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Driving Australia's Snowy Mountains

The trip turned biblical not long after we set out. It started innocently enough: the plan was to trace a path along Australia's two great high-country routes—the state of Victoria's Great Alpine Road, which stretches almost 200 miles from Bairnsdale in the southeast to Wangaratta; and the Alpine Way, a much shorter but no less stunning trail through the New South Wales snowfields. My husband, Adam, and I were visiting family in Melbourne and had fond (if slightly what-were-we-thinking?) memories of having done part of the drive. On that occasion, we drove our 1963 Triumph up the hair-raising unpaved road between the former gold-mining town of Omeo and the ski community of Falls Creek—in torrential rain. The poor car skidded and slipped as the day's light faded, until it finally slid to a rest in Falls Creek (where, if I recall correctly, we couldn't find a room). Good times. Several years later, the three of us—Adam, me, and the Triumph—were in the mood to do the journey again. This time, though, we had planned a more comfortable itinerary, visiting several new and promising resorts and restaurants.

Day 1 Melbourne to Falls Creek, 234 Miles

As with all grand journeys, we failed to take nature into account. The day we left Melbourne, the mercury was near 110°F. The air was hazing in that way peculiar to Australian summers, and the trees looked likely to burst spontaneously into flame. We stopped near Wangaratta for fuel and to spend quality time in the air-conditioned splendor of the gas station. On returning to the car, I noticed with interest—and a modicum of alarm—that the plastic housing of a television in the backseat (we'd picked it up at my in-laws') had melted. I don't mean it was simply hot to the touch; it had actually melted, like something from a Dalí painting. Things were looking grim.

We forged on, dreaming of the mountains. The Victoria countryside was parched from a punishing year of drought, one of the hottest on record. From Wangaratta to outside Myrtleford in the Ovens Valley, the landscape—desiccated, treeless, studded with despondent-looking sheep—was a harsh reminder that Australia is the driest inhabited continent. By the time we reached Myrtleford, though, the terrain started to change. This is where the alpine road starts to show hints of greatness, with vineyards and pine trees providing shocks of dark green.

We pushed on through a series of pretty, leafy little towns that characterize this part of the world. Our destination was Falls Creek, the scene of our muddy misadventure years earlier. We were hoping for better luck this time, although the signs weren't good. From Bright, we turned off to Mount Beauty, as bush fires (a common phenomenon of Australian summers) burned just out of sight over the nearby ranges. A service-station attendant squinted at the ominous clouds of smoke gathering on the horizon as we pulled in. "Watch out for that fire," he advised cheerfully, pulling his John Deere cap down over his eyes.

Thankfully, we never did cross the fire's path, and the smoke gradually dispersed. The air became cooler as we climbed the mountains, and the precipitous secondary road that leads to Mount Beauty, Falls Creek, and on to Omeo (a worthwhile detour) winds through forests of eucalyptus and carpets of wildflowers.

We had no more adventures that afternoon—apart from a creeping temperature gauge. We eventually made it to our first rest stop—the Huski resort in Falls Creek. The town, which plays second fiddle to the larger ski community of Mount Hotham, is charming and urbane. Hip establishments are slowly edging out older staid and uninspiring ones, and nowhere is this gentrification more evident than at Huski, an architectural wonder of timber and glass. The hotel's ground floor, the Produce Store, serves as both a café and reception area, which can be chaotic. Still, the rooms are impressive, with balcony hot tubs, sleek modern furnishings, and huge, pixilated photographs by Melbourne artist Peter Bennetts.

Day 2 Falls Creek to Bright, 36 Miles

The next day we aimed to drive to Omeo, where we would join up again with the Great Alpine Road, and go on to Bright. The High Alpine Road, from Falls Creek to Omeo, isn't paved and has its harrowing moments. At first it maintains an air of bleak mystery as it skirts the Rocky Valley Dam. The landscape is all bleached-granite rocks, alpine grasses, and ghostly dead trees. Soon, though, the terrain blends into lush scenery—beautiful walking trails, camping spots in virgin scrub, and forests of snow gums (a cousin of the eucalyptus).

As we descended, the road followed the Cobun-gra River, with countless hairpin turns. On one such bend is the rustic Blue Duck Inn. This yellow weatherboard cottage has been a rest stop since the early 1900's. The kitchen serves local trout, homemade vegetable pasties, soup with crusty bread, and hearty cuts of steak. It's the place you dream of finding on a long country drive but rarely do.

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