Outside of Victoria, few Aussies know Daylesford's charms - or its dress code - writes Craig Tansley.
It's a dead-set Australian enigma: a million people may well visit Daylesford in a year but most of them are from Melbourne (at barely 100 kilometres north-west of the CBD, it's a favourite weekend escape). But if you mention the town to a Sydneysider, they'll look at you funny and probably tell you, "Think I've heard of it." And if you're from Adelaide or Brisbane - or any town between (outside Victoria) - you might as well be talking about the dark side of the moon.
The second strange thing about Daylesford is that many Victorians think it's full of nudists (not there's anything wrong with that). There is a notion among rural Victorians, and even some from Melbourne, that the town is an outpost for folk who like to dance naked on full moons. Is it because it's a mecca for the arts? No town in regional Victoria offers this array of galleries and studios. But who said artists wear no clothes?
I spent a year living in regional Victoria barely an hour's drive from Daylesford. There, locals warned me: "The people in Daylesford never wear clothes."
But when I hit Daylesford, I can't spot a single suspect, or even an "alternative lifestylist". There is not a tie-dye shirt in sight, or a single set of bare feet in the main street, let alone nudity beyond the toes. On the contrary, Daylesford feels downright genteel; more like an English countryside hamlet - a village in country Dorset, perhaps, or Cornwall - than anything remotely Australian.
The squawk of a cockatoo seems oddly out of place as I take a walk round Lake Daylesford, not far off the main street (on the Peace Mile walking trail which circumnavigates the lake) and I look on at cheery souls in paddleboats slowly passing swans and ducks. A low mist lends an ethereal English autumn sort of quality to the setting. Town, too, is a mix of Gold Rush-era heritage buildings (with a heavy influence of Swiss-Italian style, thanks to the miners of the era), and boutiques that wouldn't look out of place in Paddington, or Prahran, or Fortitude Valley.
Maybe it's because Daylesford has been a place of healing since its early days that other Victorians think it's a nudist gathering place. Daylesford and its twin town, Hepburn Springs, are home to the largest number of natural mineral springs (there's 72) in Australia. Over 80 per cent of Australia's natural mineral springs are here, set across over 30 spas and health retreats, making Daylesford and Hepburn Springs two of the world's most significant spa towns.
Victorians flock to the region for these world-class day spas and natural springs. And so it is that within an hour of arriving here that it is not the locals who are getting around in the nude. It's me.
I'm smeared in local, black magma mud and suspended naked (except for a flimsy, plastic G-string which barely hides my dignity) in a bed of hot water. I'm at The Mineral Spa within the Peppers Hepburn Springs hotel, on the receiving end of a signature spa experience.
Then I'm naked again in the gardens of the region's most iconic restaurant and hotel, the Lake House. In its Salus Spa private treetop room, I'm rubbed with hot, local, volcanic rocks and oils and polished with local lime and ginger till I glow like uranium.
Next morning, I soak in the natural mineral waters of the town's original bathhouse, Hepburn Bathhouse & Spa. They've been healing folks like me since it opened in 1895. I don't have to do much here, just lie in its ancient mineral waters and let the water do the rest.
I could've kept my clothes on, though. Apparently, in Daylesford and Hepburn Springs: you don't need the healing waters of the region to fix all those lifetime blues, for healing comes from the soil of the region. These are said to be some of the most fertile volcanic soils of anywhere in Australia. Town is built upon an extinct volcano, so produce from the soil is as healthy as it gets. The restaurants and cafes here dish up some of the best organic meals in Victoria, and no regional town in the whole country has a choice of restaurants quite like Daylesford and Hepburn Springs.
Up on Wombat Hill by the edge of town, I start with a big breakfast in the botanic gardens' old caretaker cottage, a rustic little country place complete with an open log fire. Wombat Hill House Café is a side project of Daylesford's most famous restaurateur. Alla Wolf-Tasker has been instrumental in transforming Daylesford from a simple country town in the 1970s to one of the best regional dining spots in Australia. Her "other" restaurant is arguably Australia's best regional restaurant, the Lake House. Produce here is hand-picked in the morning and delivered straight to the restaurant, or it comes from the property's own produce garden nearby at Dairy Flat Farm. The wine cellar is a thing of fascination - home to over 10,000 wine bottles, there's more Australian history inside this cellar than a city museum, and the ambience of the restaurant epitomises Daylesford: country comfort with an old-world sense of style, minus any pretence.
There are so many restaurants and cafes in town that it'd take a fortnight to sample all of them, not a weekend. I spend an entire afternoon gorging on a four-course lunch of local meats and herbs in Mercato Restaurant, a restored 1860s homestead near downtown Daylesford. There's a good mix of quirk with all that elegant style though, so dinner doesn't have to break the bank - establishments like Sault Restaurant, with its signature seven-course tasting menu, epitomise Daylesford's fine-dining offerings, but for every high-end place, there's a rustic cafe.
Cliffy's Emporium, built within the old general store, is the town's favourite feeding spot. Or try local winery Passing Clouds, where the owners slow-roast cuts of meat from their neighbour's farm over a charcoal firepit. And then there's RedBeard Bakery for great sourdough in nearby Trentham.
And Daylesford town is a hell of a place to walk off your meals. There is still plenty of its 1860s-era Swiss-Italian heritage in its streetscape, mixed in with a unique bohemian style. Studios, art galleries, bookshops and homeware and antique stores dominate the main streets. The Convent Gallery by the edge of town is the place to see visiting art exhibitions in the town's most striking building, a mansion built in the late 19th century.
There are hikes on the outskirts of town too, should you have the energy. I force myself to hike through the surrounding Hepburn Regional Park, out to waterfalls and forest reserves, if only to make myself hungrier for my next meal. Town is surrounded on all sides by the wilderness of Wombat Forest, while the 157-year-old botanic gardens don't even require you leave your car: just take a scenic drive built for horse and cart to the Pioneers Memorial tower for the best views of town.
I never do find a nude gathering, though there's plenty of shamanic healers and spiritual gurus on offer if the mineral springs and volcanically charged produce doesn't do the trick. This might be one of Australia's most picturesque regional areas, but all you need to do is leave Victoria and it is like it never existed at all.
Drive: Daylesford is 100 kilometres north-west of Melbourne airport. All major rental car companies operate out of the airport.
Stay: Sleep amongst pretty gardens at the iconic Lake House, or in the restored 1930s homestead Peppers Hepburn Springs. Or stay in the exclusive, romantic Clifftop at Hepburn.
Eat: Also, worth a visit is Bad Habits Cafe at The Convent and for the best local produce there's The Argus Dining Room at Peppers.
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