Kyneton is typical of destinations beyond the big cities, welcoming visitors in their droves.
Australia’s regional tourism centres are, by most accounts, booming now that we’re all trapped in our own country. Byron Bay’s gone berserk, breaking records for visitor numbers and spending (the present lockdown notwithstanding). Orange, in central New South Wales, is the new black. The Whitsundays just had a bumper year. The Victorian spa resort of Daylesford has been swamped, the High Country’s so hot right now, and I know of one designer hotel on the Mornington Peninsula where bookings leapt 600 per cent in the week after Melbourne’s lockdown ended in July.
I’m glad to hear of any tourism businesses doing well after this diabolical year. The fact they still exist is a minor miracle.
But how are things really going in the regions? Clearly the experience will vary across tourist centres, but it feels like a good time to check in with at least one of them.
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A year ago I wrote about Kyneton, the historic gold-rush town an hour north of Melbourne that’s now a weekend-away favourite for lovers of food, wine and fancy accommodations.
Back then, in the eye of the pandemic, thoughtful locals told me they were thankful for having more balance in their lives, more time with families, and to live in a tight community relatively safe from the virus.
A year on, I head back to Kyneton on a strangely mild and sunny Saturday at the end of July to take the town’s pulse. On arrival I find full cafes, a day spa in overdrive, packed tables at Animus gin distillery and, at the revamped Royal George Hotel, the new Botanik Bar upstairs at capacity.
Owners Melissa Macfarlane and Frank Moylan shuttered and renovated the pub during Covid and reopened as an emporium of “all the things people didn’t know they really wanted”.
The Royal George now is a combined nursery, perfumery and homewares store, with a bar and a bottle shop selling possibly Australia’s largest range of aperitifs and digestives. It’s quite bonkers but everything’s top-drawer and patrons love it.
I take a seat and order a Jungle Bird (rum, Campari, lime and pineapple juice) while the couple opposite drink cocktails and drop $500 on glassware.
“It’s been going off for us,” Melissa says. “It’s been crazy, unreal. Like, we-can’t-keep-up crazy. The best business we’ve ever had.” (Her top sale since opening at Easter was a couple who came in for drinks and left with two coffee tables and a sofa.)
Tucked down an alleyway off High St, Musk Lane Wine is a working winery and cellar door opened in a former timber yard in mid-2019 by winemaker Brendan Lane. A gateway in a high fence opens to a grassy clearing with potted trees and folks tucked into cosy nooks or perched at cable-spool tables. The wine garden’s buzzing on this first weekend after lockdown.
“Yeah, people have been jumping out as soon as everything opens up again,” Brendan says. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic, but people still want to eat well and still want to drink well. They want to make the most of this time.”
A chalkboard wine list inside the tin-shed cellar door features Musk Lane’s own vintages – mostly Italian grapes including sangiovese and a white nero d’Avola – alongside interesting European and regional labels. They’re all low-fi wines – minimal fuss, maximum expression of character.
It’s a winning formula judging by the happy groups massed in the sunshine on one of Musk Lane’s busiest days since summer.
“Everyone’s gagging to get back out there,” Brendan says. “But we’re still in the middle of lockdowns, really.”
That’s the problem all operators are facing. The demand’s there when people are allowed to travel, but just last month, more than a year into the pandemic, almost half the population was in confinement.
At Mollisons, a chic 11-room hotel in a grand old bank building, general manager Yvonne Paulke says lockdowns have been predictably hard but bookings tend to rebound quickly (mollisons.net.au).
“I would never suggest the lockdown has been good for the town, but apart from the actual lockdown time – which was very tough – afterwards it’s back to normal for us immediately,” she says. “We’re busy, busy, busy.”
Yvonne puts the rush down to people being desperate to get out in the world after being stuck at home. “When lockdown is over, we’re full,” she says. “And we’re getting a lot more midweek bookings and a lot more spur of the moment. It means we can’t plan anything, but nobody can. It’s just the way our world is now.”
“It would be good to know what’s coming,” Melissa agrees, “but we don’t, and so we can’t plan. But everyone feels like, ‘Come on! Let’s get going!’ On the other side of this, if people can get through it, it’ll be nuts.”
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This article originally appeared on Escape and was reproduced