in 1834. The nearest cellar door to Port Fairy is Basalt Vineyard, but explore further afield to discover the exquisite riesling made at Crawford River Wines at Condah or the savoury pinot noir from Hochkirch Wines in the old German settlement at Tarrington.
Brunch at Moo's in Meeniyan. Photo: Supplied
Tiny Meeniyan (population: 771) is known as the music capital of South Gippsland (British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg gave an intimate solo show in the town hall earlier this year). But it's fast developing a reputation for food.
Trulli, named after the Italian owner's family hometown in Puglia, tops pizza with Koo Wee Rup asparagus and burrata, and serves slow-cooked Cherry Tree Organic lamb shoulder with Pugliese-style potatoes.
Moo's at Meeniyan owner Marty Thomas used lockdown to renovate the corner cafe, housed in a historic weatherboard. Melbourne visitors make a beeline for weekend brunches of eggs baked with taleggio, and silky Thai noodle duck omelette. Later in the day, beer-battered flake and chips beckon.
In nearby Tarwin, interior designer Jayne Scott recreates a Victorian-era high tea experience at Avonleigh Farm Fine Food using crisp damask and polished antiques, finger sandwiches and dainty cakes. Bookings advised.
And at Gurneys' Cidery in Fish Creek, the Gurnett family (originally from Britain's cider heartland, Somerset) offer tastings of wild-ferment ciders, made with heritage cider apples.
Cheesemaker Julie Larcher at the Cheese School in Castlemaine. Photo: Simon Schluter
Last year, UNESCO recognised Victoria's City of Greater Bendigo as a Creative City of Gastronomy, one of 65 around the world. Bendigo included Castlemaine in its bid, and the reasons why this historic gold mining town, 120 kilometres north of Melbourne, helped win this accolade are many.
Perhaps the star of Castlemaine's culinary scene is The Mill. The 1860s era wool mill is home to the new Long Paddock Cheese, where French emigre Ivan Larcher and his wife Julie make sensational European-style cow's milk cheeses. They are also partners in The Cheese School, Australia's first private university of cheesemaking and cheese appreciation.
Next door is Oakwood Smallgoods, where German master butcher Ralf Finke uses ingredients such as free-range pork and wagyu beef to make more than 40 different smallgoods and charcuterie.
At Das Kaffeehaus, Vienna-trained coffee roaster Edmund Schaerf and former opera designer Elna Schaerf-Trauner have created a salon of gilt mirrors and baroque music, coffee and apple strudel in a former woollen mill (pictured).
In 2008, Hong Kong-trained chef Joe Lam and his partner Rebecca Ma opened their yum cha takeaway, Taste of the Orient. Fans say their steamed pork bun is the best in the state.
Baker John Stekerhofs, aka Johnny Baker, turns out exceptional bread and pastry. But he's perhaps best known for his almond croissant filled with amaretto-spiked creme patisserie.
Bistro Wild fires up the town's old fire station with well-executed favourites such as crisp pork belly with creamy cauliflower puree and apple, fennel and mint slaw.
Just outside town, at Ravenswood, is Killiecrankie Wines' cellar door, where you can try and buy quirky but seriously good wines, such as the 2018 Lola Montez Monastrell Shiraz, named after exotic dancer Lola Montez, who shocked audiences at Castlemaine's Theatre Royal in 1856 by raising her skirts.