Great Escape Drouin to Yarra Junction, from The Age, Wednesday March 23, 2005
Just follow your nose
Cameron McGavin is off on Gippsland's Gourmet Deli Trail.
The sign on the Princes Highway reads: "You are now entering Gourmet Deli Country." It's a tantalising prospect for any foodie but how many day trippers can really say they've explored the region sandwiched between Pakenham and Warragul?
As you roll south-east towards Drouin through prime farm country, the signs become more insistent. Follow them and take the exit left, signposted to Drouin, Neerim South and Mount Baw Baw (CI02/C426). There is a T-intersection (left for the C426 and the Gourmet Deli Trail, or right on to the CI02 for Drouin) and a right turn to navigate but if the signs say you're heading for Noojee you're an the right track.
Within 100 metres of getting on to the C426, signs point left to the Drouin West Fruit and Berry Farm: pick fruit or enjoy the treats and produce in the cafe.
As the C426 winds further into the hills, the scenery is a postcard-perfect combination of rolling green hills and dense bushland, with views north of the Victorian alps. After about six kilometres the road sweeps right (left takes you to Jindivick, with its beautiful farmland and award-winning cheeses, wines and smoked meats**) before starting the climb to Neerim South. Look out on the right for the Piano Hill Cheese Company.
After about 11 kilometres you arrive at Rokeby and another T-intersection. Turn left and follow the C426 as it continues its gentle climb up to a ridge, where there are inspiring views of the picturesque Tarago Valley and right towards Mount Baw Baw.
Neerim South, 17 kilometres from the Princes Highway, is a pretty little town. Every house, it seems, is blessed with amazing views and the selection of cafes, delis, restaurants and other activities make it a great stop. It's also a logical starting point for a trip to nearby Tarago Reservoir, where there are walks and other activities to keep outdoor types entertained.
Exiting Neerim South, stay on the C426 as it veers left past the town's war memorial. 1he road continues in a set of gentle sweeps along the ridge, past the Tarago River Cheese Company and Ada River Vineyard, and on to Neerim and Neerim Junction, both small compared to their southern counterpart.
About 32 kilometres on, the C426 drops sharply in a short but steep, twisting descent to the valley floor. It's a treat for drivers but don't be afraid to pull over at one of the rest stops along the way. The views are breathtaking.
Be ready to get on the brakes, too, because before the road has levelled out there's a choice. Either continue straight on to Noojee and its many eating and accommodation options, historic trestle bridge and nearby Toorongo Falls, or take the C425 left to Yarra Junction.
The C425 takes a spectacular route through the La Trobe State Forest. Look out at about 39 kilometres for the exit to the Ada Tree, a 76-metre-tall, 270-year-old mountain ash thought to be one of the largest trees in Victoria. 1here is also a picnic and camping area just a couple of kays up the road.
After sweeping into the forest, the C425 tightens and follows a more serpentine path on to Powelltown and, further on, Three Bridges and Gladysdale. Rolling green hills are flow just a memory and as the road levels out again it's fruit orchards and
mountain ash fighting for attention for the easy run into Yarra Junction.
Stop for a bite: the Kings Arms Hotel (56281431) in Neerim South. If you want to peruse some local art with a coffee and nibbles, try the Serigraph Gallery (56281519), also in Neerim South.
Or something more grand: the Outpost Restaurant/Tool Shed & Bistro (5628 9669) in Noojee boasts a menu of local produce. The bistro is great for a quick meal and drink, and there's also self-contained accommodation in riverside log cabins for up to six people.
Try visiting: there is no shortage of reasons to stop: you can pick fruit at the Drouin West Fruit and Berry Farm (5628 7627), stock up on cheese at the Piano Hill Cheese Company (5628 5377) or catch trout from the ponds at the Alpine Trout Farm (5628 9584) in Noojee. there are also several wineries, including Ada River Vineyard (5628 1661) and Piedmont Winery (9733 0449)
Stay at: Broughton Lodge, 4 ½ stars (5628 5235) is on an idyllic property in Jindivick and offers luxury accommodation for two couples. In Neerim South, try Janalli Bed and Breakfast, 4 ½ stars (5628 1476) or Blerick Bed and Breakfast Cottages (5628 1507). Outdoors types might prefer Noojee camping reserve with its hot showers, toilets, BBQs, playground and excellent riverside location.