Wild fennel grows at hip height along the roadside. There are orchards where boughs curve under the weight of pink-cheeked apples; olive groves, and fields of vines with tightly packed bunches of grapes visible among the rusty leaves.
But for the silver-skinned eucalypts and the creeks trickling between massive granite boulders it could be Provence or Tuscany. But this is Queensland’s Granite Belt, the only place in the State that, on very rare occasions sees snow.
Home to some of the highest vineyards in Australia, The Granite Belt has around 50 boutique wineries offering tours and tastings. Farmers and artisans grow and make everything from strawberries and tomatoes, cheese and gourmet vinegar; black garlic to black truffles. But while gourmands will find much to sate their appetites, there’s just as much for the nature lover– 2 national parks, quiet country lanes perfect to explore by bike and a plethora of wildlife.
Just two hours from Brisbane, it pretty much ticks every box when it comes to the perfect please-all long weekend. So, here’s how to spend your Granite Belt getaway.
It’s a leisurely drive through the verdant Southern Downs and over the range via Cunningham’s Gap. Time your arrival at the Queensland College of Wine Tourism to coincide with lunch. The college opened in 2007 to train locals in viticulture, tourism, and hospitality and their restaurant, Varia’s, overlooking the vineyards serves a seasonally-inspired, city-smart menu matched to their own Banca Ridge wines.
Many Granite Belt wineries are experimenting with alternate varieties (locally known as “Strangebirds.”) Head to Ridgemill Estate’s cellar door for a taste of winemaker Peter McGlashan’s Saperavi. One of the world’s oldest grapes, it actually won a medal in its country of origin Georgia.
Check into your accommodation. Set in the bush overlooking the limpid rockpools of Quart Pot Creek, Diamondvale Cottages feels peaceful and remote, but is actually just a 5-minute drive from downtown Stanthorpe. Owners Taya and Stephen Michalski, corporate refugees from a fast-paced expat life in Asia came here as guests and loved it so much they bought the business.
Talented Argentinian winemaker Paola Cabezas Bono is also an accomplished cook and, (aside from at vintage, when she’s literally knee deep in grapes) also heads the restaurant at Robert Channon winery. Dine at ‘Paola The Winemaker’s Kitchen’ on her authentically rustic Spanish menu with tapas plates of riserva jamon and aged manchego cheese and mains like gambas al ajillo (prawns cooked in a pot with garlic, olive oil and chilli). And naturally, you’ll get some stellar wine-matching advice!
Call into Zest Pastries for a ‘could be in Paris’ croissant and expertly made coffee to fuel up for a bike ride this morning.
The owner of Granite Belt Bicycle Tours, John Hendry may be an accomplished triathlete, but he’ll take it easy on you with rides like the (mostly) flat “Castles, Cafes, and Cabernet” tour, which winds through apple orchards, up small country roads and to the caves and rocky outcrop lookout of Donnelly’s Castle, reputed to be the hideout of the infamous bushranger “Captain Thunderbolt”. There are refreshment stops at wineries (including the eccentric ‘Castle Glen’) and Stanthorpe Cheese too. If you prefer to DIY, Jon will provide you with a bike, a map, and a pinkie promise to pick up any goods you might buy en route.
St Jude’s Cellar Door and Bistro in the quaint village of Ballandean sells the wines from the region’s biggest and best-known producer, (now being made by national award-winning winemaker Mike Hayes), Sirromet. Housed in an old Queenslander with deep wrap-around verandas there’s an appealing Aus-Italo menu built around local produce. And that triceratops statue across the road? Ask the staff.
Another local eccentricity is The Ballandean Pyramid, a 15-metre-high stone pyramid built from blocks of the local granite. It’s on private land so you can only gaze upon its wonder from the road.
Also on the road back to Stanthorpe is Jamworks Gourmet Foods, Café and Larder, selling around 100 or so jams, jellies, pickles and preserves made on-site with locally grown fruit and vegetables.
Worth a stop too, is the eclectic Yestergear Antiques, overseen by the opera-loving Maria and her long-haired German shepherd Toby. It’s a massive shed literally packed to the beams with kitchen ephemera, kitsch and country collectibles, cookbooks, crockery and mysterious farm implements.
Opening late last year, Stanthorpe’s ‘Essen’ is run by a mother/daughter duo - chef Clarissa in the kitchen and mum Claudia on the floor. The menu draws inspiration from Europe, with a special nod to Clarissa’s Austrian heritage in dishes like ‘kasnudeln’ – pasta filled with quark and soft herbs with a noisette butter or a desert of apple strudel with burned butter and cinnamon ice-cream. It’s BYO - the perfect opportunity to bring a bottle of local wine.
Day 3 - Morning
Before leaving, take a walk in the beautiful Girraween National Park. There are 17 km of trails, the most famous of which is The Pyramid, culminating in the selfie-essential ‘balancing rock ‘and a dreamy vista of the entire region.