Bliss among the Birches

This is from a piece I wrote for the Weekend Australian’s “Travel & Indulgence” section. Victoria’s Mt Beauty district in Autumn is just that…  Beautiful

Entrance to Birches ResortSTEPPING through an archway formed by the foliage of a Papuan highland box plant, I have a sense that an extraordinary experience awaits just around the corner.

The Birches Luxury Spa Chalets Retreat has provided silver service dining and accommodation for more than a decade at Victoria’s Mt Beauty but does not trumpet its reputation. There isn’t even a turn-off sign on the Kiewa Valley Highway. That, says owner Kent Scott, is because The Birches caters for couples and intimate groups seeking privacy and seclusion. And exclusivity, it should be added, as I marvel at the collection of rare artefacts and artworks.

The view is breathtaking and so is Scott’s cellar; he has built a business on sourcing rare champagnes and wines, and antiques, particularly from Russia, the former Yugoslavia and France’s Burgundy and Bordeaux regions.

On arrival, he greets and escorts guests from the main villa and dining room through his forest of Russian birches, home to tame fallow deer, and past oak trees nurturing truffles and mushrooms (which Scott uses in the kitchen), to the two chalets.

Each has a large spa, a sunny balcony, notable Australian artworks and imported furniture. At dinner, Scott, dressed in black waistcoat and bow tie, again is the personal host. My dinner companion and I enjoy an aperitif of 80-year-old French elderflower liqueur served in antique Irish Waterford crystal, accompanied by cheeses made by Scott’s wife, Sevasti Myriofitioy, taken on the lawn by candlelight and under the largest full moon in 19 years.

Then into the dining room, where awaits an incredible array of Riedel and Sommelier glassware, rare crystal decanters, Royal Doulton china, Sheffield sterling silver cutlery, antique French candelabra and elegant linen tablecloth. The room’s furnishings and open fireplace have a traditional Russian and Slavic flavour, with an emphasis on hunting.

King Louis XIV dining at the Palace of Versailles? No, it’s just me at Mt Beauty. All ingredients are sourced locally and include livestock from The Birches or Scott’s properties in South Australia. This time of year it’s substantial autumn fare, which brings on heavy eyelids and, regrettably but sensibly, Scott’s offer of a seriously top-shelf port is declined.

The chalet’s balcony looks out on to early morning mists in the Mt Beauty valley. The leaves are starting to fall as a hint of approaching winter laces the air. A day of horseriding and kayaking lies ahead but first a stroll around The Birches property to check out alpacas, kangaroos, wombats, parrots, peacocks, pheasants, chickens, ducks, geese, quail and turkeys. And then a spot of hand-feeding the property’s three varieties of goats: British Alpine, Saanen (milk) and Boer (meat).

As the property’s name heralds, there are hundreds of Russian birches, and another 700 to be planted this winter. Tagging along is the owners’ little dog Holly, and on the breakfast table is a snifter of exquisite cognac served in antique crystal, just the thing to kickstart the morning.

Then to kayaking on the Kiewa River, one of the coldest in Australia. It’s advisable to pay close attention to the instructor when learning to paddle. A cumbersome kayak can be quite a challenge to steer on a fast-flowing river. Although my two-hour time limit permits only a sampling of the fun to be had, it’s a good introduction tothe popular two-day camping and kayaking tours in the High Country.

Mountain camping tours are also a popular inclusion with Bogong Horseback Adventures, which has become legendary feature of local tourism. My basic riding lesson in the stables and mounting yard is followed by a relaxed trot through the Mt Beauty countryside.

The second night’s accommodation is Svarmisk, on the far side of Mt Beauty township. As at The Birches, it’s all about attention to detail and making full use of valley views. As its Swedish name suggests, the three-storey, self-contained apartments have a distinctive Scandinavian feel. Formerly Mt Beauty Chalet, much of the original Baltic pine has been reused and the natural feel of the timber is enhanced with modern furnishings and huge baths, and all designed with that Scandinavian nous for functionality.

It’s mid-morning on Sunday as we tuck into breakfast, bathed in the warm autumn sunshine that pours through ceiling-to-floor windows in Svarmisk’s cafe. Also a Swedish produce store, the eatery is called a skafferi (Swedish for pantry). Dine inside or out on a large balcony facing the valley. Breakfast is 8am-11.30am, reasonably priced, and full of local produce.

It would take a year of weekends to experience all that Mt Beauty has to offer but must-do suggestions are Roi’s Diner for Italian cuisine (the homemade ice cream is unbeatable) and, next door, the Ivory Rooms cafe, with its amazing collection of souvenirs and knick-knacks from travels to Africa and other exotic destinations. On the drive back to Melbourne, swing by Bright Berry Farms (6300 Great Alpine Rd, between Porepunkah and Eurobin) for jams you just can’t buy in supermarkets, and then detour up Hughes Lane to see the Snowline Red Deer and Emu Tourist Farm, where kids can feed the animals.

Greg Hackett was a guest of North East Victoria Tourism.

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