Weekend escape: Cranford Cottage at Heathcote

cranford cottage, heathcote

The view from the front porch of Cranford Cottage


There’s a paddock of calf-high brown grass bent with breeze stretching past gum trees to the horizon. Houses there are lost in haze, too distant to be a concern; Mt Ida pokes a leafy head over the top. Sheep work their way across the paddock, and Eddy the emu may be seen prowling the fence, waiting for Stephen to open the gate and let him back into the facing paddock where black angus graze, so he can scribe his circular route around the property once more.

Among the other birds spied here are lorikeets and galahs, magpies, willy wagtails, sparrows; hawks, Stephen says, and occasionally even wedge-tailed eagles. But we don’t see the raptors. The farm has chooks, too: can’t miss that cock crowing, far enough away at the house to be rustic charm rather than a trigger for a throttling.

At day, glowing in the sun; at night, gilded by moonlight: the grass is mesmerising. That space, that quiet … what an ideal getaway this place is.

cranford cottage, heathcote

Back deck

Farmers Stephen and his wife Cally run Cranford Cottage at Heathcote, barely 90 minutes’ drive from Melbourne, a B&B where they’ve done everything right. Set at the back of the homestead’s house paddock, the cabin has two bedrooms with en suites flanking the central kitchen, dining and lounge area, with a porch looking towards the sheep and a full-length deck facing the creek and cattle.

Corrugated iron and undressed timber feature outside; the living area has timber floor, wood heater and air conditioning, while the bedroom has a ceiling fan and carpet so new you can smell it. TV, DVD, an iPad of music, Scrabble, wifi, battery-operated tea-light candles are provided; there’s a dishwasher, microwave and gas stove.

The cottage has one of the best provisioned kitchens I’ve encountered at a B&B — even flour and raw sugar, cling wrap, cooking oil, a generous jar of instant Moccona coffee to supplement the espresso. The only absence come brekkie time is egg rings … meh. The provided breakfast is (scrambled) eggs, bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms, bread from the local bakery, avocado, juice. There are bananas, microwave popcorn, muesli, numerous teas, hot chocolate … excellent stuff.

cranford cottage, heathcote

Welcome gift of wine, with sage advice

As the custom wine label on our complimentary bottle of red tells us, there’s plenty of wine in Heathcote, a shiraz heartland, and the cottage is mere minutes from town, which has four cellar doors in the main street and around 40 wineries in the region. As it turns out, we don’t get past the main street’s offerings. Heathcote Winery is very good, but it’s Heathcote Estate (they also run Mornington Peninsula’s Yabby Lake) that takes my fancy with their Barossa-style, attention-grabbing shiraz, and Peregrine Ridge at the farmers’ market is a pleasant find. Owner-operator Graeme steers us to a purveyor of pork that is sensational.

More pictures of the cottage, with sheep — and Eddy!

Stephen and Cally booked us in for Friday night dinner at the Willow Room in town, a superb, intimate restaurant and B&B run by a couple Stephen tells us have not long ago moved from Melbourne. A fortunate tree change, if my taste buds are any judge: the food is sensational. You know you’re in a wine region when you ask the origin of the house red — a most excellent drop — and you’re told the names of the people who made it, not their winery.

cranford cottage, heathcote

Chook kettle

Gentle Saturday morning rain makes the grass glisten, washes the bushfire smoke haze from the air.

‘It’ll keep us going,’ Stephen says of the drizzle as we return from the market just after lunch time (dim sum, pork sausage on a slice of bread, coffee), but the rain was barely enough to wet our hair. We take short showers (there is no bath tub): the water is solely drawn from rainwater tanks. And my god, it tastes so good out of the tap.

We while away the remainder of the weekend, playing cards, picking at nibbles from the local IGA washed down by local red. The mountain bikes go unused, the four-hole just-for-fun golf course in the back yard remains untested.

When we reluctantly leave on the Sunday, the boot filled with bottles of vinegar and oil, preserves and — ahem — wine, Stephen waves from a small set of vines planted down at the lagoon, where a platform juts out over the parched rim. He’s got guests so we don’t pull up, just wave: we left a note to say we’d be back.

cranford cottage, heathcote

Mt Ida cloaked in rain, Cranford Cottage

Things to do in Melbourne #5: the RAAF Museum

tiger moth at RAAF Museum Point Cook

Tiger Moth at RAAF Museum Point Cook

The RAAF Museum is only minutes from the Melbourne CBD, housed in several hangars at the Point Cook airbase. Incredibly, it’s free, even if you do have to stop at a checkpoint — no boom gate, no alligator teeth, just a strident sign telling you to ‘stop and Wait!’ — to have your details recorded by a sentry.

At the end of the road, in the HQ hangar, is a walk-through history of the RAAF with plenty of displays — uniforms, documents, pieces of planes and info boards — and a couple of audio-visual elements, including a rather stoic letter home from an aviator setting out on what was to be his last mission. There are also some souvenirs from Manfred von Richtofen’s Fokker — the museum lays full claim to the Aussies having shot down the Red Baron with ground fire rather than giving the kudos to a Canadian airman, the other version I’ve heard. There was also, at our visit, a special display set up about the repatriation of two MIA Canberra crew from Vietnam.

There’s a hangar with a raised viewing platform showing restoration works — the key project at the moment is the rebuilding of a mostly wooden Mosquito: projected completion time, 10 years. In another, attached to the main building, is a collection of RAAF aircraft and further career displays about life in the service over the years, a second has yet more aircraft from across the years viewable only from a raised platform, and yet another has the big three: a Canberra bomber, a Phantom and an F1-11. A second F1-11 is on its way.

The display hangars were chilly barns on the rainy day we visited, dodging showers to cross from one hangar to another, and it was a shame the planes could only be viewed from restricted through worthwhile angles, but still, the set-up was impressive and the absence of jingoism was a relief. Time it right and you can see a plane get taken for a spin and chat with the pilot, or at least you might be able to yarn with a volunteer veteran who can provide some first-hand recounting about the service and the restoration projects.

Photography is restricted (I’ve Flickred a couple here) and access for disabled visitors can be arranged. There’s no cafe but there are loos and a small souvenir shop — and a donation box to help keep the good work going.

Point Cook is the birthplace of the RAAF, the second oldest separate air force in the world (after the RAF), so it’s the right spot for such a monument. Well worth a look for the historically and/or aeronautically minded.

Branching out in the Dandenongs

dandenong ranges

The overcast day wasn’t the most photogenic but an afternoon’s drive up the Dandenong Ranges provided a reminder of just how magnificent the forests up there are. And so close to Melbourne, too.

There are enough man-made attractions to occupy visitors, whether the sculptures of William Ricketts or the parking-challenged tourist trap of Sassafrass — yeah, I got tired of looking and drove on — but it’s the air and the leaves and the incredible soaring trunks of Dandenong Ranges National Park that took my breath away. We eschewed the $5 per car fee to take a happy snap from the Sky High outlook and contented ourselves with the free Kalorama view before negotiating the trail down to the Olinda Falls. Fresh air for the soul, this, even on a cool, cloudy day.

The picture shows Dad and Kirstyn checking out one of the long-time local residents. Some more photos here.

Chronos Award voting opens

Victoria’s popular-vote awards for locals, the Chronos Awards, have opened. Details at this LJ site. The awards are to be presented at Continuum 7, in Melbourne at June. Continuum members are eligible to vote, and voting memberships are available for $5 if you aren’t attending the con.

It’s worth noting that the con is appealing for panellists if you’d like to get involved.

Yasi’s tail hits Melbourne

More than four inches of rain overnight (much more in places), hail, blackouts … Yasi’s long tail lashes Victoria causing major disruption and damaging property across Melbourne. Spare a thought for those poor buggers in the regions who’ve already been flooded this year, now copping another soaking and wondering if the river’s coming up to meet them yet again.

Up north, the clean up is beginning while the search for a missing couple continues. These before-and-after images give some idea of the destruction.

Amidst the destruction, cancer takes two star musicians

As my old home state begins picking itself up out of the mire, burdened by destruction across three-quarters of its area and a death toll at 20, my new state of residence faces an ongoing flood menace.

Adding to the woe is the news that two members of legendary Aussie bands died at the weekend: Cold Chisel’s Steve Prestwich and Sherbet’s Harvey James.

Yarra Valley wine tasting

yering station restaurant

There is much to like about the Yarra Valley. It is only an hour from Melbourne City, for starters, and offers spectacular rural scenery once you break out of the urban sprawl at Lilydale: a gorgeous blue-mountain horizon, lush paddocks of sheep and cattle, and vineyards. The vineyards are the main attraction, offering a huge selection all within close driving distance.

My first venture into the region took in six vineyards in one day of easy driving.

The first stop was Yering Station, a delightful property where we pulled up chairs by the wood fire in the lounge and enjoyed pastries and coffee over the morning paper. The staff were a joy. By comparison, the wine tasting in the timber-beamed barn seemed a tad tame. The cellar door was complemented by a range of foodstuffs and branded merch and the balcony bar looked tempting but not that early in the day. By afternoon our splendid winter’s morning had clouded over to cold’n’crappy so the bar remains untested. The complex has a superb restaurant that not only is architecturally interesting thanks to raw stone and water features, but offers a sensational view of the fields and mountains.

Coldstream Hills, small but shiny with a hillside outlook, had a definite professional flourish to its tastings, with an emphasis on quality and a $5 per glass fee on the reserves (waived with every bottle purchase).

We drove into Healesville to hit Giant Steps-Innocent Bystander, where the crowded restaurant offered a fine view of the winery on the other side of a glass wall, and was also offering tastings from the next-door brewery as well as their own wine. Very friendly staff made this visit a delight, with a cheeky pink moscato proving tempting. We had a chat with winemaker Steve (a fellow Joy Division fan!) who recommended two other vineyards, and very fine recommendations they were, too.

Oakridge and Maddens Rise are veritable neighboures on the Maroondah Highway. Oakridge boasted an intimate cafe and friendly staff and a very tasty 854 shiraz (sadly, at $60, it wasn’t THAT tasty). Maddens Rise was a comparatively new kid on the block, with the cellar door in a superbly fitted out but small shed with only a couple of varieties on offer. The cab sauv was my pick of the day, and staffer Emma was an absolute gem. I was particularly taken by the shed’s panoramic windows: a clever way to enhance the view.

We broke our tastings with a filling lunch at Rochford Wines, a vineyard known for its concert events. One of its standout features was an iron, circular stairway to a first-floor art gallery and second-floor viewing platform. Another was its fudge bar!

Before heading back to the big smoke, we popped into Yarra Valley Dairy for coffee and picked up some of their cheese after a tasting session — a spreadable herb and chilli called Hot Cow and an ashed creamy blue called Black Savourine, both of which were decimated over a Coldstream Hills shiraz that night. I was taken with the shop’s unlined corrugate iron roof and the view from the loo — a very contented dairy cow up to its belly in green grass. Now that’s local produce!

The thing I like about the Yarra vineyards is that the ones I’ve seen all offer a point of distinction, and there seems an effort is being made to put their own stamp on their product. Except for poor old Giant Steps, stuck in an urban surround, they all have a pleasant outlook, too, which certainly adds to the experience.

With more than 50 cellar doors on offer, the exploration has only just begun…
More pictures here.