As the mist rolls in over Daylesford’s tranquil lake, Mr Smith fancies he can hear the plaintive tolling of a drowned chapel bell. It’s spooky to imagine, as we take in the tawny rustic view, that the shallow stretch of water below us was once swarming with Victorian gold miners. The valley was flooded in 1927, filling in all those old shafts, a Chinese Joss house and the aforementioned chapel.
It might not be the season to loll on one’s private balcony and the tennis court looks a bit forlorn, but there’s something about the Lake House in the Australian winter that is so god-damn romantic. As you scuff through the waterside gardens, kicking leaves and stepping on the odd bit of goose poo, there's a sense of intimacy and escape. Maybe it’s the beautiful bare trees and reeds in reds and yellows, maybe the bright bitter air that gives everything a just-minted glitter, or maybe it’s the crackling fire in the rambling low-slung lounge, with its antler-horn chandelier. It’s definitely the magnificent seasonal nosh in the rather famous restaurant. Good food is always romantic, in an earthy, heightened-perception, finger-licking, lip-smacking kind of way.
I’m about to share these suggestive thoughts with Mr Smith, who’s just emerged from the enormous spa bath, when I find him tittering at the idiosyncratic ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign, a finely carved wooden duck that you’re supposed to place outside the door when otherwise engaged. It could be a canard, it could be rhyming slang but either way it’s a pretty upfront way of intimating mid-morning nookie. After an – ahem – rest on the enormous and luxuriantly firm bed, we wander off to explore, wending our way along the meandering paths and frequent flights of steps scaling the hillside grounds.
Bird and animal carvings are dotted along the plank gangways that link the different sections of the hotel. They enhance the bush hideaway feel of the place, a bush full of tinkling rivulets, waterfalls glimpsed through ferns and terribly obliging staff who pop up at just the right moments.
We don’t catch a glance of owners the Wolf-Taskers, though chef Alla’s culinary genius is evident throughout the hotel and artist Allan’s paintings add a jaunty exuberance to the interiors (our Waterfront Suite has a sunlit Mediterranean scene). The foyer and dining room sport some of his best works, combining food, feasting and fraternisation in suggestive combinations. It all adds up to a prescription for living that we heartily subscribe to.
Saving the degustation dinner for the second night of our weekend, on the first we venture into the charming gold-boom streets of Daylesford (a 10-minute walk up the hill) looking for the Farmers Arms Hotel, a pub recommended by so many friends and strangers that ignoring it would be insane. We discover it’s right on the other side of town, but the hike is worth it, although the bar is a heaving mass of beefy men in kilts, this being the regular get-together of the local pipe and drum band. Thankfully, they’re only drinking, not playing. The menu is nouveau Australian with lots of Asian and Med twists and of a very high standard. We only have time for a post-dinner snifter in the Perfect Drop, another recommended spot, but the beaten-up sofas, smouldering fire and intrepid wine and tapas menus all beckon us to return another time.
The next day’s adventures include two excellent second-hand bookshops, a quirky museum, curio and geegaw shops a-plenty and the opportunity to stock up on a decade’s supply of woollens of the alpaca, merino and possum persuasion. We then head up Wombat Hill above the town, but fail to see any of these elusive marsupials as we promenade through the Victorian botanical garden. Marvelling at the fact that we’re actually strolling in and on the crater of a dormant volcano we make for the rambling Holy Cross Convent further down the slope. The sisters have all gone – it’s now an art gallery and craft retail space, with restaurant attached – but the restorers have left a few sparse nun-nostalgic corners including a creepy cellar, the chapel and a couple of very small, chilly sleeping cells.
Pondering that cold baths once a week were probably the norm for the good girls on the hill, I escape to the hotel’s famous Salus Spa for their Signature Treatment. Here I’m caressed with hot volcanic rocks, scrubbed with mineral salts and drenched in scented oils before being pummelled in the Hydro Storm. This is actually a large shower capsule with jets of steam, water and pulsing lights, very disco and energising in a hypnotic kind of way. Mr Smith has meanwhile taken a sunset stroll around the tranquil lake and, this being mineral springs country, sampled the hotel’s own magical minerals, available from a hand-cranked pump. He reports back that the sulphurous brew tastes mildly of iron filings and farts.
It’s now time for the Big Event, dinner, and the restaurant is bursting at the seams when we arrive but the place is also swimming with waiters – charming, witty folk who seem as fresh as they did when we saw them that morning at breakfast. I choose the vegetarian tasting menu, Mr Smith the carnivorous option and for the next few hours we immerse ourselves in seven courses of the most delicious and directional seasonal flavours with stunning wines and sherries to match.
It’s winter so there are walnuts, beets, smoked mushrooms and pears, hearty yet delicately presented dishes such as poached tongue, eel, rabbit and roast duck, and piquant concoctions involving tempura tofu, kohlrabi, gingered pear with cheesy brioche, lemon and liquorice. Nearly everything is local; as well as harvesting a lot of organic produce themselves, the hotel is responsible for spawning the region’s industry of artisan producers of cheese, butter, meats, fish and bread. They’re a bit boastful about their preserves and jellies too, but once sampled, it’s hard not to take a truckful away.
Feeling giddily well fed and spiritually uplifted, it’s time to stagger back to our lakeside eyrie, to dream of bells, wombats and nuns in baths.