When I heard we’d be staying at a Best Western in the Yarra Valley this was not what I expected.
After driving down a little lane on a misty afternoon we’re greeted by the smell of log fires and what looks like a charming guesthouse.
Then as we step inside I can feel my spirits lifting as I find myself in a space I would happily call home.
Beautiful art deco mirrors, polished floorboards, a pool room with carved faux deer heads on the wall, and the sounds of logs crackling in open fireplaces are just the first things that I absorb and before I’ve even checked in I’m wondering how I can turn my one night stay into a month long retreat.
It turns out I’m not the first one to discover its charms.
After being fully renovated in 2012 this 1920s building became a top place to stay in Victoria’s beautiful Yarra Valley and, along with its restaurant Oscars, has been voted the number one hotel and restaurant in the Yarra Valley town of Warburton on TripAdvisor in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
Best Western Yarra Valley recently changed hands and now a new family, Christine and Jason Birch and Christine’s parents Brian and Cathie can be found greeting guests and organising everything from overnight stays to wellbeing retreats and weddings.
Not only is this 22 room boutique hotel gorgeous on the inside it has a pretty special backyard with the Yarra River flowing by. As it’s a bit nippy only one of our group is brave enough to go in the water, but I’m soon dreaming of returning on a hot summer’s day and floating on by. Possibly with a drink in my hand.
After dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, Oscars on the Yarra, where new dishes include spring lamb salad and Pappardelle with slow cooked mushroom and red wine ragout, I am tempted to play a few games of pool but instead decide to curl up in bed where I fall asleep to the sounds of silence and wake to the songs of magpies before a delicious breakfast of granola with rhubarb.
Yes, this is definitely not what I pictured when I heard the words Best Western Yarra Valley. But it seems my imagination is a little behind the times.
Why Best Western May Not Be What You Think
So here’s the thing. Up until this trip when I thought of Best Western I thought of roadside motels that were a simple enough place to lay your head for the night, but that was about it.
The company, which celebrates its 70th birthday this year, actually started out as a group of hotels in the United States where one hotel would recommend another one down the road to travellers who had spent the night. So yes, they did start out as roadside places to stay but in recent years some things have been changing.
Now Best Western has a mix of hotels, motels, apartments, and resorts and most, like Best Western Yarra Valley, are family run businesses. Another thing I didn’t realise is that the number of Best Westerns in Australia has halved in the past ten years, down to around 150 from 300, after the group introduced a range of high standards that they strictly enforce for a hotel to keep the Best Western name.
On our way to the Yarra Valley we stayed at another Best Western in Melbourne’s Kew, which is one of just two Premier Best Western hotels in Australia, the first being the Best Western Premier Terrace Hotel in Perth.
The Best Western Premier Hotel 115 Kew is a modern, full service hotel with Apple Mac minis in the room, 42” LED televisions, a fitness centre, restaurant and onsite bar where they brew their own craft beer.
It’s also an easy walk from George Calombaris’ Hellenic Republic restaurant where we dined on 12 of the Masterchef’s favourite Greek dishes in his Feed Me More sharing menu, and promised ourselves we’d learn how to make his Cypriot grain salad (any day now!) before retiring to our hotel rooms where I was soon soaking in my freestanding spa bath. That sweet, sweet spa bath.
All You Can Eat Cherries Time in the Yarra Valley
One of the great things about the Yarra Valley is it’s so close to Melbourne, and yet as soon as you get there you feel like you’re a long way from city life.
After being collected from Kew by Orson, our friendly Yarra Valley Transfers driver, it was only an hour or so before we were pulling up at a special spot for cherry lovers.
One of the best cherry producers in Australia, Cherryhill is part of a Valley-wide U-Pick program, which as the name suggests is where you can pick your own fruit.
At Cherryhill they teach you how to pick the best cherries, explaining that they’re not like bananas and don’t ripen after you pick them, so you should only pick ones that you’d want to eat just as they are.
Then away you go. For $12 for adults and $6 for children, you can eat as many cherries off the tree as you like when you’re there, and then you can buy any more that you want to take home after you’re full at $10 per kg.
Being based in Sydney I wasn’t too sure if I could bring a stash of cherries back, but after checking with quarantine I was told cherries from Victoria to NSW was just fine. Which is how I got to see what 2kgs of cherries in a carry on suitcase looks like when it goes through security scanners in Melbourne airport.
That said, I must point out that my cherry travelling information was correct at the time I travelled. As changing pests can change the rules you should also check whether your cherries can cross state lines before you try to do the same.
The all-you-can-eat picking your own fruit runs from mid-November to January, and they also have guided tractor tours of the farm.
Regardless of whether it’s cherry picking time or not, this is a pretty spot to visit that happens to have lots of yummy cherry products to try in their café, from freshly made cherry ice cream to cherry ciders, spritzers and beer.
Yes, cherry beer. Sounds strange. Tastes good.
Wine Time in the Yarra Valley
There are over 100 wineries in the Yarra Valley region and 86 cellar doors, but as we were only away for a couple of days we thought it was best to savour two rather than trying to taste them all.
First up we head to the award winning Balgownie Estate Resort and Spa which combines a working vineyard with a cellar door, popular restaurant, day spa and accommodation.
After a spot of wine tasting at the cellar door we make our way into Rae’s Restaurant where chef Graham Taute combines some of the best local produce in the valley with vegetables and herbs from the estate’s own kitchen garden to create dishes like Thai Beef Asian salads and Roasted Pumpkin Baklava with feta, macadamia nuts and pomegranate dressing. It all sounded delicious but I couldn’t go past the Lamb Rump with spring vegetable salad and was very happy indeed with my choice.
It’s a beautiful setting with the vines around us and so many gorgeous roses that the restaurant has a list of the rose types ready to be handed out to those, like us, who ask what they are.
It turns out Balgownie Estate is also home to lots of Pokemon. They’re simply everywhere though I manage to keep myself on a relatively short Poke leash and put my phone down after catching a few despite so many more being tantalisingly within reach.
After lunch we make our way to the Natkin Day Spa where there is Geisha Bath soaking to be done and massages to be enjoyed. My therapist has magic hands that get to work untying some of the knots I tend to carry around. Heaven.
The next day the good food, good wine and good company continues when we visit Killara Estate.
Owned and operated by the Palazzo family this winery has a great cellar door café with floor to ceiling windows so you can look out at sweeping views of the vines in the valley while tucking into rustic Italian food and wood fired pizzas.
Here I not only enjoyed the wine inside the bottles, I loved some of the labels on them that share moments in both the family and the land’s history.
The Palazzo range features images from the family’s migration to Australia in the mid ‘60s with Alba and baby Roger on the Pinot Grigio and Pasquale and his wife Angelina on the Sangiovese label, while the new Racers and Rascals labels feature famous drivers and legends from the Vintage Sports Car Club of Victoria which used to hold their race meetings on the Killara land that is now covered in vineyards.
As someone who has been guilty of buying a bottle of wine based on a label before I’m pleased to know that others out there who do the same should be happy with the drops within.
Wandering Warburton in Victoria’s Yarra Valley
That said it wasn’t all sitting around eating, drinking and being pampered. Although you’re right to think our weekend was mostly along those lines.
We also got on our bikes and went for a ride along the Yarra Valley Rail Trail.
Oh okay, we rode for about an hour’s worth of the trail. And they weren’t our bikes.
There was no need to bring a bike all the way from Sydney when Doug from the Cog Bike Café in Warburton has a range of bikes for hire including hybrids for those who would like a little help along the way.
As I’m someone who is not usually very good on a bike I was pretty happy with the length of our excursion and loved breathing in all that fresh forest air as we pedalled our way through mountain scenery, across restored bridges and past the original 1882 railway station, which has been reborn as the Upper Yarra Museum.
I’m told the bike trail is so popular almost 400,000 people did it last year but when we were out and about we only passed a few others along the way and so it felt like we had the countryside to ourselves.
Regardless of whether you get on your, or Doug’s, bike, Warburton itself is a town so full of charm it’s well worth a visit.
Warburton only has around 2,000 people but it has a street with some very sweet stores to explore.
I fell in love with pretty much everything at the Pea Green Boat, where five women have come together to create whimsical and wonderful things. Between the women they have three felters, one woodworker and a crochet creator and they make handcrafted toys and all sorts of little treasures that had us oohing and aahing.
Right next door you’ll find Warburton’s Candy Emporium, which is filled with lollies and sweet treats from around the world and from years gone by. While I’ve seen some retro favourites like Whizz Fizz and Fads (which some of us still remember as Fags with their little red tips) around before, it had been years since I’d seen Super Tattoos bubble gum.
Owner Louis explained that they source a lot of their lollies form family businesses here in Australia, and that some of the boiled lollies come from a family that has been doing it for 73 years. So this is a place you can get a good sugar fix and support small businesses. Winning.
As we pottered down the street we popped into antique stores and the gorgeous Old Tea Shop where I got swept up in smelling new tea blends before settling on Granny’s Apple Pie, which smells just like an apple pie and tastes so good I’m drinking it at home right now as I type.
Ah Warburton, this may have been my first visit to the Yarra Valley but I feel like I fell on my feet by staying in your little patch.
As a sign in the window of an antique store told us “The Queen and Prince Philip spent a weekend in Warburton in 1954, you should too!’
A piece of advice I hope to follow again some day.
Amanda Woods travelled as a guest of Best Western but all opinions remain her own.
Heading to Victoria and love a long walk in nature? You should check out the Twelve Apostles Lodge Walk. It’s a pretty incredible experience.