"I love all this space!" exclaimed a curly-haired French lady tourist to an Aussie male winemaker across plates of peri-peri baked fried chicken, fish tails, roast lamb, coleslaw and salads. Seated on a wine-red leather chair at the large mahogany dining table at Judy and Richard Edwards' Waratah Lodge, she was telling him how she was enjoying her stay. Waratah Lodge faces a long grassy slope (about 400 metres) that ends in a fence bordering Bimbadeen Farm (also owned by the Edwards). Guests often sit on the verandah and just look out across the vistas of farmland rolling down to the beach, watching the herd-like movement of the sheep and catching a glimmer of the Bass Strait.
The lodge entrance (left) and Judy Edwards, co-owner (right)
But Waratah Lodge, a two-storey, six-bedroom boutique hotel in Waratah North, 10 kilometres from Fish Creek, is not just for foreigners who want to enjoy Gippsland's wide open spaces and rolling pastures. It functions mainly as a quiet, extremely comfortable (each bedroom has a spa, and the lodge is peppered with leather chairs and plush plaid sofas) vantage point from which to drive to and enjoy local art galleries, beaches and one of the world's oldest national parks, Wilsons Promontory National Park. Situated two hours drive from Melbourne, it is also a place where Melburnians can experience the sense of community that you just don't get in Melbourne.
Most of the time, the lodge is quiet, with the occasional sound of guests coming and going, or footsteps at the entrance, followed by followed by manager Meg Edwards' greeting, "Hello, I'm Meg. Are you here to stay or enjoy a coffee with the view?"
Oh, and the pitter-patter of the Edwards' one year-and a half year-old grandson, William, who 'rules the lodge'.
But if you are lucky enough to stay at the lodge during an event, such as the recent Australia Day Barbecue Dinner and Bush Dance, you will get to mingle with the Edwards' social network, a community of men and women living in and around Walkerville and Fish Creek and neighbouring towns like Yanakie and Foster. Fred, a former air quality scientist, regaled my tango partner Richard (who accompanied me) with stories of his travels, including one time when he found a brick in New Zealand, which he kept because he believed that it once formed Captain Cook's boat. After a good old dinner of sausages, raisin couscous and salad, and four vigorous rounds of bush dancing, I sat down on a black leather lounge and said to the woman beside me, "Melbourne's just full of people, working. It's not a community."
An English lady who had married an Australian and settled in Victoria, she replied, "Here, everyone is an individual. Everyone matters."
And that was it. Yes, I think it is worth for Melburnians to drive along the Southeast Gippsland highway, stop occasionally for coffee and supplies, find and savour Waratah Lodge for under AUD$200 per night. Sure, there will be Internet and mobile phone reception issues. And I strongly advise picking up supplies or snacks prior to arriving. The lodge's Belle Views Café offers coffee and snacks from 10am to 5pm Thursday to Sunday, but the kitchen is only open for proper meals when guests request them, or during events. Of course, Meg and her family, will take care of you.
Judy, Meg's mother, will likely encourage you to go off to have adventures during the day and return to the lodge, and her, at night. In our case, we arrived on a Saturday afternoon, a few hours before the bush dance and dinner. Judy immediately pointed us in the direction of several beaches nearby.
A lime kiln and me at the Cape Liptrap Coastal Park
We ended up going to Walkerville, a beach dotted with dog walkers and dark rocks about 7 kilometres from the lodge. A bit of history awaited in the form of the Walkerville Lime Kilns. Lime used to be big business in the late 1900s as it was used in several building materials like mortar, lime cement and lime concrete. The first kiln was built in 1878. The kilns were closed in 1926 due to reduced demand, high transport costs and the replacement of quicklime by cement. But the kilns' towering structures remain. Looking up at the main kiln, Richard and I thought that a king was going to come out on the platform, look out over the rail and make a speech.
The next day, we visited the Foster Markets (officially, 'Promontory Home Produce and Craft Markets), in Foster, 25 kms or 25 minutes' drive away. Once a month, 200 food, furniture, plant and craft sellers, all Rotary Club members, line the oval of the Foster Showgrounds with stalls and wares, all in the name of charity. Entry is AUD$2 per adult. To the seasoned Melburnian, it may just be another market. But according to my tango partner, the Foster Markets are cheaper than, say, the Queen Victoria night markets or the Southbank markets. I bought three bars of goat's milk soap for AUD$7. If you don't want to shop for bric-bracs, you can have a cheap and filling lunch of chicken dumplings or fried chicken, followed by poffertjes, tiny fluffy pancakes invented by the Dutch.
Last but not least, the Holy Grail for travellers in the region, Wilsons Promontory National Park, or The Prom. Here, words will not do. We had a slice of The Prom by visiting Norman Beach, Squeaky Beach and doing the Prom Wildlife Walk. This should be another article altogether. I only hope that my photos will convince you to visit The Prom for yourself, for a good week or so. For me, the photographic highlight of the trip was the field of hay bales just before its entrance, where my tango partner took photos of me sitting on a bale. The auditory highlight of the trip was stamping on the quartz sand of Squeaky Beach. It reminded me of squeezing a squeaky soft toy.
A giant rock and the Squeaky Beach sea, and the Norman Beach River
It is good to go back to Waratah Lodge after a day of adventure. Richard, Judy, Meg, William, and the other guests feel like family already. I am used to Richard's farmer stories ("Do you know, you can cure a cow's calf wound by giving it a spoon of Vegemite? It's the vitamin B."), Judy and Meg's warmth and William's troublemaking ways. At dinner, this time, a pot luck dinner with about 20 people all seated at the large mahogany table, Meg asks, "Did you have a good time?" She genuinely cares about my answer.
This brand of personal treatment is something that you can't possibly get at a luxury hotel. It's six-star country hospitality, offered by a couple of 'hardworking farmers' with grand plans.
PS: The Walkerville Limestone Kilns, Foster Markets and Wilsons Promontory National Park are only a few attractions around the area. Please see a full list here. Also, the next event at Waratah Lodge is Valentine's Day dinner on 14th February 2013.
Love your article makes me want to visit waratah lodge, and yes wilsons prom is fantastic, camped there every year for last 10 years, so much to see and do , and so relaxing- no power yeh so no tv , just natures paradise to entertain you