We’ll confess that we can’t think of too many places in Australia that aren’t good for a driving holiday in autumn. But what we do know for certain is that there are few places more spectacular than the Victorian high country. Where the vast majority of our forests remain green year-round, touring can be a same-same experience no matter what month it is. But in Victoria’s highland towns where hillsides and avenues come ablaze with the turning of poplars, maples, birch, ash and oak, autumn opens a brief window of opportunity to see country Victoria at its most colourful, and arguably, its most charming.
It’s no surprise then, that the town of Bright goes into party-mode around this time of year – celebrating the region’s beautiful displays of autumn colour and seasonal fresh produce during a ten day soiree that this year kicks off on the 27th of April. And to seal the deal, Bright happens to sit 76 k’s into the northern leg of the Great Alpine Road – 339 winding kilometres that connect Wangaratta in Vic’s North-East, to Metung, a coastal hamlet hugged by the shores of the Gippsland Lakes. We don’t know about you, but we’re feeling a spontaneous road trip coming on.
The Great Alpine Road only became official 20 years ago when the leg between Mount Hotham and Dinner Plain was sealed. By stitching various existing roads together, Victoria could lay claim to the highest sealed road in Australia that could be driven all year round (albeit while carrying chains in winter), and it’s been on the radar of keen road-trippers ever since. When you start contemplating the unrivalled combination of natural beauty, history, architecture, adventure and award-winning wining and dining to be exploited enroute, it’s not hard to see why.
If you start in Wangaratta, the drive is characterised by three stages and takes around four and a half hours without stops. But not only should you stop, and stop often, we’d urge you to throw at least a few side trips into the mix. Traversing lush farming valleys and historic townships, climbing up and over the Victorian Alps – said by many to be the best views in Australia – and descending through gold rush settlements and grazing territory as it approaches the finishing line on the lake-speckled coast, it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to say hours could roll into a week exploring the Great Alpine Road from tail to tip.
On the food trail
The cellar doors, cheeseries and mustard makers of Milawa, restaurants, cafes and breweries of detour-worthy Beechworth, and countless orchards and farm gates of the Ovens Valley make it quite possible to eat yourself into a coma before you even reach the autumn funtivities of Bright. On the Gippsland side, regional Vic proves time and time again why this is the gourmand’s state. Think just-picked berries, preserves, nuts, olive oil, baked goods, wine and mead, and over on the coast, succulent local seafood. It’s the stuff full tums and warm fuzzies are made of – which you’ll be grateful for in a place where the onset of winter is so strongly felt.
But first, Bright
Whether or not you time it with the autumn festival, Bright is the ideal base for exploration of Mount Buffalo National Park, and the nearby heritage towns that when looped together will gobble up at least an extra day or two of detouring. Time spent within an hour’s drive of the town may involve any combination of hiking, foraging, antiquing, gallery hopping, fishing, bird watching, cycling and rekindling primary school learnings of Ned Kelly. But all this comes second to the backdrop of gold and crimson foliage that makes Bright not only the best place in Australia for autumn colour, but a place worthy of idle observation and aimless wandering; of doing a whole lot of nothing. Bliss.
Easy does it
Now, you may want to pop a Travacalm to settle your belly for the ascent up and over the alps, which begins after passing through Harrietville. The relentless assault of hair-pin bends flanked by steep unfenced drops and sections barely wide enough for two sensible sized cars to pass make for a white-knuckle drive to the 1800 metre crest. Some may call it hair-raising, we call it adventure, though it’s more enjoyable if you time it so the sun isn’t piercing your eyes.
And besides, a more civilised road would simply be out of place in the unmarred, snow-dusted panorama of Victorian Alps. As well as eye-widening views of Mount Feathertop, Mount Buffalo, Mount Bogong and the endless yawning valleys, you’ll steer right through the upside-down ski resort of Mount Hotham. Yep, there aren’t too many places where you’ll see a village built at the top of the ski lifts, but here we are.
What goes up
Unlike the drive up, the descent isn’t a nerve-wracking affair, so you can relax and enjoy the scenic sub-alpine sprint that meanders foothills and gold mining towns and cattlemen’s huts down into the vibrant pastures at sea level. With greater Gippsland now within sight, you may think that the Great Alpine Road is coming to an end, gorge yourself on the coastal delicacies, and call it a success. Or you could remind yourself that you’re in the state that’s famous not just for great food, forests, hills, rivers, bush rangers, waterfalls, villages, valleys and visible seasonal changes, but for great drives. Torquay, the gatekeeper of big sister route the Great Ocean Road, is about four hours from Metung, that’s all we’re saying.
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