‘You belong among the wildflowers.’ - ‘Wildflowers’ by Tom Petty
Granite domes, hiking trails, wildflowers, and wineries have repeatedly lured me to Queensland’s Granite Belt, a cool climate wine and produce region that sits 1000 metres above sea level, about 2.5 hours southwest of my Brisbane home.
But time, whether in drought or downpour, is slippery and, when I receive word of the Australian Society of Travel Writers’ (ASTW) longest-ever ‘lunch’ – a two-day, one-night food-focussed tour of the region – 6.5 years have passed since my last visit.
The trip has been designed so that fellow travel writers and I can help spread word that, in spite of serious drought conditions (trucks have been hauling in water to Stanthorpe from Warwick, 60km away) and bushfires (which happened in September and have long been extinguished), the Granite Belt is safe and wholeheartedly welcoming visitors. Helping inspire Australians (and international visitors, if possible) to #holidayherethisyear is a goal I can easily get behind; given this, plus the chance to spend time with work colleagues, taste some of the region’s most delicious produce, and hike again in glorious Girraween (an Aboriginal word meaning ‘place of flowers’) National Park, I’m quick to sign up.
As our Granite Highlands Maxi Tours (maxitours.com.au) bus ascends Cunninghams Gap, we pass parking for trailheads in Main Range National Park, which recently reopened due to bushfires late last year. Some tracks, though – for example, Mt Mitchell, which I climbed 11 months ago – remain closed. Looking towards the Mt Mitchell trailhead, I’m reminded of other Southeast Queensland parks (particularly Lamington National Park’s Binna Burra section, which is still closed) and communities that were affected by fires this year.
Like many bushfires, the Main Range fires didn’t just impact the area they burned: they also closed the Cunningham Highway for weeks, which made visitor numbers to the already struggling Granite Belt plummet further.
Entering the northern part of the 60km-long Granite Belt, though, I start focussing on abundance, as we’re about to begin our palate-pleasing adventure with one of the most apple-rich pies out there. Sutton’s Juice Factory, Cidery, and Shed Café (suttonsfarm.com.au) uses 22-25 Granite Belt apples in each of their apple pies, which are handmade on site. (Dairy-free and gluten-free pies are also available.) A slice, served with spiced cider ice cream, pure whipped cream, and Sutton’s apple syrup is an indulgent late brekkie I explore with gusto … but, given other stops on our itinerary, I know better than to finish.
Twelve kilometres down the road, in the 5,500-strong community of Stanthorpe, is the Queensland College of Wine Tourism (QCWT) and award-winning Varias Restaurant (qcwt.com.au/varias-restaurant), where seasonal menus feature local products such as wine, vinegar, fruit, meats, pastries, and bread. Here, we tuck into a Medley of Mains – a chilli and blue swimmer crab cake with homemade tartare sauce and heirloom tomato salad; a sticky Korean fried chicken wing with green papaya, ginger and chilli salad; and a chargrilled Thai lamb cutlet – paired with QCWT’s Banca Ridge Marsanne, Tinto, and Sangiovese wines. (They cater for my pescatarian requirements by swapping the chicken for prawns and the lamb for fish.)
After dessert, we experience a couple highlights of the biennial Apple and Grape Festival (February 28-March 8, 2020): an apple peeling demonstration by Kerrie Stratford, the Granite Belt’s champion apple peeler, and grape stomping. A scene from I Love Lucy comes to mind as we remove our shoes and step into a large container laden with grapes.
Thankfully, my feet are among the first to touch the juicy fruit – by the time everyone in our group has had a turn, the grapes have been reduced to a squashed mess of purple skin and brownish liquid.
The brief exercise somehow invigorates my appetite. Soon, I'm seduced by chocolate-covered Cabrillo strawberries and nude Albion and Monterey strawberries at nearby Ashbern Farms Stanthorpe (ashbernfarms.com.au), and contemplating whether I need a homemade strawberry ice cream as well. (The answer, it turns out, is yes.)
After stretching our legs and picking strawberries in the strawberry patch, we continue 11.5km southwest along the New England Highway to Jamworks Gourmet Foods Café and Larder (jamworks.com.au), where I quickly select a favourite from the many jams, preserves, and relishes available for tasting: red hot chilli relish, which sports a challenging-enough spice level to keep me repeating the taste test between sips of hot tea.
Raising a glass at one of the Granite Belt’s 30+ wineries is the perfect way to begin winding down after a delicious day. At boutique Ridgemill Estate (ridgemillestate.com), owners Martin Cooper and Michelle Feenan-Cooper serve us ‘Eloise’ 2018 Sparkling Brut Blanc de Blanc, show us one of eight smart-looking, studio cabins (two are dog-friendly), which overlook the vineyards, and encourage us to try their other offerings. A bit overwhelmed by the bounty of the past six hours, I’m more interested in wandering alongside the vines, which grow increasingly lovely in the waning afternoon light, and meeting the resident goats than additional tastings, but the one wine I sample – the 2016 The Lincoln, a Shiraz – is satisfyingly spicy and complex.
Though most of our group are dining tonight at Stanthorpe’s Essen Restaurant (essenstanthorpe.com.au), I opt to maximise time in my inviting timber cabin at the Granite Belt Brewery, a microbrewery, restaurant, and 20-cabin resort 5.5km northwest of Stanthorpe. Dining in, I fetch one of the onsite brewery’s hoppy IPAs from the minibar and fall asleep early.
Kookaburras cackle outside my window before dawn – aware, perhaps, of the weather forecast and having a belly laugh at our plans for the morning. After briefly pausing at the Ballandean pyramid – a 17.5m high, manmade granite structure about 2km southeast of Ballandean village – our group plans to split.
Some of us will head to Washpool Farm Soaperie (washpool.com.au) in Ballandean for a soap-making workshop, while the rest of us will continue 16km southeast to Girraween National Park. Our goal? To hike the 3.6km-return Pyramid, a steep granite dome that rewards with spectacular views over this otherworldly, boulder-resplendent and eucalypt forested landscape.
As we reach the park, the rain intensifies, as if the sky knows how desperately the area needs the full moistness of its attention, leaving the Pyramid track too slippery and harrowing to attempt. Ah, well – the lack of a hike today is a solid excuse to return, perhaps in a couple months ... or maybe in September or October, when Girraween’s native wildflowers (native sarsaparilla, bitter pea, heath bells, native bluebells, daisies, and more) are prolific. And I can’t be too disappointed: I’m one of the fortunate ones in our group who has experienced the beauty of the Pyramid hike before. (See my video from a 2013 trip below.)
In keeping with the grazing theme of this tour, we come across another type of pyramid almost immediately: a butterscotch pyramid at Heavenly Chocolate, a chocolate shop 4km back towards Ballandean.
After yesterday’s indulgences, today’s three-stop, progressive lunch was always going to pose a challenge, but we rise to the occasion. At St Jude’s Cellar Door and Bistro (stjudesballandean.com) in Ballandean, we’re treated to alternating plates featuring local produce. Mine is a delectable combination of Eukey Rd mushrooms, Mt Stirling Olives tapenade, goat cheese, caramelised onions, poached egg, fresh basil, and bread. (I’m fully aware I should be pacing myself, maybe not finishing every bite on my plate at this first stop, but it’s too wonderful to resist.)
Next, we return to Granite Belt Brewery, where most of the group feasts on bratwurst, I tuck into a falafel wrap, and we all sample the microbrewery’s range of ales, lagers, and ciders while listening to live, mellow music.
Lastly, we’re led into a dim, fairy light-adorned winemaking room at Robert Channon Wines (robertchannonwines.com), 9km to the west. Here, Paola Cabezas – winemaker and force behind Paola the Winemaker’s Kitchen at the onsite Singing Lake Café – wanders among our tables, delivering Spanish-Argentinian tapas, as we sip a Chopin Chardonnay.
When it’s time to head home, we’re stuffed from both a food and fatigue (thanks, mid-day beer and wine!) perspective, but richer for the experience. In addition to beautiful trails, I now know where to find some of the tastiest spots in the Granite Belt.
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