The Fairy at the bottom of the Great Ocean Road
Autumn is in the rear-view mirror, the days are shorter and the nights are noticeably cooler. Brace yourselves. Winter is coming. But there's no need to hibernate indoors and binge on Game of Thrones reruns. If there's one place that will entice you to throw back your linen bedding and emerge from the Fog, it's Port Fairy.
This magical little fishing village is around a three and a half hour hour drive southwest from Melbourne on the scenic Great Ocean Road; the last stop on Victoria's Shipwreck Coast. The journey there is long enough to shake off the city shackles and put you in the mood for a long weekend getaway. Port Fairy is a year-round destination, but there's nothing like getting rugged up to roam the wide streets and narrow bluestone alleyways of this historical port to whet your appetite. And with a wealth of things to do, see and eat, you're going to need it.
Port Fairy ticks all of the sensory boxes; aside from being one of the busiest fishing ports in Australia, it also has a vibrant arts scene, with many galleries, boutiques and craft shops nestled amongst the nineteenth century cottages that line the streets. The Port Fairy Folk Festival, held every March, swells the population to bursting as tourists flock like seagulls on a chip to immerse themselves in music, culture and guilt-free gastronomy, whether it's fish and chips or fine dining. When the hubbub dies down in the winter months, the southern right whales come out to play, mate and calve off the coast. Little wonder we chose this enchanted spot for our latest Hale Mercantile Co catalogue shoot; the hard part is editing the experience when photo ops are everywhere.
First things first; where to stay. Port Fairy offers a wide range of hotels, motels, B and B guest houses and holiday rentals from reasonable to ritzy prices. A handy guide for the first-timer is Langley's, Port Fairy's Accommodation Services provider. It lists private homes, beach-side apartments and cottages to suit any occasion or budget. If you're looking for something special (and you've managed to palm the kids off to a benign relative), Drift House is your destination. Situated along the waterfront on Gipps St, this award-winning luxury boutique accommodation is an elegant blend of bluestone beauty and über-cool. Four private, self-contained and individually-appointed suites offer King-size beds, large baths, lounge area and cosy open fireplaces. With 24-hour reception, free wi-fi and the Drift House Maxi-bar a mere stumble away, you could close the blackout curtains and spend your entire stay cocooned in your suite. But there's so much more to explore.
Step outside and take a short stroll to the bustling port, where pleasure craft jostle with fishing boats unloading the day's catch. Take a lungful of fresh salty air and head two streets back from the water, where tucked way down a bluestone alley off Sackville St lives the Farmer's Wife Harvest Cafe. This hip little place offers a staggering number of delicious dishes, including gluten-free options. From great coffee, oozing brownies and flavour-packed salads to the whole enchilada - or burrito or quesadilla if you want breakfast with a bang. Plastic farm animals peek out from crevices in the bluestone walls outside, as you munch on your pulled-pork brioche or chicken salad. The Farmer's Wife is the perfect drop-in spot to start your day; just leave some space for later.
You can work off that big breakfast/brunch with a wander along beautiful East Beach. Kilometres of white sand lapped by pristine waters will clear your mind of clutter.
Or go bush at Tower Hill, the site of a dormant volcano and stunning state game reserve teeming with native wildlife, thanks to some serious tree planting in the 60s. Kangaroos, koalas, emus, sugar gliders and more than 100 bird species call Tower Hill home. Bring your hiking boots and camera.
Further along the highway, take a walk on the wild side and commune with the mutton birds at the Crags, one of the most rugged stretches of the Victorian coast. It's not hard to imagine ships coming to grief on the jagged rocks that guard the shoreline. The Crags is also an important indigenous cultural site, a place for Dreamtime gathering and celebration for thousands of years before the arrival of European settlers.
That's nature and history ticked; and you're hungry again, so make a beeline back to town . Now here's where it gets tricky. Do you save yourself for dinner, and grab a treat to tide you over at Poco Artisan Icecream, off the main street? The giant cone outside is like a beacon, drawing you in to mull over the Willy Wonka flavours. Burnt fig, peach and lychee or Bubbamallow anyone?
Or do you go the whole hog and opt for high tea by the high sea at Time and Tide? Drop down on a stuffed banquette in this sumptuous salon and stuff yourself with cakes, finger sandwiches and fat scones washed down with bubbles or a refreshing brew, as the faces on the wallpaper watch, but don't judge. You wouldn't find a more glorious place to gorge, while you take in the view of the Southern Ocean. Try not to groan as you heave yourself out of your chair to leave. Bookings essential.
Dinner means more decisions to make. Back on Sackville St, there's the intriguingly named Coffin Sally, so called because the rear alleyway once led to an undertaker's. But don't let the decor of animal skulls and candlesticks dripping with wax fool you; the atmosphere inside this funky slice of Fitzroy is very much alive. Gourmet pizzas and boutique beers and wine are served within bluestone walls warmed by a roaring fire. Kick back and breathe in the garlic and good vibes.
Up the road and slightly more upmarket , the one-hat restaurant Fen is worth skipping lunch for. A modern, blond wood space in the historic setting of Seacombe House, Fen (formerly the Stag) prides itself on local and native produce. A menu dotted with ingredients like muntries and roasted sea lettuce might have you wishing you'd paid attention on Masterchef, but not to worry; Chef Ryan Sessions' food translates beautifully on the plate. (The plates are pretty impressive too.) And there's no mistaking the juicy knobs of crayfish with blood lime or just pink duck with pear. Fen is fun and fine with wine to match.
But let's face it; it's just a taste of what this coastal gem has to offer, and you can't hit all the highlights in one weekend. And there's always room for more shopping...and maybe another ice cream. You've come all this way; stay a while and let the Port fairy dust work its magic on you.