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Published June 22nd 2017
Five star couple's retreat at a low cost with plenty to do
The suite is lush. It's brand new, meticulously clean with a large painted white brass bed. The carpet is soft. The black leather couch is beckoning and relaxing. There is a large wall mounted TV that can be viewed from the bed and a DVD library of some 250 films. And if you do need to keep in contact with the outside world, there is free NBN WiFi.
Stay in bed all weekend if you like and watch DVDs.
The suite is attached to the house, but it is far enough away from others as there is another room and a long corridor between you and the family. There is also only one accommodation suite on the property and you are in it. So, no noisy neighbours.
And Jennifer and John, who designed the property have deliberately set up the retreat like an upmarket motel room. There's a long verandah with seating outside the door and your own entrance. There is a kitchenette with a bar fridge, a microwave, toaster and kettle.
But while I use the term 'motel' loosely forget any distant memories you may have had of staying in a squashy country motel room on a noisy highway. This room is large. And the only noise here is the distant dawn chorus of birdlife that simply serves to reminds you that you are far away from the city and its stresses.
How wonderful to see such a vast expanse of sky, particularly at night when the stars come out.
The feeling is one of splendid isolation. The driveway into your hideaway alone is 1km long and even this driveway is tucked off a laneway which is again well away from the highway.
Some of you may remember one of the wonderful things about old country motels was the home-cooked breakfasts that would be ordered the night before and delivered to your room. And that is exactly what happens at River Garden.
You tick the options and then at the designated time there is a knock at the door and there is your tray with your hearty breakfast. All you have to do is lift the lid and dig into the beautifully presented meal which includes homemade relish and Axedale honey.
Or if you want to sleep in until all hours there is plenty of cereal in the cupboards.
And should you feel any hunger pangs later on in the day there are snacks in the cupboard for just such emergencies. Muesli bars, biscuits, lollies including Fantales (great for all that movie watching) and cans of soft drink in the fridge, although some might use them as mixers. Gosh, there are even two-minute noodles.
And it is all included in the price of $97 dollars on weeknights or $107 on Friday and Saturday nights.
If you do want dinner the Axedale pub is just a couple of minutes down the road and it has to be one of the best country pubs in regional Victoria.
It is quintessentially rural and evocative with wide verandahs and charming curls of smoke wafting from the old chimney on a cold day.
Walk in and warm yourself in front of the open fire and then take a seat because here it's old-fashioned table service.
It's pub food, but REALLY GOOD pub food so don't let the humble names such as steak or hamburger mask what is really incredible food. There are huge homemade pies, excellent steaks, beer battered chips, crisp salads, and mountains of fresh vegetables, which are always tender and never over-cooked.
I was lucky to be there on their specials nights. Wednesdays are $19 parma nights. But forget visions of dried up chicken you may have experienced in some Melbourne pubs. These parmas are made from fresh chicken fillets, dipped in egg and crumbed in-house.
Then the toppings! Mine for example, was topped with a cream sauce, camembert cheese and prawns.
Then on Thursdays its $20 steak night. These are the same steaks that normally sell for $32-$34 the rest of the week. This means beautifully served porterhouses and rumps with beer batter chips, a large crisp salad or vegetable and endless sauces to choose from.
Steak with garlic butter and beer battered chips at the local Axedale Tavern
While the Axedale Tavern's food was so good I could not resist eating out there two nights in a row couples also have a circle of other great country pubs to eat at including those at Toolleen, Junortoun and Redesdale.
If you don't want venture further into the region then the 133-acre farmland and riverside property provides plenty of activities. Chat to and feed the goats and alpacas. Enjoy Jennifer's beautiful gardens and meander down to the river. There is a 4-hectare forest, rocky rises and plenty of wildlife on the property. You can fish for cod, golden perch, redfin, trout and carp in the Campaspe River or go kayaking.
If you are interested in learning more about alternative power sources then have a chat to John. He is proud to say that River Gardens Retreat runs on solar energy. Yet he can still weld during the day if he needs to and my experience of the luxuriant shower is that it is always piping hot. The Abbots's also have the blessing of no power bills for the rest of their lives.
This is the perfect spot for cyclists as River Gardens Retreat is right on the O'Keefe Rail Trail. So you can come to Bendigo along with your bikes and then cycle to the property. At least that way you can honestly deserve one of those mountainous meals at the Axedale Tavern.
River Gardens is located 20 minutes drive from both Heathcote and Bendigo. If heading towards Heathcote you can explore the Pink Cliffs (and these interesting rock formations really are pink) and some of the excellent wineries in the region. For an itinerary click here.
If you head towards Bendigo it is worth exploring the Golden Dragon Museum which is believed to house the oldest Chinese Imperial dragon in the world. Its sheer length is wondrous to behold. The Bendigo Art Gallery has really made Bendigo a wonderful regional hotspot with previous innovative exhibitions such as Marilyn (about Marilyn Monroe), The White Wedding Dress: 200 years of wedding fashions and Grace Kelly: Style Icon. But there is always something great on.
I've been to Bendigo too many times to count, so this time I tried a few different attractions so that I could pass these on to WeekendNotes readers.
But no, this monumental new building is just outside Bendigo. It rises some 50 meters above the bushland and is the same size and design as The Great Stupa of Gyantse in Tibet, making it the largest Buddhist Stupa in the Western world.
For those not in the know, as I certainly wasn't a stupa is a hemispherical structure containing relics and is used as a place of meditation.
The size of this one is simply staggering and the construction creates perfect photo opportunities in the early morning or late afternoon. Though an advantage of visiting during the day are the 1.5-hour tours of the interior where you can learn about the relics and spiritual associations of this very special place.
Melbourne Laneways in Bendigo
Melbourne's laneways with their street art and cosy cafes are a huge tourist attraction but in emulation Bendigo has started its own.
Check out Chancery Lane which has the tapas bar El Gordo and The Dispensary, a cocktail and spirits venue. As my waiter said to me, 'This laneway is something really special for the people of Bendigo.'
St Kilian's Church is centrally located and while it is not somewhere you are likely to spend heaps of time the structure is remarkable as one of the largest weatherboard churches in the word. The interior with its detailed woodwork and stained glass is quite breathtaking.
This is quite a find as a lunch spot or a shopping opportunity. As one of the staff said when I commented on how good the place was: 'Yes it has everything. We encourage people to grow things and that is why we have a nursery section. But we also encourage them to cook healthy meals which is why we have such a huge grocery store, and for those who simply want to eat then and there, we have a cafe/eatery."
The cafe has a range of gluten-free, sugar-free and vegan selections. My cappuccino was so amazing I had to find out what chocolate they were sprinkling on top. But because the place is so integrated I could simply nick through a door into their grocery section and buy some. While in there I could not resist buying some local organic vegetables, macadamia butter threaded with pear and ginger and knocking back a shot of kombucha. There is also often free tastings on display of any new products.
Organic vegetables sources from within 150 km of Bendigo.
While perhaps not new the Board Walk Cafe. was somewhere I had not been to before. There is a charming walk around Lake Weeroona. And you can finish your pursuits with afternoon tea at the Boardwalk Cafe which has stunning views over the lake.
So while there is a lot of food in this article hopefully there is also some food for thought. River Gardens Retreat is an idyllic stay for couples wanting to leave behind their busy lives and simply relax. But the area also offers some fine dining and perhaps a few new activities that you might not have got around to trying before.
This property can be booked through Airbnb. where it also has excellent reviews.