Rookie family traveller BEN GROUNDWATER makes all the mistakes – and eventually learns from them – on a road trip through Victoria’s High Country
It takes six days before this whole thing starts to feel like it was actually a good idea. Six days before we feel that there was some measure of sanity in taking a six-month-old and a two-year-old on an extended road trip far from home.
We’re all piled into the car – as we have been almost constantly for almost a week – in the early evening, the sky glowing outside with the last of the day’s light. We pull out of the carpark at Delatite Winery, near the town of Mansfield, after a beautiful tasting experience, and turn towards tonight’s home.
Baby Elliot starts getting grumbly in the back seat. He yelps, and then he howls. Great. But then suddenly our toddler, Angus, starts singing to him. He sings the alphabet. As Angus’s father I can confidently and honestly say that his singing is awful, but it has the desired effect: Elliot is soothed. We smile in the front seats. We thank Angus. He says: “That’s OK”. We feel like a family right now, like a unit, like a team.
Maybe this was actually a good idea after all.
Unfortunately, much of this story will be a cautionary tale. As a journalist writing in the hallowed pages of Australia’s finest family travel magazine, I should probably present myself as an expert in the dark arts of taking children on holiday but, the truth is, I’m pretty new to this and I’m making a lot of mistakes. Mistakes you can now avoid.
The first vital lesson of my family travel career: don’t. Don’t travel like you always did. Don’t challenge yourself to retain your old style and your old interests while dragging along the kids. Because that stuff – specifically on this trip, visiting wineries and distilleries and having lunch in nice restaurants – is not fun for kids. And if they’re having a hard time, you’re having a hard time.
We begin in Rutherglen, in the heart of upper Victorian wine country. And by begin, I mean we wake up in Rutherglen and then leave and drive somewhere else. The second vital lesson of my family travel career: take all the things you would normally do on your holidays and then strip half of them away. Then take that itinerary and strip away half again, and you’re probably getting close to a reasonable number of things to achieve with small children.
We leave Rutherglen and drive out to Pfeiffer Wines, which as wineries go is an ideal spot for tiny humans. The team put on little tasting paddles of different cordials for the children to play along while you taste Pfeiffer’s fortified wines. There’s a cubby house and a sandpit outside, and some turtles to feed in a pond.
Outstanding. We should stay here all day. Except it’s time to move on almost immediately and drive 45 minutes to Beechworth to have lunch and visit another winery. Elliot’s not happy and he makes it known. We ask Angus to sing to him – bizarrely, it’s the only thing that calms Elliot down – and Angus replies “no”. Awesome. It’s an afternoon of rushed wine tasting and grumpy fellow diners.
“Dada, are we there yet?” I don’t know how kids instinctively know to ask this when they’re on a car trip, but they do. And they ask it a lot. Though it at least serves to break up some of Angus’s other backseat chat.
“Dada, we don’t eat rocks, do we?”
“It’s because they too hard.”
“Dada, what colour is your favourite digger? I like red diggers.”
A toddler’s obsession with earth-moving equipment is something else. To the point where I’m thinking we should probably have canned this road trip to Victoria’s High Country and instead driven to a construction site. My partner Jess and I are gazing at the spectacular autumn colours in towns like Mansfield and Marysville, Alexandra and Thornton, the reds and yellows and oranges and rusts, and Angus is on digger watch.
“Dada, BIG DIGGER!”
It occurs to us early on that our days need to include as many parks and playgrounds as possible. The third vital lesson of my family travel career: make at least half the day all about your kids. Make sure there are activities planned just for them. Make sure they’re enjoying themselves and then you, too, will be able to have fun.
From Rutherglen we drive down to Alexandra, a beautiful little town near Bonnie Doon, and head straight for the playground. Angus runs wild, and then we walk over to the Alexandra Hotel for the best chips I’ve ever eaten. Best chips Angus has ever eaten too. He’s also partial to the tortellini.
And then it’s back in the car again – seriously, what were we thinking? – to drive to Marysville, another lovely hamlet awash with autumn foliage. Birds flit through the trees here, crimson rosellas, corellas, cockatoos, and kangaroos show up on quiet backstreets. We check into a holiday home and Elliot shows his gratitude by immediately throwing up on a cushion. He’s that sort of house guest.
Around here, at least, there are things to do that appeal directly to toddlers. Buxton Trout and Salmon Farm is just a few minutes down the road, and it’s the perfect place for that father-son bonding experience of catching a fish, mostly because there are so many fish here that Dada is guaranteed to look like a hero.
I cast a line and literally seconds later there’s a rainbow trout on the hook. I reel it in while Angus waits on the bank with the net; I drop it in, and hey, the little guy has just caught a fish. We take it back to the holiday house and Jess roasts it with some potatoes with tarragon and crème fraiche.
And then, once again, we’re asking why. Why would we do this to ourselves? That’s not rhetorical, it’s an actual question being repeated over and over by Jess the next morning as we drive – seriously, again – north to Thornton for breakfast. It’s chaos in the car. Just bananas. Elliot is screaming. Angus is refusing to sing to him. Jess is trying to find a local radio station to drown them out. I’m trying to navigate. People actually do this for fun.
Fortunately, the Schoolhouse Café in Thornton has jaffles, and jaffles make just about everything better. Jaffles and muffins and bacon sandwiches and coffee. The owners are friendly and accommodating. There’s a cricket set outside. This place makes sense.
Stone Creek Cottage, Mansfield
And then we move on to Mansfield, to a holiday house called Stone Creek Cottage, and now everything falls into place. The home is ideal for toddlers. There’s a cot and a toddler toilet. There’s a gorgeous view of rural Victorian countryside. And there are goats.
The fourth vital lesson of my family travel career: kids love goats. They love feeding goats and they love patting goats and in Angus’s case they love trying to cuddle goats. We couldn’t have dreamed up a better place. Angus runs free in limitless space. Elliot chills out in a beautiful home. We all travel together down the road to Delatite Winery and Angus and Elliot are relaxed and happy while Jess and I try some wine.
And then we go to drive home and Elliot is unsettled, and Angus sings to him — just starts up because he knows it would be helpful. And then Elliot is quiet, and Angus is happy, and we feel like a team.
The fifth vital lesson of my family travel career: we can do this.
The writer was a guest of Victoria’s High Country
King Lyell’s Corner, Marysville
This lovely guesthouse is perfect not just for a family, but multiple families. It’s a four-bedroom house that can comfortably accommodate 10 people, with large living and entertaining areas overlooking Marysville’s mountainous scenery. There’s a fireplace, a fully equipped kitchen, and the house is walking distance to the town centre.
Stone Creek Cottage, Mansfield
This is the family-friendly home you’ve been seeking. Stone Creek Cottage is set on a hobby farm 20 minutes outside Mansfield, with all the pygmy goats and normal-sized alpacas a child could hope to see (and feed). The house itself is a cosy brick cottage with plenty of books and board games, as well as everything you’ll need for toddlers and babies. And the views never get old.