Mr Smith and I already reside in an urban jungle – New York – so it might seem counter-intuitive that we choose to spend our leisure time surrounded by wild animals. Yet here we are, pulling up in the imposing circular driveway of the Mansion Hotel & Spa at Werribee Park, a half-hour drive west of Melbourne, squealing with childlike enthusiasm over our first wildlife sighting, two huge Cape Baron Geese self-importantly strutting and pecking on the immaculate lawn.
We’re here because this stately grand dame combines several of the items on our vacation A-list: animals, art and amore. An Italianate manse built in the 1870s and recently restored to its former glory, the Mansion is set on 10 bucolic acres between the Werribee Open Range Zoo and the well-regarded Shadowfax winery.
The mansion’s lobby makes a liaison-worthy first impression, thanks to soaring ceilings, quiet lounge-y corners and a flattering rosy light that promises delightful things to come. We don’t linger though: there’s plenty to pack into our short stay, so we head, as instructed, towards a flash of hot pink at the far end of the hallway. (Every direction in the hotel is charted from the pink painting, as though it’s a portal to other, fabulous worlds.) We turn right at the painting and admire the patina on the handrail as we ascend the opulent wooden staircase. Mr. Smith draws my attention to a series of bumpy little brass fixtures along the burnished rail: we reckon they’re to deter guests from sliding down the staircase in a fit of giddy joy.
Unlike many hotels that attempt to dispel the gloomy, in-between-worlds nature of its corridors with cheery colours and bright lighting, this one plays up the Gothic mood. The carpet is a deep shade of eggplant, while the archways and doors are painted gloss black. The effect is fabulously sinister, like being in a camp Agatha Christie movie. Our Junior Suite, on the other hand, is a soothing, minimalist study in autumnal shades of grey, beige and moss-green (a black bedroom might have been a Gothic bridge too far). The floor-to-ceiling windows frame a gigantic eucalyptus tree, whose marbled trunk morphs with the light from silver to dusky-pink and back again. Wedged in two of its mighty branches is what looks like a monumentally oversized ball of metal-wrapped twine, or the nest of a particularly ambitious bird. Art, it would appear, is everywhere. As if to celebrate this fact, a currawong – the large Australian bird species renowned for its beautiful warbling voice – sings us a little aria from its perch outside.
Having punctuated our drive here with several vineyard detours – this part of Victoria’s coastline is a burgeoning wine region producing some impressive pinot noir– we’re ready to slip into something more comfortable. After a bubble-filled soak in the pleasingly deep tub, we glam up and head down to the Library for apéritifs. Ah, for a library in every hotel. This one has everything you’d hope for: deep leather chairs, interesting art and a sultry ambience enhanced by a fireplace casting flecks of light on the dark walls. (It also has books, surprisingly enough.)
We relax into the loving arms of a Chesterfield, nurse our cocktails and watch the flames crackle prettily. I can’t help but feel that Mr Smith should really be wearing a velvet smoking jacket and cradling a snifter of brandy. Instead, he’s in a pin-striped blazer, black jeans and Converse trainers, sipping a Campari and soda. (Somehow he makes it work, so I forgive him for not being Noël Coward.)
Heading into the restaurant, Joseph’s, we’re ushered to a romantic little corner, seated in comfy chairs the colour of plums and left to ponder the menu. This adventurous document trips its way through Italy (osso buco made with venison) and South-east Asia (a high-concept dish composed of spiced soft-shell crab, tempura eggplant and something called Sichuan ‘sand’), with side-steps into molecular gastronomy along the way. We opt for the crab, along with a celeriac vichyssoise, which arrives as a silky-soft pool of deliciousness topped with a dainty poached quail egg. We follow with a fricasee of wild mushrooms and saddle of rabbit served with silverbeet from the garden. Dreamy.
Determined to burn off the Joseph-induced calories the next day, we pay a visit to the neighbouring open-range zoo. It’s one of the best we’ve experienced: spacious, thoughtful enclosures built to mimic African savannahs, complete with baobab trees, rolling hills and waterholes. The walkways are styled like an African village, with mudbrick and thatched roof buildings, charming hand-painted tin signs depicting arte naïf animals, and the occasional kid-friendly prop, such as sun-bleached skeletons half-concealed in tall grasses. Chickens run wild, picking and scratching happily in the foliage. We admire the perpetually-pacing cheetahs, coo at the adorable meerkats and get a jolt at the lion house, which is ingeniously designed with soaring glass windows so visitors feel like they’re right in the enclosure. From literally inches away we watch a majestically maned lion stalk a hapless bird before yawning mightily and resuming his nap.
Our animal fix sated, we explore the sprawling Victorian grounds of the Mansion, the highlight of which is a Harry Potter-esque grotto in a lake, encrusted on the inside with seashells, oak cones, fragments of mirrored glass and oddities including sheep knuckles and children’s teeth. (It was built in the 1870s as a shady retreat for the ladies of the house.) Speaking of dilettantes, it’s time for our treatments at the nine-room spa, located just off the greenhouse-like glassed-in swimming pool. We’ve opted for a couple’s hammam session, followed by facials: the therapists hand us two bowls, one filled with a salty scrub, the other a rich mud, and leave us to our own devices for 15 minutes. We enter the hammam, a small tiled steam-room, and perform a DIY body scrub while the fragrant steam does its work. It’s a perfect precursor to a longer treatment: languid, lush and resulting in baby-soft skin.
As a last hurrah, we decide to add a bottle to our cellar at the adjoining winery, Shadowfax (named for Gandalf’s magical horse in The Lord of the Rings… it’s all about animals in these parts). This popular label has an airy, convivial cellar door/restaurant that on our visit is elbow-to-elbow with weekend gourmands partaking of the excellent food and wines.
After much deliberation we stash a 10-year-old bottle of stellar pinot noir in the car and reluctantly take our leave. As we swing around that circular driveway for the last time, it feels like we’ve come full circle: the same pair of strutting geese is here to see us off. We wave at our feathered farewell committee and smile beatifically at one another. It’s been an idyllic couple of days, and worthy of a place on anyone’s A-list.