Summer was meant to be the busy season for Gippsland and its tourism operators. It was busy – but for the wrong reason.
The region, mostly Eastern Gippsland, was brought to the brink of destruction as fire tore through more than 40,000 hectares.
Lives, properties, land and infrastructure was destroyed to beyond the point of salvageable.
As a result, tourist numbers to the Victorian coastal region have plummeted as much as 90 per cent in some townships.
As The New Daily discovered in October, Gippsland has a lot to offer, beyond just its experiences.
The little-known coastal region with a huge heart
It was always separated from the rest of the Victorian coastline by a mountain range on one side, and swampland on the other.
The geography made it hard for pioneering settlers to access, but that all changed in World War II, when the area was classified as extremely vulnerable to attack from the sea and a defending military base was established.
After the war, the area of South Gippsland learnt self-sufficiency.
Farmers would haul their goods into Melbourne in the wee hours of the weekend to sell at markets.
Eventually, roads broke through the swamps, and the Strezlecki Mountain range was seen as an asset rather than a hindrance.
The area was on track to boom. Then on June 4, 2012, the area copped 200 millimetres of rain in one day. The damage bill exceeded $10 million.
The community was left to rebuild. Not only physically regenerate, but find sprigs of life in the momentum they’d begun to build.
It seems the region is now on the precipice of getting back to where it was, post-2012.
The combination of passionate people and a breathtaking natural environment make southern Gippsland one of the country’s best-kept secrets – but it won’t stay secret for much longer.
Its reputation for producing some of the best wine, cheese and beef in the country is spreading fast.
About a two-hour drive from Melbourne, it’s quickly gaining traction as an ideal weekend (or longer) getaway locale.
Here’s what to see, do and taste.
Do: The Prom like you’ve never seen it
Wilsons Promontory – the Prom to those in the know – is one of the big drawcards to south Gippsland. It was made a national park shortly before 1900, and now comprises some 500 square kilometres.
Entrepreneur Rob Pennicott has spent the better part of the past decade trying to set up an ocean eco tour of the Prom. Just a couple of months ago, he succeeded.
The two-and-a-half hour boat trip leaves from the beach, a special design that allows it to launch straight from sand to sea.
It’s one thing to stand in the Prom and look at the ocean. It’s another altogether to stare back at the Prom from the ocean.
Rugged cliffs clip the coastline, painted with years of geographic change. There’s seals, albatross, dolphins and in the right season, whales.
The peak of the tour is drifting underneath the intimidating Skull Rock, somewhat of a natural miracle.
Taste: Pack loose-fitting pants
Australia’s craving for paddock-to-plate produce is fully satiated in south Gippsland.
In recent years, producers and artisans have flocked to the area, drawn by the purity of soil and plentiful rainfall totals.
For Waratah Hills Vineyard owners Judy and Neil Travers, they were sucked in by the scenery and the opportunity to escape the city life for one among the vines.
They’re finding their feet as vineyard owners, having admittedly being overwhelmed at the start. Their cellar door are cuddled by the Hoddle Ranges, and opens its doors on weekends, public holidays and every day in January.
Judy rustles up easy meals and charcuterie boards from local cheesemongers to serve alongside their award-winning wines.
The temperate lends itself to pinot noirs and chardonnays, and the authenticity of the region shines in these drops.
There’s one thing that unites all the producers smattered throughout Gippsland: passion.
Newly opened Gurneys Cider is no different. At Foster, it’s a family affair for the Gurnetts, who shipped over from England and brought their love for a traditional cider with them.
It’s all small-batch, minimally interfered with ciders. There’s sparkling, a wild ferment and a hop-style cider, alongside the traditionals.
They’re also committed to making a true scrumpy; a cider made from foraged apples, creating a one-off batch. When they find a fruiting apple, they take a cutting to plant in their own orchard.
Oh, and the view isn’t too bad.
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If you’re still hungry, try a meal at the Fish Creek Hotel, a commanding art deco building that’s seemingly popped out of no where; wood-fired perfection at Trulli Pizzeria in Meeniyan; or coffee and A-grade croissants at Cow Cow Cafe.
Stay: Pubs and secluded spots
The old bank façade still stands stoic in this one-pub, one-school, one-supermarket town.
Under the shade of a undulating hill dotted with windfarms, the seemingly sleepy town of Toora is stirring.
The pub bustles on a Friday night. The night begins about 2pm, and ends at a decent hour – before 10pm.
We dine with the publican, Amy. They’re short-staffed tonight.
Amy can squeeze in a tale or two but she’s always got one eye on the floor, looking for a plate that needs clearing or a patron tapping their foot at the bar.
All along the walls are historic photographs of the township in its sepia heyday.
The town loves its pub, and not just because it’s the only place within 10 kilometres with beer taps.
Recently, Ann nominated the pub for a $50,000 accommodation renovation package. It was one of six pubs in isolated areas throughout the country that received the cash.
Amy and business partner Steve have used the dough to renovate the upper level of the Royal Standard Hotel, re-opening the accommodation just before the summer peak hits, and listing it through Airbnb.
There’s also a bunch of hidden-gem listings on the site, for those who want to immerse themselves in seclusion.
See: Long walks along long piers
A short drive from Toora’s town centre, via the sweeping views provided by the hill that watches over the landscape – all the way across the bay to Wilsons Promontory – are Agnes Falls.
They’re the highest single-span falls in Victoria at 59 metres, and they’re also easily accessible.
It’s a 200-metre walk under a native bush canopy to reach the falls. The area is dutifully maintained and upgraded by the Friends of Agnes Halls group.
Out here, he pollution scratch that hits the back of your throat in Melbourne is long gone. Replaced, if you’re unlucky, by hayfever.
The distinct sting of a sea breeze easily brushes away the pollen, and it’s best taken in from the long jetty at Port Welshpool. Fish it, walk it – there’s a reason the locals recommend all tourists visit it.
There’s also the Prom – it’s easy to spend days, if not weeks, exploring every pocket of it.
- The New Daily travelled to Gippsland as a guest of Airbnb, Visit Victoria and Destination Gippsland. An earlier version of this article was published in November.