Tuscany down under on Melbourne's outskirts

Tuscany down under on Melbourne's outskirts

Italian gold diggers leave a luxurious legacy in Hepburn’s Villa Parma

In the mid-19th century, some 2,000 Swiss-Italians from the cantons of Ticino and Grison joined the great European migration to the Australian goldfields.

Many settled in Hepburn Shire northwest of Melbourne and home to the largest concentration of mineral springs in Australia.

But, unlike Chinese and other non-English-speaking migrant groups that moved on when the gold ran out, the Swiss-Italians remained and prospered in Hepburn in the production of high-quality wine, cheese, fruits and vegetables.

Europe in Oz

Villa Parma, MelbourneBuilt in 1864, Heritage-listed Villa Parma is arguably one of Hepburn Spring’s most impressive architectural treasures.

Reminders of their influence can be found everywhere in Hepburn -- the Old Macaroni factory on Main Road, the Bathhouse/Pavilion Café at Hepburn Mineral Springs Reserve and at Parma House -- a stately two-story residence built in 1864 by viticulturist Fabrizzio Crippa.

Rebranded Villa Parma, the heritage-listed building surrounded by ornate gardens is now the centerpiece of Peppers Mineral Springs Retreat.

Restored by current owners Wayne Cross and Chris Malden to its Palazzo-inspired state, Villa Parma is now the very definition of lush.

It features four double bedrooms with Hungarian Goose Down duvets, freestanding bathtubs and an eclectic collection of Renaissance-inspired artwork, including a floor-to-ceiling mosaic of Venere and Adone and a water fountain crowned with a statue of Neptune.

Popular among wedding parties and groups celebrating 40th and 50th birthdays, the villa also boasts an underground cellar where banquets are laid on with élan by Martin Horsley, a protégé of British Michelin Starred chef Terry Leybourne.

Happy eating

Villa Parma, MelbourneOrganic roast chicken with capers, parsley, white polenta and green beans by executive chef Martin Horsley.

Horsely takes the concept of minimizing “food miles” to the extreme by overseeing an on-site vegetable garden and the abattoir at the hotel’s own 400-acre farm, where rare Scottish Highland cattle and Hampshire Down sheep are raised under benchmark standards.

“Our lamb and beef are second to none because of the way we really look after the animals,” he says. “They live happy lives and as result the meat is far more tender and flavorsome.”

If you can’t spare $2,000 to book Villa Parma for a weekend, you can still enjoy the mouthwatering Horsley creations.

Dishes like organic roast chicken with capers, parsley, white polenta and green beans; wild birch lamb, Freekeh salad with golden raisins and golden raisins and preserve lemon; or homemade strawberry short bread at The Conservatory, the hotel’s new 60-seat restaurant.

Furnished with soft-cushion banquettes, cane chairs and hanging pendulum lamps with wraparound windows exposing rolling green hills reminiscent of Tuscany, the Conservatory offers a noteworthy addition to the vast range of fine-dining establishments Victoria’s Spa Country is renowned for.

Getting there: From Melbourne, take the Western Freeway (which merges into the National Freeway) to the C141 exit and follow it to Dayelsford. At the traffic circle, take the second exit towards Hepburn Springs and follow it to Main Road.

If you aren’t driving, take the V/Line train from the Southern Cross Railway Station in Melbourne to Bendigo and catch a connecting coach to Dayelsford, then another connecting coach to Hepburn Springs.  
Peppers Mineral Springs Retreat, 124 Main Road, Hepburn Springs. +61 (0) 3 5348 2506, www.peppers.com.au/springs

Ian Lloyd Neubauer is a Sydney-based freelance journalist specializing in adventure travel. He has reported extensively across East Asia and the South Pacific and is the author of two travel novels, Getafix (2004) and Maquis (2006), which is being turned into a feature film in consultation with Fox Studios.

Read more about Ian Lloyd Neubauer