When in Melbourne, Victoria, for a long weekend and with no car, there is always the urge to travel out of town, and that usually means an organised tour of some description. I'm not big on these things, although, to be fair, I've had many a successful trip by going along with the flow and doing it the 'easy way'. After many, many failed attempts to book our trip out into the winefields and vineyards of Victoria's Yarra Valley via the hateful Qantas website ( I can't stand the airline but the hopelessly inapt Rewards points are available by at least trying to doing so .... Or not, by not being able to do so, as it transpired.) I contacted Viator directly on its website and there was no problem at all. Viator.com is a pretty handy portal from which to organise your tours and trips pretty much globally, and can be a great starting point.
I wouldn't be Old School Traveller if I didn't then contact the organisers directly to get a better deal now would I, but the price on this occasion suited and it was done. By the way, Qantas still hadn't fixed the problem after at least 4 weeks of asking, and their customer service Commandants were suitably rude about it. We were flying with Qantas too, I'm afraid - Using up the last of a festering vat of rotting frequent flyer points in the process, useless if you want to use them for long haul travel that is. They can be quite handy for Hotel and Domestic flight bookings however, and this is what brought us here. At 'check-in' the bag drop didn't recognise the bag tag that the machine had just given me only seconds earlier, so I had to manually bag drop at the service desk where, somewhat weirdly, the weight was significantly different to that of my initial failed attempt. So, if they ever kick up a fuss about the weight of your luggage, be sure to get a second opinion wont you? Upon boarding, Crowded House "Four Seasons in One Day' was being piped through into the cabin and this seemed wholly suitable bearing in mind that our destination was Melbourne and its infamously fickle and changeable climes.
The flight was smooth and trouble free and we were greeted with Crowded House "Take the Weather With You" as we disembarked out into the airport concourse..... I at first assumed that I was still hearing the muzak from the cabin but this was fresh, Melbourne Domestic Terminal piped muzak, but this little oddity or odd ditty was soon forgotten as the Arrivals/Departure zones of Tullamarine have all the charisma, charm and welcome as an underground missile silo on no alert whatsoever. Drab grey and dark with low slung ceilings and no natural light, no greenery and worrying no Intercontinental ballistic missiles to brighten up the place. Actually, this came as something of a relief as we would be staying at the Intercontinental. It is a long way from the bright airiness and colour that Brisbane Domestic affords its fliers.
Our trip to the Yarra Valley would begin at 9.30am with pick-up outside St.Paul's Cathedral. I'm assuming it's the same St.Paul as the one in London but this one must have been built before he became quite so famous, and it was at the top on these steps that you can witness the iconic Flinders Street train station in all its glory, ... although not today as it was shrouded in cladding during its restoration back into the bright orange of pagan legend. I should point out here, that the station was in great need of repair and we will all benefit from the works being carried out in the future. There are several other pick-up points within the city and out towards St.Kilda beforehand, you just choose which suits your itinerary most readily. Actually, the whole thing had an air of relaxed and informal organisation about it, and in a very good way.
There were quite a few huddled groups amassing at the steps, all evidently waiting to be whisked off somewhere vineyardy or sandy, hilly or snowy or all four. When I say huddled, the wind and rain had reared up from nowhere and having woken up in fog, the relentless Crowded House were already playing frigid air guitar in my head. It's at such times that the 'collective' start eyeing each other up with either a deep unease or a calm contentment. I can't tell you here quite what my idea of terrible company is when it comes to being stuck on a minibus all day, but there were plenty gathered that fit the bill perfectly.
First came a tiny little van that had some windows cut out of the sides of it with a blunt hack-saw, four mismatched pram wheels hung flimsily from each corner... (there may well have been 5), and the paint job had obviously been taken from a drawing previously hanging on Aunty Mae's fridge door... A gift from her 4 year old nephew, 'Robin the Ambitious'. My obvious and primary concern was that this charabanc was for us but surely it was way too early - We had allowed plenty of time so I could take some pretty photographs of some industrial cladding before the tour. We all shuffled forward praying that our name wouldn't be on the clipboard, brandished theatrically by its handler. Our names were not on the list, thankfully, but some of the gathered ne'er-do-wells I was hoping to avoid were. Double win there, and upon further reflection was clearly the bus to Hades House or Gomorrah "No Returns".
The next van arrived with very similar livery and we all went through the same rigmarole as before. I did however make a friendly joke to test the resolve of our prospective fellow pilgrims, but the face and distain from the lady partner soon shot her to the top of my wish-not/hope-not list. Again, this minivan was not for us, but it was for old cod-features, so another win for us - Again, it pays to smile when on holiday. We were on a roll. A bigger better bus was up next and more of the unchosen were duly ... chosen, and yet more sighs of relief were added to the bitter, sun-drenched Melbourne air. Finally the biggest and best bus arrived, it was ours, and what was left, the perfect array of fellow excursionists, all clambered aboard, all probably wishing that I was on Stinko the Drive's van. Our bus was no "Luxury Goldroadster Elite 5000" but it was more than adequate, fitted the image I had had in my head and with the rain-filled sun shining brightly and burning holes into our faces, we were away to the strains of "Four Seasons in One Day" by Crowded House.
Our driver was Tony from Yarra Valley Wine Tours and it really didn't take us long to know that we were in safe hands. In everything from demeanour, manner, knowledge, dry wit and muted Australianness, he was a delight; informative without being dull, passionate without being a weirdo, humorous without being annoying and he could drive a minibus - Always good. He quickly rattled off his background credentials and we were quickly driving through the suburban streets of Trust.
We picked up a few more farers on the way and it wasn't long before we were hurtling through the sun chilled driving rain towards the Yarra, its beautiful countryside and elegant wines, to the strains of "Take The Weather with You" by Crowded House. It doesn't usually take very long during such affairs, for the crowd to start warming, and Tony did his bit to allow us all to relax into the day and muted conversations began to break out amongst the group. A family of South Africans, a singular Englishman taking a break from a family wedding vacation, a mum and her two daughters, two Swedish ladies, another couple I can't remember and a couple over from the States on a working visa. Perfect - The psychopaths and deviants must be on one of the other tours.
After about an hour and a half, our first stop was to be Punt Road Wines, which on first glance looked more like an apple orchard than a winery but as this is also the home to the excellent Napoleone Cider Company, it's an obvious mistake to make. Napoleane is a personal favourite of mine coincidentally, and you can actually taste the apples in some of the lighter Punt Road whites. There were a couple of groups here and there was enough noise to give the place some atmosphere and the tasting was relaxed and informative, although the host did have a very quiet voice and I could hardly hear her over the Crowded House. After about 40 minutes we were heading off but not before the lady holding the tasting, and on her first day, said something very peculiar. I had made some joke to Kati, my wife, but in her earshot to which she replied "Don't worry. My father is always making bad jokes too." I nearly spat out my Sangiovese, as it were. I was so gobsmacked that I never recovered and failed to find out if it was a joke or just bad inference. I muttered "Father, indeed" under my breath as I wandered off to play boule, hoist up my trousers to nipple height and light my pipe out of the wet, cold wind.
This first vineyard had taken the edge right off everyone and the chatting was considerably louder and broader than before the partaking of alcohol at Punt Road, and it didn't seem long before we were pulling into the Balgownie Estate for lunch. We had chosen our food earlier on in the drive so it would be ready and waiting for us upon arrival and after a short tasting. Again, we sampled some lovely wine during an informal and informative tasting, before being ushered away to a private room with views out over the vines, for a delicious lamb shank and glass of big old red, all to the soft and gentle strains of "Take the Weather With You" by Crowded House. This is much more of a spa-like retreat and wine experience than our first stop and they obviously do a lot of local dining trade here too. Why not, the food was excellent as was the overall organisation and atmosphere. It was time to move on again however, and with even more knowledge of our travelling companions on our wine stained breath, it was time to be gone and to make even more noise on the bus.
Our third stop was probably my favourite and how the Yarra was pictured in my romantic minds eye - All tin shacks and oaken barrels, water mills and wellies. Yering Farm Wines was busy. It probably seemed busy as we were all crowded indoors because of the driving rain and sleet outside, casting blue hues out over the rolling hills and vines in the distance. Some of us huddled around wood burners trying to stay alive, some sunbathed and some splashed about in the flood waters and snow....... probably. Yering's hospitality and wine was excellent yet again but carrying on with the unexpected cider theme, they also produce a wonderfully balanced, medium sweet cider made from Pink Lady apples. A very difficult thing to do indeed with an 'eater' instead of cider apple, and with a wonderful pinky/green tinge, it was a real delight. I was becoming braver in my requests for larger pours and second helpings but was ultimately calmed by the purchase of a few for the road. 'Cider with roady', if you will.
I think by this time we were all becoming a little drunk and friendships and promises of future catch ups were already in full swing. Promises fervently polished, gleaming and ready to be broken. To tell you the truth, I was quite alarmed a little earlier, by the amount of wine being poured away by those who really didn't seem to be enjoying it. Alarmed because I couldn't possibly pour a small taster of wine away at any time, let alone in front of the makers, and it's so small a mouthful really, that it might improve for the quaffing, but I am not everyone and to each their own.
Now it was time to move on to our final destination, and with the bus now fitted with snow-chains and in full party mode, we sang along to Crowded House as if our lungs would burst. The Chandon Estate was bathed in beautiful sunshine as our hail damaged bus pulled into the grand driveway that signalled yet another change of pace. Linked to the famous Moét and Chandon Champagne in France, this was where things got serious and we were privileged enough to be shown around the vats and through the whole manufacturing process by Tony, who was dealing with my insufferable questioning gamely enough indeed. Again, the Estate is set up perfectly to show us wine-lovers and trippers just how it's done and with the day finishing in the tasting rooms with a full glass of one of their finest fizzies, you feel that you couldn't have asked for more from the tour... and so with glasses raised, and to the strains of Crowded House playing "Four Seasons in One Day" we toasted this most enjoyable of days and each other.
We climbed aboard the bus for the very last time, with the Yarra's leaves waving us goodbye from bending trees and twisted vines - Storm clouds behind, sunshine ahead - It had been a terrific day, and I can't recommend it, or our gracious host Tony, highly enough. Thanks to them, and our new friends, I was falling in love with Australia all over again, and it wasn't just the booze talking.... or Crowded House, for that matter.
The Yarra Wine Tour can be booked through Viator.com but please don't bother trying to do it through the Qantas website or you'll be there all week. At the time of writing it was approximately $130 per head and this includes transport, 4 wineries with wine tasting and lunch. 9am to 5.30pm approx.
Everywhere you go, always take the weather with you....
PS. I'm not the first travel writer to mention Crowded House when visiting Melbourne, and I won't be the last.