It’s unlikely a town as tiny and off-the-beaten-track as Dunkeld would harbour a hotel as devoted to food and wine as the Royal Mail.
A grey and orange wallaby nibbles daintily on a shrub beside my balcony.
A few minutes after I notice him, he stands up on his hind legs, furry ears cocked, and looks at me. Finding nothing to worry about, he returns to his foraging.
Just a couple of metres away, a black-and-white striped honeyeater is similarly preoccupied, probing the deep recesses of a yellow bloom with its curved beak and long tongue.
Yes, I think with a chuckle, even the wildlife knows there’s good food to be had at Dunkeld’s Royal Mail Hotel.
It’s unlikely a town as tiny and off-the-beaten-track as Dunkeld, population 678, would harbour a hotel as devoted to food and wine as the Royal Mail.
It’s a three-hour drive from Melbourne and sheep vastly outnumber people here.
Yet, gourmands routinely rank the Royal Mail as one of the country’s greatest dining destinations, in part because its wine cellar holds the largest stash of Burgundy and Bordeaux in the Southern Hemisphere.
It doesn’t hurt that the scenery rivals the food and wine. Beyond my balcony (and within easy walking distance) Mt Sturgeon beckons, and beyond that Mt Abrupt, two sandstone peaks that mark the southern edge of Grampians National Park. But neither the hotel nor the village would be on any traveller’s map if it weren’t for one man.
Allan Myers grew up in Dunkeld, named by early Scottish settlers for a town back home. The son of the village butcher, Myers studied law at Oxford where he “got introduced to wine by French wine sellers who came to the school looking for lifelong customers”, according to Kylie Schurmann, the hotel’s marketing manager.
Back home, Myers began practising law in Melbourne, but he never forgot where he grew up. A fire in 1944 had destroyed most of Dunkeld, but the Royal Mail Hotel survived.
When Myers bought it in 1995, it was a run-down pub with just a few rooms. Today, Myers is a renowned barrister, businessman and Chancellor of the University of Melbourne and his company — Dunkeld Pastoral Company — owns more than 10,000ha in and around Dunkeld, including the magnificent Mt Sturgeon Station, an historic homestead that supports 60,000 sheep.
The bluestone cottages, where shearers once lived, have been converted to guest cottages, part of the Royal Mail’s accommodation.
And his stellar wine collection with 28,000 bottles?
It’s tucked away at the back of the same red brick building where Myers’ father once had his butcher shop. “Cases just arrive,” Schurmann tells me, with an air of mystery. The hotel’s wine list includes 15 pages of Old World pinot noir alone.
Last autumn, the Royal Mail upped its offerings again, this time with the opening of its new standalone restaurant Wickens, named for chef Robin Wickens, the British expat who honed his craft in some of London’s top restaurants before moving to Melbourne.
But before I dine at Wickens, I want to see the kitchen garden, said to be the largest working restaurant garden in Australia. In December, it’s in full swing.
Pink-flowering society garlic punctuate the ends of vegetable rows bursting with leeks, lettuce and fennel. Big, fat onions push impatiently out of the ground. I can almost hear purple pansies shouting “pick us, we’re the prettiest”.
Nets, cages and greenhouses protect much of the organically grown produce from bugs and other pests, while a scarecrow dressed in a white apron and natty fedora guards the herb garden. Over the course of a year, more than 400 varieties of produce will be harvested from this sandy red loam.
Wickens offers five- and eight-course tasting menus based in large part on what’s available from this impressive garden on any given day, supplemented with lamb, beef and snails, all raised on the extensive holdings, as well as regionally sourced protein such as wild kangaroo.
That evening, I take my seat at a solid sandstone table cut from the local quarry (Dunkeld Pastoral owns it too) and dishes begin to arrive, each one more eye-catching than the last.
Snails nestle in pillows of pureed parsley root, adorned with mustard sprouts and sprinkled with what looks like green fairy dust. Blue-eye fish is another play on green with the crisp fish swimming in a pool of chrysanthemum puree. But it’s the plate of eel and beetroot that is the real show stopper.
The eel, cured in beetroot juice, is now a pretty pink. And those pansies that were crying to be picked? They sit atop, their petals glistening with what look like dew drops.
Diners at Wickens can choose to drink exclusively from the hotel’s French or Australian collections, or take a trip around the world of wine, as I do. “It’s drier at the start, and sweeter at the end. Just like men,” jokes sommelier Matthew Lance, as he pours me an Austrian Gruner Veltliner to wash down the snails.
Early the next morning, I head out for a walk to explore more of the property. A path has been mown between a field of rye-grass and a creek that, in summer, contains barely a trickle of water.
It’s so still and peaceful that I don’t immediately notice the half-dozen kangaroos grazing on the opposite hillside.
Not until they take off, that is, bounding away in energetic leaps. When I reach the Big Gum Tree at the foot of Mt Sturgeon, I stop to rest in the shade of its gnarled arms and think about Allan Myers’ passion for this place.
“There’s a big attachment,” he told a local newspaper a few years ago, explaining that his family’s roots go back 150 years. For me, it’s only been a few days and already I’m smitten.
- Accommodation at the Royal Mail includes hotel-style rooms, one- and two-bedroom cottages and the six-bedroom Mt Sturgeon Homestead. Room rates start at $195. Wickens offers five- and eight-course Chef’s Tasting Menus ($165 and $185 respectively) with matched wines ($115 and $145). Packages combining accommodation, dining and experiences (wine cellar, kitchen garden and wildlife tours) can be booked on the hotel’s website. royalmail.com.au
- The Grampians Grape Escape is held in Halls Gap each May. grampiansgrapeescape.com.au
- The other local wine festival, Seriously Shiraz, is held each November. visitgrampians.com.au/what-to-do/events/seriously-shiraz-festival
- Other local fun includes hiking in Grampians National Park. There are lots of trails, including the one to the 343m summit of Mt Sturgeon.
- Multi-day walks can be done on the new Grampian Peaks Trail. The first section is now complete and offers a 36km, three-day, two-night circuit walk with campgrounds along the route. visitgrampians.com.au/what-to-do/grampians-peaks-trail/the-trail
- Grampians National Park is famous for its Aboriginal rock art sites. The region has the largest number of such sites in southern Australia, some more than 20,000 years old. Five sites in the park are open to the public.
DisclaimerSuzanne Morphet was a guest of the Royal Mail Hotel. They have not seen or approved this story.
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