I’ve visited my fair share of Australia, but when I got the call to go to ‘Dunkeld’ I had to refer to my atlas to clarify exactly
where to set my GPS.
It turns out that Dunkeld is located some 260km west of Melbourne (three hours drive) and 90km (75 minutes drive) north
of the Great Ocean Road, at the southern tip of the spectacular Grampians National Park. For me in Adelaide, it’s a longer hike (at around 520km), but the call of an eight-course meal and an opportunity for some serious time out is all the convincing I needed to fill up the VW and head for the hills!
The history of the Dunkeld township began in the 1840s at Mt Sturgeon Station. It was this site that was first recognised as suitable grazing land and a run of 112,000 acres was soon established. It was then that the township of Mt Sturgeon (later to be renamed ‘Dunkeld’ after the Scottish town of the same name) was born.
In 1997, the Dunkeld Pastoral Co Pty Ltd purchased Mt Sturgeon Station, including the original homestead block. They undertook extensive renovations of the original homestead, shearers’ and workers’ quarters and woolshed, and in 2005 the property was opened to guests as part of the accommodation offerings from the ‘Royal Mail Hotel’.
The original structure of the Mt Sturgeon Homestead was built from local sandstone and bluestone in the 1840s by the first owner of the property, Dr Robert Martin.
Successive owners then added to the homestead, first in the 1860s and again in the 1880s. The homestead was returned to its original grandeur in 1997 after an extensive renovation. The Homestead also boasts manicured lawns and gardens and guests are invited to pick fruit from the orchard, which houses some of the property’s original trees.
An alternative accommodation option is the Mt Sturgeon Cottages. It was cool to see these bluestone cottages, which were originally the property’s original shearers’ quarters, cook house and single men’s housing. They’ve now been fully restored, as has the Mt Sturgeon Woolshed, which is used nowadays for concerts and weddings, as well as for its original shearing purpose.
In the wee town of Dunkeld itself, you’ll find just two cafОs, a bakery, a gift shop, a hardware store, bank, hotel with take away food, an information centre, petrol station and, of course, my home for the next two nights: The Royal Mail Hotel. The Royal Mail Hotel is located just three kilometres from the base of Mt Sturgeon and the Mt Sturgeon Station and is one of Victoria’s premier regional escapes, offering accommodation, wedding and conferencing facilities.
Originally, the Royal Mail Hotel was established in 1855 as a bluestone inn, offering accommodation, stabling, a reception room for concerts and meetings, and at one time a farm supplies store. At the time Dunkeld was a vital link to the Western District for the Cobb & Co Royal Mail Service – hence the name ‘Royal Mail Hotel’.
In the 1990s, operational management of the Royal Mail Hotel was taken over by Dunkeld Pastoral Company Pty Ltd, who had owned the building for many years. A multi-million dollar refurbishment took place in 1997 and since then the property has been regularly upgraded and refurbished. All of these enhancements have helped to establish the Royal Mail Hotel and Dunkeld’s reputation as one of the best high-end travel destinations in regional Victoria.
Much to my delight, the dining (and wining) options are in abundance here in Dunkeld. In fact, the Royal Mail Hotel is home to a highly acclaimed Dining Room which is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner on a daily basis. This Dining Room specialises in nature-based cuisine and uses only the highest quality and locally sourced produce. Awarded Two Chef Hats by The Age Good Food Guide 2016, the kitchen is overseen by executive Chef Robin Wickens. On a daily basis, Robin and his team of chefs harvest produce from the extensive organic kitchen garden, which is then used as inspiration for the menu for that day. The Hotel also boasts its own orchards and olive groves.
The Hotel’s signature experience is an eight-course Chef’s Tasting menu with matched wines, which is served every evening. A la carte options are also available for dinner; however, I simply cannot go past the opportunity for a degustation. My menu included mutton bird, Great Ocean Road duck, scallop roe, wagyu rump and duck fat ice cream. Not the typical fare I’d be chowing down on in Adelaide but indeed impressive and memorable.
Despite not being a drinker myself, I can appreciate the Hotel’s cellar houses, which has one of the most comprehensive and varied wine collections in Australia, including one of the country’s leading collections of Bordeaux and Burgundy. A selection of 2,300 local and imported wines, offered from a wine inventory of 26,000 bottles. Tours of the cellar are available on Saturday afternoons and are complimentary for house guests, or groups can book for $15 per person.
As an overnight guest I was also able to undertake a free Kitchen Garden Tour. Here I learned how much the hotel prides itself on using organic local produce and how the menu changes based on what’s in season at the time. The tours are led by the hotel chefs and one young apprentice told me that they are empowered to be creative and if they ‘design’ a dish and the chef likes it, then they’ll put it on the menu. The driving philosophy behind the Kitchen Garden is that food should be produced using organic principles with as little impact to the earth as possible. The garden aims to provide produce such as organic heirloom vegetables, herbs, edible flowers, fruit and nuts all year round. The hotel raise their own lambs/sheep and will soon also have cows.
Being an animal lover myself, I was happy to learn about the Royal Mail Hotel’s conservation department, which has a captive breeding program in place. This program aims to increase numbers of and raise awareness of threatened species such as eastern quolls and tiger quolls. The Hotel’s resident quolls come from the Conservation Ecology Centre in Cape Otway – an organisation that is dedicated to tiger quoll conservation. House guests can join a guided tour during feeding times every day of the week, except on Sundays.
Part of my Dunkeld experience was a three-hour yoga class at Griffin’s Hill Retreat (www.griffinshill.com.au). Initially I thought it was a typo when I read the session went for three hours. But the fully qualified senior Iyengar yoga teacher Frank Jesse, confirmed upon my arrival that it did, in fact, go for that long! Frank has been teaching yoga for more than 21 years and you can tell by his level of expertise. He was able to assist us individually in different poses and correct our form along the way. He also guided us into poses that I’d never tried before, like working toward a head stand! When he said we’d hold that position for five minutes I nearly died, but it turned out to be surprisingly easy!
On the day I attended, a five-day yoga retreat had just begun, so I got to meet some lovely women from all over Australia – some of whom had attended the retreat before and some who were brand new to yoga (like me). Even though our class was held indoors, I discovered they also run classes outside, which I imagine would be awesome, given the majestic backdrop of the Grampians. Overall, I found the class quite challenging and felt completely exhausted by the end, but I also felt great too. The experience certainly reignited my desire to take up yoga on a regular basis.
Of course, all the people I met during my time in Dunkeld really contributed to my overall experience. Most specificalIy, I cannot speak highly enough of The Royal Mail’s general manager Carl Forrest. I was so impressed by his passion for his work and his knowledge of all those wines. He does such a great job and I commend him and his team for all that they have achieved so far.
For more information or to arrange your stay at Dunkeld, visit www.royalmail.com.auArticle by Veronica Stanley