When you want to explore the produce and wine of rural Victoria, and your partner feels like recharging their batteries, Lake House hotel in Daylesford is the ideal furlough. Fans travel for miles to indulge at chef Alla Wolf-Tasker’s multi-award-winning restaurant overlooking a tranquil lagoon. For the past 25 years, she’s built around its success to create a 34-room rural lodge and state-of-the-art spa, complete with treetop hot tubs and Hydrostorm shower. That it’s set on the edge of this unique spa town makes it all the more seductive.
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A selection of local produce; BlackSmiths also get Elemis products; SilverSmiths also get wine; GoldSmiths also get a copy of 'Daylesford Landscapes'
11am, check-in, 3pm, but flexible, subject to availability.
Double rooms from £631.48 (AU$1,130), including tax at 10 per cent.
Room rates include full country-style buffet breakfast, WiFi, car parking and daily newspaper. Packages that include a la carte dinner are also available. Rates exclude a 2.75 per cent credit-card surcharge for Amex and Diners Club payments.
Pick up some impressive cooking techniques from the Lake House team's chefs in the purpose built Cooking School kitchen; offerings include pastry classes and day-long masterclasses.
At the hotel
Salus Spa, gardens (including kitchen garden), tennis court, DVD library, the Argyle library (with a selection of culinary books), private cellar and tasting room, free WiFi throughout. In rooms: flatscreen TV with cable channels and a DVD player, iPod dock, Bluetooth music systems, minibar, Nespresso coffee machine, kettle with a selection of teas, free bottled water, air-conditioning and WiFI.
Our favourite rooms
Sitting high in the Lake House village, the Retreat features two luxe abodes, the Atrium Villa and the Spa Villa, with direct access to the lake. Each offers sumptuous lounge and dining areas kitted out with chic Olly of San Francisco furnishings, fireplaces, dressing rooms, and bathrooms with deep tubs and separate showers. The Spa Villa sports a courtyard with a sunken hot tub and the Atrium Villa includes a chill-beating fire pit.
The hotel's blond wood and Tiffany-blue Salus Spa, with nine treatment rooms, is inspired by Scandinavia and has hot mineral-water tubs overlooking the lake. The spa's surrounded by waterfall-fed streams, and its signature treatment, the 90-minute Salus Bliss, will have you swooning with its smorgasbord of body exfoliation, massage, hot-stone and colour therapies, and upright Vichy shower in the Hydrostorm pod. Ingredients for treatments are foraged from the hotel gardens (pine and eucalyptus in winter, grape skins in Autumn, cucumber and mint in summer and prettily perfumed florals come spring) Artist David Bromley's colourful nudes hang throughout.
Duck whistle, for making friends on the lake. A basket for stocking up on picnic supplies from the local farmers. A straw boater for rowing.
Co-owner Allan Wolf-Tasker’s talent is in the artist's studio – which is nestled on site with views over the cool fern gully. Featuring the kitchen and restaurant, his works can be seen throughout the hotel.
Kids are welcome. Extra beds cost AU$185 a child a night, including breakfast, available in suites only. Baby cots are AU$20 and babysitting can be arranged.
The Lake House kitchen reduces food miles by growing produce on site and developing personal relationships with small regional suppliers, using seasonal, organic food where possible. Stationery is made from recycled paper.
Inside, there’s a long banquette with tables overlooking the lake. On a warm day, the veranda is the place to be. For something more intimate, private dinners can be arranged in the cellar.
This is a smart, rural restaurant where food is celebrated and devotees come for a special occasion. It’s about understated cool: Marni and Zimmermann for her; Lagerfeld or Saba for him.
In 1984, chef Alla Wolf-Tasker opened a 40-seat, weekend-only destination restaurant called Lake House. In the past 30 years it’s evolved into a boutique hotel, but still it’s the food (and unbelievably sleek yet warm service) at this award-winning eatery that many people come for. Wolf-Tasker is a champion of local producers and almost everything on her modern Australian menu is grown in the region. The menu changes according to season, but expect house-made charcuterie, heritage vegetables and fruits, local trout, eel and cheeses, free-range pork and wagyu beef. For the full experience, order the tasting menu.
Settle into a grey button-back sofa or a citrus-hued velvet armchair and pick up some in-the-know cookery tips from the ever-growing collection of tomes in the culinary library (subjects range from herb variants to wne varietals) while you admire artwork by local glass-blowers and painters. Rotating exhibitions of work by local painters, sculptors and glass-blowers are held here, and aperitivi are served in the afternoon and early evening; the martinis are uncommonly tasty. For a nightcap, we suggest the darker spirits: whisky (there are 30 aged varieties to try), cognac and rum are poured with abandon to the accompanying jangle of a grand piano, and if it's sunny outside you can sit on the open-air deck to sip in peace. Wine-tasting sessions are held by the hotel's enthusiastic and extremely well-versed sommelier, who can help you to navigate the 1,200 labels housed in the cellar.
Lunch is served from noon; last reservations are taken at 2.30pm, dinner from 6pm. The restaurant kitchen stays open until late to accommodate those languishing over the tasting menu, but you wouldn’t want to sit down much after 8pm.
A full bistro menu is available until 9pm. In-room minibars are also worth raiding, as they're well stocked with local drops from boutique breweries, wineries and distilleries.
Lake House is on the edge of Daylesford, a rustic town at the heart of Victoria’s Spa Country, north-west of Melbourne.
Fly into Melbourne Airport (www.melbourneairport.com.au), north-west of the city centre, which is serviced by domestic and international flights.
VLine (www.vline.com.au) has services from Melbourne's Southern Cross Station in the CBD to either Ballan, from where staff at Lake House can organise a taxi for the 20-minute transfer, or Woodend, where you can connect with VLine's coach service to Daylesford. The whole journey should take about two hours 15 minutes.
Hire a car either from Melbourne Airport or the city. From the airport, Daylesford is just over 100 kilometres away, and should take about 90 minutes travelling through some beautiful countryside. Add another half-hour if you’re driving from the CBD.
Worth getting out of bed for
Any foodie worth their (Himalayan rock) salt will be leaping into an apron on discovering the Lake House's cookery school. Each weekend, top Australian chefs such as Peter Gilmore and Andrew McConnell lead classes in foraging and truffle seeking, and crafting something tasty from your finds – while imparting plenty of next-level knowledge too, of course. Co-owner and resident artist Allan Wolf-Tasker welcomes guests at his studio in the hotel's six-acre gardens, if you'd like to check out his paintings. Beyond the Lake House gates, Daylesford's main street is lined with cute boutiques and galleries – those who love a bargain-hunting browse shouldn’t miss the vintage offerings at Upstairs at Alpha (67 Vincent Street; +61 (0)3 5348 2277) – and you could wander along, checking out the shops and pausing at cafés, for most of the day. On the weekend, everyone heads to Daylesford Sunday Market at the railway station. There are also farmers markets at Daylesford and nearby Kyneton, Woodend and Lancefield on the first to the fourth Saturday of the month respectively.
While most people come to the Lake House specifically to eat at its lauded restaurant, if you’re staying for a few days you may want to explore the town’s other offerings. Charming 19th-century pub The Farmers Arms (1 East Street; +61 (0)3 5348 2091) is the oldest alehouse in Daylesford; beyond its ivy-clad, red-brick exterior lies a friendly drinkery where visiting foodies can mingle with locals. The excellent menu has hearty yet sophisticated fare, with elegant mains such as salmon with miso-glazed eggplant and seaweed salad, and more intriguing dishes such as beer-battered gummy shark. Also lovely is Mercato (34 Raglan Street; +61 (0)3 5348 4488), set in a classic timber building dating back to the mid-1800s and serving mod Oz dishes with (like just about everywhere around here) a focus on local produce.
Alla Wolf-Tasker is one busy lady. Along with helming her fine-dining Lake House, she's also restored a 1940s caretaker's cottage in the heart of the Botanic Gardens into a country-chic cafe and food store, surrounded by fragrant kitchen gardens. Wombat Hill House (enter off Central Spring Road; +61 (0)3 3 4373 0099) offers breakfasts of home-made crumpets and bruschetta topped with locally grown mushrooms, and lunchtime pies and stylish salads. Most visitors can’t get enough of Cliffy’s Emporium (30 Raglan Street; +61 (0)3 5348 3279), where you can savour tasty sandwiches, cakes and coffees, a glass of wine and a relaxed dinner on Saturday night, or browse the deli section for choice local and imported treats.
It’s not exactly the place you’d come looking for a party, but the sexily moody Altar Bar in the Convent Gallery (corner of Hill and Daly Streets; +61 (0)3 5348 3211) is gorgeous for a quiet drink. Wine and the Country's (97 Vincent Street; +61 (0)3 5348 3756) passionate 'wine-list curator' Owen Latta has picked a full-flavoured bunch of local wines – including organic, vintage and biodynamic selections – to swirl around your glass and sip. To accompany there are terrines, rillettes and regional, cheese and meat tasting plates; however, the owners have a laid-back BYO food policy, so you can wander in with a picnic.
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.