The Great Alpine Road is one of Australia’s most scenic stretches of road, running through the Alpine National Park in Victoria’s east, from Bairnsdale to Wangaratta beyond the Victorian Alps.
In January 2020, East Gippsland and the High Country were affected by the unprecedented bushfires that swept across the east coast of Australia.
The Alpine National Park and the communities within it have survived and bounced back from bushfires many times before. In tribute to their resilience, and acknowledging that tourism dollars are vital to a region’s recovery, let’s look at some of the sights and activities to be found along this iconic route.
It begins with gently rolling green hills east of Bairnsdale, before winding its way up into mountains and alpine forests that are stunning all year round, but especially so when shrouded in snow from June to September, sometimes even lasting into October.
As you leave Bairnsdale you’ll pass through East Gippsland’s food bowl communities. Lingering for a day or two here before you head up into the hills proper is a delicious way to begin your journey.
Stop in at Bruthen to check out the Bullant micro-brewery for a gourmet menu full of local produce and a delicious range of beers, or at the Bruthen Inn for a real country pub experience, perched high up with a view of the river. Or if seafood is more your style, head a little further south to Metung or Lakes Entrance on the coast, to get it fresh out of the water.
Once you begin the climb into the Alpine National Park, you’re entering a world away from the world. You can sometimes hear the dingoes calling to one another at night. If you’re quiet, you can get quite close to the park’s many brumbies, and sometimes catch sight of deer. Hidden little streams and waterfalls abound in amongst the scrub, perfect for trout fishers, or just for relaxing away from everything.
One of the tiny villages you’ll encounter early on your journey is Ensay, and just beyond it is Ensay Winery. The crisp alpine air contributes to a unique range of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and some Merlots, which you can try at their cellar door most weekends. Call ahead on 03 5157 3203 to check opening days.
Also featuring local produce is Nullamunjie Olive Groves, on the banks of the Tambo River at Tongio. Nullamunjie includes the Pressing Shed Café & Restaurant, serving up an ever-changing menu of local produce, all of it of course showcasing their own extra virgin olive oil. The Pressing Shed is open 10am to 4pm on weekends from October until Easter each year.
Be sure to stop in the tiny town of Omeo to get a taste of the area’s history. Many historic buildings from the area’s 1850s gold rush have survived the years — not to mention bushfires — to remain today. The rebuilt Golden Age Hotel, a loving recreation of the original 1850s building that was lost in the 1936 bushfires, is a perfect spot to grab a drink by the fire and meet the locals. The Great Alpine Gallery, meanwhile, is a community art space featuring local works and regular special exhibitions. With free entry, there’s no reason not to drop in and see the constantly changing works.
The nearby Oriental Claims historic area, 2km further along the Great Alpine Road from Omeo, has several easy walking tracks, with historical sights marked by information signs.
Fishermen will be eager to take a short detour off the route to visit Anglers Rest, where three famous trout-fishing rivers come together. The history-soaked Blue Duck Inn is famous among Aussie fishermen for its warm atmosphere and locally sourced food as much as the great fishing spots nearby. The area also offers white water rafting, bushwalking, horse riding and four-wheel drive tracks.
There are numerous campgrounds along the Great Alpine Road, and bush camping is allowed within the park. If you want to get a taste for nature and don’t mind roughing it, you can easily find places where you might not see another human being for weeks.
Despite such enviable isolation nearby, the Great Alpine Road itself is a comfortable and easy drive, sealed the entire way.
While the road is easily drivable, extreme weather can also cause it to close for short periods of time. During winter vehicles are required to carry diamond pattern snow chains between Harrietville and Omeo as snow needs to be cleared almost daily and can sometimes cover the road.
For the rest of the year, the Great Alpine Road is a fantastic choice for casual or beginner drivers, due to its relaxed conditions, or for seasoned veterans looking for a more laid-back trip. There are few better routes for a couple or family trying out a new vehicle, and if partway through your trip you feel the need for a bit of luxury, there are plenty of motels with soft beds and clean sheets.
In the months to come, consider an ‘empty esky’ trip along the Great Alpine Road, both as one of Australia’s most beautiful drives, but also as a place where your tourist dollars can have a positive impact.