We ventured on to Omeo, a quintessential former gold-mining town, with all the faded grandeur that implies. The wide main street was lined with Art Deco buildings, the most impressive of which was the poignantly named Golden Age hotel. The streets were dusty, the temperatures soaring, and we should have heeded the sign, propped against a bucket of water, that said: "Please use if you want to wash the locusts off your car."
Within minutes of our leaving town, the hell-raisers descended, covering our windshield and swarming the windows. The creatures commonly emerge after summer rainstorms (I learned later), and this cloud followed us like some kind of ungodly cheering squad. Eventually we outran them, and we were back on our way to Bright—scanning the sky for Old Testament-style hail.
The road from Omeo to Mount Hotham is mostly straight and flanked by vivid green fields, which give way to grazing land. As we climbed the mountains, bright-yellow alpine flowers and leafy snow gums lined the way. We whizzed through Harrietville, a small town that exists mainly to serve the ski resorts, then went on to Bright and the Buckland Studio Retreat.
The stone-and-corrugated iron studios stand among swaying native grasses, and inside is everything a well-heeled traveler could hope for—plush lounge furniture, a fully equipped kitchen, a bathroom with a lovely view of the native forest through full-length louvered windows, and a bedroom with a raised king-size bed. There are also two decks with views of vineyards, olive groves, and distant mountains.
That night we had a reservation at Simone's of Bright. Patrizia and George Simone's award-winning restaurant has a towering reputation to live up to, and it did. (People reportedly make the three-hour trip from Melbourne all the time.) Put it this way: when your neighbor's simple tasting plate of specialties like risotto-stuffed zucchini blossoms and preserved baby pears with duck prosciutto is giving you food envy even before you've looked at the wine list, there's something good going on.
Day 3 Bright to Lake Jindabyne, 204 Miles
After our night of wondrous gluttony, we retraced our journey west toward Wangaratta, turning off to the former mining town of Beechworth, north to Wodonga, then east again toward the New South Wales snowfields. The drive took us along the melancholy banks of man-made Lake Hume, dotted with drowned trees, through the Murray Valley Highway, and on to the tiny town of Khancoban, the start of the Alpine Way. The ascent up the Snowy Mountains is a breathtaking one, in the best sense. At the Scammell's Spur turnoff, we took in superb views of the Snowies, and as we climbed to Thredbo, past Dead Horse Gap, we breathed in the scent of the forest, heavy with eucalyptus.
Our last stop was the Crackenback Farm and Cottage, a rustic resting place in the Thredbo Valley that moonlights as a guesthouse, restaurant, grocery store, and chapel. The restaurant has vaulted ceilings, a cavernous double fireplace, and linen-covered tables, and it serves up country staples such as hearty bowls of soup, robust sandwiches, and fresh, perfectly tart lemonade.
Reluctantly, we descended to Lake Jin-dabyne—the end of the Alpine Way and our trek. We headed back to Sydney on the Monaro Highway, but with an extra day we could have dropped by the nation's capital, Canberra, or taken the wonderfully unsung Princes Highway to Sydney. That, of course, is a whole other story.