The first thing you notice as you drive into Dunkeld, a tiny former timber town sitting astride the Glenelg Highway in Victoria’s southern Grampians, is how much it feels like you’re suddenly entering an episode of Twin Peaks.
Not only because it actually has twin peaks – mounts Sturgeon and Abrupt loom over the town like unofficial gatekeepers – although that certainly helps the vibe. But arriving in the misty twilight, the rows of 19th century stone cottages mostly dark and getting darker as the sun sets over the wide, empty streets, and nothing stirs at all except the front bar of the only pub, Dunkeld feels distinctly Lynchian. It’s uncannily peaceful, somehow other-worldly. You half expect to see the Log Lady materialise from the shadows. And then you step inside that front bar, at the famed Royal Mail Hotel, and you realise why the rest of town is so quiet: everyone’s in here. Built in 1855, the hotel is the heart and soul of Dunkeld. The only pub out of six to survive a 1944 fire that almost decimated the town, the Royal Mail underwent a distinctly “mod” makeover in the 1960s, a slick, retro look the current owners have capitalised on and improved to turn it into a stylish luxury destination. It now offers a range of boutique accommodation, the cream of which are its “mountain view” rooms – contemporary styled cabins nestled among the native bushland with floor-to-ceiling windows affording unobstructed vistas of Mount Sturgeon. The rooms are all warm tones and natural finishes, and boast luxe touches like walk-in showers and heated floors (you may scoff, until you visit the Grampians in winter…). In recent years, the Royal Mail has become something of a foodie hotspot, attracting flavour-chasers from all over for its restaurant, which gained serious culinary cred and won a slew of awards under former executive chef Dan Hunter, including best regional restaurant from Australian Gourmet Traveller. The multi-hatted restaurant hasn’t lost any of its gloss since new chef Robin Wickens took over two years ago, and its eight-course degustation menu is still the main attraction with delicate, meticulously assembled dishes showcasing locally sourced ingredients – mostly from the hotel’s own garden. There’s something quite surreal about spooning bright green egg custard out of a neatly cracked shell, and licking marrow from a perfectly clean, white bone decorated with tiny purple flowers, all while being watched over by a giant, shadowy mountain. Like I said, quite Lynchian. But it’s the extraordinary wine cellar as much as the food that brings in the gourmands here: the Royal Mail’s notorious wine list spans 2750 different drops over 105 pages ranging from sensibly priced local selections to the very… well, unsensibly priced. A magnum of 1983 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti ‘La Tâche’ Grand cru for $9130, anyone? All 26,000 bottles are housed in the hotel’s cellar that you can tour on Saturdays at 4pm (free for guests, $15pp for the public), if ogling giant walls of alcohol floats your boat. Perhaps fittingly for a town that’s built such a reputation on world-class culinary indulgence, the other main attractions of Dunkeld lean towards the… shall we say, energetic. The area is a hotspot for cyclists, with many mountain trails providing challenging rides with breathtaking views. And it’s a magnet for racing fans, who flock in their thousands to Dunkeld Cup Day every November to watch fillies thunder around the track at the foot of Mt Abrupt. If you thought Mt Sturgeon looked daunting from your dinner table, try walking to the summit. The 7km round trip will put even serious hikers through their paces, but the 360-degree view from the top is just about worth it. (You may regret that extra glass of wine the night before, though.) Those with less lofty ambitions can try the easy walking trails at ground level, go a few rounds at the Grampians Golf Club, or get zen at yoga retreat Griffins Hill, both just a short distance from Dunkeld. A drive through the mountains to picturesque Halls Gap and MacKenzie Falls are also recommended day trips. DUNKELD About six hours drive east of Adelaide, via Mt Gambier ROYAL MAIL HOTEL royalmail.com.au GRIFFINS HILL YOGA RETREAT griffinshill.com.au GRAMPIANS GOLF CLUB visitgreaterhamilton.com.au/grampians-golf-club