The Retreat at Lake House, Daylesford
The North - West outskirts of Melbourne ease gently into a rural pastiche of meandering byways and signs announcing free-range eggs and · organic strawberries, tractors for sale and wombats crossing. I have escaped the spaghetti tangle of Tullamarine\'s ring-roads and meandered off the Calder Freeway at Woodend, where corner landmark Bourkies Bake house does a fine line in pies and award-winning vanilla slices. My course is set for Daylesford, in the heart of so-called spa country. This pretty country town, which all but merges with its mineral-springs neighbour (and rival) Hepburn Springs, is the home of the 33-room Lake House, routinely considered one of country Victoria\'s best gourmet getaways since the mid 198os.
Owner-chef Alla Wolf-Tasker is a bold, brave force of nature, a one-woman storm of publicity for her property and the region. She’s passionate about the produce of the parish and enormously supportive of young chefs, local growers and providores. At present she\'s campaigning for better school-canteen fare and praying for the downfall of chicken nuggets, but patrons of The Lake House need not fear about any collapsed standards of catering on her own patch - this ·is Michelin-worthy territory and all just 8o minutes from Melbourne.
At \"the start of the year, Wolf-Tasker and daughter Larissa, who handles the property\'s brand and marketing, opened The Retreat, linked by pathways to The Lake House proper but discreetly screened with bamboo and brush fencing. It\'s a single-storey two-bedroom abode with a hot tub on the deck off the master bedroom, spacious rooms and an enclave sense of privacy. It has cemented The Lake House\'s reputation as the place to bed down in the Macedon Ranges region and added a much-needed two-bedroom option to the property\'s inventory.
Dining Of course, you would eat in, and you\'d be scoffing in style in a big, airy dining room surrounded by greenery, like a grown-up treehouse overlooking Lake Daylesford. There\'s seasonal a la carte or degustation menus (also available as vegetarian) and Wolf-Tasker lists all her providers at the back, from makers of honey and cheese to suppliers of pork and lamb, most of which are members of Daylesford Macedon Produce and have stalls at Daylesford Farmers market on the first Saturday of each month. Breakfast is a delight here, too, with the best eggs you may ever taste and house-made jams and relishes. As I watch the silver lake, a host of ducks suddenly appears as if a gate has been opened for their release. Bottoms up, they dive for food as breakfasters at The Lake House spread their toast with apple and lime preserves and plan a clay of farmgate trails and spa appointments.
Hot tip The Daylesford and Hepburn Springs nexus has more day spas than any other region in Australia, 8o per cent of the country\'s naturally occurring mineral water and, says Alla, \"the biggest critical mass of spa therapists\". But you will do no better than heading straight from your room to Salus Spa, a two-storey facility on The Lake House premises . Dramatically decorated with canvases of David Bromley nudes, the spa offers a range of wet treatments, healing massages and facials but its stand-out feature is a pair of cedar cabins set above the poplar and silver birch-fringed lake. These are equipped with deep tubs in which to soak in warm, muscle unknotting mineral water rich in magnesium, sodium, silica and iron; shuttered windows can be opened into the branches and to the watery view below.
Stepping out Daylesford\'s main drag, Vincent Street, is wide and old-fashioned, with centre parking and veranda posts. But beyond this country facade are myriad homewares stores, cafes and speciality shops. Drop into House of Benjamin Bandicoot for gorgeous gifts, Ex Libris Prints for Florentine stationery and French cushions, and Sweet Decadence for handmade chocolates in flavours as amazing as lavender, chilli and sticky fig. Be sure to cline in brasserie style at Frangos & Frangos or head to its casual sibling Koukla Cafe for a sourdough wood-fired pizza in combinations as unexpected as pear with gorgonzola, prosciutto and rocket. Have lunch at the delightfully jumbled Cliffy\'s Emporium (Raglan Street) and do not miss a visit to the remodelled Hepburn Bathhouse & Spa; its 19th-century heritage core has been cleverly incorporated within a glassy, contemporary building with hot pools, steam rooms infused with lime and black pepper sprays, and a full range of spa treatments.
Everyone\'s talking about The Retreat is being much whispered about among members of the local tourism industry; it has lifted the bar at a time when such self-contained digs are a recognised accommodation trend. Taking cues from designers Auckland-based Virginia Fisher (Huka Retreats) and Britain\'s Kit Kemp (Firmdale Hotels in London and New York ), Alla and Larissa enlisted Coco Republic to achieve an eclectic residential feel with a mix of statement pieces and quirky local finds, a clever blend of textures and eras.
There are freestanding tubs in two grey-tiled and white shuttered bathrooms, stacks of magazines and books, soft throw rugs and cushions by the barrow load, a Provencal tea-set with bird handles and an equally zany bird-motif chandelier in the lounge room. On the bookcase are displayed ceramic plates painted by Victorian artist Bern Emmerichs and, in the master bedroom, a tussocky landscape by Allan Wolf-Tasker, Alla\'s husband, who has a garden studio on site and whose work also adorns the walls of the Lake House property, its show plates and menu covers. A kitchen stocked with nougat and sweet goodies, fruit, Nespresso coffees and good teas, and two automatic gas fires ready to fire up, combine to ensure this is the haven from heaven to hunker down and wait out winter. Essentials The Retreat tariff includes country-style buffet breakfast, lunch of seasonal specialities and regional wine, butler service of complimentary pre-dinner drinks, in-room minibar of non-alcoholic beverages, honour cocktail bar, dinner in The Lake House restaurant and parking.
Susan Kurosawa is the travel editor of The Australian.
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