Looking up from our main courses, we realise friends from Melbourne are at the neighbouring table. Such is the all-consuming nature of the gourmet experience at Dunkeld’s Royal Mail Hotel that neither of us has noticed the other during the past hour. And we’re not even in the main restaurant that’s won practically every award in the country. Our last-minute reservation, despite being midweek, means tables for chef Dan Hunter’s multi-course tasting menu are fully booked.
Earlier in the day we’d cruised to the ruggedly beautiful southern Grampians from Melbourne in a fuss-free three hours. That’s one of the joys of the midweek jaunt – next to no traffic. It’s almost as good as the feeling of knowing you’re relaxing while everyone else is still stuck in the office.
Mt Sturgeon and its eight bluestone cottages beckon, but before reaching our final destination we duck into Dunkeld, call in at sister stay the Royal Mail to collect the keys and have a drink in the bar. Well, it’s a lengthy drive! Mr Smith picks up the encyclopaedic list and immediately his eyes get that look. He’s a connoisseur of fine wine and this offering is no slouch. He chooses a local Hochkirch Maximus pinot noir and declares it to be one of the best he’s ever drunk.
Bottle of unfinished pinot in hand, we’re given a map and directions down a dirt road to our secluded former workers’ cottage. Built from stone, it has an air of simplicity and country comfort. A much-loved chocolate leather couch sits by the fireplace. There’s no TV and we soon discover our phones are out of WiFi range – seems we have no choice but to leave work behind. But as cosy as this scene is, what lies beyond the front door is really the highlight here – a commanding view of Mount Sturgeon and the jaw-dropping surrounding landscape.
But make no mistake about it; the reason we’re here is to taste the acclaimed food at the Royal Mail Hotel. Although initially disappointed that we couldn’t score an elusive booking in the main restaurant, we’ve managed to talk ourselves around to the fact that the less-structured bistro menu next door is more suited to our hunger levels, while still hailing from the same kitchen.
Freshly baked bread and spiced almonds kick off our meal. Mr Smith then polishes off a plate of Milawa organic chicken with cauliflower and wild rice; I have blue cod with fennel and globe artichoke. The star of the meal so far, though, has been a perfect side dish of roasted Jerusalem artichokes and chestnuts, grown in the hotel’s kitchen garden.
That’s when we notice our friends at the next table. We would have been embarrassed if it weren’t for the fact that they hadn’t seen us either. It’s with relief etched in every word that they inform us that after two years of trying they’d finally secured a Friday night spot at the degustation table. They would be dining in the main restaurant the following evening.
Although just a little bit jealous – okay, maybe a lot jealous – we console ourselves with dessert: a decadent chocolate hazelnut mousse with honeycomb for me and for Mr Smith a beurre bosc pear tart with vanilla anglaise. Its flaky pastry reminds him of the tarts his mother made in France.
One of the many joys of staying at Mt Sturgeon is that a member of staff whisks you home, so there’s never an argument over who’s doing the driving. That also means there’s no problem enjoying an indulgent night cap by the roaring fire in the bar before we’re ferried on the short return journey to the cottage. Back at base camp, we fall into a deep sleep, lulled by full stomachs and the smell of the fire.
A light drizzle the next morning means we can contemplate the day ahead from bed without an attack of the guilts. Finally, we unpack the breakfast basket, stocked with local sheeps-milk yoghurt, stewed and fresh fruit, and muesli. As delicious as it looks, Mr Smith and I decide to head to the pub to read the papers and enjoy a coffee. Somehow we’re still lingering at midday when a rush of locals and travellers begins gathering for the lunch service. Who are we to upset the apple cart? A hearty serving of crispy fish and chips later and we know we’ve made the right choice.
After lunch we hit the road for Halls Gap. The asphalt is deserted as the rain gets heavier, but as we wind along towards the Grampians National Park the surrounds become increasingly breathtaking in their lush dampness. We make for McKenzie Falls, walking through the drizzle along a well-marked path to a picturesque waterfall. The smell of rain in the wild surroundings is remarkably refreshing. We stop at picturesque Mount Zero Olives, adjacent to the Grampians National Park, settling into the café with warm cups of tea and the best berry cake I’ve ever eaten, before stocking up on bottles of the latest release virgin olive oil.
Soon enough we are back at the cottage, and a car and driver are waiting to ferry us to the bistro. Taking a cue from the previous evening I settle on an entrée of slow-cooked egg, salt fish and mussels, then choose two home-grown vegetable side dishes: an amazing potato and turnip gratin and those Jerusalem artichokes again. Mr Smith is swayed by a recommendation of boneless rack of lamb with parsnip and pecorino. Of course, it’s all washed down with more local wine selections from the cellar. We make the epic decision to skip dessert, instead taking a bottle of wine back to consume in front of our blazing fire.
Blankets draped around our shoulders, Mr Smith and I sit outside our cottage on the final morning making the most of that breakfast basket and taking in the magnificent, silent scenery. We feel as though we’ve experienced something unique during our time away from the city: a chance to enjoy dramatic nature and also taste some magnificent food and wine. It’s truly the best of both worlds.
For bookings or further information about Royal Mail Hotel & Mount Sturgeon or any other Mr & Mrs Smith hotel visit www.mrandmrssmith.com or phone the expert Travel Team on 1300 89 66 27.
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